BeBe Zahara Benet's career hit superstar levels after she won the inaugural season of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2008. But don’t let that royal title fool you: She’s a queen for the people.
Born Nea Marshall Kudi Ngwa in Cameroon, the artist always knew BeBe was a part of him, even if she didn’t have a name yet.
“It’s very hard for me to say it’s a persona,” admits Benet. “It’s a color of mine. Everybody has different shades and different colors. Some colors they choose to celebrate. Some they choose to shove under the rug for whatever reason.”
Since choosing to celebrate BeBe, a lot of opportunities have come her way, including national tours, numerous original music albums, and an upcoming documentary film, Being BeBe. However, staying at home is something that will always be cherished.
“I love cooking and I love having friends and family come over,” says Benet. “When people come over, I am in the kitchen cooking and making sure everyone is comfortable. I am that motherly role. In my friends and family, I am the one who takes care of everyone.”
Documentary filmmaker Emily Branham, who has spent the past 12 years following BeBe, frequently saw this side of her. “As much as she thrives in the nightlife scene and how extroverted she is, she loves being at home. She doesn’t go out if she isn’t working,” says Branham. “She doesn’t drink. She doesn’t smoke. She’s very private about her private life.”
Outwardly, BeBe can be seen as a grand or, as she puts it, “bougee” character. Part of the appeal of drag for her is the ability to be a chameleon. Transforming from that salt of the earth homebody to a jungle kitty queen allows BeBe to play with both masculine and feminine energies.
It’s on these tours and at her shows that she gets to explore her lifelong passion for music. In Cameroon, BeBe sang in a church choir and taught other children how to work with music and to harmonize. That’s something she incorporates into her live shows now.
While some newer queens are more geared toward fashion and performance, BeBe prefers the artistry that makes it all work. When the producers of Drag Race asked her back for an all-star season, she planned to showcase this emphasis.
“I wanted to show the new generation that they can love this but what about that? Let me add to your taste buds,” she said of why she returned to the show. “Add another flavor to your life.”
“She represents pride, self-value, and hard work,” said Trixie Mattel, winner of All-Stars 3 of BeBe. “She takes her art seriously, but doesn’t take herself too seriously.”
It’s all of that hard work that helps keep BeBe focused after countless tour dates of performing late at night and riding in a bus all day. The current tour visits Minneapolis this weekend. It's a reunion of sorts; BeBe first performed drag at the Gay 90's in downtown Minneapolis. She wants fans to expect a show that is warm, kind, and fun.
“You’ll find love in my show. Maybe that means finding a person you’re going to hook up with that night,” she jokes. “There is so much energy and love in the room. I always call my show a melting pot. When you come to a BeBe experience, look around you’re going to see someone from all walks of life… You’re going to find someone gay, straight, bi, or transitioning. You’re going to see so many different people in the same room for a very common experience: to be entertained, to create this synergy, and to leave happy.”
IF YOU GO:
ROAR starring BeBe Zahara Benet
9 p.m. Saturday, March 31
Contribute to Being BeBe's Kickstarter campaign here.