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‘Nubia’ revels in the richness of black drag

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ winner BeBe Zahara Benet headlines a show that pulls from the diaspora

The first winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race has a message: The black queens are here, and they came to slay.

In 2009, BeBe Zahara Benet helped define what would evolve into an Emmy-winning cultural juggernaut. Drag Race, which recently began its 12th season, started as a little show on Logo TV that appeared to be shot with a camera smeared with Vaseline.

It cultivated a loyal audience, and now the queens duke it out for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar on VH1. A show where people could see the process of how men transformed themselves into larger-than-life characters, with all the attendant reality competition show sniping that makes the genre addictive? Sign us up.

Benet is the creation of Nea Marshall Kudi Ngwa, who was born in Cameroon and moved to Minnesota as an adult. Benet was recruited for the show by RuPaul. Benet is part of a new generation of queens who have ushered drag into the mainstream, expanding the project that RuPaul kicked off with the release of his first song, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” in 1992. When RuPaul became famous, the universe of drag was not so different from the world of modeling: The majority of well-known performers were white, with one token anointed as the black drag queen. For decades, that person was RuPaul.

Now, having been officially crowned by the most famous drag queen in the world, Benet is hoping to shift the culture of tokenism that still pervades drag with a tour called Nubia. It’s a celebration of the African diaspora featuring Drag Race alums: Season eight winner Bob the Drag Queen, season nine runner-up Peppermint, Monique Heart, Shea Couleé, and The Vixen.

From left to right: BeBe Zahara Benet, Bob the Drag Queen, Monique Heart, Peppermint, Shea Coulee, and The Vixen star in Nubia, an all-black drag tour.

James Michael Avance

I spoke with Benet recently about Drag Race, the need for Nubia, and how the internet has changed where LGBT people find community.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What it was like when you found out about RuPaul’s Drag Race?

I was performing ‘Circle of Life’ from The Lion King. After that, I was in my dressing room taking off my makeup and I got approached. ‘Hey, listen, RuPaul is here and wants to connect with you.’ So, he had mentioned that, ‘Hey, I’m doing the show and it would be great for you to audition.’

That’s when I was like, OK, this has been coming to me so many times, there must be something about it. I look up to RuPaul and he’s an idol of mine. I was like, well, if he’s doing it and it’s all about drag and really celebrating the artistry, then I will do it. Because everything prior to that, I have always seen people just make a mockery of the craft and laugh at the craft instead of laughing with the craft. I didn’t want to put my brand in a situation where people would laugh at me instead of laughing with me.

What do you mean about having people laugh with you as opposed at you?

When I first started many years ago, every time I saw people talk about drag, it always felt like people would make comments about, oh, the clowns are coming out. I think that it came from a lot of ignorance of people not understanding what we do and thinking that we want to be women, we want to live like women, and not knowing that, at the end of the day, it’s just art that we are creating, whether it’s through music, whether it’s through lip-syncing, whether it’s through fashion, whether it’s through acting, whether it’s through comedy. It was never the case when I was getting into the scene that I saw people really celebrating it.

When Drag Race was happening, the first thing that came to my mind was like, ‘OK, is this going to be a thing where people are going to look at us on television and just are laughing?’ But thank goodness for Drag Race, because now you don’t have to go to a club to be able to see artists perform. You can be in your house, you can watch a show like Dragnificent from TLC.

We’ve still got some work to do because there’s still that ignorance out there, but it’s getting better.

How did you feel the first time you put on a dress and a wig and makeup?

In my teenage years, I had a modeling opportunity where I was in drag, but it was more unisex, very androgynous. When it comes to the full illusion, I’d moved to Minneapolis, and Cyndi Lauper was doing a pride show and she was looking for entertainers to go up on stage with her to do ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.’

I got a makeup artist, a designer, the whole shebang to put the package together to get me to be dolled up. After that moment, when I really got into full illusion drag, that’s when I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Of course, this is it. I need to build this brand. I need to take this to the next level.’

What’s it like being on stage?

Next year will make 20 years of being an artist. You always get those nerves, but I call them good nerves. They’re those little jittery butterflies you get right before going on stage. The only reason I get it is because I don’t know what the energy is out there. But once the spotlight comes on, it’s like being home. It’s like my own personal space that I have built. There’s nobody out there but me. I love it. I love it. That’s where I live and that’s where I breathe.

One of the things I love about BeBe is how much you bring your culture from Cameroon into it.

Global beauty is how I like to define it, because I don’t only pay homage to Cameroon. I pay homage from any part of the world. Even with my fashions, I always try to celebrate that. It’s representing the motherland, just Africa the continent. There’s something very beautiful about celebrating diversity. That’s why we’re even doing Nubia.

I think that a lot of people have not taken the time to know what drag is out of America. Other different cultures, the different fabrics, the different music, the different beauties exist. If you have a platform like that, why not be able to celebrate that? Why not be able to showcase that? Why can’t you enlighten people about what that is?

There are parts of my culture that I don’t care for, but my culture also has done some amazing things for me in my artistry, in how we look at beauty and how we celebrate beauty. I think that there is something that is special about it and that’s why I always bring it to what I do.

How is global drag different from American drag?

Around the world, you find entertainers that are funny and entertainers that are campy and entertainers that are more fashion-forward, entertainers that are more glamorous, entertainers that are androgynous. You still see all that diversity in global drag. Global drag becomes an exotic way of presentation, like what I do. I’ve always come from a place where we are very regal. We are black royalty. We are black blood. We are rich in a sense of how we present ourselves. So, there’s some dignity in how we present ourselves. We come out like kings and queens. A huge part of that plays in how I present my drag, even from my own family home. My dad was from the royal family, so you just learn how to really present yourself in that way as well. That’s why I love the times people say, ‘Oh, that’s the queen. She’s the queen.’

The Vixen stars in Nubia, an all-black drag revue helmed by BeBe Zahara Benet, the first winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

James Michael Avance

Even within the LGBT community, there can be hostility. What has your experience been with how gay men treat drag queens?

It’s not just about gay men. A lot of it has to do with people being very comfortable in their own skin. When you see a drag entertainer who has done the work — forget about being in drag — this human being who has done the work to say, ‘This is who I am. I celebrate myself. I love me for me. I don’t care what you think about me. I’m going to live and I’m going to live out loud.’ You, on the other end, who is looking in, has not gotten to that space yet where you can do it, but you see someone who is really celebrating every single color of who they are. I think it can be intimidating and also make you very insecure just because you haven’t walked that journey here to a place of resolution. I think because of that, it comes with hostility. It comes with the name-calling because these people are still hiding behind the shadows of others.

Funnily enough, most of it is not even gay men. It’s cisgender women who go online, become bullies, and say the worst things ever to drag entertainers. It’s such a small part. It’s not like the whole world is against drag, but we’re still strong and we still represent the community. We are the army, honey, so we’ve got to be there and keep fighting.

As a matter of fact, the reason why drag became a huge part of what I do is because of women. I’ve been surrounded by strong, beautiful women and I love to create that beauty. I love women to look at me and say, ‘Damn, I wish I looked like this.’ But you don’t need to look like this because you already look like this. When I was growing up and I was going through bullying, the women always rallied behind me and they protected me. So now, I turn around and I’m BeBe and I protect women, too. It’s almost full circle, in a way, and I love it. So, I never pay no mind or attention to the bullies, to the discrimination, because that is a distraction, honey!

I never seen a lineup of just black queens. Can you tell me about the racial dynamics that exist within drag?

The reason why Nubia came into existence and I decided to bring other sisters of color to come in as producers, was definitely because every time you saw a lineup of entertainers going on tour or having some sort of big production, there was always just that one black token girl. Maybe it’s a business decision or promoters saying that, ‘Hey, queens of color cannot sell tickets, so let’s go with the hottest people so we can make money.’

But the fact is that the representation has never been there. The point of what we’re trying to do is say, ‘Come and see what black excellence can be and is. Come and see what black power is. Come and see what black glamour is. Come into our home.’

It’s a show for everybody: Every walk of life, every race, we’re inviting you into our space for us to entertain you the way we choose to want to entertain you. We’re also telling you that we are also able to sell tickets. Our shows are getting sold out and that’s why we’re adding more and more shows. That says something. It speaks volumes.

The drag queens of Nubia: Shea Coulee, BeBe Zahara Benet, Bob the Drag Queen, Monique Heart, The Vixen, and Peppermint.

The Sampo

I watched Drag Race and sometimes these white queens can be vicious. I always wondered what the dynamics were like when the cameras were off.

That’s one of the huge things that came about every time people would say, ‘BeBe is so grand and she’s such a queen and she’s so regal.’ They think people just come and bow down and feed me grapes — which they do that too! But at the same time, I am also the life of the party.

I think that people do not understand who we are. A lot of the fans, especially when it comes to girls of color, the fans already choose how they want us to be. They see a girl of color, ‘Oh, she needs to be the bitchy one, and she needs to walk this way and talk this way.’ When your story is a different kind of story than what they think it should be, it’s a problem.

Nubia gives you the opportunity to come and just be present and just be part of our tribe.

What’s one beauty secret that you’re willing to share?

You have to moisturize! That is a huge part of it for me, because it keeps my face always nice, very hydrated, very fresh. I always use a good scrub. I always use a good facial toner, a good facial cleanser, and then I also moisturize.

Also, there’s nothing wrong with putting makeup on. Makeup is meant to be worn. Many women are already beautiful. They don’t need it, but it gives you that extra confidence, honey. It gives you that extra zhuzh. You know, when you’re walking out in the morning, it gives you that extra glamour, that extra feeling of your beauty. So, a little light red lipstick or a little light nude lipstick, or whatever you decide to wear that works for you in being comfortable. There’s nothing wrong with that. Take it, put it, and flaunt it.

Nubia will be at the Roulette in Brooklyn, New York, March 5-6 and the Teragram Ballroom in Los Angeles May 1.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.