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Bebe, It's You!

Drag star Bebe Zahara Benet previews her new theater piece, Queendom. logo
Bebe Zahara Benet stars in Queendom.
(© Sasha Arutyonova)
The winner of the first season of the popular TV reality show, RuPaul's Drag Race, Bebe Zahara Benet (aka Nea Marshall Kudi) brings her one-woman show, Queendom to New York City's The Tank this week. TheaterMania recently chatted with the busy diva during a costume fitting for the show.

THEATERMANIA: What led you to create Queendom?
BEBE ZAHARA BENET: I've always wanted to do something like this. This is way before I got into RuPaul's Drag Race. I felt that I had a story to tell and I wanted to share my culture with a lot of people who do not understand where I come from and why I do what I do. So I wanted to create a show that not only tells my story, but also shares my voice, because I also sing in the show. After Drag Race it just made sense to use that platform to put it out there.

TM: What can you tell us about the show?
BZB: It shares a lot of stories of me growing up back in Africa and my journey from there, how I discovered myself and the things I was interested in. It's about experiencing Paris and then experiencing America and obviously being part of Drag Race and what that can do to you, both positive and negative. It's about the lessons I've learned along the way.

TM: Your first experience with drag was subbing for a female model who didn't show up to a Paris fashion show. Were you reluctant to put on a dress the first time?
BZB: No! How dare you! You know, when I was back at home, I was different. Some people think that you have to learn how to walk for the runway. Well, I just used to walk like that. I really did. And I was interested in fashion and hair and makeup as a child. I grew up in a culture where the two gender roles are very strictly defined. But I always asked, 'Why are you telling me a man cannot do this? Why?' And they never gave me any good reasons why I, as a man, should not be the best hairstylist or makeup artist or whatever. So I chose to go through my own journey and going to Paris was hugely liberating for me, because I went to model as a man, but at that point I was already teaching all of the girls back home how to walk. I was a little nervous, but in high fashion most of the girls are flat-chested so there's already a lot of gender play. So it was perfect. Of course, when I went back to Cameroon I sure didn't tell nobody.

TM: You've said you received threats of violence if you ever returned to Cameroon. Do you ever think about going back anyway?
BZB: Yes. Honestly, out of so many emails that I received after I won Drag Race, I got just one piece of hate mail, one out of so many words of encouragement. Do I take that one letter and obsess over it or do I take the hundreds of others that are encouraging me and pushing me forward? I have to go back to Cameroon, not only to see my parents and be a part of my culture which I miss a lot, but because I remember growing up around so many boys and girls who are so talented, but don't even have the opportunity to express that talent because of how society is. Going out there and doing something for them will mean a lot to me.

TM: Have you met any of the contestants on this season of Drag Race?
BZB: Yes. I've met all of the new girls. They are their own alter egos. I think some are very talented and some have a lot of work to do. I hope and pray that they use this moment to the best of their abilities. So many doors have been opened since the first season.

TM: You are also participating in season two of Drag U. How is that going?
BZB: The shooting is finished and I think this season has improved on the first. Drag U is about women and you get a chance to really experience these women because you work so closely with them. As artists, we get so many requests and questions about technique. Surprisingly enough, a lot of these requests are from women. Just being able to work with them and having them tell us what an inspiration we are to them was just wonderful.

TM: What else are you working on?
BZB: I'm working on a reality show where alter egos, like Bebe Zahara Benet, are put in situations and places where they're not meant to be, like a Republican dinner. I am also working on an album. But my primary focus is Queendom right now. It's my baby.

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