Karen Krizanovich: World Of Wonder is a very busy place, as you’ve outlined in your book, ScreenAge. Of everything you’ve done, what do you think we will still be talking about 100 years from now?
Saying that the Statue of Liberty is a drag queen is endlessly satisfying and something that I’m very tickled by
Fenton Bailey: I hope they’ll still be talking about Drag Race in 100 years. I hope we’ll still be making Drag Race. I probably won’t be here unless they’ve figured out some way to put my brain in a jar. But another thing that I’m tickled by is the Statue of Liberty film that we made – Liberty: Mother of Exiles. was a film that we least wanted to make because it just seems such a boring topic – worthy but boring. Then we discovered that the sculptor probably used his brother as the face of the statue. So the Statue of Liberty is a drag queen. Saying that the Statue of Liberty is a drag queen is endlessly satisfying and something that I’m very tickled by.
KK: Liberty as drag could ring through history, indeed. What are five things you’re most proud of? We can include your oldest son Nolan’s baked goods.
FB: Well, Nolan is the baker in the family and I have the body to show for it, eating his baked goods. I’m proud of his panna cotta. I never thought growing up and realising that I was gay, that I would be able to raise kids and have a family. So I’m proud of him, and also Eliot the youngest one, for being such incredible people, and I’m also very happy I’m able to be a dad. So that’s two things: My two kids and being a dad. I actually sometimes feel guilty about it because I feel I get so much out of [being a parent]. I feel like I get more than I give.
KK: What are the differences between counterculture, let’s say in London and New York?
FB: I felt I had to move to America to reinvent myself or feel free to be who I want it to be. And that, I think that the counterculture at that time, in the 80s, in the East Village, was very punk. And by punk, I don’t mean anti-social and throwing up and safety pins. I’m thinking punk in the sense of just do it, in the Nike sense of just do it. It was just a bunch of people doing stuff. I never really felt that the counterculture in England was particularly empowered. In America, no one cares what you do. And, in a way, everything we’ve ever done has come out of that just do it thing. Even with TV. The very first show we ever made was a public access show, which again was just make the show and you can show it. You couldn’t do that in the UK then.
KK: In a way moving, countries is a sort of regional drag. You can be a different person.
FB: Absolutely. I do think the United States is a drag nation, you know, one nation under drag. It’s fundamentally performative. Vegas is a city in drag, the buildings on the strip that are in drag… Fake pyramid.
KK: …fake beach, fake hot air balloon… How about some word association? It is going to be easy. Just say the first thing that comes to mind.
FB: Right? I know that I’m not good at that. But we’ll see. (Laughs)
KK: Okay, what’s the first word you think of when I say to you “drag”?
KK: Okay, what’s the first thing you think of when I say “queer”?
KK: What’s the first thing you think of when I say “clubland”?
FB: Michael Alig. I mean, you know, I do.
KK: See? That didn’t hurt too much.
FB: You can’t see me sweating. I mean, I’m like the duck. Right? Very calm on the surface but (pants like he’s out of breath) you know.
KK: Paddling hard underneath the surface. But your new book, ScreenAge. Wow. It’s like the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It’s so big, so dense, so full of stuff I didn’t know I didn’t know. It’s an astonishing book. It really is.
FB: That’s overwhelming for me, honestly, you’re gonna make me cry.
KK: So much hard work has gone into it. But I wanted to know, what was the spark for it?
FB: I read English at Oxford. And I had to go to America but I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I ended up feeling strangely guilty about making TV in the sense that that’s not what you’re supposed to do with if you’ve got that very proper education. I grew up around a contempt for TV, a sense that it just wasn’t good and it wasn’t what you should do. It wasn’t what you should watch. But my sister, bless her, is always one of those people who says “Well, I never have time to watch TV” but then she secretly watches it. The shame of TV. It’s a little bit like being in the closet, I suppose, sort of feeling ashamed of what you’re doing. There have been so many books about how awful TV is.
KK: Like that Ernie Kovacs quote, “Television: A medium. So called because it’s neither rare nor well done.”
FB: Within TV, the least respected things are most influential, like infomercials, public access or televangelism. Actually, TV has provided a magical transformation of our lives. All it has done has just been slagged off. There was a prejudice in print against TV because print sees itself as rival or competing media. So I thought it was time to set the record straight.
KK: Michael Alig… you made him a legend and a star with your Party Monster films – the 1998 documentary and then the 2003 dramatisation with Macaulay Culkin (pictured top). But when he got released from prison, no one cared. The world had moved on when he died. Now it seems that and various other films made focus on events but not Michael as a creative. What do you think?
FB: That’s one of the most complicated questions because Michael did something absolutely terrible. I mean, he murdered someone. There’s no getting around that or sugarcoating it. Yet before that, he did lead and create this whole scene. That was what Randy and I were always fascinated by, that sort of creativity, the exuberance, the inventiveness, the sort of iconoclastic vision. The club kids represented a spectacular, wacky and profound movement that he was very much the architect of. We’d always wanted to make a documentary about The club kids, but we could never get anyone interested. It was only after the rumours that he killed someone began to circulate that we could actually raise any money to make the film. So the only way we got to make the film was, ultimately, by the fact that he did this terrible thing. The murder overshadowed the whole creativity of that scene. It hijacked it. So it’s all complicated. It’s such a sad thing because he was a genius character. And he did completely self-destruct. It’s perplexing. I just don’t know that I’ve got the right answer. It’s something that’s bothered me to the end of time. So it’s fine to feel perplexed, to feel ill at ease. But we always felt that there was more of a story than a murder, which is not to trivialise the victim. When we made the documentary, it just didn’t feel that we quite got it. So then we tried to make the movie. I still have a feeling of chasing a story. It’s still elusive.
KK: Andy Warhol haunts the book in a way. He appears at the screening of Vision Quest. This feels so great. Rather than have him playing a major part in your lives, he’s just wandering around watching crap pop culture films in the afternoon. What are your thoughts about Andy?
FB: The math of celebrity and fame is [to us and viewers] that the icon is somehow different to everybody else. But the big reveal working with Britney – for example doing the film about Britney Spears – was that Britney, you know, was like, “I’m just an ordinary, boring person”. The existential dilemma is that no one believes her. No one wants to hear that she is just a boring person. The myth and the trap of celebrity is that it robs people of their ordinariness where they are essentially the same profoundly ordinary person they were at the beginning before their fame. We believe that there must be something. They can’t just be like us, sitting on the sofa or in our underwear, watching TV or watching infomercials.
FB: I don’t think Drag Race does run the world. If it did run the world, we wouldn’t have all these problems. We’d probably have other problems. But the Drag Defence Fund is an initiative from with the ACLU, because there are all of these laws, like obviously the one in Tennessee which has been paused but others. They are an all out right-wing assault on drag. And really, the only way to fight these are in the courts. The ACLU have been doing that for 100 years. They have been fighting all these essentially civil rights cases. What I think is weird is the way drag has become the new moral panic. I would love to read a history of moral panics, pornography in the 80s or rock lyrics. Rap lyrics was another big moral panic. When there’s always a moral panic, it always has something to do with sex and it’s always completely made up. There is no real threat from any of these things. The radical right have found that lying works so well for them. You know, Fox News, they knew the election wasn’t stolen, the reporters knew it, the bosses of the reporters knew it wasn’t stolen. They all complained about Trump and this whole idea that the election was stolen, and they continued to broadcast the lie. That’s the bit I find truly unaccountable. How do you deal with people who are just committed to lying? I think it speaks to incredible moral bankruptcy. So that’s why we have the Drag Defence Fund because ultimately drag is universal. You know, we’re born naked and rest is drag as Ru says. It’s for everyone. The number one cause of death of kids in America today is guns. It’s not drag queens.
KK: So what can you say about some of the knock backs that you’ve gotten from TV people who just didn’t understand what you’re trying to do?
FB: You know, Randy says “no” is the beginning of “yes”. So you know, you just cannot not persist, right? Persistence is the thing. Something we hear a lot of is, “Oh that seems like a very niche idea.” That always infuriates me because any idea is niche until it’s not. It used to be that they would say music doesn’t work on TV. And then you have The Voice and American Idol. There is no show that is a hit that isn’t very specific. Hits come out of nowhere. Squid Game wasn’t a broad idea.
KK: Okay, back to your famous five moments. We only need two more things. We had Nolan. We had Nolan’s baked goods – let’s count that panna cotta. And we had fatherhood. So all we need is two more of your proudest moments.
FB: Oh, I suppose getting getting into NYU film school. Yeah. Because that’s how I got to America. And then meeting Randy. How about that? C
ScreenAge: How TV Shaped Our Reality, From Tammy Faye to RuPaul’s Drag Race by Fenton is published by Ebury Press and is available via penguin.co.uk