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Feb 22 2023
Everybody Say Loved This Book: A Review Of Fenton Bailey's SCREENAGE Comments (0)

Screenage-fenton-bailey-book-boycultureWorld of Wonder has been putting the cult in popular culture for decades, whether it's introducing us to the addictive RuPaul's Drag Race, which vivisects willing queens season by season, or exploring magnetic figures via probing documentaries that ask the kinds of questions queer people want answered.

Now, Fenton Bailey — who is one half of WoW, along with creative partner Randy Barbato — is turning the fagnifying glass on himself and spilling all with ScreenAge: How TV Shaped Our Reality from Tammy Faye to RuPaul's Drag Race.

It doubles as a biography of latter-day TV.

With the book, Bailey describes how his lifelong interest in all things pop would eventually be distilled into a series of successful and culture-shaping endeavors from the early '80s on, leaving plenty of time to dish on events he helped create/for which he was present, and to gossip, gossip, gossip.

Of particular interest for me was his description of the origins of his partnership with Barbato — they seem to have been thrust together on the first day of film school by Kenneth Anger's cinematographer. Talk about bona fides!

Giphy2 boys, 1 empire (GIF by Matthew Rettenmund)

He walks us through the East Village scene of the early '80s — Madonna, MTV, Andy Warhol, Nina Hagen, the Pyramid — and the formation of their own little band, the Pop Tarts, their first show (a public-access series called Flaunt It!) and first success (a public-access series called Manhattan Cable), but it was all leading to RuPaul, who announced himself with posters that actually read: RuPAUL IS EVERYTHING.

It is bizarre to read about their story, the story of queer culture becoming mainstream (right before its current implosion into being public enemy no. 1 again, thanks to the rise of right-wing bitterness over that normalizing), and to realize it is HISTORY. Not even particularly recent history. And thank whatever god you pray to — perhaps Grace Jones? — that Bailey is documenting it, to remind us. So many of the people who lived through this time did not live past it, and aren't able to frame it for us.

Highlights of this juicy read include reading about working with Tammy Faye, and about working with irredeemable Michael Alig, who inspired the filmmakers to make Party Monster.

Tammy-faye-searchlight-boycultureI also liked Bailey's throughline regarding pornography, and the photo insert has never-before-seen images worth the price of admission. (One wonders if Bailey had been tempted to use as his cover the incredible photo of himself as all six Village People!)

The World of Wonder story is epic. It begins with two gay film students trying to become pop stars and becoming sidetracked by television, and ends with a movie based on one of their many documentaries winning an Oscar for Best Actress.

And best of all, judging from Bailey's verve in presenting his life and life's work, it all feels like a “so far.”

ScreenAge is available March 28 — and can be preordered here now.