The following is an excerpt of an interview I did with documentarian Emily Branham for a piece entitled “Inside Emily Branham’s 12-Year Quest to Document BeBe Zahara Benet’s Rise to Drag Stardom” for Writer’s Bone. That piece (which you should totally read if you haven’t) was an inside look into the behind the scenes process of making a documentary over the course of a decade.
I didn’t get to include a lot of Emily’s history with BeBe and her thoughts on the first winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race but I thought the world should know a bit more of Branham’s thoughts. Enjoy.
How did you get started on a documentary about BeBe Zahara Benet?
My younger sister gave me a call while 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.
I remember very vividly thinking about amazing that was and how it could be a short film. I studied documentary a bit in college. I thought it would be a good subject for a short documentary so I reached out to BeBe. I went back to Minnesota to talk to her and had to borrow a camera from a friend. I thought I was going to make a short about BeBe going to a National competition. You know: this promising amateur from Cameroon by way of Minneapolis going to the Miss Gay USofA pageant in Dallas [in 2006]. From there it just evolved organically into a larger project.
After the actual pageant, I realized there was a lot more there and I wanted to dig deeper and fortunately, BeBe was open to that.
When did you know this was going to last longer than a decade?
No one ever sets out to do a 12-year passion project. I remember at one point thinking how documentaries take so long.
So what were you looking for during those first years?
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. Her family are amazing human beings that are well-traveled, well-education, and very spiritual. It surprised me how supportive they were of the choices made. It turned out to be a great story.
I thought I was going to turn it into following a few queens from the area and I even made a short project for Current TV feature BeBe and two other Minneapolis performers in 2007. But it all kept coming back to BeBe.
Bebe won the inaugural Drag Race in March 2009. Where was the project then?
I made a big push to try to finish it in the year or two after that first season of Drag Race. 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.
I kept shooting on and off in 2011 and 2012. Things got a lot more interesting in 2014 when BeBe was honestly struggling a bit more in her career. She moved to New York after winning Drag Race and was just coming to the end of her rope.
It was a very tumultuous time for her and I remember she called me up. She told me she was just going to one more show in New York City and that maybe she would move back to Minneapolis. She told me about the concept for the show, which was going to be called Reveal. She wanted it to reveal new sides of herself to her audience. She wanted to make it a stripped down event as opposed to the big spectacle that she had been doing but had lost her financial backers too.
That was really interesting to me. The stripping down of the performer in BeBe to Marshall, the man behind BeBe. It made a lot of sense to keep filming. We took the rehearsal process for Reveal very seriously. BeBe integrated an acting class with an acting coach who uses unconventional techniques to strip away layers of protection they may use to hide their true self.
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.
What can you tell me about BeBe that the world may not know?
I think what will surprise people about BeBe is that she is a homebody at heart. As much as she thrives in the nightlife and she is very extroverted she is in her BeBe persona as well as interacting with people on set, she loves being at home. She doesn’t really go out at night if she isn’t working. She doesn’t drink, she doesn’t smoke. She’s very private about her personal life and her sexuality. There’s an innocent quality to BeBe.
In 2014 you mentioned the potential last show in NYC, the wanting to move back to Minneapolis. Was that the lowest you have seen BeBe?
There have been ups and downs. There was actually a low point before being cast in Drag Race BeBe doesn’t remember this, but I remember it very clearly. I was a similar low point in life. I remember that drag wasn’t taking off the way he had in his mind. From the very beginning, BeBe had a level of ambition that the other performers in the bar scene didn’t have. She was reaching higher than her peers even though she was technically an amateur. She had the professionalism and the work ethic from the beginning. She treated it like a job and a career. There were other terrific performers then, but there was something different with BeBe.
In summer 2008, I believe, she said she was getting a lot of pressure from her family to go back to school. She was thinking maybe event planning. It was just a fuzzy moment of a quandary. She had such a clear vision and it wasn’t working out yet.
Everything changed when she got cast on the reality show. None of us knew what it was going to be. We weren’t sure if it was going to make a mockery of the performers or if it was going to make people look bad. I was very anxious about it. When I started watching the show I realized they created something brilliant. I wasn’t sure if she was going to win. I was nail-biting like everyone else.