Good to be BeBe: first 'RuPaul's Drag Race' winner's documentary and live concert

  • by Christopher J. Beale
  • Tuesday March 22, 2022
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BeBe Zahara Benet
BeBe Zahara Benet

"The next drag superstar..." RuPaul pauses as the music swells.

It's March 3, 2009 on the inaugural season finale of RuPaul's Drag Race. That premiere season, when the show was on Logo, was before Drag Race was cool. The camera cuts around the room as Ru surveys the scene. It's a perfectly executed, dramatic reality TV finish, designed to draw out the moment until everything goes quiet and RuPaul finishes, " Bebe."

Cameroon-born drag performer BeBe Zahara Benet let out a scream at Ru's pronouncement and drag herstory was made.

The person behind BeBe Zahara Benet is Nea Marshall Kudi Ngwa. Born in 1980 in the Republic of Cameroon, he relocated to France as a child, then to the United States. In 2000, BeBe Zahara Benet performed for the first time at The Gay 90s, a large LGBT nightclub in Minneapolis, alongside pop icon Cyndi Lauper. Soon after, BeBe entered her first pageant and in the process met director Emily Branham.

"We threw some cameras at this first national pageant that she was going to," said director Emily Branham in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "As we spent more time together I realized this (film) wasn't just going to be about this pageant."

The resulting documentary is Being BeBe. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2021 and makes its San Francisco debut on March 31 at The Roxie. BeBe's pageantry, chronicled in the documentary, gave the drag world a little taste of BeBe Zahara Benet. In 2009, the whole world was served.

"When Drag Race happened," Benet, who sings live vocals, said, "it really helped to propel me forward. But I knew that my gift was bigger than what was being offered to me. I'm not just going to go to the club, and perform at 2 a.m. in a dark dungeon."

This desire to perform her way, paired with the comparatively underground nature of RuPaul's Drag Race in those days, allowed BeBe to forge her own path.

How she crafted her unique life and career are outlined in great personal detail in the documentary, 15 years in the making. In the years Branham has been documenting Ngwa, the director has managed to delicately peel back the layers of the intensely private person behind America's first-next drag superstar.

"Part of the challenge of making this movie," said Branham, "is that it took so long to develop the trust that led to the depth and substance that you see in the film."

In Being BeBe, the filmmaker weaves a wealth of live performances from every stage of BeBe's career, and some deeply personal moments together and shows those finished chapters to Ngwa, who's reactions were used to structure the film.

Ngwa said this part of filming was strange, "like you're watching this replay of your life." Though Ngwa says it was important to be open and honest, "I think a lot of people can connect with the more vulnerable side of me," he added, "To see it is weird."

A key part of the documentary centers around a 2018 trip to Cameroon for the funeral of Ngwa's father. Branham followed Ngwa home with a camera but that wasn't well received by his family.

"Coming in as this Caucasian woman with your people and you guys are shooting," Branham explained, "there's also the fear of foreigners who come and take culture and then exploit it."

It wasn't the right time, so Branham instead introduces us to some LGBTQ Cameroonians and —while protecting their identities— shares their experiences being queer in a part of the world where it is illegal.

"It's dangerous to be perceived as gay, to be gender-divergent, to express your gender in a non-conforming way at all," Branham said. Even those associations, "can lead to people taking justice into their own hands and being violent towards you."

On the subject of his own sexuality, Ngwa makes no bones about refusing to be labeled.

"How long are we going to be defining every letter of the alphabet?" he said. "We are where we are because of the label. We are being defined by 'the other side' based on that label. I love who I love, and I accept you for accepting me."

BeBe Zahara Benet  

Benet's drag career has had highs and lows, but Ngwa has remained true to his artistic and personal vision throughout. Bebe is regal, royal, majestic, and statuesque, but Branham gets to the raw beating heart of Ngwa in the new film.

"That's who I am," says Ngwa, "when I am in drag or out." The fact is, BeBe and Ngwa are a lot alike. "I might not present myself in hair and makeup, but the way I dress, I'm always very put together, the way I carry myself." Ngwa emphatically said, "I don't need drag as a weapon or as this armor that I put on to be able to say what I wanna say."

Ngwa last performed in San Francisco shortly after winning Drag Race and said he is looking forward to bringing the live Bebe show to Oasis.

"I'm bringing my musicians," with local musical talent in the band as well. "So I want all the girls and the kids to come out and experience this. They better not be hibernating at home," he said emphatically, "because jungle kitty is coming through, honey!"

Being Bebe screens Thursday, March 31 at the Roxie Theatre, 16th St., with Benet and director Emily Branham in person. $16-$25.

BeBe Zahara Benet performs live with a six-piece band Friday, April 1, 8pm at Oasis, 298 11th St. $25.

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