‘Pose' Star Billy Porter's Epic Fight for Survival: ‘I Can Breathe Again'

‘Pose' Star Billy Porter's Epic Fight for Survival: ‘I Can Breathe Again'

In the most vibrant, blissfully chaotic scene on TV, it’s Billy Porter you notice.

In the most vibrant, blissfully chaotic scene on TV, it's Billy Porter you notice.

It's 1987 New York City. A disco ball is spinning. Suzi Lane's classic “Harmony” is blaring, and the crowds are voguing. A parade of LGBTQ queens enter the ball, each dressed in literal royal fashion, lifted from the Met. Controlling it all—the maestro, the emcee, the godfather himself—is Porter's Pray Tell, bellowing his running color commentary: “Disney, watch yo ass! Blenderella is in town. They are giving wands! They are giving prince and princess realness!” And, finally, the scores: “10s! 10s! 10s across the board!”

If Porter seems at home presiding over one of the legendary underground balls that provide the backdrop for FX's groundbreaking drama series Pose, it's because he was there, honey.

In fact, he's one of the only Pose cast members who was.

The Broadway veteran came out in 1985 and promptly moved to New York. He vividly remembers both the vivaciousness of the scene and the palpable fear. Just as Porter was coming into his own as a gay man in New York City, the community was being ravaged by the AIDS crisis, the reality of which is confronted by his Pose character in Sunday night's standout episode of the Ryan Murphy series.

“I feel like I'm getting to honor all my friends who didn't make it,” he tells me when I ask what it's like to so directly confront that time again on the show. “All those people whose stories were swept under, were silenced, they were there with me on set. I feel them with me every day.”

From the vulnerability of those scenes to the bombast of the ballroom sequences, Pray Tell gifts Porter with the rare full spectrum of the human experience to play—a unicorn role befitting a performer whose biggest successes were in larger-than-life turns.  

In the infamous Rosie O'Donnell-fronted revival of Grease in 1994, he wore a white, shoulder-padded spacesuit, platform shoes, and 14 inches of a flaming orange wig as Teen Angel, a subtle aesthetic compared to his roof-shattering vocals on “Beauty School Dropout.” It's a character he once described as “a Little Richard automaton on crack.”

Then there's his Tony-winning performance nearly 20 years later as the drag queen cabaret performer in Kinky Boots. While the two decades between saw steady work, that such a long period passed between proves the prejudice of an industry that routinely rejected him because of his sexual orientation and his flamboyance. Billy Porter stands out.

Even on the see-and-be-seen rooftop pool deck of Manhattan's Soho House, I spot Porter right away, as if a spotlight follows him wherever he goes. On this particular morning, he's wearing a short-sleeved button-up with lemons printed on it, a straw hat, and stylish aviators. The New York City skyline stretching back to the Freedom Tower rises dramatically behind him as he gesticulates, the only suitable backdrop for stories as vivacious and meaningful as his.

“It's not lost on me how important my place is in the pantheon of shit,” he says, recounting his life as a survivor. “I have to stand up and talk about it.”

When he talks, his voice is a soothing rasp. It's a pleasing sound, like a car guided by someone you love drifting slowly down the gravel driveway home. It's both strong and worn—fitting, given how it's been used: 48 years of singing loud and living louder, of fighting, of preaching, of being his instrument of service. It's a Tony- and- Grammy-winning voice. It's a voice that saved his life, gave him a career, and, in the gag of his lifetime, finally said, “I love you” and “I do.”

A role this perfectly suited for Billy Porter could only have been written explicitly for him.

Porter had originally auditioned to play the dance teacher on Pose, but knew right away it's not for him. In a bold move—which in Porter's life is an everyday gesture—he went to the casting director and explained that he needs to be on this show, but not playing this part. He grew up in the New York City world it portrays. He lived it: “It wouldn't make any sense for me to not be playing one of the characters in this world.”

He pitched himself as one of the House mothers, the women on the show who support teams of homeless LGBT “children” and train them to compete in the balls. But the show was committed to casting trans actresses to fill all those roles, “So I said, would you like to have a daddy in the room?”

Lo and behold, series co-creator Ryan Murphy thought it was a great idea. Three weeks later, he called Porter to make sure he could “do the emcee thing from Paris Is Burning”—duh, he could—and sculpted him the custom role.

Because it's Porter himself who makes a big deal about the fact that he was around at the time Pose is set, I ask what he remembers from it.

“Terror,” he says instinctively, almost like a reflex. After a long pause, letting the echo of the sniper-like response reverberate, he continues with an almost meditative earnestness. “The fight for life. Choosing life and fighting for it.” He thinks Pose's greatest accomplishment is how accurately it captures that spirit: “We chose life anyway, and that's what the show is.”

There is something beautifully realized about Porter's performance in Pose. It's a loud performance. Even when it's quiet, the emotion he telegraphs through that silence is deafening. He's portraying a gay man in 1987 who emcees ballroom competitions, vamping with the lexicon that, decades later, still prevails in culture because of shows like RuPaul's Drag Race. Yet not one second of his screen time is inauthentic. Not one note is a stereotype.

Last year, Porter wrote about the alternately traumatizing and empowering experience he had when he decided to no longer play stereotypes. The work dried up because he refused to accept “clown-game offers.” He couldn't get auditions for the 1998 revival of Cabaret, the lead in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, for Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

It wasn't until Tony Kushner saw him for a 2010 off-Broadway revival of Angels in America and he delivered a tour de force audition—Kushner immediately stormed Porter, wrapped him in an embrace, and whispered, “Thank you”—that he felt seen again. Soon after, he was Lola in Kinky Boots, “a black man in a sexy dress at the heart of the Broadway musical with all the white people,” he laughs.

That Murphy would give him a series regular role on TV and not ask him to dim his light, instead encouraging him to shine it as brightly as he could, still has him in a state of shock when we meet, days after shooting on the season wrapped. The authenticity of it all has freed him.

“It's like air,” he says. “I can breathe again.”

“In the ‘90s I had an R&B record deal. They basically told me not to speak. I look back at that time in my life and what I was trying to achieve and how abusive it was. I'm grateful that I'm still alive. Everywhere I turned something was wrong with me, whether it was school bullies or the bully pulpit at church or the government or my culture in general, black people in general.”

I ask, then, how much he identifies with Pose's male lead Damon, played by Ryan Jamaal Swain. In the pilot, Damon is kicked out of his house by his religious parents after his abusive father discovers gay porn in his bedroom, and flees to New York City. Porter was raised in Pittsburgh with a similarly god-fearing mother and abusive stepfather.

He takes a pause to consider it, before refuting the similarities.

“I'm a survivor of sexual abuse,” he says. “So I talk about the dynamic of that and how, as sick as it sounds, it saved my life. Because from the time I was 7 to the time I was 11 or 12, I was being abused by an adult, and I sat and watched every adult around me do nothing. I knew at 7 I had to get the fuck out of there. Whatever I do, it has to mean that I am the fuck out of this mess.”

He didn't have the language for it at the time. But looking back, he realizes that's what it was. He found out he could sing, really sing, in the sixth grade. More, he learned someone could make a living from it. So he sought out performing arts schools, proper teachers, the right extracurricular activities.

“I had angels in my life for me that to this day, I'm like, how did that person know?” he says. There was the middle school counselor, for example, who knew he didn't want to go home and would allow him to do homework in his office after school. At 5:30, he'd drive Porter home, because he knew that his stepfather left for work at 4:30 and Porter would miss him.

So the Damon comparisons don't ring true. “I was not a child at that age,” he says. He left home the summer before attending college at Carnegie-Mellon and never looked back. “I had a cousin when I was 18 who told me if I ever turned gay he would kill me. So I didn't speak to him for 25 years.”

Time has healed some wounds. That cousin's children are now grown and aspiring performers, reaching out to Porter for advice. There are family members who he's reconnected with. One, a preacher, called to apologize a few years ago, saying that he now has a gay and lesbian ministry in his church because of Porter. It took his mother, who grew up in the church, a long time but she's come around. “And the rest of these motherfuckers need to do the same or lose my name and number,” he says.

“As the years went by, I think a lot of people from that period in my life sort of gagged a little,” he says. “Because I never came back, and the expectation was that I would come back with my tail between my legs, the prodigal son. The prodigal faggy son, now he's straight and he's going to marry somebody and make us all happy. Instead I went back and performed in a 2,500-seat theater that sold out in two days for a week, while many of these people are still in the same storefront church I left them in 30 years ago.”

Our conversation started about death and pain, but ended on love.

On January 14 of last year, Porter married his husband Adam Smith at a friend's penthouse over on 18th Street; he can literally point to it from our rooftop perch.

Porter was ready to just sign papers at a courthouse, but Smith wanted them to share their vows in front of friends and family. They rushed to do it before Obama left office. “We got home that night and we looked at each other and we both just broke down,” he says. “The magnitude. The depth of the love. I've just never known it.”

He lights up when I ask about it. And when Porter—a man whose every emotion exists in extremes—lights up, it's a shining beacon you can see from the moon.

Pose is a series about people choosing life, choosing joy. When I ask where he finds his joy, he doesn't blink before bringing up Smith. But it's all in context, too. He calls his wedding the most profound day of his life, but by accident.

Porter was never going to get married. He fought for marriage equality because we should have the right, but he never thought of doing it himself. His tune changed after meeting Adam, who co-owns the eyewear company Native Ken, because the visibility and the representation was going to be important. His marriage was going to be of service, but their love has been a personal journey.

“I am investigating what it means to be in love when the first half of my adult life, love equaled fear and death,” he says. “It doesn't equal that anymore.”

It's a reality of being a survivor of the plague that, candidly, never occurred to me, having to change your relationship to love because of all the darkness that once shrouded it, and all the barriers you had to put up in order to save your own life. “We know how to fight, my generation,” he says. “But we don't know how to live, and love. The people who used to teach us how to do that died in the plague. So we're discovering it.”

After a long, emotional conversation, a veritable “This Is Your Life Billy Porter” that reviewed all the good and all the bad, he leaves on a contemplative note.

“I find myself in the middle of nostalgia, I guess,” he says. “I'm grateful I lived long enough to see this day.”

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