Drag Race co-creator on show's impact, heartbreaking challenges and the future
Executive producer and director Fenton Bailey speaks exclusively to RadioTimes.com about the success of RuPaul's Drag Race, challenges and the future of the long-running reality TV show.
RuPaul's Drag Race UK fans watched as Ginger Johnson was crowned the season 5 winner last week, beating the likes of Michael Marouli and Tomara Thomas.
Elsewhere, the Thai series was confirmed to return after a four-year hiatus with former contestant Pangina Heals back to host.
Meanwhile, next year, the original US series will enter its 16th and 17th seasons, following Sasha Colby's win in April 2023, and the franchise now has over 15 iterations across the globe from Australia to Canada, Mexico to Germany, as well as multiple spin-offs – including All Stars and RuPaul's Drag Race UK vs The World.
There's no denying the show, fronted by iconic drag queen RuPaul, has come a long way since its premiere in 2009 – something the show's producer and co-creator Fenton Bailey didn't see coming.
Speaking exclusively to RadioTimes.com, Bailey explained: "We were just glad to get permission for season 2. The first season was made on a teeny-tiny budget. And you know, I think it was word of mouth, which was great.
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"We were on a tiny network. I think we were very lucky in that respect because had it been on a bigger channel, perhaps the expectations would have been bigger from the outset, and as it was we were allowed to develop the show over a couple of seasons – because you don't always get that chance. These days with a new show, it's got to hit right away."
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Asked how drag culture has changed over the years, he continued: "I think one of the things that has changed is that a career in drag is really a possibility for many artists, creators, and I think over the 15 years, that's really evolved and exploded. So many of the artists on the show go on to tour or do other TV series or movies or performances, books or launch a motel. It's a great platform for artists. I think drag has become a viable career."
Despite this, the show hasn't been without its challenges, with Bailey commenting on recent far-right LGBTQ+ hate in the US.
He continued: "I think it's interesting to see this moment in the States with the sort of ultra right-wing coming for drag queens and putting out this myth that the children aren't safe around drag queens. It's a complete fabrication and it can be a little disheartening. But ultimately, I think it shows that we are moving in the right direction as a society that is more open and less phobic.
"This little sort of backlash that's going on right now isn't going to last. It's kind of the latest in a series of constructed moral panics and they just blow over, but it sort of reminds you that there is a long way to go for us to become a more tolerant society. We all have to figure out a way to get along and be respectful of one another and embrace each other, rather than be so divisive and exclusionary."
That said, there's even more plans to take the franchise further across the world, following the return of the Thai series, which was previously cancelled.
"It's a long process. I think it was pretty much 10 years before Drag Race UK launched and there are countries where the climate is very hostile to LGBTQ and particularly hostile to drag and the trans community. Funnily enough, to us those are the countries that really need the show and the message of inclusiveness.
"So we are very excited about launching Drag Race Thailand. It's coming back. We did two seasons, and then broadcasters stopped making original shows, but we're very excited. It's coming back and Pangina is hosting. And there are new countries in the works!"
He continued: "One thing that you know is that television is always going to change, but I hope it goes on, obviously. I wouldn't want to say, 'I'm going to be one and done.' The way I see it is that drag really is great entertainment for television.
"And it's not just entertainment. I think it really opens people's hearts and minds. I think it really brings in people who might think, 'Oh I'm not gay and I'm not a drag artist, but I want to watch that.' It's an all-round entertaining show. And I think one that overcomes prejudice, so I hope it goes on and on.
"But I do believe that drag will be on TV more and more because I think it's perfect for TV. You talk about people always wanting larger than life characters on TV, almost like small-screen big impact. And what makes a bigger impact than drag?"
With so many iterations and hundreds of queens taking part each year, it would have been remiss of us not to ask Bailey what season has been his favourite overall and who his favourite queen is.
While the producer kept tight-lipped about his all-time favourite season, there's one queen we couldn't end our conversation without talking about, and it's none other than Mama Ru herself.
He smiled: "For me and Randy [Barbato], meeting Ru was was a life-changing experience and we've worked together for decades. I mean, Ru isn't old enough for that, but still, based on magic it's been a long working relationship and he's endlessly inspiring and profoundly wise."
When it comes to the most memorable moment, all praise goes to season 5, during which Roxxxy Andrews opened up about her heartbreaking childhood revealing she was abandoned at a bus stop.
He said: "There is one moment that I put it in the book ScreenAge because it to me is the moment that says so much.
"It was in season 5, Roxy had just done a lip sync with Alyssa and as we were just resetting, Roxy started to cry. And Ru was like, 'What's wrong?' And she was like, 'Oh, nothing I'm fine.' And R was like, 'No, you have to say what's going on!' And she told the story about being , I think three years old, and her mother dumped her at the bus stop and she was just abandoned.
"And I guess all that hurt in this moment just poured out of her and everybody in the studio was just weeping. There wasn't a dry eye. And Ru said, 'You have family here. We're family and we choose our family.' It's just such a powerful moment. It's a heartbreaking moment, but also really, in some ways, a joyous movement."
ScreenAge: How TV Shaped Our Reality from Tammy Faye to RuPaul’s Drag Race by Fenton Bailey is available to purchase at Amazon.
RuPaul's Drag Race is available to watch on WOW Presents Plus.
RuPaul’s Drag Con UK 2024 returns to ExCeL London on 13th and 14th January; For further information and to snatch your tickets to the convention and After Hours Parties visit https://uk.rupaulsdragcon.com/