EXCLUSIVE: From humble beginnings showcasing drag artists on New York’s anarchic Manhattan Cable, to creating a stiletto-striding global phenomenon in the shape of RuPaul’s Drag Race, World of Wonder has been bringing its punkish, colorful spirit to our screens for 30 years.
The production company, founded by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey in 1991, is preparing to launch Drag Race in Spain this weekend and expects the format to sashay its way into 10 different territories before too long. In doing so, they have created a brand that celebrates talent in many forms and given rise to a new bread of television star, all while delivering a message of hope and acceptance.
“Randy and I have always felt that drag is pure inspiration and incredible artistry. It combines painting, fashion, style, music, dancing, and above all, the ability to make something out of nothing,” says Bailey, speaking to Deadline over Zoom.
Not everyone has shared this view. Barbato and Bailey recall being told “no more drag queens” by the Manhattan Cable commissioner after showcasing the likes of Madonna superfan Queerdonna (see video below) and proving one of the first platforms for RuPaul himself. Since then, the word “no” has been a familiar refrain from network executives during Drag Race pitch meetings.
Even with several U.S. seasons under their belt on ViacomCBS’s Logo TV and VH1 (Season 14 is currently casting), they were rejected more than once by nearly every major UK broadcaster. “Everybody’s afraid,” says Barbato. “It’s not the audience or the fans, it’s the gatekeepers. It’s the executives, no shade [intended]. They need to discover the show first, it’s often because their kids tell them about it.”
That’s exactly what happened at the BBC, where an executive came round to the idea on the recommendation of their children. The show launched on BBC Three in 2019 and has been regularly credited by the British broadcaster for helping lift iPlayer viewing to record highs. It has also created wildly viral moments, including the disarmingly catchy U K Hun song (an earworm that will last for days if you look it up). A third season is now on the way, while UK queens are popping up on all sorts of other reality shows. None of this has gone unnoticed by Barbato and Bailey.
“I hope they kick themselves really hard,” Bailey says when asked if the BBC’s commercial rivals look on enviously at Drag Race. With a mischievous glance into his camera, he adds: “If they don’t kick themselves, next time I see them, I’ll kick them myself.” Barbato adds: “They kick themselves but then they also do whatever they can to book the queens from previous seasons. We’re quite happy to introduce other networks to TV stars.”
Drag Race has been so successful for the BBC that it has acquired the Canadian and the Drag Race Down Under versions of the show, with the latter causing a stir in Britain after the BBC snipped out jokes about Prince Andrew. (Bailey is relaxed about this, by the way, saying he respects the “sensitivities in different cultures.”) And there’s likely more to come, as Deadline understands that a second season of Canada’s Drag Race is currently filming.
Drag Race España premieres on Spanish streamer ATRESplayer on Sunday. Bailey says it is laced with the filmmaking spirit of Bad Education director Pedro Almodóvar and is “indescribably hot,” not least because there is romance on the judging panel between Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo, the creators behind HBO Max’s transgender series Veneno. Bailey explains: “It’s got a very baroque aesthetic. That’s the thing about Drag Race, in every country it’s its own animal. It’s the same show but completely different.”
He expects Drag Race to “pop” in other territories soon, though deals are not yet ready to be announced. With each launch, the show’s joyful message of acceptance for the trans and queer community takes another step forward. “I think it saves lives,” Bailey says. “I just remember growing up, the only time there was a gay person on the screen, they were lonely, they were sad, they were persecuted, and they often ended up dying, being killed, or killing themselves. It was just dismal.”
“This is part of our legacy to our children… It does feel like we are making a contribution,” Barbato chimes in. But with a typical wink to the show’s community, he adds: “Of course, it is also drag, so we don’t want to ever take it too seriously.”
Drag Race is just one part of the World of Wonder empire. The company has moved into live events through the Dragcon convention and Drag Race Las Vegas show, while it also has a long pedigree in features and documentaries, launching WOW Docs last October under unscripted executive Jim Fraenkel. Both slates boast what Barbato describes as “Drag Race adjacent content.”
On the features side, Bailey’s 2000 documentary on televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker is being adapted into The Eyes of Tammy Faye with Searchlight Pictures. Michael Showalter directs, with Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield starring. It premieres on September 17. Meanwhile, one of WOW Docs’ first projects will be Explant, a documentary following Drag Race star Michelle Visage as she removes her breast implants and spotlights women who have been poisoned by the plastic surgery. Directed by Emmy-winning Jeremy Simmons, it screens at the Tribeca Film Festival in June.
Then there is WOW Presents Plus, World of Wonder’s very own streaming service. Launched in 2017, it hosts different international editions of Drag Race and various spin-off content; treasures from World of Wonder’s archive, such as British comedy The Adam and Joe Show; and originals, including the upcoming Painted With Raven, a makeup competition series hosted by Drag Race fan favorite and Emmy-winning makeup artist Raven.
WOW Presents Plus will double down on originals in the future. Barbato says it has obvious advantages.”We’re cutting out the resources and the personnel that it takes to develop and then to potentially pilot. Why not just make it and put it on the platform? We already know there’s going to be interest, we know how to produce it, we know that our audience would rather have the content and would be quite happy for it to be rough around the edges,” he explains. “It’s fresh and it’s got joie de vivre. We’re just doing it rather than it being noted to death.”
The streamer has been an “extraordinary rocket ride of growth,” says Bailey, though the duo won’t discuss subscriber numbers. He can’t resist noting, however, that the platform is bigger than Quibi, the doomed streamer that reportedly had 500,000 subscribers when it closed last year. “We’re not out to beat Netflix, it’s a specialty channel,” he adds.
So with 30 years under their belt and a diversified business, are they thinking about selling? “We’re happy to be independent and no one has ever understood our value. When we talked about creating our own streaming platform, it was as if we were talking to aliens,” Barbato says. Instead, Bailey says the company’s ethos is very much driven by the world they have spotlighted so successfully: “That very punk idea of just doing it has always been what gets us out of bed. And that is aligned with drag.”