Out in the World: Cameroonian 'Drag Race' star hopes film inspires

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday June 22, 2022
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BeBe Zahara Benet prepares for a show in her dressing room in Minneapolis in 2014 in a scene from the documentary, "Being BeBe." Photo: Courtesy Emily Branham/Serve Productions<br>
BeBe Zahara Benet prepares for a show in her dressing room in Minneapolis in 2014 in a scene from the documentary, "Being BeBe." Photo: Courtesy Emily Branham/Serve Productions

Cameroon-born performance artist and "RuPaul's Drag Race" Season #1 winner BeBe Zahara Benet believes in the power of drag.

"Drag is having its moment in pop culture right now, but it won't last forever," said Benet. "This type of representation matters immensely."

"Visibility is so crucial," she said, from things like drag storytime to the Emmy Award-winning "RuPaul's Drag Race."

She hopes that the award-winning documentary, "Being BeBe", her music, and live and video performances "pushes the needle forward in opening eyes, hearts, and minds" in Africa and wakes the West up and activate people to "help liberate others."

"Being BeBe" debuted on Fuse June 21 in the United States and on OUTtv in Canada. The documentary traveled the film festival circuit in 2021, where it won the audience award for best documentary at the Provincetown International Film Festival and the jury prize for best documentary at Sound Unseen in Minneapolis.

The 90-minute film follows the rise and pursuit of Cameroon-born performance artist Benet, and pulls back the curtain for an in-depth view of Nea Marshall Kudi Ngwa, the man behind Benet. Filmmaker Emily Branham followed Benet through more than 15 years of Ngwa's transformation into the drag artist, capturing Ngwa's vision and struggles following Benet's rapid rise to fame. The film also takes an intimate look into where Benet came from and the love and support of her friends and family.

Benet does not identify her age or sexual orientation and accepts all pronouns, she said.

On the same day as the documentary's broadcast debut, Benet dropped two of her new singles, "Waiting" and "Smoke Signals," as well as the corresponding music videos to commemorate "Being BeBe," she told the Bay Area Reporter.

The film is not being released in Cameroon or most of Africa, except in South Africa, said Branham, who is working on a film screening at a safe space in Cameroon as well as other screenings where she, Benet, or others involved in the film will present it and host a discussion.

Benet was the first "RuPaul's Drag Race" alum to release an original single. She was the first winner invited to return for "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 and is now on Hulu.

On November 13, 2020, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey designated the day Bebe Zahara Benet Day.

"It's still mind-blowing to me to receive such an honor," said Benet, calling it one of the greatest honors of her career. "Minneapolis really helped build BeBe."

Just BeBe

Benet didn't even know what gay was when she was growing up in Cameroon, she explained in the film.

"You don't even talk about it," Benet said in the film. "Before I even came to America, when I was growing up ... I didn't even know what that was."

Speaking to the camera, photos are shown of Ngwa singing in the choir, dressing up, and surrounding himself with girls. All he knew was that he was not like other men.

"I was not the most masculine guy that was walking around," she said during one of the candid interviews in the film. "I knew that there was something about me that was not like everybody else."

She explained in one of the interviews that she got bullied but, "I always found a way to be the star," because she felt that "being the star protects you."

Benet said as an immigrant she was able to do what immigrants do — send money home to take care of the family even as she had an unconventional profession.

"I wore heels and makeup to take care of family," she said about not being put into a box and that there are many paths to success. "That is the lesson."

"Just allow us to be who we are meant to be," she added.

Branham was introduced to Benet by her sister, who was a backup dancer for Benet in 2006. The budding filmmaker became fascinated by "female illusionists," as she called drag artists, and asked Benet if she could follow her with her camera. It turned into a more than 15-year journey and cost an estimated $500,000 in financial and in-kind donations to create the film.

Branham has gotten close to Benet's family over the years. In the documentary, she shows how the family struggled with and has come to accept Benet.

One of five children, BeBe's brother, Vanjelis Ngwa, explained in the film that he had a tough time processing Marshall Ngwa's transformation into BeBe, drag, and who his brother is, but he has come to accept her, he said in the film. BeBe's sisters, the youngest Dimitra Ngwa, and eldest Bernice Ngwa, embraced her and love her. Bernice Ngwa's children, John Adelola, and Abigail Adelola, also embrace her.

"I like the costumes," said John Adelola in the film.

BeBe said her parents, Elizabeth and Collins Ngwa, embraced her but they, and the rest of the family, have never sat down and talked about BeBe, sexuality, or gender with Benet.

Being LGBTQ in Cameroon

Currently, more than 70 countries in the world criminalize homosexuality, and 15 countries ban "cross-dressing" which affects drag queens and transgender people, according to United Kingdom-based Human Dignity Trust.

Cameroon is one of those countries. The act of homosexuality is illegal in Cameroon, but being gay is not. Cameroonian lawyer Alice Nkom, who advocates for LGBTQ Cameroonians, denoted the difference in a Human Rights Watch report, "Cameroon: Wave of Arrests, Abuse Against LGBT People," published in 2021.

However, people accused or caught in an alleged same-sex relationship or expressing their gender nonconformity face up to five years in prison, according to HRW.

"I want there to be progress — not just in Cameroon but across Africa. It's still very dangerous and illegal to live out loud in so many places," said Benet, who hopes the documentary about her life "inspires" LGBTQ advocates "to rise up and push back against outdated laws that put queer people's lives and freedom in jeopardy.

"It's really disheartening. There are so many Cameroonians that are queer that unfortunately might never ever even live out loud or be who they need to be just because of what the society in the culture is," Benet added. "It's not supposed to be that way, but it's just that way.

"While I would want to take a stand and say this is how it needs to be, I have to be careful. I have to approach this with caution. It all needs to be handled with care, because you put people's lives at risk, and you put families at risk," Benet said.

Branham traveled with Benet to Cameroon and interviewed LGBTQ Cameroonians in the documentary.

"There are many laws in Cameroon that forbid the practice of homosexuality," Marc Lambert Lamba, a Cameroonian LGBTQ rights activist, said in the film, listing off the ways LGBTQ Cameroonians are discriminated against and stigmatized in areas of the law, home, school, and work. "Gay people live with risks on a daily basis. There's a permanent fear in Cameroon."

Berthe Awoh, president of the Lady's Footballer Cooperation, talked about how the last time she was attacked she was almost strangled.

"The guys came ... specifically to kill me because ... I'm like a boy," she said in the film.

HRW reported in May about rising violence against LGBTQ people in Cameroon. According to Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, a human rights organization that advocates for LGBTQ people, it saw an 88% increase in violence and abuse against LGBTQ people across the country from the same period in 2021. The organization recorded 32 cases of attacks on LGBTQ Cameroonians in the country from January to May of this year, according to the report.

According to the report published in 2021, 53 people suspected of gay sex were arrested during a training hosted by an HIV/AIDS organization in Bafoussam in 2020. Bafoussam is nearly five hours north toward the Nigerian border from Cameroon's capital, Yaoundé. HRW reported that at least six people including three teenagers, 15 to 17 years old, were subjected to forced anal examinations and HIV tests.

In 2021, 24 people were arbitrarily arrested, beaten, or threatened for alleged same-sex conduct or gender nonconformity at the time of the report's publication in April of that year, according to the report.

Gay Cameroonians, who were unidentified in the film for their and their family's protection, talked about self-isolation because they are gay, not because of the COVID pandemic. They also discussed being jailed with alleged killers and other criminals because they are gay; suicide attempts; and being accused of witchcraft.

"There's a lot of hostility. It's technically right now a taboo," Benet said in the film about being LGBTQ in her home country. "When it comes to sexuality, I feel like the world has evolved. When it comes to Cameroon and just a lot of African countries, I don't feel like that has changed."

The taboo extends beyond Cameroon's borders and the African continent. Some Africans living in the West remain closeted with their families because they fear being disowned or even killed, Benet said.

"I want this film to really open people's eyes in the West," she said. "I want it to activate people in the West to do more than pay lip service to the injustices happening in places like Cameroon."

Rise up

"It's great to be in this country, America, and be able to enjoy the freedom of my craft and really nurturing and having it be what it is now," Benet said knowing that she would not be the BeBe she is today if she was in Cameroon. "That's a privilege I don't take lightly."

The response to "Being BeBe" has been "overwhelming in the best way possible," Benet said, excited that people have been moved by the film and "get to know a little bit more BeBe in every different aspect of who I am as a human and as an artist."

"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 here.

Watch the "Being BeBe" trailer here.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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