From Cameroon to Mpls. to international drag star: BeBe Zahara Benet serves face

Minneapolis-based drag artist BeBe Zahara Benet
Minneapolis-based drag artist BeBe Zahara Benet has gained international fame for his drag performances. BeBe, also known as Marshall Kudi Ngwa, moved to Minneapolis from Cameroon nearly 20 years ago. He is working on a new interactive dance party launching on Saturday.
Courtesy of Jose A. Guzman Colon

Marshall Kudi Ngwa wasn't like many of the other boys growing up in Cameroon. He was, in a word, fabulous.

"I was curious about fashion. I was curious about makeup. I was curious about entertainment. When my mom would step out, I would go to [her] makeup room and just play with a lot of things, and I didn't know what that was," Kudi said Tuesday.

It wasn't until after he moved to Minneapolis in 2000 and went to a drag show that he realized what that was — it was drag.

"I saw the entertainers come out. That's when all the puzzles came together and it came together like, 'Oh my gosh, this is what it is,'" Kudi said. "That's why I've been so curious in fashion, curious in hair and make-up and performance art. Now this makes sense."

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It wasn't too much later that Kudi got to put on a wig and a pair of heels professionally himself. Cyndi Lauper was performing in Minneapolis for a Pride block party and needed backup dancers. One of Kudi's friends was helping organize the event, and encouraged him to sign up. He didn't know how to do his own makeup or costume design yet, so he hired professionals to help him get his look together. He was hooked.

BeBe Zahara Benet stands for a portrait
BeBe Zahara Benet stands for a portrait in St. Paul on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"That was really exciting. That's when I was like, 'Okay, here we go, let's do this, let's bring BeBe Zahara Benet to life,'" Kudi said.

Now everyone calls him by his drag name, BeBe, even when he's not wearing earrings and eyelashes. He's not a backup dancer anymore. He's the headliner. And he's brought his show back home to Minneapolis.

After the Cyndi Lauper performance, BeBe began performing in gay bars and refining his own signature looks, which he said often play off his African roots: leopard-print bodysuits, elaborate head wraps, face paint. He also started traveling around the country to compete in beauty pageants for drag queens.

Then in 2009, he got another big break. Drag performer RuPaul Charles was looking for contestants for a new show called "RuPaul's Drag Race." The show is a kitschy and campy take on reality competitions like "America's Next Top Model" and "Project Runway." Contestants compete in challenges like designing outfits with materials from the dollar store and making over hunky firefighters into flamboyant drag queens. Each episode ends with the bottom two contestants lip-syncing against each other to stay on the show.

BeBe was one of nine drag artists — out of thousands of applicants — selected to compete on the show. And he did well — very well. He wowed the judges with his intricate couture and ability to "serve face" — make facial expressions while striking a supermodel pose.

BeBe was the first contestant to be crowned "America's Next Drag Superstar." Eight other drag performers have since earned that title. The show is now in its tenth season.

Since BeBe first appeared on the show, "RuPaul's Drag Race" has exploded in popularity. It's moved from the Logo TV network to the bigger VH1 channel. There have been spin-off shows, and the grand prize is up to $100,000 (from $20,000 when BeBe won). Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera and Nancy Pelosi have all made appearances. The show has won four Emmys.

After winning that first season, BeBe took his prize money, moved to New York and got to work taking his drag artistry to the next level.

Minneapolis-based drag artist BeBe Zahara Benet
Minneapolis-based drag artist BeBe Zahara Benet
Courtesy Neal Reiter

But it's tough being a full-time drag performer. At times, he said, it's been extremely difficult to make ends meet, especially in an increasingly competitive field. But he's made it work. He created numerous drag shows and released original albums. He even recorded a song about serving face.

For him, drag can be funny — but it's not a joke. BeBe doesn't call himself a drag queen. He prefers the terms "drag artist" or "drag performer," because he thinks the art form has moved beyond what the term "drag queen" conjures up in many people's minds: a novelty, rather than a full-fledged entertainer.

"A lot of drag artists do exactly what — or even more than what — mainstream artists do. What we do in terms of our transformation, our music, our comedy, it's just legit artistry," he said.

BeBe was invited back to "RuPaul's Drag Race" for this year's all-star edition, which brought back past contestants to compete against each other. It was a chance for BeBe reach the now-massive audience of a show he helped launch. Nearly a million people tuned in to the first episode.

BeBe didn't win, but he did make it to the final episode, and finished in the top four. Now he's back in Minneapolis — he lives here again, too — and creating a new monthly show called "Roar," which opens this Saturday.

It's an interactive dance show, so instead of being on stage, BeBe and his co-performers will be in the crowd. His hope is to bring all different types of people together to see the show.

"When the rhythm moves you, the rhythm moves you. It does not matter who you are or where you're from. You may not know how to hit a beat or move a tush, and that's what I want to do is bring people from different walks of life," BeBe said.

BeBe has other projects in the works, too. He's the subject of a feature-length documentary scheduled to come out next year. Filmmaker Emily Branham met BeBe more than a decade ago when he was just starting out at the Minneapolis nightclub Gay 90s.

"I was just blown away by this incredibly charismatic performer who clearly had these loyal fans who loved her," Branham said. "And I was like, I think this would be a really good short film. But there was clearly more there there than would fit in a short film."

Branham now has 12 years of footage documenting BeBe's career. She raised more than her $33,000 Kickstarter goal to finish the film.

In addition to the new show, BeBe's also been touring the country — and he's looking ahead to the future. Maybe he'll create a space to help mentor young drag artists, he said. He'd call it: The House of Zahara.