Billy Porter on his fame, breaking barriers and his music

By | December 3, 2022

Billy Porter has had a three-decade career that he was repeatedly told would never happen.

A black, queer artist with a booming voice and indelible screen and stage presence, Porter has defied those expectations and risen to extraordinary heights.

“It’s been a wild, unexpected, glorious journey to get to this place of knowing and living into what is now possible,” he tells Variety. “Being who I am now was impossible then.”

Now a Grammy, Tony and Emmy-winning legend, the 53-year-old will be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on December 1. The “Kinky Boots” and “Pose” star was surprised by the honor news, though not his co-stars.

“It’s fitting that the name goes down in history so that people can stop and remember how heavy it is and how durable it is,” said “Pose” co-founder Michael JA Rodriguez.

In his career, Porter has never limited himself to just one ambition, but it all started with his “first dream” born in 1982 when he saw Jennifer Holliday perform “And I Won’t Go” at the Tony Awards.

“I was hooked,” he says. “That’s right there. That’s what I want to do.”

He wanted to be the man Whitney Houston on the stage or on the billboard charts – and he had a voice for it.

He attended high school for the arts in his native Pittsburgh and later Carnegie Mellon’s drama department. It was the right move for anyone paving the way to stardom, even in a tough industry.

Porter first discovered the Walk of Fame in December 1991 at the age of 22 when he visited Los Angeles to compete on Brian Spears’ “Star Search.” It landed on Friday and immediately posted back-to-back episodes on its season 10 tail. He won both classes.

The following Saturday, he received the season trophy and the $100,000 prize.

“I remember it was a storm,” he said. “I was there for a week and came home with a great prize.”

But “Star Trek” wasn’t the launchpad it was in the 1980s. Porter was hoping to be the next Sam Harris, who earned a record deal with his win as the show’s first label. But during Porter’s season, the show aired in syndication and sporadically.

“Not many people outside of my family saw it,” he said. “It was not necessary
The game changer I was hoping it would be, but it was a great experience.

Luckily, someone was listening and signed Porter to A&M Records. In the year While working on his debut album in 1997, he caught the attention of none other than Bette Midler while performing “Love is on the Road” at a birthday party for Jennifer Lewis. She took him aside, stating that she wanted his song and voice on the soundtrack of her next film, First Wives Club.

“Most of the people in that audience didn’t know who I was, how long I’d been in this business,” he laughs.

But once again, Porter found it difficult to build on his current momentum.

“Back then, when you sing like I do and you’re an artist like me, there wasn’t much we had to do in the theater that black artists wanted to play real human beings,” he says. . “I couldn’t be cast as an emcee in ‘Cabaret.’ I couldn’t cast in Sondheim’s show, they were barely casting black people back then. I couldn’t be cast in ‘Les Mis’ or ‘Phantom’. I couldn’t find the same things my white friends were building careers on.

Then Lola came.

Porter’s proud Tony-winning role in “Kinky Boots” was the revelation of representation he’d been waiting to see — he was the only one to bring the world eight shows a week. With six inch high heels.

“I made my wishes clear,” he said. “On the other hand, I had to go through tests and exams to get the certification. On the other hand, ‘Kinky Boots’ came to me because that’s what I asked the universe about 15 years ago.”

His co-star Annalee Ashford got a front-row seat to the transformative work read from the front desk to Rapture’s opening night and beyond.

“She felt familiar and now she’s fully realized,” Ashford said. “I’ve always known this character, and Billy’s portrayal of him as having the power to change hearts and minds…does something unique and wonderful with the audience – making them feel both comfortable while teaching and opening their minds. He is the greatest man of all time.”

Porter said he took the advice of Maya Angelou and Ianla VanZant on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and dedicated his life to service, which made his career a winner.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” he says. “It’s your queer. You have to lean into that truth and that will be your service.”

That truth is all over the screen in FX’s “Pose,” in which Porter plays Pray Tell, a master of New York City’s ball culture in the 1980s and ’90s. For three seasons, Prayer Tell was a force of love and nature when the community was plagued by disease, discrimination, and demons. Porter shared most of his screen time with Rodriguez, who played Blanca, the mother of Evangelical House.

She credits Porter with always being there to pull her out of self-doubt in her first big role.

“One thing I can sum up about the incomparable Billy Porter is that it was a real honor to make a difference next to him,” Rodriguez says. “As we both move on, I’ll make sure it’s my duty to do the same just as he picked me up.”

As a prayer, Porter became the first black gay man to be nominated for and win a Leading Actor Emmy.

After “Pose,” Porter made his feature directorial debut this year as producer of the Prime Video teen romance “Anything Is Possible” and the Tony-winning musical “A Strange Loop.”

He also launched the Incognegro production company with producer DJ Guggenheim to tell stories “from my point of view.”

But the yet-to-be-conquered part of that first dream — prioritizing a career in music — will gain focus in the coming months.

Next spring, he will release his first album of original music in years with executive producer Justin Tranter.

“I’m trying to play the stadium in the next three years,” he said. “This album is my heart, just what I want to say to the world in 14 songs.”

Beyond that, the sky’s the limit: “I want to keep telling our stories and change the world one story, one song at a time, one room at a time. James Baldwin says disturbing the peace is the work of an artist and I respect my work.

Important advice
what: Billy Porter receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
When: 11:30 a.m. Dec. 1 Where: 6201 Hollywood Blvd.

Category: tv

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