The Road to ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ From A First Encounter in Times Square

World of Wonder Founders Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato reveal story behind meeting RuPaul Charles and then building a drag empire with the star

When Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato met on their first day of film school at New York University, they had no idea how far their relationship would take them. Fast forward more than 30 years, and the two have cultivated a 5-time Emmy Award-winning franchise adored by fans worldwide: RuPaul’s Drag Race. Last weekend, the two spoke with LAMag at RuPaul’s Drag Con LA 2022 at Los Angeles Convention Center. 

Bailey and Barbato have slightly different recollections of how they met Ru for the first time. Still, they can agree that they were immediately attracted to his charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. 

“We met him in Times Square there. And he was wearing thigh-high waders, and I think he was wearing a jockstrap and shoulder pads with like fringe,” Drag Race co-founder Randy Barbato told LAMag. “It was like he owned the street…He owned the room. He had already arrived even though he hadn’t.” 

Fenton Bailey remembers their meet-cute a little differently. In the 80s, Bailey and Barbato had a synth group called “The Fabulous Poptarts.” The band was touring and was in Atlanta for a show when they saw RuPaul on the side of the street.

“We saw Ru on the street wheat pasting posters of himself, a huge picture of him wearing what he was actually wearing as he was wheat pasting, and it just said ‘RuPaul is Everything’…It was like instant recognition,” World of Wonder co-founder said Fenton Bailey said.

Even though Bailey and Barbato disagree on the timeline of meeting Ru, they can agree they’re enamored with the magic that is RuPaul Charles regardless.

“We fell in love instantly. We were fans from day one,” Barbato told LAMag. 

Charles, Bailey, and Barbato then started The Rupaul Show in 1996, airing 100 episodes and striking gold.

“[The show] was pretty popular and successful in a time when there weren’t a lot of Black drag queens on TV,” Barbato said. “That were also hosting talk shows,” Bailey chimes in.  

In the 2000s, Bailey and Barbato started floating pitches to Ru for a new show series. But Ru made it clear from the beginning that “the one thing [he] didn’t want was a competitive reality show.”

“So we pushed him a whole bunch of different ideas, and then he said, ‘I think we should do a competitive elimination reality show,” Bailey told LAMag. 

And many of the people who were there during the show’s inception, like the executive producer of Drag Race and chief creative officer of WOW, Tom Campbell, still work on the show today. 

[Left to right] Fenton Bailey, Tom Campbell, and Randy Barbato at RuPaul’s Drag Con LA 2022 (courtesy of Getty Images)

“It was an organic process, and you know a lot of the people who worked on the show the first episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race are still working on the show. It really is a family affair and really is an incredibly collaborative effort,” Barbato told LAMag.  

If you’re familiar with the show, you know that no two episodes are the same, with new challenges, drama, and twists coming each week. But how does the team keep the show so fresh?

“[The show is] like a drag queen, really. It’s like you’re not going to wear the same thing twice,” Bailey said. “Or if you are going to wear the same thing twice, you’re going to belt it the second time,” Barbato adds. 

As the show gained popularity, Ru wanted a way to “bring the tribe together,” uniting the queens with their fans, Barbato said. 

So the team decided to “bring it out of the screen into real life,” to gather this group of wild, wacky, weird kids who love drag under the same roof, Bailey told LAMag.

The motley crew launched RuPaul’s DragCon in 2015 at Los Angeles Convention. Since then, the con has attracted tens of thousands of attendees from all over the world and is slated to return to London after three years. 

Detox, Norvina, Kerri Colby, Trinity the Tuck, and Jorgeous speaking on a panel at RuPaul’s Drag Con LA 2022 at Los Angeles Convention Center

If you’re looking to sashay into DragCon London 2023, tickets can be found here. For more information on RuPaul’s DragCon, check out their website

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