Drag is Universal
BY Yako Molhov
A week ago MTV announced the global expansion of the Drag Race franchise with three new editions in Brazil, Germany and Mexico which will air on MTV/Paramount+ in their respective territories. Additionally, fan favorites from around the world will enter the first ever Drag Race Global All Stars exclusively on Paramount+ globally. As part of the new expansion, the US series of RuPaul's Drag Race heads to MTV in the US for season 15, and will be available on WOW Presents Plus globally.
In this interview with Yako Molhov, Fenton Bailey, Co-founder, Executive Producer, World of Wonder, talks about the huge international success of the RuPaul’s Drag Race brand. Bailey was one of the acclaimed speakers at the Asia TV Forum & Market 2022 where he talked about the importance of building a strong IP like Drag Race.
Fenton, you founded World of Wonder 31 years ago, together with Randy Barbato, co-creating the global phenomenon RuPaul’s Drag Race which has won 24 Emmys and has international versions in more than a dozen countries. The show started on Logo TV but moved mainstream and RuPaul's Drag Race has now become a household name. To what do you attribute its mass appeal in recent years and its longevity?
The secret about Drag is that it’s universal in its appeal. Because – as RuPaul says – you're born naked and the rest is drag. Everything we choose to wear says something about ourselves; who we feel we are, how we want to be seen, who we fantasize about becoming. And the stories queens share in the werk room about embracing that idea are not exclusive to gay people at all. The courage it takes, and the struggles involved are universally relatable.
With so many different adaptations around the world – how do you distribute the format? How do you choose the local producers and what are the common and what are the specific elements of each adaptation?
Each edition of Drag Race is authentic to that country and so we work very closely with producers in that territory to ensure that. By collaborating closely with people on the ground who know and love the scene there, we capture what it is that makes drag different and unique in every culture.
You attended the Asia TV Forum & Market, taking part in a panel about Intellectual Property. In 2007 Armand Van Helden sampled one of your songs without crediting your band 'The Fabulous Pop Tarts', which lead to a hefty 'payday', in your own words. Just how much IP is important these days and how are you protecting your own intellectual properties, what is your advice?
When RuPaul’s Drag Race launched in 2009 there was nothing like it. Now there are other shows featuring the art of drag – and that's a good thing. Some are more derivative than others, but there's room for all. Our focus is on making Drag Race the best possible show it can be, and it has evolved over time. In addition to the main show there is Untucked, All Stars, Secret Celebrity and Versus the World – and of course Drag Race Live in Las Vegas.
WoW produces award-winning entertainment formats, documentary films, podcasts and you have been very successful also with new media types, including video-on-demand, social media, blogging and also with conventions. Do you have plans to expand your portfolio with scripted/fiction?
Yes. We love unscripted because truth is stranger than fiction. Unscripted is also where the most risks and innovation are taking place. It was after all our unscripted doc The Eyes of Tammy Faye that inspired Jessica Chastain's splendid movie version that won two Oscars. So, we are continuing to develop some of our non-fiction films and series into scripted versions. It’s just such a sloooooooow process.
In late 2016 we did an interview with RuPaul and one of the questions was what a TV network run by him would look like. A year later you launched your SVoD service WoW Presents Plus which, in a way, is a RuPaul network which is now available in 190 territories. What is your strategy for WoW Presents Plus in terms of content and in terms of monetizing this content? Aren't you worried about the growing number of VoD services and competition?
Well, this is a moment of high anxiety in the streaming world because the big players have been spending billions in the race to be the biggest. But we aren't trying to be the biggest. We aren't trying to be all things to all people. The originals we produce aren't created by an algorithm, but simply showcase the amazing talent of the artists in them.
As home to every version of Drag Race and an increasing number of originals, the vibe of WOW Presents Plus is more of an extended family than a subscription network. Sure, we charge, but it costs less per month than the price of your daily latte. And we want to offer our members a sense of belonging; they can go to DragCon or go see Werk The World tours.
Fenton Bailey is the co-founder of award-winning, LA-based media company, World of Wonder, and has been at the forefront of shaping popular culture for over 30 years. Together with his business partner, Randy Barbato, they have produced and directed pioneering LQBTQ+ scripted and documentary content across television, film, and digital platforms; earning 29 Emmys, inspiring 2 Oscars, creating global network WOW Presents Plus across 190 territories, and bringing drag culture to the world stage via RuPaul’s Drag Race and DragCon.