Drag is having its moment of fame — and so is Cameroon-born performance artist BeBe Zahara Benet.
Benet, the Season 1 winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” hopes the award-winning documentary “Being BeBe,” which tells her life story, will contribute to a positive impact on the perception of drag performance.
On the same day as the documentary’s broadcast debut, Nea Marshall Kudi Ngwa, the man behind Benet, is dropping two of Benet’s new singles, “Waiting” and “Smoke Signals,” and corresponding music videos to commemorate “Being BeBe,” he told Gay City News.
Benet/Ngwa does not identify her age or sexual orientation and she accepts all pronouns, she said.
“I don’t know if it will be a cultural reset like “Paris Is Burning,” but if it gives hope and inspiration to people who have never seen themselves in media representation or in public discourse, I think it’s done exactly what it’s supposed to do,” said Benet, who said she was humbled when RuPaul called her “a star” in 2009 when she was crowned as the next big drag star.
The one-hour and 33-minute documentary follows Benet’s rise to fame, pulling back the curtain for an in-depth view of Ngwa and his vision as he transforms himself into Benet. In her first documentary, filmmaker Emily Branham, an ally, captures more than 15 years of Ngwa’s artistic vision, struggles, origin, and the love and support of his friends and family.
The film also explores being LGBTQ in Cameroon, where gay sex or gender expression outside of the binary can land people in prison for up to five years, according to Human Rights Watch.
Benet was the first “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestant to release an original single. She was the first winner invited to return for MTV’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars,” and made it to the final four in 2018. She then joined fellow “Drag Race” stars Jujubee, Thorgy Thor, and Alexis Michelle in the drag makeover show, “Dragnificent!,” which aired its first season on TLC in 2020.
“It’s phenomenal to see drag entertainers moving into film, television, politics, and music, as well,” she continued stating it is “paramount” that drag performance art continues.
“Drag is having its moment in pop culture right now, but it won’t last forever,” Benet said. “This type of representation matters immensely.”
“Visibility is so crucial,” she said, from Drag Storytime to Emmy Award-winning “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and everywhere in between, Benet said.
She was responding to Gay City News’ question about Republicans proposing bans on Drag Queen Story Hour at public libraries that started in her adopted hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2020, and has spread to other states, according to the National Coalition Against Censorship.
In the midst of all that, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey designated November 13 Bebe Zahara Benet Day in 2020.
“It’s still mind-blowing to me to receive such an honor,” said Benet, who called it one of the greatest honors of her career. “Minneapolis really helped build BeBe.”
Banning Drag Story Hour isn’t enough for some Republican leaders across the country. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has floated the possibility of an executive order directing the state to probe parents who bring their kids to drag shows, while even in New York City, Republican Councilmember Vickie Paladino of Queens denounced funding for Drag Story Hour and falsely suggested LGBTQ people are “groomers” — a despicable term gaining traction on the far right to target queer people for no reason.
Last week, the far-right Proud Boys interrupted a Drag Story Hour in San Leandro, California, while West Palm Beach’s “Pride on the Block” was canceled following a 17-year-old’s online anti-LGBTQ comments and threats to shoot up the event, National Public Radio reported.
In March, Florida passed HB 1557, commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which was signed into law by DeSantis.
“I think people are intimidated by the power of this art form,” Benet said. “Drag storytime has shown many people how much children love and relate to the fantasy of drag performers,” she said. She further labeled the recent bills attacking drag artists as “silly, harmful, and unnecessary.”
“This proposed legislation is a deliberate attempt to smother this, but it can’t be extinguished,” she continued.
She knows. Benet drew strength from drag culture to become the person and performer she is today.
“Drag culture is a force of nature and has allowed me to grow into my most authentic self as a person,” she said. “It’s not for the faint of heart — believe me. It’s challenged me in ways I didn’t expect, but it also has gifted me the freedom of creating. That’s allowed me to maintain my mental health.”
Benet’s message in the film — and personally to other drag and wannabe drag performers, especially those who are in the BIPOC LGBTQ community — is to remember that “against all odds, we are resilient and powerful beings. We are magic in its purest form.”
“Closed doors, setbacks, or barriers can’t keep us from achieving our goals and dreams,” she explained. “We must move forward.”
“Being BeBe” will also soon be widely available on streaming platforms – Apple TV, Prime Video, Google Play, and Vudu – through digital distributor Giant Pictures. Pre-orders of “Being BeBe” are available at geni.us/BeingBeBe.
Watch the “Being BeBe” teaser below: