The Other First Lady of Cameroon
by Steve Desroches
Top Image: Photo: Alvan Washington
Ever since BeBe Zahara Benet won the very first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race she’s toured the world wowing audiences with her performance style as well as her fashion sense, becoming one of the most famous glamour girls to come out of Cameroon. Everywhere she went around the globe crowds would shout “Cameroon!” mimicking RuPaul’s introductory cry every time Benet hit the main stage. Benet became Cameroon’s best-known ambassador, an important role for a country, and a continent, that is chronically overlooked and ignored. She wasn’t just America’s Next Drag Superstar, but also Cameroon’s. But she had some competition. When the First Lady of Cameroon Chantal Biya visited the White House with her husband President Paul Biya in August 2014 for the U.S.-Africa Leader Summit, posing for a picture with then President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, the world took notice of Biya’s over-the-top fashion sense, with media outlets worldwide saying, in one form or another, that Biya looked a bit like a drag queen, making her a sensation wherever she went in her official duties.
“Doesn’t she look like one of the girls?” says Benet with a bellowing laugh. “I don’t think that back in Cameroon they think about her as a gay icon, a drag icon. They just think she’s eccentric, with her lipstick and hair, her fashion. How people here think about those things, it’s not like that there. There isn’t really any drag there, not just in Cameroon, but also throughout much of Africa. But yes, she’s like one of the girls.”
In actuality, Internet searches about Biya increased traffic for Benet as well. It also shined a light on President Biya as a despot, in power since 1982, overseeing human rights abuses, including the country’s intense political and cultural oppression of LGBTQ+ people. So despite her fabulous sense of fashion, any attempts at becoming a global Cameroonian gay icon slipped away for Biya, making Benet the rightful First Lady, with a message of love, joy, and inclusion. The full story of Benet’s rise to global drag stardom is lovingly explored in the new documentary Being BeBe, the closing night selection of the Provincetown International Film Festival. It’s an American Dream tale of an immigrant’s journey from the limiting homophobia of Cameroon to the freedom to be fully herself that Benet found in Minneapolis. Gliding easily through pronouns, the story of Marshall Ngwa becoming BeBe, and finding success and happiness, is a document of what can happen in America when imagination and diversity are embraced.
Being BeBe takes a deeper look into the life of an artist beyond the catchphrases and thrown shade of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s a full portrait of a person facing the enormous challenges and opportunity that come with an appearance on a television phenomenon with respect paid to the journey that led to previously unheard-of attention for the art of drag. It’s the hard work and dedication to craft that took BeBe from being a male model who, at the last minute, put on a dress to replace a female model who didn’t show up for a Paris runway gig to a career in drag when she relocated to Minneapolis in 2000, becoming the toast of the town at the legendary nightclub, The Gay 90s. In 2009, after RuPaul saw Benet perform “Circle of Life” from The Lion King at Minneapolis Pride, she was personally invited to audition and eventually be cast in Drag Race.
The documentary itself began production under the leadership of director/producer Emily Branham in 2006, so its release, right at the time the United States is opening back up, is in and of itself a major event for Benet. “It’s surreal,” says Benet. “It’s been 15 years in the making! It took a village. There’s so much I’m proud of, but I’m most proud about the relationships I’ve made, the people I’ve met. I’m surrounded by the most beautiful support and energies. My family, my creative family. I have so many beautiful people in my life all over the world. It’s pure joy.”
The sustained accomplishments of Benet have brought not just the chance to explore drag in ways she never did before, but also a platform. While she notes she “didn’t sign up to be a role model,” she does understand the responsibility that comes with celebrity. While RuPaul’s Drag Race is not available in Cameroon, Being BeBe presents how her work in drag has begun to be noticed there, especially by LGBTQ+ people. Watching Benet perform in drag gives most of the gay and lesbian Cameroonians in the film chaire de poule, goose bumps, with one gay man pointing to the screen saying that this is “living, not just surviving, but living.” Benet is a beacon of hope that things can change and there is a world out there beyond the oppression of Cameroon.
There’s a compelling juxtaposition in Benet’s life as she celebrates the freedom and opportunity in the United States while hailing from a city that witnessed the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, propelling the Black Lives Matter movement to a broader societal reach and issues of racism to a more robust conversation. While the issues are not new, says Benet, Floyd’s murder nonetheless was shocking as, although she’s heard about and witnessed instances of racism, in general she finds Minnesota a state that welcomes and celebrates diversity. And Benet, along with many former Black RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants organized to celebrate Black queer excellence, particularly because racism is commonly expressed in social media by trolls in the Drag Race fandom.
Prior to the pandemic Benet, along with Bob the Drag Queen, Monique Heart, Peppermint, Shea Couleé, and The Vixen toured with NUBIA, an all-Black drag show conceived by Benet, inviting all to embrace inclusion and celebrate Black drag artists. With pandemic protocols being lifted around the United States, Benet is hitting the road again, including coming to Provincetown for the film festival, a place she came to in 2009 when she performed at the Crown and Anchor just off her Drag Race win. She plans on continuing to present her global glamour as she doesn’t just pull from her African heritage, but from all over the world ensconcing herself in various cultures and fashions as she revels in her 20th year in drag. She has so many plans. But one thing she isn’t planning on doing is finally saying who she would have voted off the show when she appeared on season three of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars. BenDeLaCreme famously sent herself home, but if it was up to Benet who would it have been? Kennedy Davenport? Shangela? Trixie Mattel?
“Why are you guys still asking me that,” laughs Benet. “That was like three years ago and I get asked that all the time. Well, darling, I’m going to hang onto the mystery. If someone wants to give me a million dollars, I’ll tell. But for now, it’s still a secret.”
Being BeBe screens at the Provincetown International Film Festival Wednesday, June 23 at 7 p.m. and Thursday, June 24 at 6 p.m. at the Waters Edge Cinema, Whaler’s Wharf, 237 Commercial St. (as well as streaming online starting June 16). A special closing reception will be held at the Crown and Anchor, 247 Commercial St., Thursday, June 25 from 3:30 to 5 p.m. with filmmaker Emily Branham and BeBe in attendance. Tickets are $20 for the screening or $40 for screening and the reception and must be purchased in advance at provincetownfilm.org. For more information call 508.487.3456.