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Why ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ has become so much more than reality TV

At Fast Company’s MIC Summit, the cofounders of World of Wonder lay out their plans for global reach and elevating queer artists.

Why ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ has become so much more than reality TV
Fenton Bailey, Brooke Lynn Hytes, and Randy Barbato.

RuPaul’s Drag Race has taken the once-niche art form of drag and put it center stage in the mainstream, with the show itself becoming an entertainment juggernaut.

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Since airing in 2009, Drag Race has won 24 Emmys, spawned 12 international franchises, and expanded into live events with touring and conventions in New York and Los Angeles. World of Wonder, the production company behind Drag Race, launched its streaming service WOW Presents Plus in 2018 and saw a 134% increase in subscribers last year, viewers who flocked to the service for seasons of Drag Race and original programming featuring queens from the show.

To many people, it may seem as if drag queens sashayed out of nowhere and into pop culture. But it’s been a long time coming and, to the team at World of Wonder, it’s more than just a moment.

“We don’t see this as a fad. We see this as an adjustment,” said Randy Barbato, cofounder of World of Wonder Productions, during Fast Company‘s second annual Most Innovative Companies Summit this week. “We see it as an adjustment in the entertainment industry of opening the door to these incredible artists who’ve always been left behind.”

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Brooke Lynn Hytes, Drag Race season 11 finalist and host of Canada’s Drag Race, added, “These artists who have long been here and long been influencing popular culture and fashion and music and all of this stuff and have never gotten their dues, are now finally getting their dues.”

Drag queens are not only getting their dues, they’re also getting the visibility and platforms to grow their businesses beyond performing. From cosmetics and beauty to music and podcasting to even motels and getaway destinations, drag queens are becoming a new class of moguls.

“Queens are amazing entrepreneurs. They have created their own audience, their own opportunities. It’s not just about the looks,” said Fenton Bailey, cofounder of World of Wonder Productions. “And I think that’s what resonates with everybody. In a social media era, that’s what everybody’s doing. Everybody is their own brand. And the art of being yourself, it is a business. That’s a lot of what Drag Race celebrates.”

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And World of Wonder continues to make that celebration as global as possible.

Go where you’re needed

Currently, there are Drag Race versions in Australia, the UK, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, Thailand, Italy, Netherlands, Philippines, Spain, Sweden, Germany, and France. And Bailey sees the franchise continuing to expand with a particular focus on “where Drag Race is really needed.”

“From an ambition point of view, I think countries where LGBTQ rights are crushed or being repressed are really important to make inroads there,” he says. “If we can get a Drag Race on in Russia, absolutely. Or even China where they’re cracking down on sissy social media influencers.”

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“Drag exists in every culture, in every community in the world,” Bailey continues. “They are everywhere and deserve a light to be shown on them and on their work.”

World of Wonder created Drag Race largely because “drag is perfect for TV” as Barbato mentioned—and he’s not wrong. Coupling the hair, makeup, and costumes with bold personalities, and it’s little wonder why the show has reached the heights that it has. But on that ascent, it’s become so much more. The success of Drag Race has simultaneously made headway in normalizing queer culture, as well as helping to create a sustainable living for queer artists.

“There’s this imbalance between the artistry versus the income,” Barbato said. “The success of Drag Race has helped a bit with that, and has helped some drag queens continue to do their art and to continue to work and to save money and buy houses. For us, that adds to the passion of making this show. And not until every drag queen on the planet makes a good living will we rest!”

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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