As a longtime fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I was looking forward to Being Bebe from the second I saw it announced as part of the 2021 Tribeca lineup. Bebe Zahara-Benet has the distinction of being the first ever queen to ever win the title. Though season 2 of Drag Race was the first one I ever watched, mainly due to its availability on Netflix at the time, I was curious about what became known as “the lost season” of Drag Race. Fans today can easily access the very first season wherever it is streaming now, but back then it wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to find. When I finally did get around to watching it (sometime around when season 6 began airing), I could sense an early front-runner, with Bebe’s determination and stunning beauty catapulting her charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent far above all the rest. Being Bebe charts the 15-year career of the seasoned professional, and it is a complete joy to watch.
Bebe Zahara-Benet will always hold the mantle of the absolutely iconic OG winner of the title “America’s Next Drag Superstar,” but by day he goes by Marshall Ngwa. As one of the people in Marshall’s very conservative hometown, Cameroon, says, “he’s only famous over there, not over here.” It is no secret that for his family, his profession is only respected because of the social status he has earned, and that season 1 title played a big part in their acceptance. All his parents ask for is success. Bebe doesn’t even like to use the word ‘drag’ sometimes, for its connotations synonymous with freaks who are men that try to dress up as girls. “I usually like to use the word ‘the whole female illusion,’” Bebe says, and it certainly defines her drag persona.
Back in Cameroon, they shun gay people. They are stigmatized both at school and at home, with most people there having an incredibly skewed and poor perception of the LGBT+ community. One harrowing personal story where a gay man is referred to as “a witchcraft,” and his own mother telling him he should die as “the shame of this family,” speaks volumes about the kind of homophobic rhetoric that stills exists in native Cameroon. It is for this very reason that Bebe’s story is so special and inspirational.
The story of Marshall starting out in drag is one birthed from chance. He had worked as a male model for a short time. When a few female models neglected to show up for one photoshoot, he said “put me in a dress” and proceeded to quite literally fill in for them. Shortly after, Marshall moved to Minnesota to explore drag. Then, he was officially cast on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the rest is history.
Some of my favorite parts of the documentary explore these earlier years, with footage including Bebe’s drag shows, audience reactions to Bebe’s season 1 crowning, old photographs, and insightful commentary. I thought it was especially telling that in the debut season of Drag Race, there was really no planning or expectation. Would it all be one big joke? Bebe had to “take it as it comes,” soaking in her newfound winner status by embracing live music with the likes of legendary single, “I’m the Shit.” Bebe’s plan to “start small, birth it, and let it grow” in terms of the performances is a brilliant way to look at things. It also presented a platform for Bebe to budget money instead of spending frugally.
I really enjoyed this documentary, and I have no doubt that any fan (or even casual viewers) of RuPaul’s Drag Race will find plenty to sink their stiletto heels into. Following Bebe’s story amongst the highs and lows, through the lens of a committed Cameroonian-American immigrant who always exudes an aura of sophistication, makes for a great watch. Like Bebe so poignantly puts it in the closing moments of this engaging documentary: “black entertainment does sell, and black entertainment is here to stay.”
Being Bebe had its online world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, June 19th. It’s also screening at the Provincetown Film Festival on June 25th.