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.”
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.”
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 than would fit in a short film.”
“I remember it vividly,” Branham tells me over the phone while discussing the 12-year-long project. “I was on a commercial set and she told me that she responded to an audition at a dance studio and she started dancing background for a drag queen from Cameroon. She said she just won the Minnesota state drag pageant and was going to nationals.”
Branham knew this was the type of story people would love to learn about. The story wrote itself: a promising drag amateur from Cameroon by way of Minneapolis going to the Miss Gay USofA pageant in Dallas in 2006. BeBe’s performance sparked something inside Branham.She was fascinated by the drag world and enamored with BeBe. She began filming more and more, but still never imagined Being BeBe would gestate over a decade. “No one ever sets out to do a 12-year passion project,” Branham says. “I thought it would be a compact story about a performer who came from a place where this was unheard of and was chasing it against all odds. I expected there to be more conflict in her life from her traditional family.”
But her family didn’t provide conflict. Instead, Bebe–born Nea Marshall Kudi Ngwa—found love. “Her family are amazing human beings that are well-traveled, well-educated, and very spiritual,” says Branham. ”It surprised me how supportive they were of the choices made. It turned out to be a great story.” When BeBe was crowned the winner of the inaugural season of RuPaul’s “Drag Race” in 2008, Branham felt the project should come to the end. It made sense that the amateur became a superstar. “I made a big push to try to finish it in the year or two after that first season of ‘Drag Race,’” Branham says. “I thought I had shot my ending in the fall of 2010. I made a big push and hired an editor to put together an assembly edit. I remember watching that cut in 2010 at a point where I was so ready to be done, but it lacked. It just wasn’t ready or as rich I wanted it to be. It was a hard point for me. It wasn’t the most compelling version of BeBe’s story.” Eventually, life again presented a new angle on the story. In 2014, BeBe almost left New York City, where she had moved after “Drag Race,” and quit drag. She had one more idea: a stripped down show called “Reveal.” The project rejuvenated both BeBe and Branham. BeBe hired an acting coach to help her and the other performers. The goal was to strip away layers of protection they may use to hide their true self. “That was really interesting to me.
The stripping down of the performer in BeBe to Marshall, the man behind BeBe,” says Branham. “I love drag as a performance and an art form. There is a side to it where you choose to do it to be more authentic to your true self. There are ways you can use drag to protect your true self from the world. That duality was what I knew I could explore with that acting class.”
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.
Before the first day of shooting in May 2006, Branham barely spent any time in the drag scene. Though, as a former child actor, something about the showbiz/backstage aspect of drag was comforting and familiar to her.
’When we first started, I was a woman in my mid-twenties who was really struggling internally with feeling like I had the “wrong” comportment to be taken seriously in the job I wanted to be doing in a male-dominated field,’ she says. “So then when I got to the Gay 90s [the bar in downtown Minneapolis where BeBe performed], I was super compelled by the way these (mostly) men were expressing themselves and performing femininity in such a heightened way. It got me thinking about how and why we all perform our gender and identity all the time – in both off-stage and on-stage situations. Plus, bearing witness to the creativity and courage of all drag performers just resonates and never gets old to me.’
‘But then with Marshall particularly, on top of his undeniable talent and unique story, I think I really identified personally with his ambition, persistence, work ethic, and close relationships with his family,’ she says.
‘I also suspect that on some level we both have a bit of trepidation about being truly seen by the outside world. It’s a paradox that I aim to explore through the film – that this is a very skilled performer whose objective is to have everybody look at him, but doesn’t necessarily want to be seen.’