The Standard Interview

Hot Tea with BeBe Zahara Benet

Rrrrra-ka-ta-ti-ti-ta-ta! It's Bebe Zahara Benet!

As the very first winner of the now widely acclaimed, Emmy-award-winning reality TV show, RuPaul's Drag Race, Bebe is the OG queen. While nearly a decade has passed since that inaugural season, Bebe's poise, voice, and style has only gotten better with time, like a full-bodied, rich bottle of wine. And my, my is she delicious. 
Her Royal Highness joined us at narcbar at The Standard, East Village, to kick off RuPaul's DragCon Weekend with a very special edition of our weekly drag party, Miss Girl, hosted by Rify Royalty. We were joined by a spectacular group of visiting and local queens, including Marta BeatChu, Violencia Exclamation Point, Sookie Sterling and Art Simone. Before the queens turned the bar upside down and inside out, we caught up with Bebe in the Penthouse to chat about the evolution of Drag Race, her return to All Stars 3, and how she stays real through all the glamour and fame. 
Read all of our "Hot Tea" interviews here.

Cameroon! Why did you make the move from Africa to the U.S., and how did that lead to drag?
It was many, many moons ago, darling, to continue my education. One of my very good friends in school, Cathy Simons, told me social clubs were the best way to meet people, so I joined the music and drama clubs. She knew I was really into the arts, and said she wanted to take me to a drag show. And I was like, “Drag show?! What is a drag show?” I was very naive at the time. So we went to Gay 90s, a club in Minneapolis, and when I was sitting in the lounge and the curtain opened and all these beautiful drag entertainers came out, that was a very big “A-ha” moment for me. It was everything I cared about and was interested in; music, makeup, decor, art and illusion. It just made sense to me so I pursued it.

When did you go out in drag for the first time?
The first time I gave complete feminine illusion, full regalia, was at a block party with Cindy Lauper. She was looking for queens to come on stage with her to do “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” First time in full regalia, and the rest was history.

That’s a major gig! How did they seek you out?
Again, my friend Cathy Simons! She introduced me to one of the entertainers [who was part of the event] and got me connected in the industry.

Well I hope you’re still friends with Cathy, she hooked it up.
Oh yes, I am. We don’t see each other enough because I am always traveling, but she is a beautiful, beautiful soul.

Tell us when you got the call for Drag Race - Season 1!
Oh we’re going all the way back? I got approached three times. Third time is a charm right? First time I was out of town. The second time the producers actually went to different cities to cast girls. They were hand picking! When they came to Minneapolis my name came up again, but I wasn’t that excited because everything I had seen about drag prior to then was people laughing at it and not with it. But I took it as an artistry and something I did for a living - it is my craft and business and I didn’t want to put it out there for someone to laugh at. But the third time, after I performed “He Lives In You” from The Lion King at Gay 90s, Chi Chi La Rue came to my dressing room and asked me if I’d heard of the television show RuPaul was working on. And then she told me RuPaul was in the audience that night.

[gasps] No way!
Yes, ma’am. So then she came in and I got to meet her, and she told me to send in my audition tape. She said my voice, point of view and aesthetic was needed in the show. Once I knew RuPaul was really involved, that sealed it for me.

What was your impression of the whole thing when you walked in the Werk Room for the first day of filming?
Honestly I didn’t go in thinking of it as a competition. That’s the thing about us Season 1 girls, we had no reference. When I met the girls I thought they were all very different from each other and what I did and I was excited to know more about them.

But then it clearly did become a competition. How did you manage that process?
I told myself to stay authentic. That was very important to me. Even when I was crowned the winner, people thought that was a pageant cry but that was real. That is what was special about Season 1—it showed heart. It was very important for the very first season for it to be portrayed that way and I think that is what sold the show to where it is now. We broke that fourth wall and showed ourselves as humans that you could relate to. It’s beautiful!

"Seasoned queens can always learn new tricks, so I was like, 'Let’s do this.'"

Let’s fast forward eight years from that inaugural season to your invitation to return for All Stars 3.
When I got the call I was like...why? [laughs] I’ve already won the show. So, I turned it down. A couple times. But then I talked to the producers and they said my voice, point of view and aesthetic was needed—something that has been lost in the [more recent] fandom. They also thought it would be a great way to remind people where it all began and how strong that first season was. And seasoned queens can always learn new tricks, so I was like, “Let’s do this.”

Your entrance into the Werk Room was one of the greatest in Drag Race history. How did they other queens react when they saw you?
Oh they gagged. Their faces fell on the floor. I loved it. [cackles] I had been a protected FBI sort of being leading up to filming. The only people who knew I was doing the show were the executive producers. Even the other producers didn’t know, to the point I was hidden while coming on set. Ooo, bitch, I was like a star! Michelle Obama! The gag was real. And at first when I stood by Mother [RuPaul], they thought I was a judge!

And then there was that rumor you weren’t actually a contestant, but a spy for the judges.
Oh I would have loved that! Absolutely loved it. Why did they not think about that? That would have been the gag of the season, I wish whoever came up with that theory had told the producers.

Looking back on the gags of that season, let’s dish about how you chose not to reveal your lipsticks after Ben DeLaCreme’s self-elimination? I loved your conviction with that choice, by the way.
People are still so bothered by that! I still haven’t told anybody. [Taps chest] Do you know how many things I have in store here that I am taking to the grave? That’s one of them. But the fandom has changed a lot and they have a sense of entitlement like they have to know. It’s OK for Dela to say bye but not okay for me to keep this a secret? There is no rulebook that you have to show the lipstick. No rule you can’t eliminate yourself. I’m sure now there is, though, [Laughs].

When did you make the choice not to reveal who’s lipstick you’d chosen for elimination?
I was very slick with that thing. After we left the stage and Dela eliminated herself, it was chaos. I knew exactly what I was going to do, so the moment I exited the stage and saw one of the producers standing there I slipped them the lipstick and walked away. Done. So even when in the Werk Room the others had said take it out of your bra, there was no lipstick in my bra. It was already gone. That was good, right?

Hell yeah it was! So my final question, what are your thoughts about the future of Drag Race?
I love how the craft is evolving, but I would love to see it taken even more seriously than it is now. I am on the cusp with my age between old and new school, legends and showgirls. I know how it used to look and how it is now. I would like to see more diversity. I am hoping next seasons bring that. And for the girls to just be themselves. Come [to the show] and be authentic and unapologetic. It's evolved to be so calculated, and the fun is taken out of it because you feel you have to do and say certain things because of editing, etc. Never forget the true artist you are!


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