Queens take the stage

By Michelle Williams

Collegian Photo Staff
Collegian Photo Staff

Pink lights illuminated the dimly-lit Campus Center Auditorium as three former cast members of the show “RuPaul’s Drag Race” addressed discrimination and diversity in the drag community yesterday evening.

Shannel was the first to sashay her way to the stage in a black, Victorian-style gown bejeweled with rhinestones. She worked her way through the crowd of approximately 250 people, blowing kisses as she lip-synced to a mix of Italian opera and an Annie Lennox song.

She and the two other entertainers, Shangela and Bebe Zahara Benet, became known to television viewers on the first season of the Logo TV show.

Yesterday’s event, titled “Divas of Diversity,” was a part of a nationwide tour discussing discrimination faced by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

“RuPaul’s Drag Race” is a mix of “America’s Next Top Model” and “Project Runway,” featuring nine drag queens vying for stardom through beauty and talent competitions. The show is hosted by RuPaul Charles, the competition’s 50-year-old creator, who alters between donning vintage Ferragamo suits and ties and custom-made evening gowns in full makeup on the show. The contestants compete for a cash prize and a lifetime supply of Kryolan makeup.

Shangela channeled Beyonce as she came on the stage, wearing a fitted gold and black gown and a large curled wig. She performed a montage to several of Beyonce’s songs, dancing both on the stage and in the crowd. Shangela was featured on the television show in the second and third seasons.

Bebe Zahara Benet, born Nea Marshall Kudi Ngwa, was the final entertainer to enter the auditorium wearing a sequined floor-length gown and a Nina Simone-inspired wig. While dancing to Beyonce, she kissed two members of the audience.

She kissed UMass student Manuel Mantilla on the cheek, who said he wouldn’t be washing off the rouge colored kiss for the remainder of the night.

Bebe, a native of the Republic of Cameroon, said she broke into drag by way of the runways in Paris. According to the biography on her website: “When one of the female models failed to arrive, Marshall stepped out of his trousers and into an elegant evening gown, then walked the runway impersonating a female. It was at that moment when the gorgeously graceful, creatively elegant Bebe Zahara Benet was born.”

As more than a female impersonator, Bebe said: “I personally don’t like to be called a drag queen. I know everybody knows us as drag queens, and I don’t get hurt when I get called a drag queen, but I like to be referred to as an entertainer or a performing artist because there are so many things that I do in this art form.”

“The divas are putting on their heels to entertain and educate campuses. The event provides the opportunity for young people to have a platform to embrace their differences and celebrate diversity – all while having a great time,” according to the tour’s website.

The event was sponsored by the University Programming Council.

Natalie Casey, the multicultural events coordinator for UPC, said the event was the result of a concerted effort with the Stonewall Center, an organization that provides support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

“I feel like there’s not a lot of events geared toward the LGBT community, so that’s why we wanted to do something for UPC that’s for that group of people,” she said.

She added that the Council “plans to do more events like this.”

During the discussion section of the event last night, Shangela, whose birth name is Darius Williams, spoke of struggles and discrimination during childhood that motivated her to speak out.

“I grew up in a really strict Baptist household. My grandfather always had me in church, sometimes on Sundays, sometimes on Fridays, and I was in the house by 10,” she said. “I would always feel uncomfortable when we would get to parts of religion when we specifically dealt with homosexuality. You’ll be sitting there and you say, ‘yeah, that’s good, I’m feeling it,’ and then it goes, ‘and the gays go to hell,’ and you’re like ‘oh.’”

When asked if she faced discrimination as an African-American, Bebe responded that she felt discriminated against not for her race, but rather for her occupation.

“Whether it’s philanthropic work or something, the first people who will get attention are drag queens,” said Bebe. “The first people out there trying to make their voice heard by the community, but when it’s all said and done, then okay, well, it’s drag. That’s something we’re still facing.”

Shannel, whose off-stage name is Bryan Watkins, expanded on stereotypes of drag queens.

“A lot of people who don’t understand but know that you do drag, automatically assume that you are effeminate as a boy, that you’re a drug addict, you’re a whore or you’re an alcoholic,” she said.

She said she has never taken illegal drugs and drinks, on average, four glasses of wine per year, adding: “I am farthest thing from a whore that anybody can actually imagine. So I, like you, am a good conservative woman of the lord.”

While they identified with female pronouns throughout the night, the performers said that as soon as their wigs and makeup are off, they are men.

“For me, drag is a job, drag is a paycheck, drag is entertainment. It starts and ends there. When this comes off, my hat backwards, my jeans, my tennis shoes. I can work on cars, I can cook, I can clean, I can do anything any coat-on-coat straight guy can do,” said Shannel, adding, “I can put on a suit and tie, and most people, fortunately enough, would not have a clue what I do … to me, I’m just who I am.”

Throughout the night, the three made jokes regarding gender, sexuality, disabilities and race. Following her first performance, Shangela asked the group “lesbians, how are you doing? Did they close the Home Depot early?”

While walking through the audience, Shannel asked for a napkin and said, “I’m sweating like a retard at a spelling bee.”

During the question and answer section, an audience member expressed concern about the joke as an ally of people with mental disabilities.

“I try to be an ally and an advocate to everyone and so I stand up when I hear offensive language.” She added that Shannel’s comment “goes against the message of diversity and that really offended me.”


Shannel responded, “I would not be part of this program in here to spread the word of hope and voice, and I would not have gone on a plane for seven hours to come here if you’re really going to take that much offense to that, though I do apologize if that offended anybody else out there.”

The event ended with the opportunity for audience members to take photos with the three performers, who formed a line reaching the entrance to the auditorium.

Michelle Williams can be reached at [email protected] Ardee Napolitano can be reached at [email protected]