Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, the founding fathers of World of Wonder, will be honored with the Pioneer Award at the 30th annual International Documentary Association this Friday (December 5th). IDA came over to the World of Wonder headquarters to talk with WOW’s main men about their “nonfiction empire” which includes their history, the wowlebrities they document, and how they celebrate the underbelly of gay culture. Click over to read a snippet of the interview, then head over to IDA for the full scoop!
You met at NYU Film School; were you originally interested in narrative filmmaking rather than documentary?
Randy Barbato: Yes, narrative was the thing we wanted to do. We went to NYU and were attracted to doing narrative, but were busy documenting what was going on, because we were living in the East Village in the ’80s. So we were kind of studying one thing and doing something else, although for us it’s kind of all the same thing—it’s all storytelling.
While we were at NYU we probably spent as much time at the Pyramid in happy hour as we did in classes.
Fenton Bailey: There was this sort of drag and arts scene the likes of which we had never seen before. And it was just happening around you.
You have celebrated the underbelly of gay culture with Drag Race and Drag U.
FB: There was never something extraordinary about it; it was just innocent in that we thought, there’s so much talent here. Drag is something that is perfect [for the medium]; drag belongs on TV.
We just did an exhibition of Matthu Andersen’s self-portraits, and he has said that drag in a way is an extension of social media, in the sense that people brand themselves, and you can be whoever you want to be, and you create a look and an outfit and a persona for yourself—whether or not you are putting on an outrageous wig or editing the frame of the picture you are in, it’s all about presenting yourself as an extension of who you are, rather than just who you are. So everybody is really self-producing themselves.
With Party Monster, you foreshadowed the whole phenomenon of branding and monetizing fame. The Club Kids were years before reality TV and the Kardashian phenomenon. They used the camera as validation, transforming nonentities into celebrities.
FB: The particular genius of Michael Alig and the Club Kids was that they were foreshadowing this social media era, where everyone is their own celebrity and their own brand, and it’s all about selfies. They were so ahead of it. In many ways I think that’s what the New York downtown club scene was like. We were watching these Nelson [Sullivan] tapes yesterday, and it was like Facebook, the real-life version. Everyone would put on their outfit and go to the club, and talk to each other and banter with each other and do status updates back and forth! And take pictures!
The people you have documented—Tammy Faye Bakker, Monica Lewinski, Heidi Fleiss, RuPaul, Chaz Bono, Michael Alig, Sarah Ferguson, to name a few—seem to have been ridiculed or scorned at one point in their lives. What else do they have in common?
FB: The commonality is that, whether they were born that way, or circumstances forced them to be that way, they are all people who lived their life out loud. This is, I suppose, using the metaphor of the closet in a broad general sense: rather than hiding in themselves away—these people aren’t gay necessarily—they live their life out loud without apology, without editing themselves, without trying to constrain themselves into what society expects or what society considers normal or acceptable.