How Billy Porter Spent Three Decades Creating the Career He Always Wanted

Over the course of his nearly thirty year career, Billy Porter has won a Tony Award, a Grammy Award, and come September, may soon be adding an Emmy to his collection thanks to his new nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for his role of Pray Tell on the FX show Pose. Still, it wasn't always an easy road to success for the actor, who turns 50 years old in September. "We talk about authenticity. We throw that word around all the time," he says. " I always say it's easy to be who are, when what you are is what's popular. What I am and who I am, it ain't popular." And yet, with true hard work and some serious dedication—and never changing who he is—Porter has carved out an impressive career all his own. Here, the actor talks about his early start in musical theater, auditioning for Pose, and inclusivity in Hollywood.

When you were a child did you want to be an actor?

Yes. From the time I was eleven years old. I went to Reizenstein Middle School in Pittsburgh and I was introduced to musical theater and I fell in love. I found my tribe. The thing about it was that I couldn't do any of the sort of traditional masculine things that are required. I wasn't good at gym. I wasn't good at sports. I was a good student but I didn't feel like I fit in to anything extracurricular and I felt sort of like an outcast. But I could sing. I sang in church. This was back in the '80s before after school programs were cut, so there was like a big stack of after school programs. And I went through them and I saw something that said Reizenstein Musical Theater. And I didn't know what theater was, but I saw musical and I thought, well, maybe I could sing. So I went to the first meeting and they explained to us what a musical was and that the next week we would have auditions. I came back the next week and I sang. The casts were huge. It was like 100 people in the cast and every single role was double cast. Four performances, every single role was double cast. And when the cast list went up, everybody was double cast but me. So I got to do all four performances. I don't know if there was something in that that gave me a clue that maybe this might be something that I could do, and be popular doing it, and not be bullied anymore.

What was your audition song that blew them away?

Well, interestingly enough, the very day that I went to my first meeting, my grandmother took me downtown for my birthday to see the touring company of The Wiz. And I was like "Oh my god! This is what they're talking about!" And I want to sing this song that she sings at the end called "Home."

Were your parents proud that you were the star?

That's complicated. Yes. Everybody was proud, but I didn't come from an environment where theater was something that anybody understood. You sang in church. You sang for the Lord. And that was it. That summer following, I happened to catch the Tony Awards on television and I hadn't made the connection that I could make a living doing it. Even having seen The Wiz, I didn't make that connection. I didn't even know what the Tony Awards were, but it was the year that Dream Girls was up for Best Musical. All of a sudden, there the fight scene was with Jennifer Holliday and Loretta Devine. It ended with "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." I was in shock because here were, first of all, all of these beautiful black people in high fashion, and gowns, and hair, and makeup. All we really had was Roots and Good Times at the time. You know, we had The Jeffersons, but you didn't see a lot of people of color on television dripping in style and fashion. You just didn't see a lot of that. And so, that caught my attention and then Jennifer Holliday sang "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." She sang like I knew how sing. She sang like the people sang at church. She sang like me and she was on television. The connection of money and television really sort of launched me into this space where "Oh I'm going to do that. That's what I'm going to do." So that was a really significant moment for me.

And now you've probably done that for other people.

I hope so. You know, it's very important to pay it forward and I really am an artist who believes in art as activism, art as inspiration. We as artists have the capacity to reach into the real heart of people and change the molecular structure of their insides and change hearts and minds. My life was saved by the arts, so I hope to continue to do that for others.

Tell me about your character on Pose.

I play a character named Pray Tell and he is the emcee of the balls. Pose is about the LGBTQ ball culture in New York, where Vogueing came from, where a lot of the lingo that we now attribute to RuPaul's Drag Race or lots of cultural constructs that we sort of just live inside of now came out of this culture. This show gets to sort of reclaim our place in the world. Five transgender actresses of color lead our cast and it's the largest LGBTQ cast in history. I'm very proud to be a part of telling this story that is about a marginalized group of people that don't get a lot of shine. Don't get talked about very often.

How did this role come into your life?

The casting director called, told me about the show. I was completely gobsmacked that anybody would dare tell this story on this level. Paris Is Burning was like my favorite movie, my tome. It came out right in the early '90s right when I was sort of coming to New York City. It was really the first time I saw people of color, LGBTQ people of color, in any sort of space like that. So it's a movie that me and everybody I know have revered for a very long time.

So, I got the script for the character they were calling me in for and it was the dance teacher. I was like "Well, this ain't quite the role I want but..." I went in, I did my reading, and I spoke to [casting director] Alexa Fogel afterwards. I said, "I don't want to overstep my bounds but I feel like I've lived through this. I was there for these stories. I lived through the AIDS crisis." I was ball adjacent, I say. I went to many balls. I lived in those circles for many years. I said, "It would be better for everybody if I was sort of in that world. What about one of the mothers of the houses?" And that's when it was revealed to me that Ryan's idea was to make all of the mothers transgender, which is the truth, which really excited me. I said "But wouldn't you need a father figure over there. In that world, wouldn't you need a godfather, like somebody who's an energy that is older perhaps."

I thought, "If you're going to tell this story, you're going to tell the depth of it. Because I think one of things that's so powerful about Paris Is Burning is that it's about a marginalized culture of a group of people who had nothing, literally nothing, and chose life anyway. And I wanted to tell that story. So she went back to Ryan with this idea and he basically came back and said, "If you can do an impersonation of the emcees at the balls, we'll create something for you." It was like, "If? Miss thing, the whole world is doing an impersonation of the emcee from the balls. For the last 30 years. So yes, darling, I can and I shall." And that's how Pray Tell came to be.

So this begs an interesting question which is, do you feel that you've made your own luck in your career?

Yes. I do. I feel like I'm the kind of person who doesn't know how to do anything else but keep going. My mother is my hero. She has had a disability her entire life. It's a degenerative condition that the world told her she wouldn't ever be able to do anything. I sat and watched her get out of bed every day and show up for her life every day. It really empowered me. It gave me that kind of tenacity to never give up. So yes. I also come from a space where you speak life. You speak the things that you want into existence, no matter how long it may take. It took a long time for me. I also got to a place early. I came to New York at 21. The first decade of my career was on Broadway. I also and R&B record deal on A&M Records. The homophobia, the systematic homophobia, in the business at large, the attack on my masculinity really lead me to a crossroads because it was like, "Well you have to fix yourself or you won't ever have success." We talk about authenticity. We throw that word around all the time. I always say it's easy to be who are, when what you are is what's popular. What I am and who I am, it ain't popular.

People are listening now. People are paying attention now. It's always about commerce. People in the entertainment industry, in the art industry, we masquerade as being inclusive. We are inclusive when it's convenient. We are inclusive when it's going to make somebody some money. [But,] it's people in positions of power using their powers for good, making sure that marginalized people in communities of color and otherwise, whose stories don't get told get told. When you create a space where the art and the entertainment collide, the message, the activism, where they collide and explode, then it's successful and everybody's making money.

Tell me more about your mom.

My mother, she is a very special woman who gave me courage because I watched her live her life with courage. I watched her defy all the odds. And even now when she has no mobility, and she lives in a nursing home. Me and my sister are very successful, very functioning. And that doesn't happen a lot where I come from. She can be proud of us. She can be proud of how she raised us. So yeah, I fought for it. And after going through the systematic violent homophobia of the music industry in particular. I was at a crossroads going into my 30s, and it was like, "I can choose myself." I can choose my authenticity. I can choose my sanity... over this imaginary fame that can possibly happen if I butch up enough for what other people think I should be. It was really heady and it was a really difficult decision, I had to make it. I went into the valley. I didn't work on Broadway for thirteen years, I couldn't get arrested. All of those things, all of those horror stories that people talk about... the depths of it.

What was the thing that brought you out of it?

The thing that brought me out of it, the piece that brought me out of it, was the piece that started it. When I went to see Angels in America in 1992, I think it was, maybe '94. I can't remember the exact date the first time. It was the first time that I had seen a black, gay character who was not the butt of the joke. Who was not the one to be reviled. Who was actually the moral, spiritual compass of this crazy world. And I thought, "Wow, that's who I am."

[At the time], I was doing Grease, prancing around with 14 inches of orange, rubber hair on my head. Like a Little Richard on crack. And I knew if I stayed on that trajectory I would never get to what my heart really wanted, what my soul really desired. So I walked away from all of it. I look back at it, and I think, "Wow, if I knew how long it was going to take to get to the other side, I don't know that I would have had the courage to do that." I'm so glad that I didn't and I'm so glad that I did. I'm so glad that I leapt off the ledge and just flew. And now on the other side I look at it. When Pose came along, [I was] feeling dismissed from the film and television world. Feeling overlooked, dismissed, disrespected, whatever. Even after the Tony, even after the Grammy. I came back to performing onstage with the first revival of Angels in America in 2010. And the next gig after that was Kinky Boots.

Porter wears a Comme des Garçons Homme Plus x George Cox dress, necklace, chaps, and tights.

Photograph by Jackie Nickerson; Styled by Elin Svahn. Hair by Akki Shirakawa at Art Partner; Makeup by Diane Kendal at Julian Watson Agency; Manicures by Megumi Yamamoto for Chanel Le Vernis at Susan Price NYC. Set design by Marla Weinhoff Studio. Produced by Sarah Maxwell and Hanna Corrie at PRODn Art + Commerce; Production Coordinator: Heather Strange; Photography Assistants: Patrick Lyn, Daren Thomas, Romek Rasenas; Digital Technician: Heath McBride; Production Assistants: Mitch Baker, Austin Kennedy; Set Assistants: Ian Noel, Jordan Seiler; Fashion Assistants: Kristina Koelle, Rasaan Wyzard, Erica Boisaubin, Jordyn Payne, Stefania Chekalina; Tailor: Yao Ayeh at Christy Rilling Studio.

Let's talk about Kinky Boots, because although it's very commercial, still was a huge step forward for people to see you in that kind of part.

One of the conversations that I remember and I think this is one of the things that for me really solidified my performance is that initially in the movie, Lola was supposed to be straight. I thought that after all the things that I've been through, after all of the decisions that I've made, after being an out gay actor and taking all of the hits that come with that... it would be irresponsible for me to finally get my shot—and to not only get my shot, but to show up in a dress and pumps and make-up and heels as a drag queen—and say to the world that this character is straight. It just didn't feel right to me. And I fought for that.

The subversive energy that existed with me doing it was that no, I am not a clown. Yes, I am a sexy drag queen woman. I'm playing it for the truth. I'm not playing it for the clownery. That was the difference. The other side of that too was, I'm also a black man. And people who don't live in those worlds, don't understand the impact of that. That had never happened before. Zaza and La Cage aux Folles was never a black man. Hedwig was never a black man until Taye Diggs. I couldn't even get an audition for Hedwig the first time around. They didn't see us like that. So, it smashed the glass ceiling. It really smashed the glass ceiling, I'm very, very proud of that. And even after that, I was still dismissed from film and television.

Let's cut forward to the Oscars this year. How did you land on that outfit?

So here's what happened. I really began to try to figure out business-wise for myself. I am the business, I am the brand. Trying to start thinking in that sort of relationship to myself. What is my brand? I know that for certain that my brand will also include fashion in some way. Fashion is hard to break into from the theater. It also is hard to break into when you're above a certain age. But that's cool, it didn't matter. For me. I'm going to do it anyway.

So I started playing with this gender fluid thing. I've done the geek chic look for Kinky Boots, got my Gap ad from that.The Oscar call came out of the blue.And after all the Kevin Hart stuff, I was on lists to host. I was like, "People, please let's not put the card before... I am so not that person." It was so not in my brain. And then literally the phone rang, three weeks before the Oscars, and it was like, "They want you to host the red carpet." Me and my gay friends, my gay girlfriends, all of our lives, we would have Oscar parties. It was like, "I'm going to wear ball gowns at the Oscars. I don't care." You know... sort of teasing. Sort of not really thinking that that was really, actually possible.

So I get this call when I was doing fashion week. I was an ambassador the CFDA for men's fashion week and I was doing all of the women's shows, too. It was my first fashion week. In heaven. I had never been to fashion shows like that before in my life. And I'm thinking, "What am I going to wear? This is a branding moment for me. I had done the Golden Globes with the cape. And I remember watching the Oscars with Idina Menzel, when John Travolta said her name wrong. And out loud I said to myself, "I need an Oscar moment." The Oscars is like the entertainment Superbowl. Millions and millions, and sometimes billions of people see this. She became a household name because John Travolta said her name wrong.

I went to the Christian Siriano show, and I've loved him since Project Runway. I remember distinctly the challenge where they had to make clothes for regular-sized people. It's in his DNA to be inclusive with his work. So if anybody was going to help me do this, it would be him. Because we had already come up against a lot of pushback. When we would ask for male and female things because I wanted to do a gender fluid thing, many houses were saying,"We don't think he should wear that." Once again, a silencing. So I went to Christian's show, and I went to the after party. I was dancing with Christian, I whispered in his ear. I said, " I'm doing this Oscar thing and I want you to make me a ball gown."And he literally was like, "Call the office on Monday."

It was really strong. I wonder, now does it put you in the awkward position of having to top it all the time?

I really don't see it like that because I can't see it like that, because I wouldn't sleep at night. What I'm trying to do is just, completely be authentic. There will be misses. You can't go into a space where you're pressurized to feel like you have to top something. I want to take whatever the moment is, and be as authentic and as true to that moment that I can be. And if I do that, that's all I'm interested in.

Now a few personal questions. When was your first kiss?

My first kiss was with my best friend who was a girl. She was two years older than me. I was in love with her all the way through high school. She loved everybody else. She came to my room before she went to college, in a sundress, and we kissed and that's when I knew I was gay. And I don't mean that in a sense that the kiss wasn't good. The kiss was great. But it was just like, "Oh I really think what I'm feeling on the inside is actually true." This just isn't the gender that I'm attracted to.

What is your secret skill?

My secret skill would be cooking. I could always cook, but then about a decade ago or so, a little bit more, I stumbled on the Food Network. I just really took a shine to it. I started learning different techniques and learning how to do anything. So I'll cook anything. Give me a recipe and I'll cook anything. I would like to go on Rachel Ray and cook with her at some point.

Who is your celebrity crush?

The shocking crush that I do have of like show-biz people would be Jada Pinkett and Sanaa Lathan. It's like one of those Hollywood crushes and yes, I'm gay, but whatever. I fell in love with Sanaa during Love & Basketball, I fell in love with Jada during Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I think there's a scrappiness to both of them, especially Sanaa in Love & Basketball. They're very feminine ladies, but simultaneously they also understand their masculine energy. I think the balance of that is something that attracts me.