Fenton Bailey's 'ScreenAge' - World of Wonder producer's pop culture inspirations in new book

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday April 18, 2023
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World of Wonder producer and author Fenton Bailey
World of Wonder producer and author Fenton Bailey

In his introduction to Fenton Bailey's "ScreenAge," gay British talk show host Graham Norton, calls Bailey "the Forrest Gump of popular and tabloid culture," remarking that if an event or personality created headlines, he was there. With his romantic (once boyfriends but no longer, "now we're like an old married couple") and professional partner Randy Barbato, Bailey created their World of Wonder production company "to uplift and promote the voices of marginalized queer communities."

On their British show "Takeover TV," they gave Norton his start in the early 1990s when they showed his flatmate's short film "What Happened to Sally?" about a depressed housewife who takes too much ecstasy, with Norton playing Sally. Norton comments that World of Wonder redefined what mainstream is and helped change the world by giving a platform to marginalized, especially queer people, pioneering reality TV.

Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey  

This essential book consists of three interweaving sections: personal memoir, the role of television in our lives, and the impact of queer pop culture. If Norton depicts Bailey as Forrest Gump, Bailey sees himself more as the Andy Warhol of his time.

Warhol was his great mentor who defined his work as Nothing Special. Bailey interprets Warhol's experimental movies (i.e. "Empire" filming the Empire State Building for eight hours) as the forerunner of reality TV, and his famous aphorisms (i.e. "In the future everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes") anticipated social media, particularly Twitter. By recognizing the camera's magical power to document everyday life, Warhol virtually invented Instagram. Bailey writes, "It's Andy's world and we are just living in it."

Pop camp visibility
Bailey grew up in Southampton England, knew he was gay from an early age, but wanting to follow in Warhol's footsteps, moved to New York in 1982 to attend film school at New York University. On the first day he met New Jersey native Randy Barbato. They bonded instantly as pop culture enthusiasts. For a few years they formed a singing electro/synthesizer group The Fabulous Pop Tarts, which never quite caught fire.

Instead, they wanted to celebrate pop culture by creating a new audience for it on television. Bailey observes that most of our waking hours are spent in front of some sort of screen whether it be our phone, our computer, or television, hence the book's title.

Bailey grew up watching television and as a young gay boy got to see other LGBTQ people, camp (especially the original "Batman" series which he wants to remake), and queer topics (i.e. "The Naked Civil Servant" about raconteur Quentin Crisp) through TV. He quotes drag queen RuPaul: "Everything I learned, I learned through television and thanks to television I saw who I was and I found my tribe."


For Bailey, popular culture is queer culture, because it is the queer person's makeshift solution for being judged invisible, pretending LGBTQ people don't exist. TV gave visibility to gay people. "Being seen in the ScreenAge means you exist. If you aren't seen, you don't exist."

Bailey views queer culture as universal because it's promoting the idea we should live in a world where no one is ignored or pushed aside and told they are wrong, thus relatable to all people.

"It's the queer community's compassion and empathy as well as its inclusivity that makes it such a good purveyor of culture."

For Bailey, America is a queer society because so many people dream of becoming something they are not, by (re)inventing themselves.

Bailey feels television has gotten a bad rap, responsible for dumbing down our culture and portending the end of our civilization. It's a revelatory medium whose goal is to make everything visible. Through TV, Bailey found a world free from judgment and provided creative inspiration. TV goes behind the scenes. It's real life in that it shows what is.

He draws a distinction between TV and movies, with the former more a documentary medium, while movies create magic and illusion, a scripted medium. Bailey writes, "Television isn't really about anything. It's about flow and making us feel part of that flow. It gives us a sense of belonging, or at least the feeling of not being so completely alone."
TV honors every kind of difference, queer and otherwise.

Sashay, you stay
Bailey is best known for co-producing the "RuPaul's Drag Race" series since 2009 and its dozen+ international spin-offs. The chapter on the series reveals the shocking incident when 85-year-old Milton Berle, Mr. Television himself, molested and exposed himself to RuPaul before an awards show.

Drag is essential for Bailey. He again quotes RuPaul, Supermodel of the World: "You're born naked and the rest is drag." In other words, we're all in drag, one way or another. Bailey views drag as a mashup of pop culture.

'The Eyes of Tammy Faye' documentary poster  

"It makes fun of all the celebrities, pretentions, and excess, but at the same time celebrates and loves it."

It's perfect for television because it's a construction that is entertaining but also reveals truths about ourselves and the world. The world is complicated, hypocritical, inherently unfair yet drag exhibits a playfulness about it that takes some of the sting out of it by not complaining or being victimized by it.

Drag is the art of pretending but exhibiting an inventiveness enabling us to imagine ourselves as who/whatever we want to be. It subverts the concept that there's a right or wrong way to be, in a sense leveling everyone equally, revealing who we are, as all good.

So it's not surprising Bailey was a big fan of evangelist/talk show host Tammy Faye Baker, making a documentary ("The Eyes of Tammy Faye") on her, which inspired the narrative film that won two Oscars, including Best Actress for Jessica Chastain. Bailey felt it was a win for Tammy.

"Tammy always said she was a drag queen and she was in on the joke," says Bailey in his book. "She basically said being gay was okay and we weren't bad, which was huge in her evangelical/Pentecostal circles."

Bailey quotes her: "I refuse to label people. We're all just people made out of the same old dirt and God didn't make any junk." She also noted that after the PTL scandal, which sent her ex-husband Jim to prison, "When we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue and I will always love them for that."

Wondrous world
Bailey's artistic mission is to "turn the common, the maligned, and the misunderstood" into art especially those characters who get no respect, are looked down, are obscure, or underappreciated in our culture. He now reimagines them as heroes.

The breadth of their subjects is breathtaking, including Monica Lewinsky, Britney Spears, Carrie Fisher, Anna Wintour, Sarah/Duchess of York, OJ Simpson, The Statue of Liberty, the Menendez Brothers, the New World Order, pornography, Club Kids, David Wojnarowicz, and Robert Mapplethorpe, to name a few, all celebrities meriting gossipy, riotous, insightful chapters.

'Party Monster' documentary poster  

World of Wonders' success comes from their ability to use a queer lens and offer a different perspective on a subject so you understand it in a whole new light, such as explaining the importance of the Statue of Liberty through its gift shop and then divulging that it's hollow inside, an illusion, so in its own way America's top symbol is a drag queen.

In interviews, both Bailey and Barbato have railed against the anti-drag/trans legislation sweeping the country, calling it "un-American" because drag extols individuality and self-expression, very American traits. This threat, particularly the idea drag queens are predators, "is an attempt to turn the clock back to some imaginary time when drag queens did not exist, which is never and therefore render invisible certain people. It will fail because any attempt to turn the clock back has always failed."

Republicans are pushing these drastic policies to draw attention away and serve as a distraction from the complicated, challenging problems facing the nation (i.e. climate change, gun control). "Like bullies, they can't deal with their own shortcomings, so they pick on people they perceive to be the weakest. Although they will ultimately not succeed, the tragedy is people will suffer because of them."

One can only hope with this book's publication, both Bailey and Barbato will garner the praise they deserve for being pioneers and prescient about gay cultural trends long before they became popular. "ScreenAge" is an apologetic whimsical celebration of reality television and how World of Wonder boosted queer representation on all types of small screens. Long may they keep filming!

'ScreenAge: How TV Shaped Our Reality From Tammy Faye to RuPaul's Drag Race,' by Fenton Bailey. Ebury Press/Penguin Random House $24.95

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