Nea Marshall Kudi grew up in the Republic of Cameroon on the West African Coast. He began his show biz career working as a male model until he was asked to trade genders at a Paris runway show due to a missing female model, and it was there and then Bebe Zahara Benet was born. A featured showgirl at The Gay '90s' La Femme Show lounge in Minneapolis, last night Benet was crowned the winner of RuPaul's Drag Race and will spend the summer crisscrossing the country on the RuPauls Drag Race ABSOLUT "Real Fruit tour.
Out caught up with Bebe just hours before she claimed her tiara to find out what she gained from participating in the reality competition, what she learned from RuPaul, and how her brand of drag separates her from the rest of the girls.
Out:The show was obviously about proving yourself as the world's greatest drag queen, but it also must have been a huge learning experience. What did you take away from it?
Bebe Zahara Benet: First of all, always be true to yourself. I think it was a reiteration that what youre doing, bring yourself. And I think thats what really paid off for me. And you have to remember for as much passion as you have for your craft, other people probably have more passion, so you always have to look at yourself and make sure youre giving the best you can and giving only yourself.
Drag is all about illusion -- about being this person other than yourself -- and yet you say you have to be completely true to yourself. How do you combine the two? How do you make sure that your personality shines through the illusion?
When you talk about illusion, are you talking about impersonating women?
Yes -- that -- the hair, the makeup, the clothing -- its such a fantasy. So how can you be bigger than the fantasy and make sure that youre still presenting yourself?
I think it helps if you actually know who you are and who your character is, what shes all about, what is she trying to do, what is she trying to achieve, what is she trying to put out there? And its up to you to make sure that that is portrayed to other people. Because its in your mind -- to make the audience watching you gets your picture -- to take it out of here [motions to head] and put it out here [motions to the room.] It comes with really, truly knowing who your character is.
So who would you say your character is? In one sentence what is Bebe Zahara Benet about?
One word, even. You dont even need a sentence.
[Laughs] International. There you go. But international comes with a lot of things behind it -- remember that. [Laughs] I dont know if one word can describe everybody, but Ill give you that.
What did you learn from RuPaul?
The passion. The passion that goes with the craft and the respect she has for drag is very, very important. And also reiterating to each one of us that we can do this. No matter what people say, if this is what you want to do, you can do it and you can be successful at it, and you can take it to whatever level you want to take it to. And shes just such a lady! I would say a lady-in-waiting because the ladies-in-waiting are always very proper. [Laughs]
I talked to Ru right before the show premiered and she said one of her goals when she signed on to do this was to lift more drag performers up to her level. She remarked that drag really wasnt allowed to flourish during the Bush administration and that she was very hopeful that with Obama in office it there would be a resurgence. So with that in mind, and seeing as this year is the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, do you personally consider drag a political act?
To some extent it is a political thing for me, not only here in America, but also where I come from [Cameroon]. Where I come from drag is unheard of -- its just not possible. Do you know how many little boys and girls are sitting there and want to artistically express themselves and dont have the opportunity to just because the culture says A is A and B is B, -- No! A can be A minus, or whatever. Its just letting people know this is a wake up call and what I do doesnt make me less of who I really am. This is what I do. This what I know I will be successful at and everybody has a different path. This is how my path is destined and I am following my destiny.
Do you feel like a role model?
Im hoping I can be a role model. Im not feeling -- but Im hoping. So far Ive been getting a lot of encouragement because after the show started airing I got so many emails from so many people -- not only from people living here in the United States, but also people from Africa, so many women have said how my persona -- the Bebe persona -- has inspired them. They look at themselves in a different way and they look at the mirror and say, If a male can really transform himself into this beautiful woman and portray that, then I can actually say I am beautiful. And to me, that is very important. As an artist, that is what you want -- that reward. Its not only the money, its the reward that what youre doing can inspire other people.
Its interesting to hear you say that because drag is sometimes described as misogynistic -- a parody of women that does them a disservice. But you believe youre highlighting the beauty in women.
My mom was a very influential person in my life and she had been very empowering and just seeing what she did raising us and what she did for our family, its a celebration of women. I will let you know -- each drag artist, you need to find out her story. You need to find out what she does and why. Im telling you my story -- Im trying to empower women and I am trying to represent women and show so many different ways of beauty but another character has a different reason for doing drag, so you have to ask her.
Its very individual.
Very. Thats why I dont like it when people refer to us as drag queens. I refer to us as drag artists because we all have a different way of expressing ourselves. And its not necessarily looking like a woman. I decided to impersonate a woman or hold the illusion of a woman. Others do not.
It seems like part of what youre doing is really about exposure -- around the world but also in America -- especially small town America. Before RuPaul came on the scene a lot of people had never even seen a drag queen.
Drag has been stereotyped for a long time and people have -- even in the gay community -- its been such a stereotype: This man is trying to be a woman or Why is this man dressing like a woman? If I wanted to be with a woman I wouldnt be gay or Oh, theyre full of drama! Each person is an individual and the situations you find in the drag community are the same as you find in any community. The only reason you know about the situations in the drag community is because you are searching for those situations. Its as easy as that. The bottom line is that these are just artists -- you come to the shows, you watch the shows, you cheer, you tip the entertainers -- you do all of this and you enjoy yourself, so what makes you feel like these are not entertainers? Why do you feel they just want to be in dresses? Its so amazing that after everything is done you see the same entertainers out of character and you still cannot separate them.
RuPauls Drag Race has shown how much hard work you all have to do. Not only the hair, the makeup, but the performing itself.
And you cannot take it for granted. I dont care who is the worst drag artist out there -- its an emotional roller coaster. You have to prepare yourself psychologically, physically -- everything -- to be out in the spotlight, to be criticized. And there are a lot of people who dont have the guts to do it. So, I think this show is a blessing because if you do not understand what we do and you watch the show and you still do not understand, then you have a problem. [Laughs] Because I dont think theres any better way to express what drag is all about.
Finally, lets say youre going on tour -- I dont know if you are or not --
Im going on tour.
I can legally tell you I won the show.
Amazing! Congratulations. Lets say you can bring anyone you want on tour with you -- divas, other drag artists, anyone -- who would you bring?
I would bring everyone.
Its just too hard to pick. I get inspiration from everybody, I have so many role models and I feel like itd be unfair to say A is coming, but B isnt. So Im taking everybody or its just going to be me up there on stage under that spotlight.