How much of the BeBe Zahara Benet documentary have you seen?
I haven’t seen a ton of it, but the bit I’ve watched is amazing. I am very excited about the entire project. All of the footage is shot–it just needs finishing. The “Being Bebe” Kickstarter campaign is going to help the director, Emily Branham, complete all of the remaining editing and make sure the film is finished to the highest quality possible.
How did you meet Emily? Is it a challenge for a white woman to understand your struggle?
I was running for my first national pageant and Emily’s younger sister was a background dancer. She came to visit and Emily joined her for one of our rehearsals and was was intrigued by drag and the pageant world. She also was interested in my personal story.
She wanted to follow me to Dallas for a short film about what went into preparing for a specific pageant. Through that process we had deeper conversations about my life and culture and she found my story compelling. We came to the conclusion that we should do a film from there to explore these things further. There may be some struggles with her understanding African culture and the drag world. She worked through it by learning from me and I learned so much from her in return.
There is something universal about my story: love, loyalty, perseverance. It transcends race and I deal with things everyone can understand regardless of race. No matter who you are, you will take something from the film. I felt like my story was meant to be told. I believe people can relate to and be inspired by my journey.
Emily started following me long before RuPaul’s Drag Race ever became a possibility. Competing in and winning the first season definitely added an entirely new dimension to the project and it’s likely why she’s followed me for so long. With the film, people will get to take the ride with me of preparing for the first season, coming back home, winning and then living life after snatching the crown. It’s a wild ride.
There’s intersectionality in your identities, from gender to race to being an immigrant.
All of those identities collide to make me the unique entertainer I am today. I also think it’s a big reason certain people respond to my aesthetic or my presence on television. In a number of countries around the world, acting “effeminate” in public is a punishable offense. Performing in drag is an underground phenomenon in many places because of homophobic legislation. It’s a perspective that many don’t get to hear and my story, of course, doesn’t represent any majority. But it can add to the larger conversation about the criminalization of queerness around the globe, as well as some of the xenophobic attitudes stirred up the current administration in America.
We must remain visible. I’ve always believed that representation matters in terms or race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. It’s a scary and enthralling time to be on this earth. Some of the powers that be would have it that we go and hide. But we have a responsibility to ourselves and our communities to continue being visible, to continue telling our stories and to inspire future generations to do the same. We have to make it clear that our voices won’t be ignored and minimized.
Is drag particularly relevant in a difficult time of backlash like this?
Drag has always been relevant and important in this regard. Now it is allowing us to deliver messages of hope, self-worth and resistance to a much larger audience thanks to shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Dragula. There are also countless local queens and performers that are being voices for equality and change. It takes a village.