LIFE OF A QUEEN

This piece was selected as one of two UF entries for the 2017 Picture Story/Series Competition of the Hearst Journalism Awards.

A waiter at a barbecue joint by day.

A drag queen by night.

This is the story of Michael Koedam Jr., a 25-year-old from the small town of Williston with big (drag) dreams. Michael has performed under the stage name of Rachel Boheme for seven years. He sees drag as an art form that not only gives him a chance to channel a different personality, but to become a totally different person.

This is Rachel Boheme.

Every time she performs, Rachel Boheme channels a different celebrity. Deciding who that celebrity will be is an all-day affair — she has to decide on a combination of background music, dance moves, outfits, wigs and makeup. Each performance is different. She said her process is driven by mood, but decided by visual inspiration she finds on Instagram. On this Saturday night in October, Rachel channeled Britney Spears for her looks and Ariana Grande for her sound.

Lip syncing to Ariana Grande’s “Side To Side,” Rachel makes her rounds through the crowd at a local gay club. She said she tries to involve the crowd as much as possible, pulling people to join her on stage or singling someone out to receive a lap dance.

When she’s not performing, Rachel Boheme is known as Michael Koedam Jr., a 25-year-old man from a rural town in Florida. Rachel Boheme is Koedam's stage name — he’s been performing as a drag queen for about seven years. “I work very hard to keep drag and myself separate,” Koedam said. “There’s Michael and then there’s Rachel. You’ll get one or the other."

Koedam rests at the doorway between Hungry Howie’s Pizza and BubbaQue’s, the barbecue restaurant where he works almost every week day. Koedam supports his drag career with the money he makes waiting tables, preparing orders and working the cash register.

During a lull of orders and phone calls, Koedam takes a smoke break at the back of the restaurant.  “I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t watch the clock,” Koedam said. “I count the minutes.”

On his break, Koedam scrolls through Instagram to draw fashion inspiration from famous drag queens and celebrities. He said he usually tailors his performances to the venue and the audience he assumes will be there — but if he could have it his way, Rachel would constantly perform with a morbid, “Elvira-esque” vibe.

After work, Koedam heads to the performance venue and begins the slow transformation into Rachel Boheme. He said it takes about two hours to finish his makeup routine. “But it can take longer,” Koedam said, "depending on what kind of a face I’m trying to give you.”

Looking up at another queen, Koedam pauses his eyeshadow application to take a sip of his drink.

Koedam laughs and leans over to look at a photo on Facebook. Though he said he usually keeps to himself while transforming into Rachel, he sometimes breaks concentration to chat and gossip with other queens. “The dressing room is an explosion of energy and witty banter that you never really get used to," Koedam said.

Halfway through his makeup routine, Koedam steps outside of the dressing room to smoke a cigarette. While getting ready at most venues, he wears a blue sweatshirt with the crest of Ravenclaw from the "Harry Potter" book series.

Koedam leans towards the mirror to apply thick layers of a frosty pink lipstick. He said that the more dramatic the makeup, the better it looks on stage. “Think of Rachel as a seductive super villain by night and a fashion model by day,” Koedam said. “And also a video hoe.”

Lip syncing to the song "Look But Don't Touch" from the TV show "Empire," Koedam puts the finishing touches on his bright purple eyeshadow.

Koedam brushes out the knots in his black wig a few minutes before his performance. He said Rachel comes more alive with each step — so he puts time and care into the details. “I love when someone looks at me as Rachel and doesn’t believe I’m a boy,” Koedam said.

A few minutes before taking the stage, Koedam adjusts his wig and stares into the mirror. He said this moment — the "in between stage” — is one of the most exciting parts of the process. It’s when he begins to feel fully like Rachel.

Koedam, now Rachel Boheme, dances for members of the audience. "I never want you to say that Rachel is just a comedy queen or a dancing queen,” Koedam said. "I want you to say that Rachel is a queen. And that she can do anything."

ONE-MINUTE MULTIMEDIA PIECE:

TWO-MINUTE MULTIMEDIA PIECE:

I produced this photo-story over the course of one month. I spent multiple hours with Michael, making sure to photograph him in every kind of moment - from the ordinary to the extraordinary. The audio was created from a 45-minute interview I conducted with Michael.