>By Michael Musto
FROM DRAG RACE TO HIS NEW BOOK, SCREENAGE
The British-born half of the award winning duo World of Wonder (with Randy Barbato), Fenton Bailey can claim co-credit for Party Monster, The Eyes of Tammy Faye (the doc that was the basis for the 2021 feature film), and of course, RuPaul’s Drag Race, which has changed the game for drag performers forever. And now, the director/producer is the author of the book ScreenAge–How TV Shaped Our Reality From Tammy Faye To RuPaul’s Drag Race (coming March 28), which chronicles his fascinating experiences as the teller of true tales. I talked to my old friend Fenton about this new chapter in his genius.
Hi, Fenton. Congrats on the book! I’m so happy it mentions our trip to PTL, Tammy Faye’s (ex) theme park. I remember patrons pointing at us in horror, and I thought, “Gurl, imagine if you saw what we wore out at night!” lol.
Fenton: Do you remember the water tower somewhere near there, in the shape of a peach? I had to look it up: It’s called the Peachoid and is in Gaffney, South Carolina. Anyway, I cannot unsee Albert mooning the camera with that giant peach in the background.
Hilarious! Speaking of Tammy Faye: Last year, Jessica Chastain won the Oscar for the movie based on your doc. What did you think of her performance? (And by the way, I love what you said in the book about her Oscar speech.)
Fenton: When she first came to us about adapting our documentary and playing Tammy, we weren’t sure she could pull it off. Neither was she, but she was so passionate about it that she literally became her on screen. And then for Jessica to win on that night of all nights (when Will Smith won for Best Actor after assaulting the host) was almost truly divine.
After that horrible moment encapsulating Trump’s America, it was so healing that she had the last word, even if–and especially if—no one was really paying attention because of the Will Smith of it all. Channeling Tammy Faye, Jessica spoke up for queers like us and by extension, all the outsiders and everyone who feels marginalized.
It was beautiful. On a sadder note, lol, when you and Randy were the Pop Tarts (in the ‘80s), I once made loving fun of you for not exactly filling a room. Crickets! That obviously changed big time. What has been the secret to pleasing a crowd?
Fenton: I had forgotten all about that. Ha! It was hosting the House of Cali in Times Square. I have never seen such a vast–and empty—space, right in the heart of Times Square. The secret of pleasing a crowd is television. Although you can reach a huge audience, each and every one of them could be sitting at home alone. So, it’s very intimate, very one-on-one. From Tammy Faye to RuPaul, from Liberace to Warhol, the artists of our time are the ones who speak television fluently.
You and Randy spotted RuPaul as an up-and-coming talent and helped market her to the masses. Why did you think she had what it took?
Fenton: Ru always was a star in his own mind, and we were convinced it was just a matter of time before the rest of the world caught up. He was always ready for his closeup, because when you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.
You then guided Ru for a whole new wave of success with Drag Race, which is bigger than ever. How has Ru changed through it all?
Fenton: Ru has remained the same and, I think, under no illusions about the illusory nature of stardom. It is pure drag. So, while reaching for the stars, Ru has always had both feet planted firmly on the ground. And so, the truth is, he hasn’t changed a bit. He has always been the same thoughtful, insightful person.
What kind of drag queen would you never want on the show(s)?
Fenton: We never say never because every queen is different.
What’s the wildest stunt a drag queen ever did to get your attention and try to get cast?
Fenton: Funnily enough, stunts don’t really work, because being on the show is more like a marathon. It’s about being able to go the distance.
You, me, Randy, Ru and James St. James were all running around clubs in a kind of dangerous but strangely joyous time when it seemed like “anything goes”. Do you think nightlife will ever recapture that–or should it?
Fenton: Yes–it was the joy of defiance. “Those were the days, my friend/We thought they’d never end.” I think the resistance continues, though not necessarily in nightlife. It was a rare moment when so many things collided. It’s funny, though, how others now look back on that time as a golden era, because it certainly didn’t feel magical at the time. Though I always thought you always had the most glamorous life imaginable.
I still do! Where will the next multiple pileup of ideas and oddballs take place?
Fenton: I know that you will be the first to find it, so promise you’ll call us right away. Now, more than ever, we need something to stop the insanity of George Santos and that nightmarish bunch of MAGA bigots, phobes and phonies.