'RuPaul's Drag Race': On BeBe Zahara Benet And Pushing Back Against The Anti-Black Sentiment In Drag
Photo Credit: S & A
Opinion , Television

'RuPaul's Drag Race': On BeBe Zahara Benet And Pushing Back Against The Anti-Black Sentiment In Drag

“O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E: Opulence! You own everything. Everything is yours.” ~ Junior LaBeija

In 2009, RuPaul launched a queer empire with RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 1– a competition highlighting the art of drag. The show wasn’t necessarily a hit in its first season, as queer art is not often popular or properly supported. However, it was compelling to viewers and introduced us all to the BeBe Zahara Benet - our OG (original gangster) queen, who boldly showcased drag that centered confidence and her Cameroonian heritage. BeBe’s drag can only be described by – glamour, glamour, face, face, fashion, Cameroon - and what Junior LaBeija describes as "opulence" in the legendary documentary, Paris is Burning.

The franchise is now on its 11th regular season, and recently aired the fourth installment of Drag Race All Stars. All-Star seasons invite past fan-favorite contestants (from regular seasons) back for another shot at the crown and to gain more exposure and establish their brand. Stating that the show has been successful over the past 9 years is an understatement. During BeBe’s reign, prizes were $20,000 and a photo spread in Paper magazine; compared to current prizes of $100,000 and a year supply of some of the finest cosmetic products. Additionally, the show now offers exposure that simply didn’t exist in 2009 due to the rise of social media which allows all contestants on the show to build their brands. Because of this, most of the current audience couldn’t list three things about BeBe. And that’s a damn shame. Hence, the reason Ru (Rupaul) invited her back to compete on All Stars 3.

BeBe deserves a bouquet of rose gold Eternity Roses and nothing less. It’s like we’re okay with gifting her a few plastic-wrapped carnations. Well, not on my watch! Now there is a multitude of reasons why BeBe deserves praise, but here are just a few: 

BeBe Did Most Things First

BeBe is a roadmap and represents possibility as a model for all queens. She did it all first. She toured and represented drag race first, made songs and music videos before most, wrote the book on aligning face and body flawlessly, and inspired many of the current queens we love, like Bob The Drag Queen. Not to mention her trailblazing ability to brand her authentic self as a business model by embracing her accent, centering her Cameroonian traditions and cultural identity, and always serving a beat face. BeBe has not compromised her authenticity for drag or Drag Race; she has simply made it essential to love being BeBe.

The entire All Stars conglomerate is about allowing queens to come back and stamp their brand in the minds of the viewers. BeBe led the way in branding first. She is arguably the first ever lip-sync assassin, lip syncing twice in season 1. She gave us unforgettable lip syncs against Ongina and Nina Flowers, the latter resulting in her crowning moment. Although BeBe sings live, she has said on numerous occasions that lip-synching is an art form that she takes seriously. Audiences got a number of reminders of her sharp lip-sync skills in her All Stars 3 return.

In All Stars 3, she did gigantic "draggedy" hair (the first on national television). She is the real inspiration behind the "Big Hair Everywhere" challenge on season 9. She gave us hair at the intersections of Cameroon meets Dallas Housewife meets Beyoncé Gold Member circa 2002. How many wigs did it take to make that one wig? The right amount!

Notorious for giving face, BeBe knows how to rock hair at a variety of lengths in almost every texture and style. The hair always makes sense, pending on theme and fashion. She also pioneered leopard print on the drag race stage. Giving us legendary looks – remember BeBe’s Drag Race Creations challenge look in season 1 and her finale look in All Stars 3? If you're unaware, please reference the look I mentioned above in leopard print on season 1. She owns leopard, it is hers, give it up gurls. Take it out of your closet, pack it up, and don’t be wasteful. Please ship to P.O. Box Cameroon, attention: international chic.

BeBe’s Highkey Impressive Return to All Stars 3

BeBe returned to Drag Race and slayed the competition. She won a total of two challenges, a lip-sync for your legacy, and was only up for elimination once throughout the entire competition. BeBe made the finals and finished in an impressive tie for third place with the persistent (and infectious) Shangela. Imagine returning to competition, almost 10 years since your original appearance, and making it to the finals! 

Although Snatch Game did not exist the first season of Drag Race, BeBe gave us a fierce Grace Jones impersonation on All Stars 3. Some of the queens have had multiple tries at impersonating a celebrity on Drag Race. However, BeBe had one shot at it and gave us an iconic moment - “RuPaul, when are we going to f**k?”

There are some gurls who don't need an air split or death drop to win a lip sync, even if they have them in their Rolodex of tricks. These type of queens have the gift of interpretation, truly connecting to the heart of a song and delivering masterpiece performances – think Latrice Royale’s "You Make Me Feel," Trinity K. Bonet’s "I’m Every Woman," and Monique Heart’s "The Bitch is Back." BeBe Zahara Benet trail blazed this type of connection to a song on season 1, giving us brilliant interpretations of "Stronger" and "Cover Girl." As if we needed convincing of her gift, BeBe returned to All Stars and gave us both Diana Ross and Deborah Cox realness, invoking the spirit of two of our treasured Black divas.

BeBe served lewks the entire season. Mutha said I will not be outdone by the children. BeBe gave us a gasp-worthy moment when she walked out on the runway in a beautifully fitted black gown covered in black roses. I remember yelling out, “Black Lives Matter, Bitch!” I am also what some would call "extra." However, look at BeBe’s beautiful face. I mean really look. She knows that the judges and other queens are living for her. Then Mutha said let me show the kids how to serve "Red for Filth" and came out in this red futuristic skirt-gown-suit with a facemask to die for. Although her face was covered, Mutha proved she needs no actual face to deliver face.

Celebrating BeBe Pushes Against the Anti-Black Sentiment in Drag

The burden of creating ways of thriving for marginalized folks are often placed on Black people. Hence, RuPaul and BeBe. The creation is then co-opted when power, decision making, agency, and fandom is cleverly handed over to whiteness – no different from any other art form.

The white queens (and production) discounted BeBe throughout All Stars 3. In fact, the show was dominated by storylines of the white queens bickering and being messy, leaving very little screen time for us to be re-introduced to our queen. Production didn’t even create space for BeBe to talk about what she’s been up to all these years since winning the inaugural season. Basic questions weren’t answered:

  • How has winning the first drag race competition changed your life?
  • Any regrets throughout the years?
  • How would you define your drag?
  • Which legendary queens inspire you?
  • What trends or patterns have you noticed in drag over the years?

So much wisdom, joy, and brilliance exist in her Black body, and yet, folks couldn’t care less. Moreover, BeBe ended All Stars 3 with a significantly better track record than the eventual winner, though she was never considered a threat for the crown. We must begin to pay attention, make sense of the truths in front of us and act upon them.

Pay attention to how Black queens, in particular, are talked about in the comment sections of your favorite blogs or social media accounts; pay attention to who has the most social media followers; pay attention to who is booked in your local drag scenes; pay attention to whose drag is regarded as acceptable and worthy of applause; pay attention when mistakes are inevitably made by queens and how Black queens are judged and ridiculed more intensely; and pay attention to the ways whiteness sticks together and defends each other in this queer and trans world. And then choose to move differently. Actively challenge anti-Blackness by listening to Black queens, centering the experiences of Black queens, routinely asking who the rules and policies serve, make different decisions, and allow yourself to be held accountable when problematic.   

Celebrating BeBe ensures that we never erase her being or her accomplishments and labor. Celebrating BeBe allows us to center the Black and international experience in drag. Celebrating BeBe pushes us to ask dynamic questions that we’re often afraid to ask. For instance:

  • What is the experience of Black queens in drag?
  • How are the expectations for Black queens different from other queens?
  • Who is chosen for grand opportunities whenever they arise?
  • What does it mean when three Black queens make it to the finale and the show’s ratings drop…two consecutive seasons?
  • If something that is resigned to the margins is pulled into the same old violent capitalist machine, does it become less essential, less potent, and more normal? Was creating the something still worth it?

BeBe is the most legendary of all of Ru’s children. She represented drag on national television at an even more unpopular and violent time for queer and trans folks – how does she not deserve more roses? BeBe is not only a drag race treasure but indubitably a gift to the art of drag. She sings, dances, acts, and can dabble in comedy. She is the most well-rounded queen to ever walk thru the drag race door. She is like a soothing hot toddy - a mixture of steaming hot water, a shot (or two) of a 50-year-old aged Scotch whiskey, the most delicious honey (as if a bee intentionally landed on the mug to deliver joy), and a lemon that could have only been picked by Beyoncé herself. She soothes, heals, makes you feel warm inside, and perhaps gives you an intense buzz. BeBe leaves you feeling better.

There is no one more alluring than BeBe.

There is no one more debonair.

No face as beat or experienced.

Before Raja, there was BeBe.

Before Chad Michaels and Adore, there was BeBe.

Before Alaska, Sharon, Detox, Bianca and Bob there was BeBe Zahara Benet – affectionately known as Camerooooooon.

Everyone join me in showering my Pisces sister with some love – using your platforms to truly honor our #OGqueen - BeBe Zahara Benet.  

 

Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Vulture Festival