On 6th October, the award-winning producer and director Fenton Bailey revealed the cover for ScreenAge: How TV Shaped Our Reality, From Tammy Faye to RuPaul’s Drag Race.
This upcoming riotous tale of pop culture charts the story of how World of Wonder, founded by Bailey and Randy Barbato, pioneered the revolutionary genre of Reality TV, whilst supporting and ushering queer voices into the mainstream.
Bailey grew up in an age with very limited queer visibility in mainstream media and ScreenAge is an evocative and thoughtful account of Bailey’s vision of creating a production company that would uplift and promote the voices of marginalised queer communities. “In addition to showing me a world of wonderful things, it showed me who I was,” Bailey affectionately recounts, in his emphasis on the impact media can have on the lives and upbringings of queer and marginalised individuals, especially as society moves towards the eponymous Screen Age.
Fenton Bailey says: “ScreenAge is my love letter to television. It is a personal odyssey and a cultural journey. RuPaul has said ‘Everything I learned, I learned through television’ and thanks to television I saw who I was and I found my tribe. ScreenAge is also about the big impact of the small screen on all of our lives. It has made the invisible, visible, especially outsiders and those on the margins.”
When he moved to New York in 1982, Bailey saw the world go Pop. Together with filmmaking partner and life-long friend Randy Barbato, their production company World of Wonder would pioneer the genre of Reality TV and chronicle the emerging Screen Age through their extraordinary programs and outrageous subjects – from Bible Belt televangelists and conspiracy theories to outrageous drag queens.
Today, World of Wonder boasts an array of awards and critical acclaim, most notable for its work in creating and producing the Emmy-award-winning global phenomenon, RuPaul’s Drag Race. ScreenAge is an engrossing first-hand look into how television has fundamentally shaped our reality, as well as Bailey’s beginnings and extraordinary career story as a trailblazing producer.
ScreenAge features a humbling foreword by Graham Norton, who recounts how he found his beginnings through working with Bailey and World of Wonder. The book is packed with glorious insider gossip and amazing celebrity stories, including Bailey’s accounts of his work with pop culture icons such as Britney Spears, Tammy Faye Bakker and RuPaul Charles. These are the riotous tales behind the shows that would make ScreenAgers of us all.
How has television shifted our reality?
Television has allowed all the invisible people on the margins and extremes to be visible. The importance of being seen in the Screen Age is that it means you exist.
What have the biggest moments of your career been?
Meeting Randy, my partner at World of Wonder, and meeting RuPaul, Supermodel of the World.
When did you first meet RuPaul?
It was sometime last century – though Randy and I cant agree on the specifics. I believe it was in Atlanta and he was out wheatpasting posters of himself that said ‘RuPaul is everything’. It was one of those rare moments in life of instant clarity. Here was a superstar.
How has RuPaul shaped the world of reality and the world of drag?
Ru has been incredible generous in using his drag genius as a platform for others to shine. At this point 400 queens have walked down the Drag Race runway and into successful careers as queens – if they so choose.
Would you expect the huge success of Drag Race?
This is always my favorite question because you want to say ‘Yes’ and have everyone believe it was all planned out. However the truth is ‘No’. But I do believe in pronoia – the opposite of paranoia – and the belief that people are conspiring to help you. So many things have aligned for Drag Race to succeed starting with the talent creativity and artistry of drag queens. It takes a village, people.
How did Wow Presents Plus come to life and how do you feel with its big success?
Randy and my dream of having our own network seemed an impossible dream until technology made it possible.
As our baby we feel very parental about it, and see it as an extended family. Through our careers we’ve been lucky to find our tribe of sissies and queers and we see wow pp as more than a platform and part of an extended chosen family – along with the Drag Race Universe, DragCon and everyone who works at World of Wonder.
What are the future projects you will be working on?
Working on setting up more versions of Drag Race, especially in countries where homophobia is a big issue. South Africa. China. Russia.
Oh and also a gay bomb. Imagine if instead of blowing people up you could turn them gay? I’m joking but the US military actually did develop such a thing and I write about it in the book because as far as we have come there’s still a lot to be done. Florida has that stupid ‘Don’t say gay’ bill that is sadly an example of a new wave of bigotry and fascism.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in the world of television?
Just do it. There’s nothing to stop you making a show and finding an audience. You can do it all on your phone.
When did you decide to write Screenage and how has this experience been?
You could fill a library with all the hand-wringing books written about the dreadful rot of television. Of all the Arts it is the least respected. Of course that’s changing with premium drama etc, but still today people look down their noses at TV and especially reality tv – the least respected genre in the least respected medium. So I wanted to set the record straight or rather praise its bentness. And in the course of writing it I began to see that things given the least respect often have the greatest influence: The tv screen may be small but its impact is huge. Camp is not a guilty pleasure but a powerful moral force. Queerness is an important cultural perspective not just for the gays.
How is it to work all these years with film-making partner and lifelong friend Randy Barbato?
If it wasn’t for Randy who knows what would have happened. I met him on my first day at film school in New York and over the course of many years we have lived worked and loved together. Though no longer boyfriends we are like an old married couple. In countless ways he has encouraged, cajoled and put up with me. If there is someone you can trust and collaborate with, I think that makes life so much easier and much more fun. I am so lucky and his name – and Ru’s – is on every page of the book.