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“We’ve always believed that today’s niche is tomorrow’s mainstream,” says Fenton Bailey, cofounder of World of Wonder, the production company behind RuPaul’s Drag Race. “So much of the content and the talent that piqued our interest when we first launched, we always thought of that talent as ready for prime time.”
World of Wonder, one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies for 2022, has remained true to its vision since it began in 1991. It’s the rest of the world that’s finally caught up.
Back in the early ’90s, Bailey and his cofounder Randy Barbato sensed that they were witnessing seismic shifts in the cultural landscape. Suddenly, anyone with some disposable income could pick up a camcorder and record their personal perspective with broadcast quality. YouTube was more than a decade away, but the democratization of the means of video production had begun—something Bailey and Barbato tried to help along with early shows, such as Takeover TV, which licensed and featured amateur content.
Meanwhile, the founders had also started to appreciate the art of drag more and more, and envisioned its trajectory toward the center of popular culture. “We thought drag queens were fabulous and fierce and incredibly creative and resourceful and adaptable and had their finger on the pulse,” Barbato says. “And in RuPaul [Charles], we found the ultimate expression of that.”
The company’s earliest effort at putting a drag showcase on TV, Stars of the Future, sputtered out in development before it could get off the ground. A series of projects with RuPaul—known to drag queens the world over as Mother—soon followed, including a short-lived talk show on VH1 in 1997, but nothing that connected with anything like the force of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
When it premiered on Logo in 2009, Drag Race was a modest hit. Many kinks still needed to be worked out, which is why that first season is referred to by fans as the “lost season.” Over the course of the decade that followed, though, the show evolved into a juggernaut. By the time the show made the leap to VH1 in 2017, the show had spawned several sister series, including Drag Race All-Stars, and started winning Emmys. Every episode had become an event, to be consumed communally in gay bars and living rooms across America.
All that was left was to take over the rest of the world, which the company soon started to do with a series of international spinoffs. “Drag is an art form that exists in every culture,” says Bailey. “It’s like [these countries] are sitting on a secret, and they don’t know what they’ve got.”
In 2021, World of Wonder expanded Drag Race to Australia, Italy, and Spain, bringing its total up to 13 versions worldwide, in addition to the flagship U.S. franchise. There are so many series at this point, it’s become hard to keep track of them, let alone keep up. To the latter point, though, in 2018, the company launched its premium streaming site, WOW Presents Plus, creating a platform for sharing and comparing the world’s many distinct styles of drag.
Between the arrival of those three new international series, and other offerings like the competitive makeup series, Painted with Raven, the subscriber base grew by 134% in 2021. World of Wonder also spent the year rolling out projects like the VH1 movie The Bitch Who Stole Christmas and the HBO docuseries Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes, and helped produce the Oscar-nominated The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
How can World of Wonder possibly top a year like that? (Aside, of course, from the 2022 launch of its first international All-Stars series.) Bailey and Barbato dream of getting the chance to produce the Oscars. As anyone who watched the awards show last year can attest, the show could use a little flair.
Says Barbato, in perfect deadpan: “We’re waiting for the call.”