Founding production company World of Wonder in 1991, Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey have produced such reality series as RuPaul’s Drag Race and Million Dollar Listing, along with documentaries, including 2016’s Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures. Adapting with great flexibility to changing patterns of media consumption, the creative partners have always considered themselves “screen agnostic,” with the goal of bringing marginalized figures and viewpoints to a mass audience.
“We have always been inspired by this notion that today’s marginal is tomorrow’s mainstream. That’s the core philosophy,” Barbato says. “We produce content—scripted, non-scripted, reality shows, feature documentaries—and we do it all stooped in that.”
“I suppose the name of the company does really give you an idea of what we think, and where we’re coming from. We don’t really believe there is any such thing as normal, and we believe that the world is filled with extraordinary and fascinating people and things,” Bailey adds. “Randy and I, when we were watching drag shows at the Pyramid Club in the East Village when we were film students, we were always like, Oh my god. This work is just incredible. It’s artistry, and more people should get to see that.
Enter Fashion Photo RuView, a weekly YouTube series which emerged from RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2014, one of a number of digital series WOW has produced, celebrating individuals who “live their lives out loud.” Presenting a hilarious breakdown of the best and worst of contemporary fashion, where Drag Race alums Raja and Raven “toot” or “boot” fashion choices on display, RuView has amassed 40 million views to date on WOWPresents, World of Wonder’s YouTube channel, which boasts upwards of 733 thousand subscribers.
The series stemmed, of course, from Barbato and Bailey’s love of Drag Race and the people involved, and the desire to seek out other platforms for some “incredibly talented people.” While Raja and Raven have playfully reinvented their looks over the course of the short-form series’ run—with over 160 segments produced to date—to Barbato, the essence of Fashion Photo RuView remains the same. “One thing that hasn’t changed from the beginning to now is that it’s down and dirty. For us, it was always like, what’s the simplest way to produce this?” he shares. “It really is a simple format—it’s a countdown show, it’s green screen. Nothing can distract from the brilliant talent that the camera is pointing at.”
Part of the down-and-dirty nature of the series’ production involves a lot of ad-libbing, allowing Raja and Raven to express themselves as freely as possible. “I don’t know exactly what the shooting ratio is; I’d say it’s probably not quite ten to one. We shoot long to let the talent really rip on stuff,” Barbato explains. “That’s part of the reason why it’s connected with people, because there is an authenticity about it. We have a team that pre-produces it, and we shoot each episode two to three hours every week—not including the two to three hours it takes the queens to get dolled up—but it’s very efficient.”
A longtime collaborator of Fenton and Bailey’s, RuPaul is heavily involved in all of World of Wonder’s productions. In terms of digital content like RuView, this often comes down to offering words of praise and encouragement. “What might surprise many is that RuPaul is a hands-on, full-on producer,” Barbato says. “With RuPaul’s Drag Race, he is in all the pre-production meetings. RuPaul is pitching out challenges. RuPaul is pushing everyone on our team to fine-tune challenges.”
“He’s been in show business long enough to know when you’ve got something and when you’ve got attention, you’ve got to work twice as hard to keep it,” the WOW co-founder continues. “He pushes everybody to do the same.”
Surely, Bailey and Barbato are among many creatives this year who appreciate the Television Academy’s recognition of their work, with the addition of several short-form categories to the awards race last year. “It’s really fantastic, because I think it’s really all about storytelling. It’s never about the size of the screen,” Bailey says. “Storytelling can exist on any screen, in any format, at any length.”