BeBe Zahara Benet, the first winner of the reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, is a boisterous drag performer who doesn’t always like the word drag.
“I like ‘the whole female illusion,’” says BeBe in the documentary Being BeBe, an intimate portrait that introduces viewers both to her and her offstage alter ego, Nea Marshall Kudi.
Director Emily Branham, making her feature debut, weaves a loose narrative around Kudi, a native of Cameroon in West Africa who found creative and personal expression through performing. While the film doesn’t have a tight structure, it’s a warm profile of an effervescent personality who radiates self-acceptance and encourages others to do the same.
Kudi has no preferred pronouns, telling one person who asks, “I don’t care … [it’s] whatever’s rocking your boat at that moment.” He also doesn’t identify as gay or straight but “as Marshall … as a human being.”
However, he’s sympathetic to gay men and women, particularly in Cameroon, where laws forbid homosexuality. One LGBTQ activist there recounts how police arrested some men for drinking Bailey’s Irish Cream, which they considered too “sweet” and feminine. The film briefly visits with young gay men there, shielding their identities as they discuss how they “perform” in public so as not to be outed. They’re later mesmerized by BeBe’s transformation and confidence.
Although Kudi didn’t discover drag as an art form until his twenties, his BeBe persona was always with him. He recalls how as a child, “I was not the most masculine guy,” but he swiftly learned that being the person who takes charge of a room could save him from bullying.
“I felt like being the star protects you,” he says.
Winning RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2009 earned BeBe a $10,000 prize and a platform, but it didn’t guarantee a career. Being BeBe hopscotches through the years as the performer works at clubs, Pride parades, and revues in New York City and Minneapolis, Minnesota, where his siblings live.
Kudi clearly likes Branham, often calling her “Em” and asking her opinion about things such as a new apartment. I wondered how these two met and hit it off, especially when Kudi tells her he’s glad for her to visit a family memorial celebration, just not as “this Caucasian woman with your camera.” It draws a lot of attention, and Africans have a fear of “foreigners” who take their culture, stories, fashion, and music, he explains.
Being BeBe also touches on racism through Kudi’s frustration with people who say BeBe is too “global” to be palatable for a wide audience. No one else can bring what BeBe does to the table, he says, so he might as well do what he does best.
The warmest moments in Being BeBe come from Kudi’s supportive and understanding family, even though Kudi amusingly says his career is “that pink elephant in the room” that they don’t really discuss. Accepting that took some adapting, one sibling notes, but his mother reasons that he’s doing what God wants him to do. She even suggests he needs a larger venue.
Kudi is “God’s gift to us first,” one sister says, “and then to the world.”