If anybody knows how to make B-list celebrities feel like A-list stars, its Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato.
The pair, who run the shingle World of Wonder and have collaborated on films and series featuring the likes of RuPaul (the “Drag Race” series), Chaz Bono (“Becoming Chaz”), Tori Spelling (“Tori and Dean: Inn Love”) and Tammy Faye (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”), have a knack for identifying individuals believed to be on the fringe of popular culture and telling stories that are not only compelling but also show respect for the talent.
“They are able to find the gold in some things that the rest of the world has discarded because the rest of the world is more attracted to the shinier, louder and trendier storylines,” says RuPaul, who has collaborated with Bailey and Barbato since the 1980s on a number of projects beyond “Drag Race,” including “The RuPaul Show.” “We champion the outsider and that is why my relationship with them has lasted so long.”
The filmmakers do have a broad portfolio of work that includes nonfiction productions in the property space (such as “Million Dollar Listing”) and other mainstream efforts (“AMC: Film Preservation Classics”), but they consistently come back to projects centering on people they view as the underdog.
“We are on the margins ourselves,” Barbato says. “A big part of the attraction with this work is we believe the B-, C-, or D- list is the new A-list. The A-list is not interesting to us because it is not real. The A-list is completely yesterday and one-dimensional. We are more attracted to dimensional characters.”
Still, not all marginal celebs meet their standards of fully dimensional and what makes Bailey and Barbato’s World of Wonder intriguing is the ability to pick out those who can be the basis for a show.
“Often we are drawn to stories of people who might be quite overexposed,” Bailey says. “We have this feeling that there is this whole other dimension. We are always drawn to that — whether they are infamous, notorious or involved in some scandal. We believe a true dimension is left out of the picture. Sometimes the complexity of the story is reduced for the sake of the drama and these characters that are demonized.”
Another key is finding well-known types who both have experience in the limelight and also understand the celebrity machine. This quality, according to Bailey, allows documentary subjects or series stars to avoid being defined by their notoriety and makes it easier for World of Wonder to portray a side not normally seen by the public. Barbato points to Spelling as a good example of someone who met this description.
“Prior to our series, there was a different perception of who Tori was,” he says. “I think people are genuinely more interested in her after seeing” her true character.
Beyond their critical success — the two have been nominated for three Primetime Emmys — they have also earned a reputation among potential subjects as go-to guys if there is a story to be told.
When Bono decided to team up with filmmakers to document his journey through gender change (he was previously named Chastity and is the offspring of Sonny Bono and Cher), he didn’t know Bailey and Barbato very well, but was familiar with their work. He met with a handful of production companies, but quickly settled on Bailey and Barbato as the ideal partners.
Bono had seen “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and “Monica in Black and White,” about Monica Lewinsky, and believed that Bailey and Barbato had a strength in telling the tale of individuals who “people thought they knew before those films, but, in reality, they didn’t know that well.”
Bailey and Barbato’s enthusiasm for those types of narratives show no signs of diminishing. They’re working on a new series, “Life With La Toya” about Michael Jackson’s sister, which is slated to debut on OWN in 2013, and will continue to seek out like-minded opportunities.
Despite Barbato’s comments about the A-list, perhaps they might be keen branch out beyond their regular subjects. When asked if there is someone out there whose story he’s dying to tell, Bailey actually sidesteps the B-level celebs.
“Brad (Pitt) and Angelina (Jolie),” he says. “Inside that family must be so interesting.”
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