ARTICLE NATASHA STAGG
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY WORLD OF WONDER
WHEN FENTON BAILEY AND RANDY BARBATO (WORLD OF WONDER) SAW THE DAWN OF REALITY TV, THEY KNEW HAD FOUND THEIR BIBLE
Few creative teams have done more for underground gay culture than World of Wonder's Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey. And that isn't all they document. A new book, out February 5th, anthologizes an era when drag queens went from seedy clubs to cable TV, when parties were full of monsters, and when everyone went from being in the dark to in the know.
The World According to Wonder sets the stage in 1991, when WOW made their first "clipumentaries," and the age of reality TV officially began. The timeline continues in a circling track, spotlighting RuPaul's Drag Race and its offshoots, Party Monster, Inside Deep Throat, and documentaries on Monica Lewinski, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and Heidi Fleiss. The list goes on and on, and in the mean time, the supporters multiply. This isn't a story about activism, though, it's about expression.
I'm struck by your interest in Videodrome. It feels like a complicated relationship, the one you have with television.
Randy Barbato Our relationship with television is complicated and it’s simple! Television is part of who we are! It’s our flesh and blood!
You explain it well in the book by saying that "studies claim it is responsible for everything from mental retardation to the early onset of puberty... we wanted in!" But could Videodrome really happen? Can TV/the Internet go too far?
RB Oh, we hope so! We hope TV goes all the way! Certainly it’s gone far enough for Jodie Foster to make a point to remind us she isn’t Honey Boo Boo (too bad for her)! TV has gone so far it’s threatening the diety of the movie star!
Fenton Bailey Things can always go too far, but that's life. I am sure, in the not too distant future, we will have implants and devices that can transcribe our thoughts. Cars will drive themselves. Men will be able to get pregnant. But at the end of the day these technologies are not in themselves to blame. And it seems that TV has taken an awful lot of shit. From newspaper critics to Hollywood actresses. In centuries past, the clergy denounced books because it meant more people could read. Today, it’s considered the height of silliness to burn books. Heaping opprobium on TV—especially reality TV—is the same kind of nonsense.
RB Amen to that.
When I was reading the book, it was hard not to get overwhelmed by the amount of celebrities you guys met—before they were famous. Can you tell me your favorite coming-up-in-the-world story?
RB That’s a hard one. We got most starstruck walking through the offices of World of Wonder. Marjorie, our receptionist is fierce cover girl material. James St. James and Stephen Saban, the editors of the WOW Report are always working fierce fashion and their quips make you run the other way… And then of course there is RuPaul! Oh, the stars shine brightest at WOW HQ!
FB We knew from the moment we first laid eyes on Ru that he was not just a star but the kind of person who changes your life in profound ways—and all for the better. I think we have been blessed in that respect. Tammy Faye, for example, wasn't just the subject of a documentary we made, she changed our lives and changed our thinking.
Your documentaries are a brilliant balance between exploitation and accuracy. Do you have any feelings on the "authenticity" of media portrayals—Is it possible to show someone as they "truly" are?
FB Everything is interpretation and representation. The moment you pick up a camera, the moment you make an edit, you are part of altering that person's truth in some way. Storytelling is itself a contrivance; out of raw reality you craft a narrative with a beginning middle and end. But in life the only beginnings are birth and the only endings are death—and even that may not be true. But even then, your story is going to in some ways be different than their story.
RB Tammy Faye’s fake eyelashes were completely authentic—and they protected her from people who judged her! They didn’t make her message of love any less real!
Tell me more about Party Monster. It's a cult classic now, and the story lives on. What happened to everyone after the movie?
RB It makes us happy that people still manage to find and enjoy Party Monster in all its iterations!
FB Well, Michael is still in prison and hopes to be released soon. James co-edits the WOW report with Stephen Saban and is writing a new book. So many of the club kids have gone on to become successful professionals in creative fields. Oh, and the documentary that started it all is being released on iTunes next month.
What is your favorite reality show right now?
RB They all are. Actually, it's a bit shameless, but the one we are loving the most is our new series Life With La Toya, which will be on OWN.
Would you say you helped create the genre?
FB Oh no, not all all. Reality created it. Rodney King. The LA Riots. OJ Simpson on the freeway. Did you know OJ's lawyer was Robert Kardashian? He took a black bag from OJ's house, and everyone was asking “What's in the bag, Mr. Kardashian?” Well he never told, but I think what was inside it was the secret formula for reality TV.
What's the next big thing?
FB We're right in the middle of the Screen Age. We are screenagers. This all started way back with Hollywood and the silver screen. Now of course the screen has migrated; we have television, we have YouTube, we have iPhones…
RB The next big thing… Volume Two of The World According to Wonder! And more books!
FB Books might seem old fashioned but they are wonderful things to have and to hold and, occasionally, read.
What about upcoming film projects?
FB Well you know when Tyndale brought out his Bible in 1525, it caused a scandal because the Catholic clergy were upset that for the first time ordinary people could read the Bible. Back then the printing press was the modern thing. Right now it's reality TV. So, we are going to tell the story of Jesus as a reality show. Maybe call it The Real Apostles of Nazareth County. Or something. If it sounds like we are joking, we actually aren't.