By Adam Vitcavage
BeBe Zahara Benet is modern drag royalty. She won the first season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in 2009 and has had a storied career since. Fresh off a top four finish in Season 3 of “Drag Race All-Stars,” Bebe is ready to share her story with the world.
Documentarian Emily Branham, who has been following the Minneapolis-based drag queen since well before her star turn, has until the end of March to finish raising funds via Kickstarter to make her documentary “Being BeBe” a reality.
Branham grew up in Minneapolis as a child actor doing theater, voiceover work, and national commercials. She ended up in film school and then had a promising career with a music video production company before the budget started to get cut dramatically. Fate intervened when her younger sister called saying she was hired to dance backup for a drag queen called BeBe Zahara Benet.
“I remember it vividly,” Branham tells me over the phone while discussing the 12-year-long project. “I was on a commercial set and she told me that she responded to an audition at a dance studio and she started dancing background for a drag queen from Cameroon. She said she just won the Minnesota state drag pageant and was going to nationals.”
Drag pageants, like Miss Gay USofA, are showcases that highlight all of the aspects of drag from beauty to performance. Branham knew this was the type of story people would love to learn about. The story wrote itself: a promising drag amateur from Cameroon by way of Minneapolis going to the Miss Gay USofA pageant in Dallas in 2006.
BeBe’s performance sparked something inside Branham. She was fascinated by the drag world and enamored with BeBe. She began filming more and more, but still never imagined Being BeBe would gestate over a decade.
“No one ever sets out to do a 12-year passion project,” Branham says. "I thought it would be a compact story about a performer who came from a place where this was unheard of and was chasing it against all odds. I expected there to be more conflict in her life from her traditional family.”
But her family didn’t provide conflict. Instead, Bebe—born Nea Marshall Kudi Ngwa—found love. “Her family are amazing human beings that are well-traveled, well-education, and very spiritual,” says Branham. ”It surprised me how supportive they were of the choices made. It turned out to be a great story.”
When BeBe was crowned the winner of the inaugural season of RuPaul’s “Drag Race” in 2008, Branham felt the project should come to the end. It made sense that the amateur became a superstar.
“I made a big push to try to finish it in the year or two after that first season of ‘Drag Race,’” Branham says. "I thought I had shot my ending in the fall of 2010. I made a big push and hired an editor to put together an assembly edit. I remember watching that cut in 2010 at a point where I was so ready to be done, but it lacked. It just wasn’t ready or as rich I wanted it to be. It was a hard point for me. It wasn’t the most compelling version of BeBe’s story.”
Eventually, life again presented a new angle on the story. In 2014, BeBe almost left New York City, where she had moved after “Drag Race,” and quit drag. She had one more idea: a stripped down show called “Reveal.” The project rejuvenated both BeBe and Branham.
BeBe hired an acting coach to help her and the other performers. The goal was to strip away layers of protection they may use to hide their true self.
“That was really interesting to me. The stripping down of the performer in BeBe to Marshall, the man behind BeBe,” says Branham. "I love drag as a performance and an art form. There is a side to it where you choose to do it to be more authentic to your true self. There are ways you can use drag to protect your true self from the world. That duality was what I knew I could explore with that acting class.”
Since then, Branham has been hard at work. She started writing grants for the project early and continues to mold the project along with editor Ann Rose and a board of producers. She has shot more than 700 hours of footage and is nearing a finished film.
“We need to polish the assembly edit we have,” Branham says. "That’s probably a 10- to 20-week editing process and what we are raising the money for on Kickstarter. The amount we are raising isn’t 100% of what we need to get the film done completely, but it is enough to get us to the point to get us to a fully fundable place. Once we have a fine cut put together then we can present that to other funders or broadcasters. They’ll see what the film is going to be.”
Like many artists, Branham tried to hold off on a Kickstarter until absolutely necessary. The director wanted BeBe’s fans to know they were close to seeing something.
“This is real,” Branham says with confidence, “We are making this happen.”
Watch Branham's Kickstarter video below.