There was one thing at the top of my list that I wanted to discuss with Fenton Bailey. North Korea. In fact, it’s probably what people want to talk to him about the most in regards to his new book, “ScreenAge: How TV shaped our reality, from Tammy Faye to RuPaul’s Drag Race”.
Bailey, along with Randy Barbato, are known for starting World of Wonder, the production company that shifted culture with the juggernaut that is the RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise and its accompanying DragCon extravaganza. In addition, Bailey and Barbato have produced numerous docs including Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, Party Monster, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Bailey goes behind the scenes of his work, and the world of television and delivers a solid case in how the medium formerly known as the “idiot box” has impacted culture and as the title suggests, shaped our reality… and that includes a chapter on Bailey’s visit to North Korea.
“The scariest bit was when they took your phone and suddenly you realize, ‘Oh my God, if something goes wrong, I’m completely fucked and stuck’,” Bailey tells me in regards to his trip to North Korea, which he goes into detail in ScreenAge.
Bailey was in North Korea with UK art curators who were making a visit for an art diplomacy initiative they were working on with the elusive country. The curators had brought Western artists to countries like Moscow and Beijing and so the team went to North Korea to set all the agreements in place. Bailey described it as being on another planet.
One day, their hosts (who were with them 24/7 by the way) took them to a foreigners-approved store so they could go shopping for souvenirs. Their hosts were curious as to why they were there and they showed them the art that would be featured in the exhibition.
“They were like, ‘this is awful’,” Bailey said, adding they were clueless about Western culture because, well, they were in North Korea. “They were nice but they felt sorry for us. They were very genuinely concerned.”
He added, “They don’t have any stuff, but they genuinely believe in the greater good. There’s a real sense that they are only here to serve.” The media consumed in North Korea isn’t consumed elsewhere in the world. Popular culture isn’t a thing and I am pretty sure they have no idea what TV is let alone what Succession is — although I think they may like it.
It just goes to show how even the absence of Western TV culture can shape a society.
I met up with Bailey at Pizzeria Mozza on Highland and Melrose in Los Angeles, a hot spot that has maintained a reputation that makes it a candidate to be a L.A. institution. We have North Korea talk right before our fried squash blossoms and plate burrata come our way. I always like to talk about North Korea at all my dinner meetings.
Bailey is a vault of cultural knowledge and experiences which made for a enriching slab of clay to mold into ScreenAge. However, the book wasn’t necessarily supposed to be as encyclopedic and filled with behind-the-scenes stories about working with Britney Spears. It was a picture book that turned into something bigger.
“A lot of books about TV are very negative about it… just rubbish,” said Bailey. He said there was a very scant amount of shame when it came to being in the TV business. He always felt that since he studied English at university, people expected him to do something other than television.
That said, TV has always been treated like a bastard child of media when it has always been a marker of some of the most culturally significant moments in history. Still, as Bailey points out: “I don’t think you’ll ever read a good review of a reality TV show in the New York Times.”
With ScreenAge, Bailey subverts this idea of the “idiot box”, drawing a direct line from moments in television history to the culture as whole. The first chapter he wrote was about the aforementioned pop princess herself, Britney Spears. Bailey wrote in detail about how it was like to work with her while they were making the documentary, I Am Britney Jean. The book admires the iconic nature of Spears, but also humanizes her rather than sensationalize while they filmed her during her post-VMA award performance/Vegas rebirth era, a very interesting moment in her life.
With chapters spotlighting the likes Spears, Tammy Faye and, of course Drag Race, Bailey’s book is couched in this idea of queerness and the connection between something like Drag Race and queerness on TV.
“TV enables us to be visible in a way that movies kind of never did,” he said. “Yes, there were independent films in the ’90’s, but there’s was a TV in almost every home… it’s accelerating impact.”
Born in Portsmouth, England, Bailey moved to New York at the infancy of a new pop and identity-driven art and media. From being musicians in a bourgeoning world of new wave to creating unhinged public access to disrupting the status quo with a punk mentality. Bailey has always subverted the mainstream. He and Barbato became pioneers in the reality TV space when they launched World of Wonder and made projects that included subcultures that shaped America like drag queens, conspiracy theories and Bible Belt televangelists — including the legendary Tammy Faye.
In 2000, World of Wonder released the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye which would become a narrative feature in 2021 earning Jessica Chastain her third acting nomination and first win as the titular character.
As we chow down on our pizzas (the crust at Mozza is perfection, by the way), we spend a lot of time talking about Tammy Faye, how she was an icon, trailblazer and became an influencer before there was a term for it. Even so, her legacy was almost treated as a joke until Bailey made the documentary and then later with the narrative feature.
“We really loved her,” said Bailey. “We were so drawn her and I know her look has been kind of made fun of, but I think there’s an intentionality behind that. Once we got to know her, she was really very genuine and just drag. I mean, she said, ‘I’m a drag queen’ — It sort of reveals who she is.”
He continued, “I think on the one hand, she wanted to make herself iconic and kind of exaggerated, like drag — just attention grabbing, because without any of that stuff, she said, ‘I’m not really much of anything’.”
It was inevitable that Bailey would include Tammy Faye in ScreenAge. Not just because of her loving and welcoming presence on TV, but because of what she did on TV. People weren’t used to her look and because of that, they couldn’t get past the real impact she had. “What she was doing never really got taken seriously,” Bailey points out. “She was very inclusive and radically welcoming in a way that even secular television wasn’t.”
The book, documentary and feature film point to a very groundbreaking moment on television in 1985 when Tammy Faye interviewed Steve Pieters, a man living with HIV on live television. She treating him with compassion and love and said, “How sad that we as Christians — who are to be the salt of the earth, we who are supposed to be able to love everyone — are afraid so badly of an AIDS patient that we will not go up and put our arm around them and tell them that we care.”
It’s interesting how we always return to drag because as Bailey says, “America is drag culture”.
“Vegas is a city where the buildings are in drag, ” he astutely points out. “It’s like, ‘Welcome to the main stage!’.”
Drag is also in one of the most iconic symbols in the country: the Statue of Liberty. In the HBO documentary Liberty: Mother Of Exiles, Bailey and Barbato uncover lots of interesting history about Lady Liberty including how French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi used his brother in drag as a model for the statue. At first, Bailey had no interest in making the docu, but once he found out this bit of information, he was all in.
These fascinating and insightful stories are all included in the book. One topic that he wanted to include but didn’t get folded in was the Royal Family. “To me, the whole dilemma of the Royal family is, ‘How do they exist in the age of celebrity?’ And also they are performance.”
He points out how outsiders like Royal Family outsiders like Diana and Megan Markle was that they were “screen age royals”.
“[They] understood the media and understood in a way that the Royal family just didn’t,” said Bailey
He then adds, “It is all sort of drag.”
All roads lead to drag.
As we enter this era of where the LGBTQ community — specifically the trans community — are under attack all over the country with anti-trans and anti-drag legislation, Bailey understands that many are looking to the platform of World of Wonder and the Drag Race universe for solace, representation and inspiration.
Drag Race debuted in the Obama era and since then, it has become a global phenomenon. It is a platform for individuals and the advocacy and inclusivity comes through the queens. “The most political message of it is the freedom of expression,” Bailey says.
What was once underground and a space where queer people could feel safe has now become mainstream — but the mainstream isn’t necessarily a space drag is looking to occupy. Drag is a protest against four-quadrant check box America.
“On the one hand, drag is always going to be sort of iconoclastic and sort of irreverent,” Bailey explains.”It’s always going to be tweaking the so-called ‘mainstream’.”
He adds that despite the success of Drag Race, some TV executives still tend to think the show is only for the queer community. As a result, they have apprehensions about creating similar shows. “Drag is actually universal,” he says. “We’re all in a kind drag and I think so many fights or arguments happen over this idea that drag is not universal…I’d love to see a Drag Race in every country… not from an Empire State Building point of view, but from the point of view of the message: Do what you want. Be who you want to be. That’s the message. That’s a good message.”