The Monarch program crowns one Forest Family member as king or queen of the realm. Anyone and everyone is encouraged to apply, and the winner is chosen based on a vision that spreads positivity throughout the festival grounds. Winners get four VIP camping passes so they may bring a royal court, as well as a personal golf cart and the opportunity to make their impact on the festival.
Past Monarchs have included initiatives to encourage healthy eating, hydration and fun things like scavenger hunts, but Monarch Rachel was about one thing: being wonderfully, colorfully and unabashedly yourself.
“It's just so fun,” Rachel says of drag. “I was really confused about my gender identity. Being able to play with gender and put on a mustache, just wearing weird and different stuff, it really helped me. I'm kind of in the middle. I'm a nice variation of feminine and masculine. That's what I like.”
By day, Rachel, who identifies with the pronoun “they,” is a photography major at Grand State Valley University in Allendale, Michigan. In a little more than a year, they'll graduate with a minor in advertising, a feat they also owe to their drag roots. Rachel rediscovered a love for the art form while capturing Kaylee and their friend Barrett Kyle's transformations. Those weird and wonderful subjects helped Rachel realize their own artist inside and eventually helped give birth to Jack Dup.
Rachel is what's called a drag king. Born a female, identifying as non-binary, Rachel transforms into a “masculine” figure. Their twin Kaylee is what's called a bioqueen. She was born a female and takes on the qualities of a traditional drag queen, accentuating femininity to heights so over-the-top, it becomes less about appearing womanly and more about taking on the qualities of a cartoonish being. Kyle is a traditional drag queen, who incorporates his degree in cellular molecular biology to become the often science-themed Beeka Darwin.
Together with feminine friend Rikki Paepke, the four friends descended upon Electric Forest 2017 weekend one to defy gender roles, challenge stereotypes and inspire fun from every shady nook to sunny field. The royal Monarch crew paraded through the festival grounds in different theme costumes each day; including sci-fi, vintage and spooky. They also transformed willing attendees with drag makeovers and pounds of glitter, while hosting and headlining very special drag performances.
“When I've come [to Electric Forest] in the past, you see all the cool hired performers and characters that walk around with these crazy amazing costumes, and it's just been very inspiring for me, my drag and my photography,” Rachel says. “There are so many people here that are so open to getting made over and talking to us queens. They're just so many people that are very open minded, but I think there are a lot of people here that don't really understand the gender fluidity, or anything but binary. I think this [program] is a good thing, because there are people that need to see different genders, learn more about LGBT variety, and the fact that were representing it here is very important.”
“If you've never experienced drag before, there are definitely stereotypes of what a drag queen is,” Kaylee says. “It's very nice to have this open environment that's not a bar scene, because for certain people that can be really intimidating, and this is a cooky playground. It's really cool to have more of an open space where people can just come in, talk to us and see us, break down those negative stereotypes, and see us for what we really are. Under all three inches of foundation, there's a person.”
The warm, welcoming attitude the four friends share is truly infectious. They giggle at each other's words. Their conversations are full of squeals, sarcastic jokes and enthusiastic compliments. It's hard to see how anyone could wander upon their marry banter and not leave feeling a little shinier -- glitter-faced or not. Monarch Rachel and their Royal Court didn't have to get in full “geish” to stand out, even as they travel the winding paths of the festival and fit right in.
“I didn't realize how big the forest was,” Kaylee says. “We're walking a mile that way, there's stuff this way, in every direction, up in the sky, down in the ground. There's so much, and it's cool to see how each venue has its own personality. It's very similar to drag, because each outfit we do has its own personality. Just like each person.”
To learn more about Monarch Rachel and their photography, follow them online. To learn more about the Monarch Program at Electric Forest, head to the festival website.