Queenstion Time #7: BeBe Zahara Benet
The first ever winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, BeBe Zahara Benet took the time to speak to Andrew Nicholls about the “lost” first season, Diana Ross and finally ruvealing the much debated lyrics to her verse in Cover Girl.
BeBe Zahara Benet is the original; the first ever crowned winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
BeBe was born Nea Marshall Kudi Ngwa in Cameroon, Central Africa, but moved to Minneapolis for college.
In 2006, Drag Race began broadcasting on LGBTQ+ focussed network Logo. It was fairly low budget, and jokes remain to this day about the “season one filter”. But, of course, it developed into a worldwide phenomenon.
BeBe was one of nine contestants in the first season of Drag Race, eventually being crowned winner and receiving a cash prize of $20,000 (since season 4, the cash prize has been $100,000).
But licensing issues meant the first season has been largely forgotten; rarely re-broadcast and not available on streaming platforms. When the show made its way to Netflix, season one was conspicuous by its absence, and when Logo re-broadcast the series in 2013, they even subtitled it The Lost Season.
This meant some viewers weren’t introduced to BeBe until she re-appeared as a contestant on this year’s RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 3. But her appearance let fans know what they had been missing. Her classy, regal quality radiated from the screen, and sent many people back searching for the original series.
She is making her first ever visit to the UK this month as part of DragWorld – Europe’s largest drag convention, and she took the time to speak to Planet Slop before making her way over here.
Planet Slop: Hi BeBe, thank you for your time! How are you?
BeBe Zahara Benet: I’m doing great, how are you?
PS: I’m good thank you! Your first drag performance was alongside Cyndi Lauper. How did that come about?
BZB: I was still a newbie on the Minneapolis drag scene and I was cast for the performance by a friend. I just remember that being one of those aha moments during which I realised that entertaining people through the drag art form was what I was meant to do.
PS: And it was almost ten years ago when you were crowned the first ever winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Were you expecting to be invited back for the last series of All Stars?
BZB: Erm no! [Laughs] If you would have asked me a million years ago if I would be called back as a winner, I would have said “You’re crazy!” And probably I would have said “Absolutely not, I’m not doing it” – which I did at first. But after a conversation with the producers about why I was needed back, it just made sense for me to come back, so I decided to come back into the show.
PS: It was a great surprise to see you come back! I remember watching you on season one all those years ago, on television. Are you disappointed a bit that season one is hard to find for fans to watch?
BZB: [Laughs] Yeah, how do I feel about it? Well it’s disappointing in a way when people say “Oh that’s the lost season” or “the forgotten season”. What people don’t really understand is that the season created what it is now. All the opportunities available now, I can’t take all the credit for it, but I’ll take a little bit of credit with all my season one competitors. We got into a situation where we had no clue, there was no blueprint for us, and we just went to start this journey and this adventure of what it is now.
And for the fact people call it the “lost season” is disappointing. Every single person, if you call yourself a fan of the show, you have to know where it all began, because if not, are you a true fan? [Laughs] It’s also people like you who created the opportunity for all the new generation of people to experience it. It is disappointing but we now have the opportunity to change the narrative by bringing in All Stars 3, and for people to discover me. Hopefully, it will return to more streaming platforms soon so that everyone can enjoy seeing us through that legendary filter!
PS: I think you have opened a lot of fans eyes to the fact they should watch season one. Did you think Drag Race was going to become this big?
BZB: Oh yes, I did! [Laughs] When I watched it I knew this thing was going to be very big. Prior to the season, I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. I actually turned it down three times, as this is what I do for a living. This is my bread and butter and I’m not going to put myself in a situation where I’m ridiculed on television or laughed at. Prior to that drag on television was mocked, and I was like “Nope! I’m not doing it!”
So when I knew that Mama Ru was involved in the project, I was like “OK this must be something good”. But I still did not know to what extent it would work, until after it had finished shooting. The reason I knew it was going to be really huge was because there was that opportunity for people to relate to the human side of us. You love the drag, the fantasy, you love all the clothes and the wigs, but we had stories. We had hearts and personal journeys. You forgot about the glamour and saw us as human beings, with hearts and spirit, and people can identify with our stories. That’s when I knew that this could be something really, really big.
PS: That’s one of the best things about Drag Race – you get to see the person behind the performer, other than just seeing a glamorous queen on a stage or somewhere. You do get to know some queens stories.
BZB: Yes, and identify with us. The stories are very universal. The stories of acceptance, the stories of respect and integrity, all these stories and experiences are universal. You find people who can relate, and it makes you human and people invest in you and your journey.
PS: Completely! Do you have any favourite moments that stick out from your two seasons?
BZB: Oh my gosh, any favourite moments? For me, my favourite moments where behind the scenes. I feel like what people do not know is that a lot of the girls get to know each other when the cameras are down. What you see on television is not the whole, entire story. Some us get to know each other, we get to hang out, we laugh, we cry, we crack jokes. The best part of being at a drag show is being behind the scenes – and that’s where the show is, the show is not onstage! [Laughs] So my favourite moments would be the times I spent with the girls when the cameras were not on.
PS: I know you’ve been asked this question a lot, but I have to ask again – you haven’t revealed your lipstick picks from All Stars. Why did you choose not to reveal them and will you ever reveal, even just to satisfy fan curiosity?
BZB: I didn’t reveal the lipsticks because I didn’t feel it would do much more than intensify and already intense moment following Ben’s departure. I wasn’t in the mood for that drama. Also, it was a strategic play. Why put a target on my back right before another challenge?
PS: That’s fair enough! You also didn’t get the reference to Ornacia, which caused a bit of confusion among the fan community!
BZB: It was not making time to watch the show in real time. There are ten regular seasons and three All Stars seasons now! That’s a lot of episodes. I’ve since caught up, though. But I don’t remember every detail from every season.
PS: I do have to say, as a Diana Ross fan, one of my favourite moments were your impressions of her on the show.
BZB: I love Diana Ross!
PS: How were you able to embody her so well?
BZB: Oh Diana Ross is one of my number one’s! When I was growing up as a child, I didn’t know what drag was. We had a little television, with American TV shows, and I would always see Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Grace Jones. Diana was the big one I related to because she was just epic, I should say is epic, she is epic! When I was creating my drag persona I said I’d be like her, I’d be larger than life, I’d be glamorous, I’d be softly spoken, I’d carry myself. I would go into my bathroom and I would just go there to sing her songs.
Diana Ross would always be part of my mind. So to be able to start doing drag, and perform in drag, people would hire me to impersonate her as they saw a lot of her charm, grace or whatever in what I did. I’ve studied her for a very long time and she is a huge influence of mine. So when I was given the opportunity to do her on the show, I was like “Woah!” But I knew I could make it or break it – with Diana Ross you’re either going to do her really well, or bomb at it. With her, it’s the subtle things. Sometimes people are like “Oh my God, BeBe didn’t do as much as the others” but if you know Diana Ross, you know exactly what I was doing!
PS: It was a great embodiment of her!
BZB: People are always messaging me on Twitter, like “Can you do a tribute show? Would you do a tribute show?” And I’m like “Oh really?” [laughs]
PS: Would you consider that?
BZB: If I was in somewhere like Vegas, then yes I would.
— BeBe Zahara Benet (@BeBeZaharaBenet) February 3, 2018
PS: Everyone always says you have regal quality about you, would you say that was drawn from Diana Ross or is that just who you are as a person?
BZB: My regal quality is just part of my DNA; my family, my heritage. It’s how I grew up with the way my Dad carried himself, and my Mum carried herself. Actually I don’t even see it myself because it’s just who I am! When people are saying “Oh BeBe you’re so grand!” I’m like “Ehhh? Wow, do I really do that?” I find it oh so funny! What people don’t know is that I’m very goofy! When you get to know me I am so silly. But you always just get to see the regal part of it.
PS: You mentioned again about your heritage, and obviously that has played a huge part in who BeBe is. Was that a conscious decision from the start, or did it just evolve over time?
BZB: First of all, I like to believe that I’m all round kind of artist. I have been given the opportunity to travel to different countries and experience many cultures, and I feel there’s a lot of beauty and charm when you experience different cultures and I like to use that within my drag.
I do understand when people call me the “African Queen” or the “Regal One”, I get that. But even if you look at my body of work, I try to show appreciation of different cultures, even with American culture. My heritage feeds into a lot of what I do because it’s a part of who I am. I have to be my authentic self and people do relate with authenticity.
When I look at where I come from, it’s a huge part of who BeBe is. The idea of celebrating life, togetherness, love, fashion, beauty, starts where I grew up. BeBe has always been a part of who I am. BeBe is my twin sister and she’s always been lingering when I in Cameroon. She was lingering there honey, waiting to glow. When I came to America, that’s when she really came to life. She was like “Bitch, I gotta get out!” Growing up, the things I were inspired by like my Mum, all the women. All the beautiful fabrics, all the beautiful cultures and why not get to share that with people, why not?
PS: It is really great to see that, and your representation of your heritage and childhood! I’m a huge fan of African fabrics, with the bold colours and prints and its fun to see you embrace them and use them the way you do.
BZB: What I’m grateful about is that my fans, who are all different ethnicities and come from different cultures and may not know about African culture, and I am grateful to be able to show that. If you don’t really know, then you don’t really know how to relate. I’m glad I can create an aesthetic, where even if you don’t know, you appreciate it and you’re curious. To me as an artist, that is what you want and you always want people to relate.
PS: You’ve just released some music, do you have any more plans to release music?
BZB: You mean Jungle Kitty? (Laughs). Of course, I am currently working on a bigger music project. Music has always been a part of me, regardless of drag. I’ve always been surrounded by music. I love music. When I was growing up back in Cameroon, I was actually a choir director!
BZB: I know right! You’ll probably see that in my documentary that’s coming out soon, so you’ll discover all of that. But music is a part of me and I always want to put something out that is fun, creative, innovative, and people enjoy hearing it. I’m working on my music project, which will hopefully be coming out soon!
PS: That sounds great, I’m looking forward to it! You mentioned then that you have a documentary coming out about you soon?
BZB: Oh you don’t even know that? Do you not know who I am?! [Laughs]
PS: I do! [Laughs]
BZB: [Laughs] It’s been 12 years of my life documented, with me being an artist and me being comfortable in my own skin. It will encompass all of that. And we’re hoping next year we’ll get to share that story with the world. I’m hoping it will be a beautiful story that people can relate to. Hopefully very soon so keep your fingers crossed! The fans have supported the project and I’m very excited to share the story, for sure.
PS: 12 years is a long time!
BZB: It is a long time, and there’s going to be a lot of things I don’t even remember! [Laughs]
PS: You’re going to be shocked at that premiere!
BZB: I’m going to be like “Did I say that?! Did I do that?!” So I’m going to be seeing myself grow and my story play out.
PS: I suppose that may be emotional to relive moments you haven’t thought about for a while or maybe forgotten about.
BZB: I know, right? Of course, when it comes documentaries it’s not just catching the fun moments in your life, with the glamour. It’ll also show the dark sides. You’re making me nervous now! [Laughs] It’ll be a emotional rollercoaster.
PS: It sounds fantastic! Before that, you’ve got DragWorld coming up this month!
BZB: Of course! It’s actually going to be my first time in the UK! I know you’re like “Oh wow, really?” [Laughs]It’s going to be a great opportunity to travel to the UK. I’ve always wanted to visit. A part of me is upset I can’t stay as long as I’d like to do the tourist things, and see all the beautiful things. But I promise I’ll be back! With that said, I am so very excited to come this time around and show some love to the supporters who have been supporting me with my journey, and showing me so much love. The UK has shown me a lot of love, especially with all the messages I get.
PS: I will definitely be coming to see you and sharing the love!
BZB: I’d love to see you!
PS: You mentioned before that you’re goofy, and I have a pretty goofy question ready as my last one. In season one, you did a verse on RuPaul’s Cover Girl, and I have been obsessed with your verse for years. I’m constantly singing “Face, face, face” and doing bad hand actions with it. But there’s one bit I can’t figure out! You know after your line “Everyone keeps looking at me, you know…”?
BZB: “You know I am stirring up heat”.
PS: Ahh thank you so much! I can’t tell you how much I’ve needed to know that, it’s been years!
BZB: [Laughs] I was going so fast, but it’s “You know I’m stirring up heat”
PS: I had tried Googling the lyrics and it said “You know I am Sarah P”, and I’m like “Who is Sarah P? What does this mean?!”
BZB: [Laughs hysterically!] You’re the first person to ask!
PS: So finally I can sing it properly!
BZB: Yes! You’re stirring up heat, honey, you’re bringing the fire!
PS: Thank you! So at DragWorld, if you hear someone just shouting that at you, it’s definitely me! Thank you so much for your time BeBe, and I will see you at DragWorld!
BZB: Thank you and see you then!
BeBe Zahara Benet will appear at DragWorld – Europe’s largest convention of drag – at the Olympia, London between Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th of August 2018. Tickets are available now.
Full line-up: Alaska5000, Alfie Ordinary, Anna Phylactic, Bebe Zahara Benet, BenDeLaCreme, Benjamin Butch, Biblegirl, Blair St. Clair, Charity Kase, Cheryl Hole, Cheddar Gorgeous, Chiyo, Courtney Act, Crystal Lubrikunt, Darienne Lake, Dax, Erik Witherkay, Farrah Moan, Ginger Minj, Hans Euff, Jiggly Caliente, Jinkx Monsoon, Jujubee, Katya, Manila Luzon, Meth, Miss Fame, Phi Phi O’Hara, Tatianna, Violet Chachki, Zayn Phallic