Just over 10 years ago, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato recorded the first season of a reality television show that would go on to change the world.
Serving as two of the show’s executive producers, Bailey and Barbato are in many ways the driving force behind its production and success, alongside Tom Campbell, Steven Corfe and Mandy Salangsang.
The show is “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and its star is, of course, RuPaul Charles, who rose to fame in the 1990s with his hit single “Supermodel (You Better Work). He is also an executive producer of the show.
Today “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is an undeniable cultural phenomenon. Not only has the show launched the careers of well over 100 drag queens, but it has also created its own economy through the semiannual RuPaul’s DragCon, held in New York City and Los Angeles.
And with Season 10 of the show wrapping last night, it’s showing no signs of slowing down.
“Queer is universal, and there’s this thing about drag that is universal and broad,” Barbato said. “I mean, that’s the irony of all of this. It’s like this art form that has been perceived as marginal forever is the opposite. When people have access to [drag], they connect with it because drag speaks to everyone’s own kind of queerness.”
In phone and email interviews with HuffPost, Bailey and Barbato discussed their relationship with the art of drag, what younger generations are taking away from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and what a queer and inclusive future should like.
What does the art of drag mean to the two of you as gay men who don’t necessarily do drag?
Bailey: Well, Randy and I have perhaps on a few occasions done drag. I was at a boys’ boarding school, which was otherwise a curse, actually, but it had some upsides, let’s say, and one was that when we did plays, it’s was always boys who had to play the parts of the women. It was actually really fantastic. I was Titania, I was queen of the fairies for “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which was a stretch, but I somehow managed to do it. So we have done drag on a couple of occasions.
It’s a sense of freedom and a sense of liberation when you see someone on a stage lip-syncing. One of my default memories is Lady Bunny doing “Hot Butter” by Popcorn. It’s so fucking insane. It’s so inspiring because suddenly it just opens up possibilities of anything and everything is possible. I think so much of life is about rules and following rules and what you can expect and what you can’t expect. For me — and certainly coming from an English background — to see this sort of craziness of these insane elements juxtaposed against each other, it’s just very inspiring.
Barbato: I think it, for me, it’s less like what turns me on from the point of view of a gay man versus what turns me on from the point of view of an outsider.
That’s why I think drag has always been underestimated and misunderstood, because it’s really about people who feel marginalized and outsiders kind of reinterpreting or sharing their twisted perception of the world we live in.
It’s funny or provocative or outrageous, but I always find it interesting, and I usually, almost always can connect with a drag performance because of that. I think it’s less ― it’s not necessarily just because I’m a gay man.
A lot of the fans of the show today are teens and young kids. What do you hope that these young fans ― and even your own children ― are taking away from their investment in the “Drag Race” cultural phenomenon?
Bailey: Well, my kid, Nolan, he’s seen a lot. He loves it. I suppose what he takes away ― it’s not like he’s coming from a place of repression or denial. To him, I think, it’s just the most natural thing in the world.
I hope that what he takes away from it he’s able to take with him into his adult life. I hope that doesn’t somehow get crushed out of him and that it gives him a certain — I hope it gives anybody — a certain resolvable strength to be themselves and to do their thing.
Barbato: I agree with that, and I think it’s sort of a two-way street of inspiration or something like that.
It’s like it inspires the older people and the drag queens to see young people there as much as it inspires the young people to see all the drag queens. I think it’s a kind of mutual, mutually fabulous relationship that kind of helps illustrate what Ru said, many, many times, “Drag brings families together.”
I think, again, there’s this kind of misperception about what drag is or who drag queens are. When you walk into DragCon, all of that goes away, because you see that special connection that kids have with the queens and that queens have with the kids. It feels so natural. It feels so right.
Next year, I think we’re going to just keep growing the kids’ zone because it was packed this year and kids had such a great time. To go back to your original question, what do we hope they’ll take away from it? All those great family values that many politicians have kind of championed.
Bailey: Yeah, politically over the years.
Barbato: If you really want to get some family values, send your kids to RuPaul’s DragCon, and they won’t walk away not judging people ― they’ll walk away being open. They’ll walk away being kind. I mean all of those things, because I’ve seen it in my own kids. They’re also monsters. [Laughs.]
It’s pretty revolutionary that this show is on a mainstream cable network in our current political and social climate. What do you hope the function of the show is, or what’s the work that you hope the show is doing in living rooms, in middle America?
Bailey: I think you could say it’s an extension of the idea that from a queer perspective, that visibility is a great thing. Because to be seen, people can get to know you, perhaps understand you, and I think that it’s about the fact that there’s a TV show about drag. It’s bringing it to people who otherwise wouldn’t be aware of it.
For example, just slightly tangentially, the documentary we did for National Geographic with Katie Couric, “Gender Revolution.” National Geographic is a sort of heartland channel, right? Watched by a lot of conservative straight men, for example, of a certain age, and Katie Couric is America’s sweetheart, and the combination of her going on this journey brought people into contact with something they might have judged, but now they know a little bit more about it, and maybe they’re less likely to be hostile or judgmental or negative. Perhaps they can see within their own families and relationships reflections of this.
Barbato: Oftentimes the way to be the most political is just visibility. Just the show and its success alone, just its existence is political. The thing that can really move the dial — especially, I think, in the current political climate of political chaos and turmoil — I really think it’s going to be about people having connections with other people.
I think when all is said and done about “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the reason it’s successful is the queens’ connecting with these other people who work so hard to make art. It’s that connection that has created the success, but I think it’s also that connection, connections like that, that can make political progress.
What does Pride mean to the two of you in 2018?
Bailey and Barbato: Every day is Pride over here at World of Wonder [their production company]. Pride is really the freedom to breathe and to be visible, versus having to hide and hold our breath. From being able to remember the bad old days when there was no pride and only shame, it’s incredible just to be here now.
The theme for HuffPost’s Pride coverage this year is “The future is queer.” What does a queer and inclusive future look and feel like to you?
Bailey and Barbato: The historical reality is that queerness has been the engine of culture. We also think that everyone is at least a little queer because we are all unique, we are all snowflakes. We are excited at the prospect of living in an age when everyone embraces that idea and gets in touch with their queer selves!
For LGBTQ Pride 2018, HuffPost is highlighting 30 cultural influencers who have shifted the narrative when it comes to queer issues and whose work has contributed to building a more inclusive and equitable future for us all.
#TheFutureIsQueer is HuffPost’s monthlong celebration of queerness, not just as an identity but as action in the world. Find all of our Pride Month coverage here.