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BeBe Zahara Benet Talks New Doc & Why She Isn't on All Stars 7

Being BeBe

Being BeBe is a fascinating and emotional documentary about BeBe Zahara Benet’s long drag career before, during, and after winning RuPaul’s Drag Race season one and coming back to compete on All Stars 3.

During an interview with Out, Benet shared insights behind the making of Being BeBe, discussed the current state of the LGBTQ+ community in Cameroon, and explained how winning the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race impacted her drag career – as well as how it didn’t. Plus, for dedicated Drag Race fans, Benet spilled some tea on why she isn’t competing on the current all-winners season of All Stars 7.

Out: In Being BeBe, you talked about starting your drag career after moving to Minnesota in 2006. Did you move here by yourself?

BeBe Zahara Benet: I moved here by myself. Of course, in Minnesota, I already had family members – aunts and uncles and other relatives there. But I moved by myself.

In one of the first videos shown in the documentary, you talked about not liking the term “drag.” Have your views changed on that?

I think the clarity on that is the whole idea of being called a ‘drag queen.’ I think just the layman would say ‘drag queen,’ which I get it. I understand that when they see us in the regalia and everything else, that’s what they think of. But I feel like there are so many different facets of who I am as an entertainer. I’m a performer. I’m a singer. I’m a musician. I’m a dancer. I am into fashion. There are just so many different aspects of my artistry, which I feel like qualifies me to just be either a performer or an entertainer. And I feel like when you think of other actors and actresses, or even musicians and singers that use over-the-top regalia in terms of how they present themselves, you don’t call them drag and you don’t call them ‘drag queens,’ although I think they are. I think that we should be given that same privilege.

You started doing drag in 2006, and just two years later you were already filming the first season of Drag Race in 2008. What did you think when you applied to be on the show? Did you have any indication that it would become such a mainstream show, or did you think that it wasn’t going to go anywhere?

The show presented itself to me about three times. The first time, that’s when MySpace [still existed]. So you had to go on MySpace, put a profile, and then fans had to vote if they wanted you to be on the show. A friend of mine – who was also my photographer at that time – mentioned it to me about it. And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m busy. I’m not going to do it.’ And then the producers actually came to Minneapolis. They [went] to different cities to scout entertainers for the show, like auditions. When they came to Minneapolis, my name came up a couple of times, so they tried to connect with me to do it. [However,] I was out of town at that time. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, when I get back home, I’m going to send my audition tape,’ but I never did that. And then the third time – which they say three times is the charm, right? – RuPaul was sitting in the audience when I was performing. I remember performing “Circle of Life” from The Lion King.

Wow, so RuPaul watched you live in Minnesota.

In Minnesota. When I was done performing and went backstage, I was taking off my makeup or whatever. Chi Chi LaRue, who at that time [was] with RuPaul, came to my dressing room and said, ‘Hey, have you heard of this show that RuPaul is producing? I think you’d be great for it. And as a matter of fact, RuPaul is here and wants to talk to you.’ I was like, ‘Huh? What?’ So RuPaul came to my dressing room and had a conversation with me. At that time, I was like, ‘Okay, this is serious. I’m going to get my audition tape together and send it out.’ Because I had made a decision to use the art form of drag as my career. Everything I had seen prior to [Drag Race on TV] were people just laughing at the craft – and they were not laughing with us, they were laughing at us. So I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not trying to go on a situation or platform where you will be laughing at me.’ But once I knew that the show was something RuPaul was [associated] with, that gave me a little bit more comfort because I knew it was going to be done in a certain kind of quality.

While watching Being BeBe, I was so astonished by how much footage you have of those times. Cameras weren’t widely available on our iPhones back then, but you have all of this footage preparing to go on season one of Drag Race without even knowing what the show would be like. We see you getting your outfits ready and literally figuring everything out. What was going through your head at that time when you were filming all of this stuff not even knowing what would happen next?

Well, first of all, I have to credit Emily, the director. I wasn’t the one holding the cameras [laughs]. Emily would tell you she didn’t always have the best equipment because she was also a starting filmmaker, so we were [both] just starting on the journey. If you look at the earlier footage and then you look at the progression after 15 years, you could really tell where we began. Some of that footage was a little rusty on the edges, but that’s what makes it magical, right? And that’s why she was able to find those personal moments on her own cameras, to be able to document that even without the big galore production of it all. When you are going through this experience, there are plenty of times that you don’t even think of a camera being around you. You’re just going through life and whatever is happening at that moment. You don’t think, ‘Oh, there’s somebody here filming me.’ Like, ‘Oh, you’re there? Okay.’ You know what I mean? It’s so interesting because when I get to see myself, looking back now and looking at the movie, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, did I say that? Oh my gosh, did I do that? Oh my gosh.’ Because you don’t think [about the cameras]. And I think that’s the beauty about it because the story is being told honestly without any bells and whistles. It’s just what the story is.

Oh, and I love the honesty. And that’s what surprised me – how much footage you have being vulnerable and being stressed out and being insecure. It’s also wild to watch you prepare for a show that had never been on the air. You had no idea.

We knew nothing. At that time, Emily and I had had a conversation. We didn’t even know Drag Race was going to be a part of the story. When I was doing the pageants, that’s when Emily came and was documenting that process. Along that process, she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so much about your story,’ because we had many personal conversations. And she was like, ‘You are just such a unique artist and the way you think and where you are from. And I would love to really follow your journey.’ This was prior to Drag Race. And so, when we had decided to do this together, and then Drag Race happened, we still did not know what Drag Race was all about. We couldn’t even plan [anything] around Drag Race because we did not know. So you get to see me just going and throwing myself into a situation that I don’t even know what the end results of it would be.

And how poetic is it to get footage of you placing in the top 12 of a pageant and you telling your singers and your dancers something like, ‘It’s not about the crown. You just have to keep persisting.’ And then cut to footage of you freaking winning Drag Race. Like, how poetic did it feel to watch that back?

I know! That’s crazy, right? There is the lesson there that you don’t stop. You go into something thinking, ‘Oh, this is mine.’ The universe is saying, ‘No, that’s not yours, but yours is elsewhere.’ You have to stay ready and you have to stay prepared. And you never stop because you need to get back to where you are supposed to be. And I feel like that’s the life lesson in that moment.

The documentary makes it very clear that after you won Drag Race, your career didn’t necessarily change overnight the way that it now happens to recent contestants. Can you look back and think at what point Drag Race specifically had an impact on your career getting bigger, or is that hard to define?

Ooh, that’s an interesting question. I think I just never stopped working. I love Drag Race and I love what it has done, and I’m always going to be humbled by it. It’s a part of my history. It will always be part of the history. It gave me an opportunity to have a platform, and speak and use that platform faster than if I was not on Drag Race. So I'm always going to be grateful. But when I look at my journey, it has always been the journey of an artist that doesn’t stop working. It’s great to know that even at a very early age, I was very aware of my gift… but then I was also aware that I should not sit and wait for people to put a seat for me at the table. I have to create my own thing. If I believe in it, I have to create it. Because we have the power to do it. We have the power to do that. I have always been trying to create my own seat at the dining table. And that doesn’t take away from those who have helped [me] because, trust me, it takes a village. Even up to now, the people that work with me, and the dreamers and believers that work with me, it takes a village. But I still have to spearhead that notion, right? I also have to be the one that dreams for them to be able to believe in that dream. So I’ve always been working and trying to create work and opportunities for myself.

The documentary also shows how you happened to be the first Drag Race contestant to release an original song after appearing on the show. What was going through your mind at the time? Were you trying to follow any kind of a blueprint or did you feel like you just had to do it?

Well, music is part of who I am. Prior to Drag Race, prior to anything – music is innate in me. When I was growing up as a child, I was in the choir. And then I started becoming a choir director. Back at home, my dad played the guitar. Music has always been a part of who I am. And so even when I came to America and discovered the art form of drag, I had this conflict with myself. Because it’s like, ‘Okay, how am I going to present myself in this form and then use my tenor voice? Does that even work?’ So I was battling with that prior to Drag Race, prior to the pageantry. It was encouraging to see people like RuPaul and other amazing artists who use the regalia of drag to be able to use their voices and not trying to change what it is because people will relate to you however they choose to, regardless of how you sound. That was an encouragement for me, at that time, to continue pursuing music. But when I got out of Drag Race, remember, there was no blueprint.

None!

No blueprint for what to do, how to do what you do. So the idea of music was like, ‘I want to do music. That’s what I was drawn to do.’ I was just lucky enough that there was Drag Race and whatever. Mind you, Drag Race didn’t even have that [big of a] platform at the time. Not like now where all of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, you can become so big and huge. Back then, we were still trying to figure it all out even after the show.

For as much as this is a documentary about Being BeBe, this is also a documentary about being a queer person in Cameroon. In 2022, what's your perspective on the acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in Cameroon? Are we still in a really rough place?

We are. Unfortunately, we are. There’s still so much work to be done. But not just the idea of queerness in Cameroon. There are just so many [issues]. Even when it comes to women’s rights, there’s just still so much work to be done. It doesn’t mean that we don’t keep hope alive because there are a lot of troopers still in Cameroon, a lot of queer folks in Cameroon that are trying their best to get up every morning and live and [push through] of all the things that come with that. That’s very inspiring to me because we are here in America, we are privileged. We are privileged being here. In spite of everything happening here in America, we can get up and be. But in other places, especially Cameroon, that’s not happening. Those people inspire me, but they are still wanting to be who they are. And I’m hoping that, just as America took its own time to change, I’m hoping that other countries like Cameron will also evolve to the point where we can see those changes. And hopefully, I’m alive to see that as well.

It’s a really sad moment in the documentary when you have to leave New York City and go back to Minnesota. However, you did get the opportunity to compete again on All Stars 3, which was your big comeback as a drag artist. So you get another exposure on television, and then the Nubia tour, and you’re releasing all of these new songs and videos… and then the pandemic hits.

Crazy, right? I was like, ‘Ooh, the devil is trying it, honey. The devil is trying it.’ It was surreal. It was surreal because I was like really going somewhere. Where I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, another peak, another breakthrough.’ And then all of a sudden, boom, pause. They paused you. It was crazy. But like I told you, I’m a dreamer, and I’ve always been that person. I don’t stop working and I don’t stop dreaming because that’s what gets me in the morning to keep going. So when the whole thing paused, it still gave me an opportunity to say, ‘Now okay, let me regroup myself. What do I do? And how do I do it?’ It gives you that opportunity. In a crazy way – and a lot of artists would tell you – even though it was so crazy for us, that little break was also important for us because I don’t really take time to just be present. For a very long time, I had not been present. I was chasing, chasing, chasing. So it was great to be able to breathe and figure out what that next phase looked like.

And then you put together a documentary, which is the ultimate opportunity to look back. We all got a little bit reflective during the pandemic, but you got reflective with hours of footage to look back on. You really reflected. How do you see these first 15 years of your career now that you’ve had such a great documentary to really examine it?

When I look at the journey – life continues, and the journey continues. It never stops until you are no longer here. When I look at what I have done, I know there’s still so much work to be done. There’s so much life to live, and there are so much more gifts to gift others. So it just inspires me to keep going until I can go no more.

I know this is a tricky question, but I have to ask for the fans, BeBe! We currently have an all-winners season of Drag Race on TV.

Oh my god. Okay.

Were you approached to compete All Stars 7?

Why are you asking this question, Bernardo? Are you trying to get some dirt, Bernardo? [Laughs]

I just had to ask, BeBe! As our OG winner, do you have a story about not competing on All Stars 7?

I would just say that the timing was not the right timing for me. I’ll leave it at that.

Fans are now finally going to watch Being BeBe. What do you want viewers to learn as they watch this documentary?

I want people to be moved. I want people to be inspired. I want people to just get a little clarity on certain things they may have doubts [about]. I want people to start up conversations. I want people to be motivated. I want dreamers to keep dreaming. I want them still going out and celebrating who they are, celebrating identity, celebrating personality, celebrating their gift. And I just hope and pray that it touches not just a particular kind of person, but everybody. That everybody can watch the whole, entire journey. Even if you are not a drag artist, that there’s something in that story that you can take and grasp on to keep you moving in whatever shape or form that is. That is my prayer that Being BeBe does that kind of work.

Being BeBe is now streaming on Fuse+.


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