Billy Porter makes peace with himself: 'I set myself free, honey. No more secrets'
Billy Porter won an Emmy for his starring role on Pose, an FX series set in the underground gay and trans ball culture of the late '80s and '90s. Porter grew up in the Pentecostal church convinced that he would be damned for being gay. It wasn't until he was introduced to the world of theater in sixth grade that he began to imagine a different future.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Billy Porter, won an Emmy in 2019 for his starring role in the FX series "Pose," set in the gay and trans underground ballroom scene of the late '80s and early '90s; the culture that inspired Madonna's hit 1990 record "Vogue." Porter's character, known as Pray Tell, was the ball emcee and provided the commentary for ball competitions involving dancing, lip-synching and costumes. The balls are celebratory, but as the series progressed and time elapsed, the AIDS epidemic kept getting worse, and a growing number of people in the community were dying. After losing dear friends, Pray Tell was diagnosed with AIDS.
Billy Porter was adjacent to the ballroom scene, and his new memoir, "Unprotected," shows some of the parallels between his life and Pray Tell's. The book also describes the obstacles he faced growing up poor in Pittsburgh with a mother who had a degenerative neurological disorder, a stepfather who sexually abused him and schoolmates who brutally bullied him. He found many creative ways to circumvent these obstacles and managed to get admitted to a performing arts high school, study theater at Carnegie Mellon University and get parts in Broadway shows. In 2013, he won a Tony and Grammy for his starring role in the Broadway musical "Kinky Boots."
But it's always been hard. Roles were scarce because he was Black or because his voice was too high or he was too gay. He was even told he was too flamboyant for characters that were described as flamboyant. Now he kind of embraces flamboyant and is famous for his red carpet appearances in clothes that are both elegant and outrageous at the same time. The most famous is his tuxedo gown; a tuxedo on top and a hoop-skirted gown on bottom.
Let's start with a scene from the first season of "Pose." When Pray Tell emcees balls, he's colorful in his praise and in his put-downs. Here he is commenting on a dance performance by Candy, a trans woman who Pray Tell has always been critical of. Pray Tell seems to enjoy mocking her voguing and dancing, but as you'll hear, Candy has some powerful comebacks. Candy is played by Angelica Ross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "POSE")
BILLY PORTER: (As Pray Tell) The category is called lofting. It is a dance category for actual dancers. We've been down this road before. You are not a dancer. You are not a voguer. And quite frankly, I'm concerned about your health. Break dancing might burst that silicon. And you don't want to go back to that flat ass you used to have, now do you?
ANGELICA ROSS: (As Candy) Why you always reading me the Riot Act, Pray Tell? You go out of your way to put me down.
PORTER: (As Pray Tell) I don't have to put you down when you're always in the bottom.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD JEERING)
ROSS: (As Candy) You stood up there on your perch talking about it's our time, our time to be seen, to show the world what we got.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's right.
ROSS: (As Candy) But in this room, you the only one that refuse to see that I got something to contribute. I got heart. I got talent. I'm a star just like Madonna.
PORTER: (As Pray Tell) OK. Judges, your scores - five, five, zero, six, five. I don't know what to tell you, girl. The cards don't lie.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTERING)
ROSS: (As Candy) You going to regret your words. I'm a star. I know who I am.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes, you are.
ROSS: (As Candy) I am somebody.
PORTER: (As Pray Tell) OK. You go on ahead and be somebody, Miss Jesse Jackson - just not on my floor.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD JEERING)
PORTER: (As Pray Tell) Music please.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE POWER")
SNAP!: (Singing) I've got the power.
PORTER: (As Pray Tell) Take a hike and don't ever come back.
GROSS: Billy Porter, welcome to FRESH AIR. You are so great in that role.
PORTER: Thank you.
GROSS: And your new book is so good. So "Pose" is set in the world of ball culture during the AIDS crisis. You were - you describe yourself as adjacent to that world. What was your relationship to ballroom culture?
PORTER: Well, you know, I moved to New York in '91 - well actually, December 27, 1990 - to start rehearsals for the original cast of "Miss Saigon." So I say adjacent because I went to a couple of balls, but I was doing eight shows a week, so I didn't have a lot of time. You know, if I was not working on Broadway, I probably would have been more inside of the culture on a consistent basis. So I say adjacent because I went to a few (laughter).
GROSS: What was your impression? What really struck you about the balls?
PORTER: The sense of community, the sense of family, the sense of chosen family, the sense of a group of people who are outcasts choosing life anyway. I understood that. I related to that. I felt a part of that.
GROSS: Did you pattern your version of an emcee on anybody you saw emcee? I know you were told to pattern it after the emcee in a documentary about the ball culture called "Paris Is Burning," but did you draw on your own experiences too?
PORTER: Well, I - you know, I am a person who grew up in a Pentecostal church. You know, I was labeled little preacher man when I was like 5 or 6. I preached my first sermon when I was - my first and last sermon when I was around 10 or 11.
PORTER: You know, so to sort of have those kind of oratory skills is something that I've always had. I also went into the role knowing that I needed to ground the character of Pray Tell in something that felt important, something that felt classic. And I was like, you know, this should feel Shakespearean. It should feel like the most important thing on the planet because to these people, it is.
And so as I began to work on the character, I really leaned into this grand and grounded classical largesse, if you will, because I've always found that in the theater, those are the performances that moved me the most, you know? And we in the theater have a unique ability to be huge and real simultaneously. And I knew that Pray Tell needed to be that.
GROSS: My impression is - you know, he delivers a lot of very cutting put-downs for people whose performances don't measure up in his opinion. My impression reading your book is that you are pretty skilled (laughter) at that yourself and use it as needed to maintain your demand for respect.
PORTER: That's a good way of putting it. But let me be clear.
PORTER: I am not Pray Tell at all. And it is always my last resort. I have a tongue. I can take up for myself. Don't mistake my kindness for weakness. But I am always leading with kindness and compassion first.
GROSS: When you were young and getting bullied, was your tongue helpful?
PORTER: No, because my tongue was the thing that made people madder.
PORTER: My tongue made people madder because I was also extremely intelligent. So, like, I could make somebody feel like a dummy. And that's not what you want your bully to feel like (laughter).
GROSS: Well, you also say in the book that you had such, like, good, like, enunciation, so clear and...
GROSS: ...That people found that, like...
PORTER: Well, people in the 'hood found that to be too white. People thought I was trying to be white from the 'hood. And I was like, I'm not. This is just the way I talk. I don't know what else to say (laughter). I came out talking in complete sentences, and I would prefer to continue to do so. And I don't necessarily ascribe to, you know - what we called it at that time was Ebonics. You know, what we call it today - I don't know what we call it today. In the '70s, it was called Jive (laughter). You know, I just talk like a regular person as far as I'm concerned.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. My guest is Billy Porter, star of the FX series "Pose" and the star of the Broadway musical "Kinky Boots." His new memoir is called "Unprotected." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHERYL LYNN SONG, "GOT TO BE REAL")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Billy Porter, the star of the FX series "Pose" and the original cast of the Broadway musical "Kinky Boots." He has a new memoir, which is called "Unprotected."
One of the really striking things about your memoir is that you had so much working against you growing up. The church was condemning you because it was clear you were gay. And your family was so attached to the church. People at school were bullying you for the same reason, and you got really badly beaten a few times. Your stepfather was sexually abusing you. You - family didn't really have money, but you managed to figure out ways to get into a special school, to go to a high school for performing arts, to get scholarships to Carnegie Mellon so that you could study theater and voice there and then to get yourself from Pittsburgh to New York and get cast in Broadway shows.
How much planning did you do as a child to figure out a route to take so that you could use your gift as a singer and a performer and so that you could discover who you really were outside of the confines of your family and of the church?
PORTER: There was a lot of planning and scheming. You know, I was really blessed to be introduced to musical theater in the sixth grade. And, you know, on the very same day I was introduced to the idea of theater, my grandmother and my great-aunt - it was my birthday, and they came and picked me up at school as a surprise, took me downtown to see a touring company of "The Wiz." And I was like, oh, there's the theater. And then I did a production of "Babes In Arms" in sixth grade. And then that year, I was - happened to be washing dishes in my kitchen. And everybody knows this story at this point. And...
GROSS: (Laughter) I know the story you're going to tell. Go ahead, yeah.
PORTER: And the Tony Awards came on, and, you know, Jennifer Holliday sang "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." And I was like - I just made a correlation. You know, I didn't understand - for some reason, seeing theater on television registered that I could make money doing it.
GROSS: That's interesting. Yeah.
PORTER: In the theater, it didn't register that that was a profession. It was great, but it didn't register that it was a profession that I could make money from. So it was seeing the performance of "Dreamgirls" on TV on the Tony Awards and watching a woman sing like I sang in church - not "Babes In Arms," not "I Wish I Were In Love Again" that I had to do in the musical. You see what I mean? It's like (singing) the sleepless nights, the daily fights - I didn't think I could make no money doing that in the sixth grade.
PORTER: That wasn't how I sang, right? Like, so it was seeing her. It was seeing Jennifer. It was seeing that show that helped me understand, ooh, I can make a living doing this. I'm going to figure out every way that I can to do that.
And so I just started going and asking and doing whatever I could and being in whoever's choir and, you know, auditioning for whatever I could. And, you know, slowly but surely, I got into the business in Pittsburgh. And then, you know, I had such great angels in my life who led me in the right directions, and I got the right kind of training and, you know, ended up at Carnegie Mellon, which was right down the street from my house - 12-minute ride from my house. I had no idea that one of the greatest, you know, acting schools in our country, in the world was 15 minutes away from my house. I had no idea. It's amazing.
GROSS: So when you were growing up, you used to go to the library and check out cast recordings. And the librarian there said, here's the only cast recording you're going to need this week. It's "Sunday In The Park With George." And that had a huge impact on you. What was it about "Sunday In The Park With George" that spoke to you?
PORTER: You know, even at that age, I understood the healing power of art. "Sunday In The Park With George" is about that. It's about getting to the truth of yourself as a human being through your art. I don't know. It was so deep. I was 14 years old. I just got it.
GROSS: Let's stick with Sondheim for a moment. You auditioned for a revival of "Into The Woods," which is the Sondheim-James Lapine musical based on fairytales. And you auditioned for The Baker. You auditioned for James Lapine, who wrote the book for "Into The Woods" and was directing this revival. You auditioned for The Baker, and he thought you weren't quite right for it, but you really wanted to play The Witch.
PORTER: And he brought it up.
GROSS: He brought it up, OK. So what did he say, and what was your reaction?
PORTER: Well, you know, I went in for The Baker. And I took all my fabulous out because I couldn't get people to take me seriously as an actor. And my voice is very specific. And so early on, in auditions, I would rearrange things, change keys, make it so that I was presenting myself in the greatest way that I possibly could. Well, that was pigeonholing me. And so I understood that if I wanted anybody to take me seriously as an actor, I was going to have to go in and take all the fabulous out. And The Baker is not fabulous. And so I went in. And The Baker also - for those of you who are musicians listening, The Baker is way too low for me. Like, I am a high tenor, almost an alto with extension. At this time, I was an alto. Like, my voice was really high. So I finished singing "No More." And James Lapine, who had known me 'cause I had worked with him on "Faust" - this Randy Newman musical called "Faust" a few years prior - a workshop of it. So he knew me, and he knew my talent, and he knew my fabulous. And he said, oh, that was beautifully acted, Billy. That's all I needed to hear.
And I went to get my stuff, and I was getting ready to go. And he's like, well, where are you going? 'Cause I didn't think for one second that anybody was going to cast a Black person in a Sondheim musical 'cause we were still there at that point. The only Black person that had really been cast in a Sondheim musical at that point was Mrs. Huxtable replacing Bernadette Peters, and that's because she brings in ticket sales, not - you know, there was no, like, regular Black person. I think Terry Burrell was a stepsister in "Into The Woods" as a replacement. I mean, like, that's how much I know about it because that's how - I still haven't been cast in a Sondheim show. And he's one of my favorites.
So anyway, you know, so then he said, well, you know, you have a little bit too much pizzazz for The Baker, you know, but I've been thinking about, you know, the possibility of, like, maybe playing with the gender of The Witch. And I said, please, don't play with my emotions (laughter) 'cause, like, that is my biggest dream. And so he said, great. Well, you know, go and take the material, and come back in a couple of days, and let's see what you do with it. And I said, I don't need to take the material away. I can do it now. And he said, what? I said, I can sing it now. I just need a few minutes to go over the sides for the script, but I can sing it now 'cause, you know, I had "Last Midnight" - I mean, you know, that was committed to memory in Bernadette's key. So, you know, I went outside for 10 minutes, read over the script, came back in and sang "Last Midnight," and they gagged (laughter).
GROSS: They gagged?
PORTER: Gagged - that's queenglish (ph) for they had an amazing response.
GROSS: So (laughter) - OK, so but then 9/11 happened, and then you never heard from them again. Yeah, so you never got to do it. You did, I will add, end up doing an all-Black production of Sondheim songs. I don't know if it was a revue or...
PORTER: It was a revue of Sondheim's music.
GROSS: But what I want to do here is play your recording of "The Last Midnight" (ph), which is featured on your album "At The Corner Of Broadway + Soul." And I really like this version of it, Billy. So let's hear it. So this is my guest, Billy Porter, singing "The Last Midnight" from the Sondheim musical "Into The Woods."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST MIDNIGHT (FROM 'INTO THE WOODS'/LIVE)")
PORTER: (Singing) It's the last midnight. It's the last wish. It's the last midnight. Soon it will be boom, squish. Told a little lie, stole a little gold, broke a little vow, did you? Had to get your prince, had to get your cow, had to get your wish - doesn't matter how. Anyway, it doesn't matter now. It's the last midnight. It's the boom, splat. Nothing but a vast midnight, everybody smashed flat. Nothing we can do - not exactly true. We could always give her the boy. No, no, no. No, of course, what really matters is the blame, somebody to blame. Fine, if that's the thing you enjoy - placing the blame - if that's the aim, give me the blame. Just give me the boy.
GROSS: That was my guest, Billy Porter, singing Sondheim's "The Last Midnight" from the show "Into The Woods," and it's featured on his album "At The Corner Of Broadway + Soul."
If you're just joining us, my guest is Billy Porter. He's the star of the FX series "Pose," and he starred in the Broadway musical "Kinky Boots." His new memoir is called "Unprotected." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST MIDNIGHT (FROM 'INTO THE WOODS'/LIVE)")
PORTER: (Singing) You're so nice. You're not good. You're not bad. You're just nice. I'm not good. I'm not nice. I'm just right. I'm the witch. You're the world. I'm a hitch. I'm what no one believes. I'm the witch. You're all liars and thieves, like his father, like his son will be, too. Oh, why bother? You'll just do what you do. It's the last midnight. So goodbye, all. Coming at you fast, midnight. Soon you'll see the sky fall.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Billy Porter. He won an Emmy for his starring role in the FX series "Pose" about the underground queer ballroom culture of the late '80s and early '90s. He played the ball emcee, known as Pray Tell. Porter won a Tony for his starring role as the drag queen Lola in the Broadway musical "Kinky Boots" and a Grammy for the cast recording. He has a new memoir, which is called "Unprotected."
Let's talk a little about your book. There's a lot of trauma in the book, starting with the Pentecostal Church. You know, as we talked about, you were - what were called back - little preacher?
PORTER: Little preacher man, they called me, yeah (laughter)...
PORTER: ...When I was young.
GROSS: And your mother was very religious - still is. And church was in a way the place where you were damned because they thought you were too effeminate and leaning toward gay, which would be, like, big sin in your church, the Pentecostal Church.
PORTER: An abomination.
GROSS: Abomination, yes, but it's also the place where people recognized you had a gift. You have the gift of speaking. You had the gift of singing, and what a gift it is. So that, I'm sure, was very confusing for you. How much did you believe that you were going to be damned?
PORTER: When it's the only thing you know, it's the only thing that you can believe. It was in the sixth grade when I was introduced to theater and bust - you know, in the second sort of wave of desegregation that I was introduced to another world. And that was sort of what cracked open a space for me to dream beyond my circumstance.
GROSS: When you were diagnosed with HIV a few years ago, was the fear still with you because people were saying, like, you know, AIDS is God's curse for homosexuality? And you heard that a lot because you were at a lot of ACT UP protests. And there were always protesters of the protesters.
PORTER: And a lot of churches (laughter).
GROSS: Yes. Yes, exactly. Exactly. In "Pose," your character is diagnosed with AIDS. And if you're still in the middle of watching "Pose" as you're listening now, put your hands over your ears as I say this next sentence.
GROSS: OK, that's sufficient time for hands over ears. Your character, at the end of the series, dies of AIDS. What was it like for you, knowing that you had HIV and that it was under control? You were - you're taking the medicines. They were doing their job. And you were playing somebody who was dying. You say in your book, your body doesn't know the difference between performing something and actually living through something. So what was it like for you to have to live your character's experience, dying of AIDS?
PORTER: You know, I have to say, the first two seasons, I was so excited that somebody was finally taking me seriously as an actor that I didn't even realize I was being triggered. You know, I was so excited that I was able to play a character where I could use the work to sort of try to heal my own pain, my own shame, as it related to my own HIV status. And the last day when I went in to - or the day I went in to shoot the - my death scene, I said to the whole cast and crew, this is the death of Pray Tell but the rebirth of Billy. And that has been a very powerful, powerful thing that has come out of the show.
GROSS: What did you mean that it was your rebirth?
PORTER: Because I was getting ready to tell the world that I was HIV-positive, and I was getting ready to get myself free. And I knew that that was happening. I set myself free, honey - no more secrets.
GROSS: You kept that secret for years 'cause you were diagnosed in '07.
PORTER: Yeah, 14 years.
GROSS: Yeah. What was it like to keep that secret for so long? And why did you feel you needed to keep it secret?
PORTER: Shame. You know, shame is a silencer. Shame is a killer. Shame is a murderer. And, you know, I had nothing but shame in my entire life. And so, you know, it was working through - actively working through the shame to get to the other side of that, which is truth and healing and authenticity.
GROSS: Were there also practical reasons for keeping it secret, like fear that no one would take a chance on you, fearing that you'd be sick, that you couldn't get insurance if you were in a movie?
PORTER: It was 2007, and, you know, I didn't know, and I wasn't working, and I was on the precipice of obscurity, so I wasn't trying to, like, you know, throw another wrench into just another reason for somebody not to hire me. And I also - you know, my mom went through so much when I came out as queer and wouldn't acquiesce to the church's demands for my straightness, and she went through a lot.
GROSS: She's had a hard life. She was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disorder. So your mother married a man who became abusive after a year, so she left him. You were born during that year. So she took you and left, and then she was told by a psychologist that she needed a man in the house. And the - you were seeing that psychologist. Had you been seeing him to make you straight? Was that the point?
PORTER: Well, I mean, in retrospect, yes. You know, I was raised by a lot of women. There were a lot of women. And I was effeminate, and we were religious, and they were afraid that I was too effeminate. And so I was sent to a psychologist to work on that, I guess. And I went to him every Wednesday after kindergarten. And then at the end of the year or whatever - however long it was, the evaluation was - the doctor told my mother that I was fine and that I just - she just needed to get a man around the house and that would teach me to be more of a man.
GROSS: Well, she did get married again. And at first, he just seemed great. It was great for you to have a father figure. He taught you all kinds of things like how to use public transportation. He had tools. He had - you know, he had stuff that was really helpful to you. And then one night, he asked you if you knew about the birds and the bees, and you had no idea what he was talking about, so he explained a little bit. And he asked you if you wanted to see what an adult man looked like. And you said, sure, and he took off his clothes and showed you, and that was the beginning of his abuse. Did you know that you were being abused?
PORTER: No, because I thought those were my man lessons.
GROSS: That he was teaching you how to be a man?
PORTER: Yeah, that was what the man said. I just assumed that was what was happening, you know, because he came into my room. You know, when I would have nightmares prior to my stepfather, my mother would come in and just lay beside me. And, you know, it was just her presence that was sort of enough. And then I would wake up in the morning, and she would be gone, and it would be cool. And so when she got married, she started sending him in, and that's how it kind of started. And so, you know, I called it an affair till I was 25 years old and in therapy.
GROSS: How old were you when this started?
PORTER: Seven, 7 to 12.
GROSS: Seven-year-olds don't have affairs.
PORTER: Correct. That's what my therapist told me at 25. You don't have that language at 7.
PORTER: You don't have that language at 12. You don't know that the man that your mother married because the doctor told her to get a man around the house - the doctor told her to get a man around the house so that he could teach me to be more of a man. So those were my man lessons. That's all I understood.
GROSS: So do you think when you were growing up that the abuse affected you in ways that you didn't understand were connected to your stepfather?
GROSS: Including the ulcers that you developed when you were a child?
PORTER: Yeah. You know, I had ulcers in the seventh grade, in the sixth and seventh grade. I had nodes on my vocal cords in the eighth grade. You know, later on in life, once again, when I was in my 30s, I suffered debilitating acid reflux that took my voice away for three, three to five years. I didn't have a - you know, I had cords of steel, and then...
GROSS: Years or months?
PORTER: Years, years. I couldn't rely on it. I could still sing, but it was like it could just go away at any given moment. And that was just new, and that was terrifying, and that was really, really hard.
GROSS: When did you tell your mother?
PORTER: I told her when I was 16.
GROSS: And what was her reaction?
PORTER: She believed me. She believed me. I told her because my sister, who - my stepfather is her blood father. She was turning 7. She was getting ready to turn 7. And I just, you know - I had blocked it out. I had forgotten about it. And then I saw them together at an amusement park. It all came flooding back to me. And in that moment, I told my mother because I didn't know if he was a repressed homosexual or an equal opportunity pedophile. Like, I just didn't know. You know, and so I just blurted it out and told her. And she believed me, but, you know, what was there to do for her? Because she was, you know, in a situation where she was disabled and didn't have any way to take care of herself and a family of two children by herself. She didn't have a way to do that.
And I was, you know, coming up on 17, and, you know, I was trying to get out anyway. So, you know, that whole situation was (laughter) weird and wild and quite damaging. And there's been a lot of, you know, healing with that, with mom. And, you know, I'm grateful for that. I'm grateful to be able to communicate about it and talk about it in a family and a culture that is used to keeping secrets and thrives on that, actually. You know, this space has enabled my family in particular to break that cycle, and I'm grateful for that.
PORTER: Well, let me reintroduce you here. My guest is Billy Porter, star of the FX series "Pose" and the star of the Broadway musical "Kinky Boots." His new memoir is called "Unprotected." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS' "PEACOCKS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Billy Porter, the star of the FX series "Pose" and the original cast of the Broadway musical "Kinky Boots." He has a new memoir, which is called "Unprotected." You were the star of the musical "Kinky Boots" in the original cast, and you played Lola, who's the drag queen. Did that character strike you as three-dimensional, as real?
PORTER: Of course, that's the reason why I did it. You know, I was gone from Broadway for 13 years, and then Lola showed up. You know, what people don't really understand is that Lola is the first, a Black, out drag queen who is the heart of the musical, who's the heart of it, who is the heart of the story. You know, I don't care that she's a drag queen. The fabulous and serious can go hand in hand. I am proof positive of that. You know, I'm not saying I don't want to be fabulous. I'm just saying, I want to be fabulous and serious, y'all. I'm fabulous and serious. And there is a way to do that, and I feel like I have latched on to that for myself personally.
GROSS: Your role was originally written to be a boxer who dresses in women's clothes or who likes to dress in women's clothes. I didn't see the British production in which the character really was a boxer who I think was probably presumed to be straight. And you suggested changing the role. What did you say? And how did you get to prevail in that argument?
PORTER: I just went in and got the part, right? And so then I put the role together because, you know, a lot of people may not know, but it was a movie. And it was a movie with Chiwetel Ejiofor. And he was a straight man, a straight Black man who liked to put on women's clothes. Good for him. He was great in it. He was great in the part. It works that way, too. That's the brilliance of "Kinky Boots," I think, is that it works that way, too. My point in my own body and my own space is, why? Why would I do that? What conversation is that moving forward? Nothing. That's nothing. That's Tyler Perry's "Madea." That's "Some Like It Hot." That's easy. Yeah, it's easy for audiences to look at a straight man in a dress, laugh at them and move on.
It's a different conversation when that character is not overweight, that character is not a clown. You know, Lola was a sexy drag queen who could pass as a woman. It was important to me to launch this different conversation. And so what happened was I crafted the role in a four-week workshop. And once I crafted the role and once everybody saw what I was doing, then I sat down with everybody and I said, now with the interpretation that I am doing, do any of you here think that anyone will believe that my character is straight?
GROSS: Did anybody raise their hand? (Laughter).
PORTER: And the answer was a resounding no. And I got my way.
GROSS: Let's pause here and listen to you from the cast recording of "Kinky Boots." This is you singing "Land Of Lola." So here's my guest, Billy Porter.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAND OF LOLA")
PORTER: (Singing) Leave expectations at the door. Just let your eyes explore my cinematic flair, from my boot to derriere. I've got a lacy, silken feel with arms as hard as steel. I am freedom. I'm constriction. A potpourri of contradiction. Leave that humdrum place of glum behind. Once you walk inside these doors, you're mine. Now let me blow your mind and like shazam. And bam. Here I am, yes ma'am. I am Lola. And like je suis, oh-wee, that's me, Ebony. I am Lola. Step into a dream where glamour is extreme. Welcome to my fantasy. We give good epiphany. So come and take my hand. And welcome to the land of Lola.
GROSS: So that's my guest, Billy Porter, singing "Land Of Lola" from the original cast recording of "Kinky Boots," and the album won a Grammy. His performance in the show won a Tony. Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Billy Porter. And he has a new memoir called "Unprotected." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Billy Porter, the star of the FX series "Pose" and the original cast of the Broadway musical "Kinky Boots." He moved to New York City in 1990 at the age of 21 to work in the ensemble of "Miss Saigon" on Broadway. When you got to New York during the AIDS epidemic, what was it like for you to have friends and mentors who were dying of AIDS? I mean, you were new to this community. People who you became close to were very sick. And you lost people who were really important to you at a crucial time in your life when you must have been feeling very vulnerable too.
PORTER: It was a call to action. You know, we all just went straight to the front lines to fight for our lives and make a difference. And I am grateful to have had that experience because now I know what to do in this moment. And that's important.
GROSS: In this moment, do you mean...
PORTER: That we are in in this world, in this moment right now that we're in, in this world, where everything is trying to go back to what it was before. We got to go fight again. And I actually know how to do that...
PORTER: ...As a result of what I've already been through. So no, I'm not scared. No, I'm not terrified. Yes, I see everything that you all are doing. And the answer is no, we're not going back, ever.
GROSS: And so you're talking about authoritarianism and Black Lives Matter and...
PORTER: And I'm talking about all the s*** that's happening right now, yes, all of it.
GROSS: And the pandemic.
PORTER: The pandemic, the laws, the transgender laws, the voting restriction laws. You know what I'm talking about. Everything that is going on in this world today...
GROSS: Yeah, I hear you.
PORTER: ...That's trying to wrench us back into a time that we done already fought for this stuff. We fought for this stuff already. I was a part of the fight for this stuff, which engages me in this moment to know and understand how to move this stuff forward 'cause the answer is no.
GROSS: So now I have to ask you about clothes. Your clothes are fabulous, and you have these designers that you work with. And like I said, they manage to be both, like, elegant and outrageous at the same time, which I think is really hard to do. So what do you want to say with fashion when you are out in the public?
PORTER: Well, I'm first-generation post-civil rights movement, and we were taught that the first impression is what you look like. And so you know, I also grew up in the church - in the Black church. And as we all know now, the Black church is a fashion show. I used to get - you know, my favorite time of year was Easter and Christmas because I would get a new suit every Easter and Christmas for church. You know, I was the kid that dressed up in a shirt and tie to go to public high school. I've always been a fashion person. I just have always loved it.
You know, it didn't occur to me, even after doing - playing Lola on Broadway that I, Billy, would ever sort of entertain the idea of wearing feminine clothing in my real life, you know, because there's such a taboo on it. And so I didn't know. And then I got "Pose." And I thought, well, if I'm going to do anything, you know, on the red carpet that plays with gender, this is the role and the space to do it. Like, it actually is in alignment with the work that I'm doing. So that's a good justification to sort of try it. And so I was just trying it and testing the waters. And then the Oscars happened. I was like, all right. Well, I guess it works.
GROSS: Well, the outfit that you wore that most expresses gender fluidity through clothing is - and it's like a perfect, like, metaphor for it - is the tuxedo gown, which was the elegant tuxedo on top and the bottom was this, you know, flared gown. And that was your idea, right?
PORTER: Yes, it was.
GROSS: And did you want something that literally said gender fluidity?
PORTER: Yes, I did. You know, I got the call to host the ABC red carpet, like, two weeks out. I just so happened to be at my first Fashion Week. I was at the Christian Siriano show. And so I just started thinking about, well, what am I going to wear? What am I going to wear? And I thought back to my old college days and joking with my buddies about how the men are so boring. The men are so boring. They only get to wear tuxedos. I'm going to wear a ballgown. I'm going to wear a ballgown when I go to the Oscars. I remembered saying that. And I thought, hmm, this is your moment.
PORTER: If it's going to happen, it's going to happen now or never. And then I thought, well, wouldn't it be great if it - you know, if the shot was from the chest up, the first shot you saw was me, you know, looking like I'm in a traditional tux. And then when you pull back, it's a ballgown. I mean, that would, like, change everything. And turns out, it did.
GROSS: Yeah (laughter). It was really great. Billy Porter, it's been wonderful to talk with you. Thank you so much for your work. Thank you for your new book. And thank you for doing this interview. It's been just a pleasure to talk with you.
PORTER: Thank you.
GROSS: Billy Porter's new memoir is called "Unprotected."
Tomorrow on Fresh Air, we'll remember author Gary Paulsen, who died last week. His books sold about 35 million copies. He was best-known for young adult novels like "Dogsong" and "Hatchet." He loved the wild and ran the Iditarod, the thousand-mile dog sled race across Alaska, three times. He was a great storyteller in print and on our show. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILLY PORTER SONG, "BUT THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUT THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND")
PORTER: (Singing) Sometimes you're happy. Sometimes you're sad. But the world goes round. Sometimes you lose every nickel you had. But the world goes round. Sometimes your dreams get broken in pieces. But that doesn't alter a thing. Take it from me. There's still going to be a summer, a winter, a fall and a spring. And sometimes a friend starts treating you bad. But the world goes round. And sometimes your heart breaks with a deafening...
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