NEW YORK — True performers never phone it in, and Billy Porter proved that point again and again during his Wednesday night talk with Fern Mallis at 92Y.
Never mind that his second stop of the night would be a Carnegie Hall performance with Idina Menzel, the “Pose” star didn’t hold back in detailing the arcs and pitfalls of his life. While many in the audience applauded Porter for his 2013 Tony-winning role in “Kinky Boots,” the 50-year-old actor, singer and barrier breaker’s fame took years of exertion and rejection. Like his delivery, the Emmy-winning actor’s ensemble – a custom black-and-gold sequined double-crepe-sablé cape with feather embroidery from Michael Kors Collection – was commanding.
The Pittsburgh-born Porter discussed how being sexually abused by his stepfather from the age of seven to 12 may have given him the wherewithal to save himself. When memories of that surfaced four years later, he decided to extract himself from the very religious environment that he was in. “I looked around the landscape and there wasn’t one of those religious people — not anybody — who was present to help me. I had to save myself. Because of that trauma I was able to see clearly, ‘Y’all have no plan and I have to save myself.'”
Twenty-plus theatrical roles started with his chorus part in the 1991 Broadway production of “Miss Saigon.” Often asked about that role, he said flatly, “I went to the audition and I got the gig. That’s what everybody does. You’ve got to show up and go to the audition. Looking back, I wish I were more present for it. I was just trying to be a star, child.”
Three years later he found himself typecast in a Broadway run of “Grease.” He said, “I would never trade the journey. It was great. It was fun. Inside of it, I realized that was where I got pigeonholed as a sissy clown. That’s not what I came here for. But nobody knew what to do with me. Nobody wanted to tell my story for real.”
Without question, his messages — whether that be access, opportunity, inclusion or anything else — are plenty. He told Mallis, “What I do is a ministry. I’m no politician but I call it a ministry. I know it ruffles a lot of church people’s feathers — I don’t care.”
Here, a summary of some of Porter’s key points:
Trying to tell his mother that he was gay at three different points in his life.
This was the Eighties. There wasn’t a lot of language in the world. At that time, it was like gay and AIDS and nothing in between. My mom was a little church girl. She didn’t know what it was. All she knew was it was a sin and she didn’t want her son to be sinful. So yeah — denial, denial, denial. In my mid-20s and late 20s, it was more like, “Boo, it ain’t going to change. We should really have this conversation for real. This is not a passing fad.”
Studying fashion every Sunday
The black church is high theater and a fashion show every week. And the runway is the aisle that you walk down to get to your seat. So, where you sit in the sanctuary is how good you felt that day. If you were in the front, you felt gooood. You sashayed down that center runway….It was an early fashion education. The church would have a fashion show fund-raising blah-blah-blah. It was fabulous. Everything was a tableau. The curtains would open and everyone would [strikes a dramatic pose]. There was a moderator, too. “The model is wearing crème, bone, brown, beige, off-white with the blue pants from Sears & Roebuck — $13.99. Praise the Lord.”
Homophobia in the music industry
The music industry was the first place where my voice didn’t take me. It was the first time when I opened up my mouth to sing, nobody cared. All they cared about was who I was f–king. All they cared about was what will people think if they figure out for real….It was really, really debilitating. I didn’t know it until I was out of it. There still aren’t [a lot of gay pop stars]. It’s better, but…yeah, it’s hard. That was a hard time.”
Landing the role of Lola role in “Kinky Boots” in 2013
When I heard about the musical, I was like, “All right, that’s mines. That’s going to be mines.” I knew [director] Jerry Mitchell. I called him on the phone and said, “B—h, why are you having readings of this without me?” I hadn’t been in the business in a decade because I had extracted myself trying to change the narrative about me. When you do that in this business and you don’t talk about it, people start making s–t up about you. You’re hard to work with. I was having voice issues. He lost his voice, he can’t do it no more. That kind of s–t. I was not on the list so I had to literally pick up the phone and call the director. They try to act like it was always me, but it wasn’t. People have selective amnesia. They made me jump through hoops of fire to get that part. No shade — we all should do that. That’s how you get it, right? It was the time of my life. It was the original dream coming true.
Marrying Adam Smith last year
We met in 2009, dated for a year, broke up for five, got back together five years ago. I proposed in London [at a restaurant]. City Social is the name of the restaurant. Cartier ring and all. I’m not a romantic person like that. I didn’t have a lot of romance in my life. So I asked my friends, “This has to be a thing, right?” [They said,] “Yeah, it has to be a thing.”
Auditioning for one role on “Pose” and insisting on another
With a Tony and a Grammy, people would listen to me. I was also 45 years old. I could go to that audition, prepare it, slay it and then say to the casting director, “I think that’s the wrong part for me.” I said, I’ve lived it. I’ve been here. It would be a waste of everybody’s time if you are doing it about the ballroom culture and you have me over here as a dance teacher and not in the world. Ryan Murphy agreed.
Being asked to host red-carpet arrivals and choosing a tuxedo dress for the 2019 Oscars
It was during fashion week. We went to Christian Siriano’s fashion show a half hour after I got the call. I remembered why I love him. He’s always been the designer that understands that everybody on the planet wears clothes, whether you’re a size 0 or a size 400. We had already been coming up against a wall with many designers because I wanted to do this gender-bending, fluid thing. We just got flat-out no’s from a lot of people. “We don’t think you should be wearing that.” That kind of silencing thing that happens. I’m older now so I knew what it looked like. I’ll do it anyway. I knew I needed to wear a ballgown and Christian is the only person who would look me in the face and say yes. He did it in nine days. It was my idea to do the top and the bottom, playing with genders. I didn’t know what the shot was going to be. I thought if it is shot from the waist up and it looks like a traditional tux, and then you pull out and see it’s a ballgown, the world will change.
Arriving at this year’s Met Gala as a gilded, winged Egyptian pharaoh.
I didn’t have to do anything. My stylist did it. It was his idea to have that moment. That’s a a big deal. Miss Anna Wintour said, “Yes.” My stylist had the idea and I was like, “Child, please, that ain’t gonna happen.” Two weeks later, he was like, “Girl! You’re getting carried in, darling, by six shirtless men…” We worked with The Blonds on that outfit. Their clothes make me feel like a rock star and I’m about to do that s–t, too. Grandpa’s coming back to the music industry, y’all get ready.
In the past couple of months, I have been wearing a lot of Thom Browne. It’s good to travel with. It’s like Garanimals. It’s all uniform. You have the high-end stuff, the couture, the everyday wear and everything in between – and everything goes together. I’ve been traveling so much lately. I finished last night at midnight, the car came at four in the morning, I don’t want to have to worry about clothes. You throw 10 things into a suitcase and you’ve got 25 outfits to mix and match. And Thom Browne is flawless. After this year, I can’t travel in sweatpants any more. I need to show up. I wear a lot of designers. I love Yohji [Yamamoto], when I want something black and stretch and fabulous. I want to wear Dior, Saint Laurent, anybody who wants to do something for me. There is a lot to do….I said to my stylist, “Don’t beg nobody for nothing. Everything in its time.” There is something coming [for his own collection], but I’m not sure what.
“Wear whatever the f–k you want.” It’s up to you. Another one is, “Wear the clothes. Don’t let the clothes wear you.”