How did two industry “outsiders” turn drag into a glittering Hollywood gold mine?
“What happened to rap 30 years ago—that’s what’s happening to drag right now,” says TV producer Randy Barbato, talking about the current explosion of drag in the entertainment world. Leading the way is RuPaul’s Drag Race, the VH1 show that Barbato and partner Fenton Bailey produce under their World of Wonder production company. Defying the laws of broadcasting longevity, the reality-competition show is enjoying its highest ratings since it launched in 2009, making it one of the toprated original shows on cable. In addition to RuPaul picking up two consecutive Emmys for best reality-show host in 2016 and 2017, last year World of Wonder launched DragCon, an over-the-top drag convention that drew nearly 80,000 people to its 2017 iterations in New York and Los Angeles. The next one happens May 11 to 13 at the LA Convention Center. “Drag is here to stay,” says Barbato. “These kids, like Kim Chi, Alyssa Edwards and Naomi Smalls [all former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants], travel around the world. Fans wait at airports to see them. It’s kinda crazy.”
Founded in 1991, the boutique operation (“We’re one of the few independent production companies left in LA,” says Barbato) consistently shines a light on outsider voices while also deploying considerable pop culture savoir-faire, from documentaries like the acclaimed 2016 feature Mapplethorpe and an upcoming look at late artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz to such Bravo hits as Million Dollar Listing and new spinoff Sell It Like Serhant. Bailey and Barbato run their operation out of Hollywood’s art deco-style Shane Building, which they bought in 2000 out of foreclosure. “It’s not quite [Andy Warhol’s] The Factory, but it has that kind of energy, with all of these artists, young filmmakers, drag queens, whatever, working here,” says Bailey.
On Thursdays, the producing pair can usually be found lunching on chicken potpie across Hollywood Boulevard at Musso & Frank. Where you won’t find them is in the editing bay at the same time. “Because I’m into making things broad,” says Barbato, “and Fenton’s into making things deep.”