gsn-google gsn-google

This documentarian has been following Drag Race's BeBe Zahara Benet for 12 years

A Kickstarter campaign was recently launched to help Emily Branham complete the film

This documentarian has been following Drag Race's BeBe Zahara Benet for 12 years
BEING BEBE is a full-circle story, exploring themes of ambition, authenticity and layers of performance. (Photo courtesy of Work and Serve Productions, LLC)

New York City-based filmmaker Emily Branham has been documenting the life of the first RuPaul’s Drag Race winner, BeBe Zahara Benet, for over a decade. Now, on the heels of All Stars 3, Branham launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the film’s final edits.

Being BeBe is described as ‘an up-close-and-personal film about performance, persistence, purpose.’

Meeting BeBe

Branham first met BeBe (Marshall, out of drag) back in 2006.

‘We first met through my little sister, Elizabeth, who was dancing backup for BeBe,’ Branham tells GSN in an exclusive interview.

‘I remember Elizabeth called me one day from Minneapolis – while I was in NYC working on a toothpaste commercial or something – to tell me she’d gone to an audition posted at her dance studio, and the next thing she knew, she was rehearsing with this really talented young drag performer from Cameroon.’

‘BeBe Benet (the Zahara came later), had just won the Miss Minnesota US of A title, and was headed to her first national pageant in Dallas,’ Branham recalls. ‘The whole thing immediately sounded like a terrific short film. I found a way to drop everything, borrow a camera, and go find out what was there.’

‘Once I got to Minneapolis and started filming, I was blown away by BeBe’s stage presence, how much her fans adored her, and how much I was moved by her talent number for the pageant – an epic, 8-minute dance/lip sync number with a similar flavor to the Cameroon number that everyone just got a taste of in the Variety Show on All Stars 3. Plus her backstory of growing up in West Africa was clearly rich and unique, and I wanted to know more. Fortunately, BeBe was open to the whole thing, and over time the short expanded into a feature.’

The film’s story

The main storyline of the near-completed documentary is about a particularly rough summer in Marshall’s life.

‘He was running out of money and opportunities, and didn’t think he could afford to keep living in New York City. He decided to put everything he had into one last, stripped down live show, called Reveal, which was going to be about sharing new layers of himself with his audience that he’d never shared before,’ Branham explains.

Being BeBe DocumentaryWork and Serve Productions, LLC.

Director Emily Branham has been following BeBe Zahara Benet’s journey since 2006. Here, she shoots backstage as BeBe and her singers rehearse for their stripped-down live show, Reveal. (Photo courtesy of Work and Serve Productions, LLC)

‘As part of his process of preparing for the show, he took a series of acting classes with an acting coach named Anthony Vincent Bova, intended to help him access those deeper layers on stage. I actually took the class myself before BeBe ever did, and found Anthony’s teaching methods to be incredibly empowering and transformative. It’s very raw, exposing and vulnerable work that gets straight to the heart of what it is to be human. I’m really proud of all the careful thinking and effort that Anthony and I put in to protecting the well-being of all the actors in the class, including Marshall.’

‘We made sure that everyone not only felt safe – but was safe – to do their best, most vulnerable work, even with three cameras running in the room. It was no small feat, and really stands out as a challenging and rewarding part of shooting this film. I have so much love for everyone who participated in that grand experiment.’

At the beginning

Before the first day of shooting in May 2006, Branham barely spent any time in the drag scene. Though, as a former child actor, something about the showbiz/backstage aspect of drag was comforting and familiar to her.

‘When we first started, I was a woman in my mid-twenties who was really struggling internally with feeling like I had the “wrong” comportment to be taken seriously in the job I wanted to be doing in a male-dominated field,’ she says.

‘So then when I got to the Gay 90s [the bar in downtown Minneapolis where BeBe performed], I was super compelled by the way these (mostly) men were expressing themselves and performing femininity in such a heightened way. It got me thinking about how and why we all perform our gender and identity all the time – in both off-stage and on-stage situations. Plus, bearing witness to the creativity and courage of all drag performers just resonates and never gets old to me.’


‘But then with Marshall particularly, on top of his undeniable talent and unique story, I think I really identified personally with his ambition, persistence, work ethic, and close relationships with his family,’ she says. ‘I also suspect that on some level we both have a bit of trepidation about being truly seen by the outside world. It’s a paradox that I aim to explore through the film – that this is a very skilled performer whose objective is to have everybody look at him, but doesn’t necessarily want to be seen.’

Director David Mendizabal works with BeBe to design costume looks for Reveal. (Photo courtesy of Work and Serve Productions, LLC.)

‘In a lot of ways, I think Marshall defies conventional stereotypes about drag performers,’ Branham states.

‘He doesn’t drink, smoke or do drugs, his sense of humor isn’t super raunchy. He rarely curses – apart from the word “bitch,” which is pretty inescapable! And there are a couple naughty words he’s said on All Stars 3 that I’d honestly never heard out of his mouth before. He’s a very spiritual person, and refuses to put labels on his sexuality. He’s a homebody at heart, and makes a really conscious effort to not get caught up in what he sees as the temptations of nightlife. But he’s not preachy about any of the above, and doesn’t judge others for their choices.’

The Kickstarter campaign

‘This project is a very independent labor of love, that has only made it this far through sheer stubborn force of will (plus credit cards). We now need significant financial help to finish up post-production and get it across the finish line, which is why we’ve launched this Kickstarter campaign. BeBe is the subject of the film, but not the producer – this isn’t a vanity piece, it’s a portrait of a complex human being that explores ideas around performance, persistence and purpose.’

‘We’ve got all this toxic intolerance and prejudice and fear dominating our political climate right now – meanwhile, we know that one of the most powerful tools we have for opening minds is empathy.’

‘Without being super heavy on the inherent social issues, our film tells an accessible, entertaining and non-exploitative story that defies stereotypes. Marshall is an admirable and flawed, lovable and complex human being just like you and me. He never gives up on his unconventional dreams. And neither do I.’

‘I have to say that my heart is so so full and grateful right now. Since the launch of the Kickstarter, we’ve received so much positivity and love for the project. I wasn’t quite prepared for that aspect of crowdfunding. I’m probably driving my studiomates crazy – I just can’t help myself from exclaiming “awwww!” every time a new backer supports the project, or shares about it on social media, or sends an encouraging note about the film. It’s just the coolest thing, after working in relative isolation for so long, to get some reinforcement that people want us to keep going with this thing.’

‘Every single person who contributes to our Kickstarter – at any dollar level – makes a big difference in helping get the film finished, and in communicating to the industry that this unlikely, inspiring story about an accomplished immigrant drag performer matters and is something that people want to see.’

Got a news tip? Want to share your story? Email us .