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RuPaul's Drag Race's BeBe Zahara Benet Talks About Her Style Evolution


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BeBe Zahara Benet in a look by Manaz by Tony Iniguez

Courtesy VH1

Last Thursday during the season-three premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars, jaws were dropped and wigs were snatched when the secret tenth queen was revealed: Drag Race's season-one winner, BeBe Zahara Benet. The Cameroon-born, Minneapolis-based drag performer (né Marshall Ngwa) took home the crown in 2009 during a season that is now infamous for its charmingly low-budget production values and for introducing some of the show’s most memorable characters to the world. (It was later referred to as The Lost Season because it didn’t air again until 2013.)

Benet, as the other queens were quick to point out in last week’s episode, has nothing to "Ru-deem"—she breezed through the challenges effortlessly and without flaw. Benet's only issue: She won a season no one actually watched. With Benet’s late addition to All Stars, host and producer RuPaul is giving the local glamazon another chance to grab the spotlight—this time without the Vaseline-covered lens of the first season.

Following the premiere episode, I spoke to the OG RuGirl over the phone about her earliest fashion memories, her style icons, and how her look has evolved over the past eight years since her initial appearance on the show. The show’s second episode airs tonight on VH1 and LOGO at 7 p.m. CST. (You can catch viewing parties Thursday nights at area gay bars such as Lush, The Saloon, and the Gay 90s.)

Style is such a huge part of drag. When did you first fall in love with fashion?

Fashion was something that was part of life right from childhood. What I remember at a very, very young age, my parents would leave the house and I would go my mom’s room and take the bedsheets and the blankets and wrap them around and create different designs on my body, and wear her heels. I didn’t know what it was called—it was almost born in me, I would just experiment. It wasn’t about dress up, it was about creating art. As I started growing up and looking at magazines, that’s when I started making sense.

What designers were your favorite growing up? Who are your fashion icons?  

I love Dior of course. I love Armani. There was an African fashion designer, Alphadi, who would take American fashion and African fashion and blend them together. I love Gaultier, I loved all those fashion houses. One of my biggest icons of Naomi Campbell. When I was growing up I loved her presence. Iman is amazing to me. I love Diana Ross. A lot of her presence and fashion, I really look at her as a fashion icon. I look at the divas of today, I love Beyoncé. She blends glamor and sex appeal but is also very classy. And of course, Grace Jones! I love Grace Jones. I don’t necessarily incorporate all her kookiness, but when I try to push the edge, I get my inspiration from Grace.

Most drag performers start by sewing or styling their own looks. Can you tell me about one of your first drag looks? What was it made of, and what inspired it?

I think of drag as an authentic art, and I consider myself a global artist. My first garment was a fusion of western glamour and African culture. I love being able to fuse things from different parts of the world to create that aesthetic. One of my first garment was an animal-print dress that I made that was beaded and rhinestoned, and then I added this huge furry coat with it because I wanted to still give you that fusion. I have two homes - Cameroon and America. I get inspired by living here, and I still get inspired by things back at home.

Where did you come up with your name?

When I started creating the persona or character, I thought, what would this female being look like? What is she all about? And I knew it was a combination of fashion, of music, of being a visual artist. The first thing that came into mind was BeBe the name. I was just driving and it appeared in my mind. BeBe Benet. BeBe represents the American side, and Benet was the French side of me. Then I went to Vegas for a show and there was all this beautiful scenery that reminded me of Cleopatra and the Sahara desert, so I chose Zahara to speak to my African heritage. BeBe Zahara Benet is part of who I am, a shade that I choose to celebrate. 

Tell me about your history performing at the Gay 90s. How did you get your start?

The Gay 90s was actually the first place I ever performed. When I first moved to Minnesota from Africa, my friend was part of the Pride board in Minneapolis and they were casting entertainers for a revue during a Pride block party. (Cyndi Lauper was the headliner.) They were getting all these girls from the 90s, while I hadn’t even started doing drag yet. After that, I started going to the club, watching the shows, getting to know the entertainers, and getting into all the amateur shows. Every week I went and did the amateur shows, which I won, by the way. That’s how I got my foot in the door.

What do you love about the Minneapolis drag scene, especially after having spent several years in New York City?

What I love about this community is there is a sense of community—not all the time, we’re human beings—but there’s a sense of belonging. I feel like here in this city, when it comes to drag, it’s possible to find that space to really develop your craft and find a home for it. You can create your own family. It’s not as competitive as New York City, where everyone is fighting for the same position and notoriety. That’s what you go there for, to take your career to the next level. It’s so intense. Here you can take your time and go at a steady pace and find what space is right for you. You can really nurture your craft, and the community is very supportive. When you see the shows, the community comes out to support, and there’s something to be said about that. Doing that really helps the artist. That’s why I tell people I’m glad I could start in a place like Minneapolis. I could define what BeBe Zahara Benet is all about before going out to other places. A lot of people would say to me, Minneapolis, really? But it’s very big in the visual and performing arts, and I don’t think the world really knows that.

How has your style evolved since first appearing on Drag Race’s first season to today?

I take more risks now. I think that I’ve evolved in a sense that I’ve elevated that aesthetic. It’s more refined and my point of view is clearer as to who I am as an artist. When you look at my style, you know this person, you get this person. You get to know that over time. I allow myself to take risks and really be inspired by what’s happening at that time. The generation now is more artistic and fashion-forward, while the drag back then was very heavy on pageantry, though you did have the club kids creating real art. Now, a lot of entertainers are really trying to create more avant-garde, couture-inspired looks. They’re really pushing that edge, rather than just wearing beautiful gowns.

How do you come up with your looks? Do you collaborate with designers to create looks, or do you design them yourself?

It’s a combination of both. I have designers that reach out to me because they love my aesthetic and point of view when it comes to fashion, and they use that as inspiration. But I always collaborate with people, I’m not just a Barbie doll, like you’re just going to wear this. Everything I wear or do I want it to be me, I want to stand by it and say what it is. Sometimes I design my own thing by myself. I let people who are gifted at what they do, do what they do.

Any there any key designers or stylists you work with?

I love Marco Marco. I love Manaz by Tony Iniguez, who is based in L.A. I love Diego Montoya's work. I also work with [Minneapolis-based drag performers and costume designers) Trixi Del Mar and Julia Starr

What was it like returning to Drag Race after all this time? The first season was known for being low-budget—which was part of its charm.

I didn't return to Drag Race to validate myself, because I already have the validation. When the opportunity presented itself, which I was very hesitant to take in the first place, I was concerned because it can be polarizing and people might not like the idea. But when I gave it some thought, many people have not gone back to season one to see where this whole thing started. People have called it The Lost Season. People did not have the foundation of how this got started. This was an opportunity to reintroduce myself to this newer generation, and maybe appeal to different taste buds. My presence being there can offer a different take on what drag is. I thought, what better way to do it than on the platform of being on VH1. Also, the fact that you’re a seasoned entertainer or winner doesn’t mean you can’t evolve. I wanted to show how I have evolved as a performer or learn a new trick from the newer girls, seasoned queens can always learn new tricks!

What other projects are you working on?

I’m really excited about my own television project. Of course I’ll be doing a lot of touring, I’m working on my album, and I’m also partnering with some fashion and beauty brands on projects as well which is all in the works.

Follow BeBe on Instagram at @bebezahara and visit her website at bebezahara.com to see her spring U.S. tour dates and to purchase her latest EP, Kisses & Feathers.

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