It was more than 30 years ago that Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato first met RuPaul Charles. Three decades later, that partnership continues to grow — and the executive producers behind “RuPaul’s Drag Race” now hope to be on the cusp of Emmy history.
In the 15-year existence of the Television Academy’s reality competition category, only three shows have won: “The Amazing Race” (10 times), “The Voice” (four times), and “Top Chef” (once). And in the 10 years since the Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Series category was added, no show has ever picked up both in the same year.
But RuPaul is on a streak, having won the host Emmy in both 2016 and 2017. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” ended its 10th season in June with the show’s most watched finale yet among adults 18-49, and the show’s Season 10 average was its most-watched season ever, up +10 percent from Season 9. The show also gave VH1 its biggest Emmy nomination tally ever, with 12 this year — 10 for “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and 2 for “RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked.”
If “RuPaul’s Drag Race” wins the reality competition Emmy this year, the show would manage to both break the reality-competition category stranglehold and pull off the first host/series double feat.
“I’m sure those other shows must be sick of winning,” Bailey quipped. “I’m never optimistic about anything, and that’s because I’m British, but it would be the most wonderful thing.”
Bailey and Barbato launched production company World of Wonder in 1991, and have produced countless documentaries, reality series, and films since then. But they’ve also been in business with RuPaul from the moment they met the star on the streets of Atlanta in the mid-1980s.
Bailey said there are different memories of how he and Barbato first met RuPaul. But in his recollection, he and Barbato were touring as the band The Fabulous Pop Tarts, and were driving around Atlanta when they first came across RuPaul.
“We saw this extraordinarily tall figure in waders, and football shoulder pads, with a ratty wig, and what looked like shredded trash bags attached to his shoulders,” Bailey recalled. “And he was wheat pasting posters. The poster just said, ‘RuPaul is Everything.'”
A few days later, Bailey and Barbato actually met RuPaul — and Bailey describes it as a life-changing moment: “Like, this guy is a huge star, it was clear as day to us. And we believed really, it was just a question of waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.”
RuPaul told IndieWire last year that he remembers first meeting Bailey and Barbato in 1985 at the New Music Seminar. “We were in bands, and that was a convention where independent artists would meet each other,” he said. “The next year Randy and Fenton produced my album called ‘RuPaul is Star Booty.’ And we’ve been working together ever since. We are family.”
RuPaul was everywhere even back then, showing up in things like the video to the B-52’s “Love Shack.” There’s another video of RuPaul in a photo shoot with Bailey and Benton in the 1980s that can be found on YouTube:
“I remember that photo shoot,” Bailey said. “Ru had moved, or was in the process of moving, to New York. We were in a burnt-out building in the East Village, and the person making that video was Nelson Sullivan, who videotaped a huge amount of downtown New York in the 80s. He was a documentary obsessive, and felt there was an incredible scene he wanted to document. He really, I think, inspired what World of Wonder became.”
“The 80s in New York for me were a wonderful time,” RuPaul told IndieWire last year. “How much fun it was. Every time I think about that era, I think of Madonna’s ‘Into the Groove.’
Soon after Bailey and Barbato launched World of Wonder in 1991, RuPaul asked the duo to serve as his manager. That’s how they ended up as producers on his groundbreaking single “Supermodel (You Better Work).”
“He played us the demo of ‘Supermodel,’ and we’re like, ‘OK, we’ll do it,'” Bailey recalled. “Ru knew that we’d had our own band, and a couple of record deals, and publishing deals. We took on the demo and sent it around. We actually managed him for a long time, all the way through ‘Supermodel,’ his book, his MAC cosmetics deal.”
Said RuPaul: “I had worked in show business for 11 years before ‘Supermodel’ came out, not making a dime. When I finally did hit the big time, I had learned my lesson. I knew how to write, produce and morph like a shapeshifter into other things. That turned into a makeup contract from MAC cosmetics and then I wrote a book and I kept the momentum going. In this world, you’ve got to be able to offer any different levels of value.”
In 1996, Bailey and Barbato produced “The RuPaul Show” for VH1, which featured the star as he interviewed a wide variety of guests. Michelle Visage, who’s now a judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” was his co-host.
“It started from my club days,” RuPaul said of his hosting chops. “I knew how to emcee nightclubs. That’s where my ability to do television shows comes from. The truth is, I knew from an early age I was going to be famous. I didn’t know what I was going to do, I just knew I was going to be famous. My part in all of this was my ability to keep an open mind in how I was going to do this. Drag presented itself and I thought, ‘really? Drag? OK!’ I got a great reaction when I did drag.”
Bailey said he remembers the thriving drag queen scene in the East Village in the late 80s, but also how drag was never taken seriously as an art form.
“Randy and I always thought that a drag queen is unlike any other artist in that they are multi-talented,” he said. “They have to create their own outfits, they do fashion. They have to do their own hair and makeup, so they’re doing beauty. They have to sing or lip sync. They have to dance, they have to act, in addition to being themselves.
“I think it was a matter of time that whatever prejudice or snobbery people had against drag as an art form eroded,” he added. “It takes a lot of courage and balls for someone to be a drag queen. I don’t think everyone has it in them to walk out of the house in high heels and a wig. It’s a defiant spirit that you aren’t going to let what is seen as ‘normal’ to dictate how you behave.”
“RuPaul’s Drag Race” launched on Logo in 2009, but as it grew in popularity, the show was eventually moved to VH1 — its official home since Season 9 in 2017. That increased exposure came at the right time, post the election of Donald Trump and a rise in hateful rhetoric, particularly against diverse cultures.
“I think it ends up being really the voice of the resistance,” Bailey said. “I’ve always loved something Ru said, and I think this is never more true than now: He said, ‘Every time I bat my eyelashes, it’s a political act.’ The show itself is about the tenacity of the human spirit.”
RuPaul first won the Outstanding Reality or Reality-Competition Host prize in 2016, and Bailey remembers being stunned at the victory.
“It just meant the world,” he said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen, and I don’t think Ru thought it was going to happen. I mean, he gets on stage and he’s wearing the suit, but he’s carrying his bag. He’s literally ready to leave. What was so lovely about that moment, and it’s still kind of goosebumps, is that he was genuinely shocked and stunned. It’s very rare to find Ru a little lost for words.”
“Drag Race” has turned into a major enterprise, spawning spinoffs like “RuPaul’s Drag Race: All-Stars” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked.” It also led to the DragCon convention, which attracts tens of thousands of fans in New York and Los Angeles.
“The truth about ‘Drag Race’ is it’s such a fun show to work on,” Bailey said. “It puts everybody in a good mood. It’s uplifting, and inspiring. [The contestants] have been through a lot to get to where they are. If they can, so can we.”