World of Wonder's outrageously subversive slate of programming might be driven by queer sexuality on the surface, but there's a lot more to it than meets the false-lashed eye. The L.A.-based production company's most famous creation, RuPaul’s Drag Race, is an extraordinary mix of eye and ear candy, and every year the cache of comically gifted cross-dressing glamazons seems to outdo the previous crop, making us laugh, think and sometimes simply cock our heads like, “Um, what did she just say?” Drag Race is the most uproarious reality competition on television, but even amid the glitz and gloss, there’s a humanity that keeps viewers hooked.
It is this bawdy yet real, anything but “basic bitch” perspective that’s helped WOW’s Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato become beloved by fans in the LGBT community and beyond. Drag Race’s presence on both LOGO and VH1 have naturally translated to views on the company's YouTube channel, where many of the show’s stars have created new platforms and fan bases for their personas.
And the phenomenon is about to get even bigger. Last week, Bailey and Barbato unveiled WOW Presents Plus, a new subscription streaming service available on iOS, Apple TV, Roku and Android. For $3.99 a month, they provide curated programming featuring their audacious archive of films and documentaries, TV fare and live events, plus a bunch of new original shows they hope will help it grow and transcend WOW's current audience, which they say is already pretty broad.
“I feel we don’t fit within the usual demographic label. It’s not really defined by sexuality, and it’s not really defined by age,” says Bailey, in the award-adorned meeting room at WOW’s HQ on Hollywood Boulevard. “I think it’s really, at heart, the outsider experience, the realization that being a unique individual is not a sign of weakness. It’s about leaning into that and turning up the volume up on that. And I think if you look at a lot of the documentaries we make, it’s always really about people who live their lives out loud and don’t edit themselves.”
On Drag Race, the queens who seem to resonate the most with viewers are the ones with no filter — they say what most of us think but won't say. And they have a way with words that’s as wondrous as their way with wigs. In 2015, the show spawned a convention, DragCon, a WOW-produced gathering celebrating all things drag, which in some ways led to the new channel.
“DragCon was kind of like the manifestation of what we’d been doing, and it was really interesting to see who came and the stats of it,” Barbato says. “It’s been like 50 percent female. It’s queer as an idea, rather than just people who identify as LGBT.”
“When we started WOW Presents on YouTube, we realized that that we do really does feel like an extended family,” he continues. “Certainly when we did DragCon, we got to meet so many of those people. It’s really all about growing that family and growing experiences for them. Wow Presents Plus is ad-free, which is great, and we like that it’s a single place where you can really experience every aspect of what we create.”
In addition to new programs starring Drag Race’s most popular personalities, Wow Presents Plus will feature the company's previously released documentaries, including The Eyes of Tammy Faye (about the eccentric evangelical star), Out of Iraq (about gay soldiers in the midst of war) and Party Monster (about the NYC club-kid scene and the murder that led to its demise). RuPaul, who worked for Bailey and Barbato back when they started in New York, came out of that nightlife scene; early in their careers, the duo produced the drag superstar’s talk show on VH1.
After meeting in film school at NYU, Bailey and Barbato made their first endeavor, Manhattan Cable, compiled clips from New York’s oddball public-access shows. Their work with RuPaul dominated their output soon after, slowly but surely helping bring drag into the mainstream. In many ways, they say, the new TV service feels like a return to their roots, and it seems to have reignited their DIY spirit.
New programming will include lots of Drag Race alums: Season nine fan favorite Valentina hosts La Vida de Valentina, a telenovela-inspired show about beauty and Latin culture; Detoxx's Life Rehab is a self-improvement show starring L.A.-based queen Detoxx; Laganja Estranja covers marijuana trends on Puff Puff Drag; and Bob the Drag Queen helms the travel program Bobbing Around With Bob the Drag Queen. Other fare includes a makeup show with girls from Sugarpill Cosmetics and something from Chris “Leave Britney Alone” Crocker.
“Wow presents on YouTube was the beginning of a sort of doing it on our own, and as it’s grown and its popularity has grown, we’ve grown, not just in front of the camera but behind it as well,” Barbato says. “YouTube showed us there was an audience, and we’ve always felt we were more than a production company. The challenge and the frustrations are, you could know all the talent in the world and have as many cool ideas as you can, but you need to rely on the networks for distribution. Now you don’t as much. Ironically it’s really how this company began when Fenton and I were working with public-access shows. We’ve sort of come full circle.”
Part of this will also include re-establishing the high-profile storefront below their offices on Hollywood Boulevard and Cherokee. The Wow Events Space, which was home to an art gallery several years back, is being relaunched as the WOW Presents Space, which will be used to showcase the channel's performers via parties, show backdrops, live events and more. On Tuesday, Nov. 21, one of the company's hottest programs, The Trixie and Katya Show, will host a live event celebrating the show's recent debut on Viceland, with spoken word and live music. After being rented to retail shops the past few years, the high-traffic space promises to play a major new role in WOW's upcoming endeavors (Bailey, writer James St. James and Tom Campbell already record their Wow Report radio show for Sirius XM there), foreshadowed by their anti-Trump art show earlier this year. Like DragCon, the event showcased WOW's gift for producing events as well as media content, and seemed to reignite their desire to provide platforms to challenge discrimination and the political status quo.
“The Trump administration's attempt to roll back the clock has actually really inspired people to take a stand and ironically, this is a great time to be an outsider and do what we do,” says Bailey. “We are beginning to realize the power that we all have. It's a creatively fertile time and it's inspiring us all to identify and express ourselves as who we are.”