How the Producers Behind RuPaul's Drag Race Went From Extreme to Mainstream

World of Wonder is ready to cash in

Big Freedia stars in a World of Wonder-produced show on Fuse. Aldo Chacon

Prolific television producers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey never considered their programming to be underground—so fringe that only the cool kids would like it—when they launched a talk show starring the statuesque drag queen RuPaul and a docu-series about transgender college students nearly 20 years ago.

"We always thought our subjects were ready for prime time," Barbato said recently from his industrial-chic Hollywood office. "Not that many people agreed with us. They thought we were delusional."

How times have changed. Not only does Barbato and Bailey's company, World of Wonder, have a dozen shows on various cable networks, but it also has about 18 more in development, along with a handful of full-length documentary films—the producers' first love—in the works.

Competition series RuPaul's Drag Race on Logo will kick off its eighth season in 2016, while reality shows Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce and San Francisco-set Transcendent are helping define the relaunched Fuse channel. Other hits include Bravo's Million Dollar Listing and VH1's Candidly Nicole, with scripted programming just around the corner, Barbato said, for the producers who have been groundbreakers in portraying the LGBTQ community.

They've famously said they "celebrate the freaks," those on the margins of culture, the outsiders like club kids (Party Monster), evangelicals (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) and famous progeny (Becoming Chaz, Life With La Toya). They're accustomed to being turned down on their pitches to TV executives, but they call the word no "the beginning of yes." Logo passed on RuPaul's Drag Race four times, for instance, before finally picking it up.

World of Wonder was once virtually alone in creating gay- and transgender-themed shows, but that's changed, too. Such programming and personalities are having a moment, from gender-bending characters on FX's American Horror Story and a gay hip-hop mogul on Fox's Empire to a bisexual heroine on ABC's How to Get Away With Murder. There's the Emmy-winning Transparent from Amazon and newly minted stars such as Jazz Jennings, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, whose E! reality show has been renewed for a second season.

It's more a "smart business decision" for TV's gatekeepers and less a risk these days, Barbato said, and he's not at all proprietary about the company's area of expertise.

"You can never have too many people making TV about unique individuals," he said. "The field can't get too crowded."

Logo, for one, has built its brand on such inclusive programming and has seen nine consecutive quarters of audience growth in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demo, accounting for a 47 percent jump in that age group, according to Nielsen figures. The channel has logged record-breaking ratings in its 10th year on air, though the numbers are admittedly modest by broadcast standards, and marketers like Absolut, Starbucks and Orbitz have run ads and branded integrations in Logo shows.

On Fuse, Transcendent became the network's top-rated new original series in the target demo, adults 18-34, when it launched last month. Its Wednesday night companion show, Big Freedia, in its fourth season, delivered the channel's highest-ever season premiere in the 18-34 demo, according to Nielsen Live + 3 Day data.


The ad community is responding to viewer preference, said Lisa Herdman, svp, director of national programming and branded entertainment at RPA. "Advertisers have lightened up," she said. "If they continued to say, 'Oh, don't go there,' they'd be cutting themselves out of a good portion of what's happening in cable."

Executives like Bill Hilary, president of Fuse Media, and Chris McCarthy, general manager of VH1 and Logo, are glad to have been early to the party with the WoW team.

"They're queer in the truest sense," said McCarthy, who made WoW one of his first calls when he added oversight of VH1 to his job this summer. "They're left of center and typically ahead of the curve."

He dubbed them "the Norman Lears of the LGBTQ community" and said their shows have "pushed the conversation" in popular culture and in entertainment. Had it not been for 2008's Transamerican Love Story on Logo and other "360-degree" looks at trans issues, there would be no I Am Cait, he said.

Hilary, who has worked with the producers for more than 25 years, said he doesn't expect their offerings to change just because others are now inching into their territory.

"In some ways, they invented this genre, and they've been reflecting a part of America that others have ignored for years," he said. "To them, it's not a trend. It's who they are."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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