Fenton Bailey is a co-founder of World of Wonder. The production company that gave the world RuPaul’s Drag Race. While in Auckland filming Drag Race Down Under, Fenton sat down with Oliver Hall to discuss his new book ScreenAge: How TV Shaped Our Reality, Britney Spears Conservatorship and how Drag Race has shaped our community.

As a producer for the entire Drag Race franchise, Fenton Bailey has heard more than his fair share of criticism of the show.

“Our advice to the Queens is always: ‘Don’t read the comments’,” he reflects, with the reasoned tone of a man so experienced in producing entertainment that little flusters him. 


“We know they won’t pay attention to [our advice],” he continues. “We don’t pay attention to [our advice]. It’s a brilliant idea, but of course, we read the comments!”

When it comes to treading the fine line of accepting constructive feedback but not getting overwhelmed by negativity, he advises you to question, “Where is this really coming from? What’s the intention of the comment?” And to accept “it’s always a work in progress.”

One criticism he has heard repeatedly is that that is too much Drag Race.

“I disagree,” he affirms. “Wherever the show is, it opens hearts and minds. It would be great if there was a Drag Race China, Russia, and Iran; because, ultimately, the message is one of camaraderie, inclusiveness, diversity, and chosen family. That is what the world needs to hear when authoritarianism, dictators and fascism seem to be on the rise.” 

His forthright conclusion: “If you’re someone who thinks there’s too much Drag Race – don’t watch it!”

The debate of whether there are too many franchises of Drag Race only exists because of the show’s worldwide success. Fenton denies there was a moment when he realised the show was going to be a global smash but pinpoints first meeting RuPaul and Drag Race’s first Emmy win as huge milestones. 

In the US Drag Race has shifted from fringe exposure on queer network Logo to mainstream channel VH1 which produced its first Emmy campaign, and most recently the globally recognised brand, MTV, who initially squeezed the show into an hour time slot including ads. 

“A lot had to be left out and ultimately it didn’t work,” admits Fenton candidly, adding he is excited the format has returned to 90 minutes.

As we get comfortable I take my chance on a more controversial question, ‘How many seasons of Drag Race does Ru have left in him?’ I ask sighting Drag Race’s fierce filming schedule that has seen Ru fly from America to New Zealand, to the UK, right through the pandemic. 

Fenton laughs. Acknowledges the brutality of the workload but assures Ru has as many seasons left as he wants. As for how many that is? “That’s a question for Ru,” he wisely notes.

The blueprint for a RuPaul’s Drag Race without RuPaul already exists, of course, most successfully executed in the show’s non-English speaking franchises. However, Drag Race’s charm and chemistry shine brightest when Ru sits at the centre of the judge’s panel, flanked by the flawless Michelle Visage and Carlson Cressley, who despite his many years on TV, has never been funnier than he is on that show.

Fenton agrees. “It sounds a bit sentimental but there’s a certain magic to the whole thing, that defies explanation,” he tells us, reflecting on more than a decade of the show’s success.

Originally from England, Fenton is also quick to acknowledge Drag Race UK – arguably the best of the franchises. “We are so fortunate to have Graham Norton and Alan Carr alternating – the UK’s two biggest television stars. It’s so joyous because they love doing it and they’re so funny.”

As for our very own Drag Race Down Under, Fenton praises its raw authentic vibe. “It feels very unmediated. Ru loves all that Down Under language, ‘Don’t come the raw prawn with me!’” he imitates, highlighting that Down Under’s ‘radical candour’ keeps it distinct from America’s pageant gloss.

All over the world Drag Race has delivered a visual feast, titillating drama, laughs and tears. For Fenton, it is the latter that gives the show its heart. Telling us, as a father of two, he gets emotional just thinking about the moment in Season Five where Roxy Andrews reveals that, at three years old, he and his sister were abandoned at a bus stop by their mother.

It was one of those memorable, meme-able moments that has kept reality TV so enduringly popular since its creation. A topic Fenton explores in his new book, ScreenAge: How TV Shaped Our Reality.

Fenton Bailey’s book ScreenAge

“TV has had a bad rap,” he explains, “but the medium is not even 100 years old and it’s completely changed our lives. So often critics just let loose on TV like it’s a trashy invention, but its impact on our lives is nothing less than transformational. Even now the conversation has moved on to social media – it’s still a screen!”

In fact, Fenton argues that it is TV’s least respected genres that have had the most impact. 

“Reality TV has shown us there’s no such thing as an ordinary person. Everybody’s extraordinary,” he notes, highlighting how the genre paved the way for the Instagram influencers of today.

As a gay man who has spent his professional career working in television, Fenton passionately believes that TV deserves more respect. “TV has allowed the gay community to be visible in a way that we weren’t visible before… I felt like it was a history that deserved reframing to recognise the importance of its impact.”

The book does this by revisiting highlights of Fenton’s career, from an early doco that reveals the Statue of Liberty is basically a drag queen (the sculptor based the image on his brother) right up to his recent Oscar-winning success, The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

One chapter, sees Fenton recall working with Britney Spears during her conservatorship while directing the documentary I Am Britney Jean.

I ask for his take on the superstar. 

“She has been telling us the truth about herself for a long time. She’s just a boring, normal person, and wants to be left alone. But we can’t do that. My hope for her is that she finds peace because I fear that the #FreeBritney movement hasn’t done her any favours.”

Freeing someone is not a positive thing? Naturally, I delve deeper.

“Freeing someone from something that protects them, may not be freeing them at all. It could be putting them in harm’s way. Look at all the stuff on her Instagram post-conservatorship… Everyone’s been very quick to surmise that her dad was exploiting her and her manager abusing her, but I didn’t see it and I didn’t get intimations of it. I got the feeling that they had a difficult job and that they cared about her. Social media just incites everyone to have a very strong opinion.”

Fenton acknowledges that Britney herself has been publicly scathing of the conservatorship and her family, but estimates, “It’s the same way that kids rebel against their parents. It doesn’t mean that the parents aren’t trying their best or that they don’t love their kids.”

I Am Britney Jean, was released in 2013, the same year New Zealand legalised same-sex marriage and the queer community’s focus began turning to inclusion, diversity, trans rights and platforming people of colour. Throughout that time, RuPaul’s Drag Race has been the most prominent and successful queer TV show in the world, yet Fenton is hesitant to explore the question of how the show has influenced and impacted these issues.

“We produce a show that showcases the queens and their extraordinary talents and try to make it the best possible show. Those other questions, we don’t really know,” he says, before offering: “The fact that the community is more visible to more people is a good thing,” and highlighting that stories on Drag Race are ‘universally relatable’ and ‘you don’t have to be gay to enjoy them.’

My final question, then, is 14 years on, has Drag Race changed the art form of drag? It’s a conversation I’ve had with many queens over the years and they almost all say ‘yes’. Fenton, however, disagrees, countering that drag has never really been about sexuality to gender, but is an ever-evolving art form that reflects society as a whole. 

A society shaped by television.

ScreenAge: How TV Shaped Our Reality is out now.

Fenton and business partner, Randy Barbato. Photo by Idris & Tony.