From reading cheap magazines in the supermarket line to watching reality TV, popular culture is often seen as a guilty ‘low rent’ pleasure. But for Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, Pop and its devil-child television have never been dirty words. SASHA NAOD caught up with two of prime time television’s hottest properties.
In the humdrum of work-a-day life, few adults are able to treat Popular Culture as the world’s biggest candy store, live an adolescent dream of conspicuous (and reckless) consumption, and as therapists might insist, ‘indulge their inner child’ to their heart’s content.
Even fewer are able to build a successful career doing it. In fact, not since the largely post-post pubescent cast of 90210 have adults been able to tap into ‘teen’ so unfettered. But Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have been swinging through the Pop jungle with greater ease than Spiderman since 1991.
They are contemporary culture’s answer to P.T. Barnum, and like their 19th century counterpart, they are responsible for parading an ever-growing list of freaks and freakish topics to an audience who is lapping it up.
Their arena is TV, and their company, Word of Wonder (or ‘WoW’ for short), is a cutting-edge film and television production company that is behind some of prime-time TV’s hottest programming.
As the name suggests, WoW has been set up specifically for the purpose of entertaining adolescent whimsy, and is based on a simple premise that sociologists have been expounding for years: that today’s marginal is tomorrow’s mainstream. With a head office smack in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard, WoW drips with the kind of cool that has made companies like Pixar, Apple and Diesel a winner with the hard-to-get youth market.
How cool? Check out WoW’s website, where a web-cam pointed at the front desk broadcasts the mundane to whomever wants to watch, and where a gossip column tears shreds through that select group of celebrities who currently circulate across the world’s magazine covers.
Being located in Hollywood also provides fertile ground for story ideas. WoW’s television specials screen on funky Gen X-Y-Z networks like Bravo, VH1, HBO and the UK’s Channel 4, but forget that schizophrenic aesthetic called ‘MTV chic,’ or genres like reality television; WoW sets out to accomplish what at first might seem like a bland, if not boring mission: to tell the truth. In the process, Fenton and Randy want to debunk the tabloid media circus and its penchant for exaggerating, or in many cases simply fabricating, the truth.
As you’d expect, a conversation with Fenton and Randy is littered with the kind of references to Popular Culture that would make a trend forecaster blush. Where marketers gave up trying to work out ‘hip’ long ago, these two have it down pat.
“It’s like the X-files says: the truth is out there, you’ve just gotta find it,” says Fenton.
“The real question,” says Fenton, “is whether the media is ready to print it.”
Through their unashamedly, but utterly titillating – and addictive – tabloid TV specials like Divorce: Hollywood Style, Showbiz Moms and Dads, and Flops 101: Lessons from the Biz, the pair delve into a realm which traverses a combination of gossip, urban myth and popular folklore.
Their subjects are the people and topics that pepper our everyday conversations, usually in the form of gossip; but which you’d never expect to see on TV, least of all in the normally ‘respectable’ documentary format.
Their bolder feature-length works are thoughtful and well-researched pieces that read like a who’s who of popular iconography and cult interest: The Eyes of Tammy Faye, concerning the real-life aftermath of America’s biggest tele-evangelist scandal.
Dark Roots: The Unauthorised Anna Nicole, an interview/exposé with the blonde bombshell’s lesbian lover of three years, and Monica in Black and White, in which audiences get to meet the entirely different woman behind the Clinton scandal and that dress. Not forgetting 101 Rent Boys, their seminal work, which put LA’s meanest and leanest hustlers on the couch for a chat.
“We attempt to get to grips with some of the truths that aren’t really explored or examined in mainstream media; the stories that people usually dismiss,” says Randy.
Their subject matter is often political. “Some of our favourite topics are drag queens, hustlers, and fellatio – givers or receivers, it doesn’t matter! And sex.”
“We’re really a public service organisation,” jokes Fenton.
Their latest feature is called Inside Deep Throat, which in their words “probes” the world of 70s porn and the cultural significance of one of its most recognisable movies.
English born Fenton Bailey and New Jersey native Randy Barbato met at NYU’s Graduate Film School, just when the excesses of the 80s were coming to a screeching halt.
Andy Warhol’s ‘Factory’ disbanded, and the notorious New York Club Kids picked up the baton. Out to shock, they were a group of hedonistic teens in the early 90s who dressed up and partied to excess across New York’s wild club scene. In fact, Bailey and Barbato used to bump hips with the Club Kid crowd, although not to the extent of its leader, Michael Alig. An acquaintance of the pair, Alig later became the subject of a 1998 WoW ‘shockumentary,’ and more recently, their feature film starring Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green, called Party Monster.
However, Bailey and Barbato’s journey to the top of the pop heap didn’t come that easily. To help them finance their filmmaking ambitions, the pair in the early 90s formed a proto-music act called ‘Pop Tarts.’
“We’ll tell you a bit about the Pop Tarts,” says Fenton. “That’s it,” he laughs.
Although their career in the recording industry was short-lived; non-existent even, the pair had the knack for capturing the zeitgeist, and the nous for manipulating it into something easily digested by the masses. In the early 90s, a time when the idea of ‘queer’ was being explored with greater freedom in the mainstream, Fenton and Randy were instrumental in the rise of drag superstar RuPaul, who they ‘groomed’ and for whom they still act as managers.
The formula was an odd mix of intuition and trend-watching, and it worked.
“We are prognosticators,” declares Fenton.
“It was kind of like a void,” says Randy of their niche in the TV biz. “Even if the stories seemed overexposed, it was amazing how the truth of the story wasn’t really told. So our aim became to tell those untold stories.”
Bailey and Barbato’s insights are far from fridge-door philosophy, and may have something to do with the fact that they are gay.
“Even if the stories seemed overexposed, it was amazing how the truth of the story wasn’t really told.”
“It’s that idea of being on the outside of culture,” says Fenton.
“From that comes this feeling of warmth or passion [for our subjects]. We often identify with the most ridiculed or scorned of characters.
“They are the people who are routinely judged by society,” says Fenton, “but often without people knowing who they really are.”
“Everyone we’ve made a film about, we tend to relate to in one way or another,” says Randy. “That’s part of our motivation.
We’re not like old-school documentarians. If we’re going to make a film about Tammy or hustlers, our goal is to do an objective journo job; to see the world through their eyes.
“That kind of subjectivity is the best kind of objectivity.”
Yep, these guys really know trash and what to do with it. Their subject matter may be a bit tabloid, the through-line with their work is Andy Warhol.
“Warhol’s the God,” Fenton wilfully admits.
“It’s taking the concept of Art is Trash or Trash is Art,” he adds. “
Bailey and Barbato have found remarkable niches in the US and UK, and although much of it is made for cable, it’s ratbaggy, radical, and they do it very cleverly.
What’s most surprising about Fenton and Randy is that their work is as accessible to audiences in the UK as it is to those in the US – two cultures whose sensibilities are often seen as poles apart.
“It’s a complete myth that America doesn’t get irony,” says Fenton. “The UK has some kind of weird self-importance.
But the truth is, British people don’t really understand US irony, and vice versa.”
Randy says that “[American] stuff is an amalgamation of cultures.”
“But the language we all speak is television,” bounces Fenton.
If there’s one other thing that unites their audiences on both sides on the Atlantic (and indeed the world over), it’s fame and the cult of the celebrity.
“Or notoriety, at least,” Fenton corrects.
“Why certain people get adored or hated more than anyone else. Fame is the pre-eminent occupation on everyone’s mind.”
Their recent special, Showbiz Moms and Dads, realises with brutal honesty that often-maligned type of parent who atones for their own shortcomings by thrusting their children into the limelight.
“Just dreadful parents…” muses Fenton.
On fame and celebrity, Bailey and Barbato aren’t quite as tired as everyone else. Although they do think that the phenomenon is on the wane. Not only has the rise of tabloid journalism heralded a new era for the celebrity, they say, but many celebrities themselves have become self-fulfilling tabloid prophecies.
According to Randy, the present media landscape is awash with stars who are ripe for the picking, and with WoW offices in both the US and the UK, the list of potential subjects is ever-expanding.
“[We’d love to do] every celebrity who appears to be a mess, from Whitney to Courtney Love. She’d be pretty yummy right now,” he says of the latter.
“We love celebrity rehab.”
Reliably, Fenton says that the turning point for celebrity was the recent Michael Jackson trial. “It was the beginning of the next chapter of celebrity.”
Jackson, says Fenton, defined celebrity for a generation, and his trial had the world tuned in. So significant was the event that the duo optioned the rights to Victor M. Gutierrez’ little-known 1993 book, Michael Jackson Was My Lover.
Currently available on Amazon for anywhere between US$160-$340, the book tells of an affair between Jackson and Jordie Chandler, but one in which Chandler was a willing participant.
At one point, Chandler is even alleged to have said that he and King of Pop were “in love.” The book has become a rare item due to the efforts of the Jackson camp to prevent its release in the U.S., but it’s existence is a good example of what Fenton and Randy are getting at.
“We think the truth is different,” says Fenton. “This book’s been out for ten years – have you read it? The media doesn’t really tell the real story, they just go with the most popular version.”
And as for the outcome of the trial, well, it’s difficult to say anything of it, he says.
“You never can tell with trials. How ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ is not the point in the lottery of the justice system.”
Much of Bailey and Barbato’s work finds it roots in gossip.
Far from being an unreliable source, Fenton thinks that gossip is quite the opposite.
“Gossip is the only source,” he says.
“When we released The Hidden Fuhrer (which raises the spectre of Hitler’s sexuality), a lot of people were saying ‘how do you know Hitler was gay? That can’t be taken seriously.’”
While not intended to be the last word on the subject, the program does pose a few interesting questions, but their exercise is really about giving that alternative discourse an airing in the first place.
“It’s not that there weren’t gay people in the past,” says Fenton, but rather, that people have covered it up.
“People have gone to extraordinary lengths to cover it up, whether it’s a dictator or an A-list star.
“The real question,” says Fenton, “is whether the media is ready to print it.”
This article originally appeared in The Age.