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JUST DO YOU, BOO: A PRIDE SPECIAL CONVERSATION WITH BILLY PORTER

Billy Porter is a Tony-, Grammy-, Emmy-, Drama Desk-, Golden Globe-, Outer Critics Circle- and GLAAD Media Award-winning actor, an acclaimed singer and a fashion disruptor. Porter, who tore it up on Broadway as the star of Kinky Boots and earned critical acclaim (and oceans of viewer tears) with his role on the FX series POSE, became the first openly gay performer to win in a major Emmy category when he took the Lead Actor trophy in 2019 for his portrayal of the latter show’s Pray Tell (he was nominated in the category again in 2020). Porter has also lit up countless red carpets with some of the most daring looks in modern memory. He earned a Best Musical Theater Album Grammy in 2014 for Kinky Boots. His 2017 set, The Soul of Richard Rodgers, meanwhile, found modern political relevance galore—at the dawn of the Trump nightmare—in the catalog of a Broadway legend. His next big look will be a revolutionary take on a key character in Cinderella. Porter was kind enough to answer our questions, though we’re glad he couldn’t see the schmatta we were wearing.  

Can you talk about the differences in being out in the entertainment industry today versus 20 years ago? How are the music, film and stage industries different from each other? What challenges remain for each?
The fact that we can be out at all is the progress. There was no space 20 years ago to even think about it without the reality of one’s career blowing up. Film and music were the worst. Theater was a tad bit better, but not far behind. The challenge is to stay vigilant in the face of abject stagnation. We’ve come a long way—and we still have quite a ways to go. I’m humbled to be standing at the intersection of our continued forward motion.

For decades, the music of the gay community has influenced the direction of pop music. The club scene of the ’70s and ’80s introduced the world to Donna Summer, Madonna and The Weather Girls and cemented the diva status of Diana Ross, Cher, Janet Jackson and others. Who are some of the now-iconic artists you may have been first introduced to in the community, and why was acceptance by an LGBTQ+ audience so important to their long-term success?
The LGBTQ+ community has always been one of the biggest influencers of not only pop music but pop culture across the board—particularly queer communities of color. Historically, queer communities have gravitated to the power and resilience of female artists who stand, very often, in visible proxy—shedding light on, and thereby empowering, those who remain invisible to the mainstream. The gays are also, historically, the most loyal of fans. Passed down from generation to generation, our divas never die. Ask Judy or Barbra, Bette, Cher, Diana, Whitney, Mariah, Janet, Madonna, Beyoncé or Gaga—the list is powerful, and I’m tryin’ to git on it!

Pose took mainstream viewers into the world of ball culture, specifically focusing on those in the African-American and Latino communities where the scene originated. How have these communities progressed in comparison to the LGBTQ+ community as a whole?
Communities of color are always on the margins. We are always bringing up the rear in terms of any kind of progress. It’s shameful. It’s sad. It’s unjust. And once again, while there has been some movement, there hasn’t been nearly enough. We, as a collective society, have so far to go. We find ourselves embroiled in a familiar battle for simple voting rights—again! The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Internet has provided gay youth with a way to discover and connect with others who have the same interests and desires. Increasing acceptance, especially among young people, has made it easier for gay youth to be themselves at what would have been considered straight-only establishments just 10 or 20 years ago. Do today’s LGBTQ+ youth still need separate spaces, like the ballrooms of the ’80s?
My personal answer is yes. But I’m old; I’m still traumatized by old shit. My othering back in the day was violent and absolute. I find myself still uncomfortable in spaces that are not queer-friendly-specified. Once again, I’m over 50, and I’m certain the kids have a different experience.

RuPaul’s Drag Race has made drag mainstream. What other shows, movies and other projects have furthered drag’s acceptance? Can drag still provide relevant social/political commentary?
Drag is subversive. Drag is art. Art is always socially relevant. This fact is why I’m so committed to protecting the art and the artists of this world. RuPaul is the pinnacle of how art and politics collide.

Gay characters in film and television were once confined to being just the sassy friend or comic foil. How has storytelling evolved since then, and has the mainstream finally embraced LGBTQ+ characters as protagonists?
Well, my Black, gay ass just won an Emmy Award for Best Lead Actor in a Drama Series, so there has been progress. Now it’s up to us, those of us who have been blessed with the platform, to make sure we hold this industry and our world at large accountable. I’m already working on new projects that expand the conversations, so… onward and upward.

In June, it will be six years since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Last year, the Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act makes discrimination illegal on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. What’s the most important equality issue that remains unresolved for the LGBTQ+ community?
None of us is free until we all are free. Period. Transgender rights seem to be the hot-button topic at the moment. All hands on deck!

Later this year, you’re playing the Fairy Godparent—Fab G—in Cinderella. You’ve said magic has no gender. Why was it important to you for this character to be non-binary?
I have to admit that I’m not sure what language to use as pertains to my interpretation of The Fab G. Is non-binary truly what “they” are? I’m still trying to figure that out. But the good news is, in our incarnation of Cinderella 2021, magic has no gender—and “they” can stand in a space and represent all of the communities that are coming forward in this gender renaissance.

You recently revealed you’ve been living with HIV for more than a decade. What has the aftermath of the decision to share that news been like? How are you feeling about the compassion and receptivity of the entertainment community on this issue at present?
I haven’t paid a lot of attention to the response. I spent 14 years getting to a space of releasing the shame for myself. With that said, I am acutely aware and very grateful that I’ve been blessed to live long enough to see the day where this HIV+ conversation can happen in the mainstream and change hearts and minds from the inside out. Pray Tell, my character on POSE, missed the antiretroviral drugs by one year and died. I did not. The drugs have saved my life and millions more like me. We are now living with, instead of dying from, this disease, and the world is better for it. The entertainment community have always been an agent of change in many areas. This is no different. I’m proud to be an artist.

Who has especially inspired you to be yourself?
I stand on the shoulders of all those who came before me. The famous and the unknown. The heralded and the vilified. The list is too long to name, but trust—we’ve got some big shoes to fill.

What advice would you give an LGBTQ+ individual just starting out in the entertainment industry?
Be yourself! No matter what “they” tell you. Whoever “they” are. Just do you, Boo. Just do you.

 

Photos (from top): Broadway melody; on the move; Billy Porter with the Beers (clockwise from top): With the grandkids; with Suzi Dietz and Adam Porter Smith, Billy’s husband; with Lenny; an array of fierce looks.

NEAR TRUTHS:
DEVELOPING STORIES
The kids are almighty. (8/3a)
LEADING OFF:
RON’S BIG RUN
Not your father's Columbia (8/3a)
ON THE COVER
Happier days are here again. (8/3a)
AN AUGUST HITS LIST
Look at the guns on these giants. (8/3a)
GRAMMY CHEW: SEEING BIEBER
It's high time for Justice in the Academy. (8/3a)
NEW & DEVELOPING ARTISTS
From tender shoots to mighty oaks.
MARKETSHARE MANIA
Let's do the numbers.
DELTA VARIANT
It is not the name of a Henry Miller novel.
IS IT TIME FOR ANOTHER ROCK STORY?
Could be. Dunno.
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