Billy Porter on 'Pose', Fashion and 'Kinky Boots' : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders Billy Porter is a force to be reckoned with. A Tony Award-winning Broadway performer. A fashion icon with unforgettable red carpet looks. An Emmy Award-winning actor (with another nomination under his belt this year). Currently, Porter stars in the acclaimed FX show Pose, all about New York's underground ball culture in the 80s and 90s. It's also takes place during the height of the HIV-AIDS crisis.

Sam talks to Porter about the parallels between that crisis and the one we're living in today, about growing up in the church, and why — despite everything that's happened this year — love will always win.
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'Pose' Star Billy Porter: 'Love Always Wins'

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'Pose' Star Billy Porter: 'Love Always Wins'

'Pose' Star Billy Porter: 'Love Always Wins'

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Today I bring you the one, the only Billy Porter.

So I want to talk about "Pose." I want to talk about Broadway. I want to talk about your background in the church because I'm also a church kid. But I think I got to start out by asking, what's going to be up with your epic red carpet looks this awards season? You know, we're used to seeing you work those looks - the tuxedo dress at the Oscars, being carried into the Met Gala in this wonderful golden ensemble, carried by six men. I'm guessing there'll be no red carpet at this year's Emmys. What you going to do?

BILLY PORTER: Now, here's the deal.

SANDERS: OK.

PORTER: Art as activism has always been my goal - to create a space, to have different kinds of conversations surrounding what it means to be masculine, what it means to be gender fluid.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

PORTER: So that's what it's for. I find myself inside of the world right now. There's a time and a place for all things.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: And while I have chosen to be stylish by simply giving you caftan realness all summer...

SANDERS: Come on. Yeah (laughter).

PORTER: ...Because that's what I'm doing.

SANDERS: Love it.

PORTER: You know, that's as far as the style for me can go right now.

SANDERS: OK.

PORTER: I'm actually a very serious person, and my spirit is on the verge of being broken.

SANDERS: This year has been hard.

PORTER: And I have to hold on to that...

SANDERS: Yes, sir.

PORTER: ...By staying involved and staying engaged. And I will say, sometimes that does mean that I just want to throw on a cute outfit.

SANDERS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. And as you can hear, Billy Porter has a lot on his mind these days. He just sang at the Democratic National Convention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PORTER: (Singing) There's something happening here...

SANDERS: And an extra thing going on for him right now - he is up for an Emmy this year for lead actor in a drama series for his starring role in the FX show "Pose."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "POSE")

PORTER: (As Pray Tell) ...Narrative. The divas are serving us Buckingham Palace high tea while the rest of you don't know nothing but Lipton from the diner.

SANDERS: That show is all about New York's underground ball culture in the '80s and early '90s. It's also about the HIV/AIDS crisis. Billy's work on that show already got him an Emmy last year. Billy's been a mainstay on Broadway for years as well. But it was his breakout role in "Kinky Boots" that finally got him the recognition he deserved, and he got a Tony for that work in 2013. Basically, Billy Porter is a force to be reckoned with. And you will hear his passion come out more in this interview. Also, you'll hear him eating a salad at some point because, you know, he's busy. And apparently, he makes better lunch choices than I do.

All right. Let's get to it. In this chat, Billy and I talk about a little bit of everything - love, race, "Pose," church and why love always wins. But first, we'll pick up where we left off at the top - discussing the ways that Billy can play off both masculinity and femininity in his everyday life, in his roles and in his fashion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: I do love the things you've said about your outfits and what they mean and what you're trying to say politically. I think in your Esquire interview, you know, you were saying to those that would look at you, a man in a dress, and say that's bad, what they're really saying is that being feminine is bad.

PORTER: Correct.

SANDERS: And you're trying to question that and say, well, why is it bad to be feminine?

PORTER: Why?

SANDERS: Are you saying that there's a structure in which masculinity is just better than being feminine? That's not fair.

PORTER: That's what you're saying, though.

SANDERS: And your clothing makes you question that. Exactly. And I appreciate you using your body and your clothing to raise those questions.

PORTER: Thank you.

SANDERS: Yes, sir.

PORTER: I think it's really important because of the Black gay man whose masculinity has been in question since the moment I could comprehend thought, my masculinity has been in question. And what I mean by that is you're not masculine enough to exist on the planet - you need to fix yourself.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: That's what you're saying to me.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: That's what I have lived. I stopped that. I took myself out of the masculinity race.

SANDERS: Well, and that's the thing. It's a game because then, you know, the same people that will tell a gay Black man, you're too femme - at other times, they'll say, well, you're faking it trying to be, quote-unquote, "masc."

PORTER: Correct.

SANDERS: You can never please anyone in this masculinity race.

PORTER: Nope.

SANDERS: And I think the best approach is to understand that we've all got a little bit of femininity and masculinity with - inside us.

PORTER: Correct. (Laughter) Correct.

SANDERS: And just be you, and you're going to be who you're going to be.

PORTER: Just be whatever it is that I'm going to be.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: And I have to tell you, when I was trying to do what everybody told me I should be doing, I was broke and unemployed...

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yes. Yes.

PORTER: ...Bankrupt...

SANDERS: There you go. There you go.

PORTER: ...Bankrupt and unemployed for real - like, for real, bankrupt and unemployed...

SANDERS: Yes. No, I read up on it. Yes.

PORTER: ...Because I was running around here trying to be masculine enough for y'all.

SANDERS: And you'll never be masculine enough because you're just like - it's just like - you'll never hit that bar. You'll never hit that mark. So why try?

PORTER: And what is the point? Ultimately, for me, it's like, well, what is the point? You know, I'm trying to be masculine enough so that I can eat. Like, literally...

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

PORTER: ...That's what it was for me. And I just stopped.

SANDERS: Well - and that's when things picked up for you. You know, reading up on your backstory, you hit Broadway in the early '90s. You got two roles. You're in "Grease," I think, in 1994. But then for years, the industry is trying to give you these roles where you have to basically masc it up - make it more masculine. And you turn a bunch of those things down, and you're not working for a while. But...

PORTER: But it wasn't about turning anything down.

SANDERS: OK.

PORTER: It was about not even being let into the room.

SANDERS: You're saying they wouldn't even give you the auditions because you weren't masc enough for them.

PORTER: Correct. You know? And it's like I'm actually an actor. I actually am masculine when I need to be, you know? But the judgment comes from, you know, the people in the room.

SANDERS: Tell me about the process in getting to a point with Broadway where you were just going to live in the roles that were really you. I think that "Kinky Boots" was this, you know, certain kind of turning point. You kind of femmed that role up.

PORTER: Yeah. Well, what happened was in 1994, I went by myself to see a preview production of Tony Kushner's "Angels In America."

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: I saw the character of Belize, played by Jeffrey Wright. And for the first time in my entire life, I saw somebody in the creative space that looked like me - a Black gay man with a brain...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

PORTER: ...Who's not just the butt of the joke, who's not just here for your clowning pleasure but who's the heart and the moral compass of this piece.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: And I thought to myself, hm, here I am around the corner playing the Teen Angel in "Grease," which was a wonderful experience. It's very difficult to talk about because there's a bittersweet energy that goes with it. You know, I was stopping the show every night singing an arrangement of "Beauty School Dropout" that I did myself that I didn't get credit for, prancing around like a Little Richard automaton on crack, participating in what I called the millennium coon show...

SANDERS: Woof.

PORTER: ...And pigeonholing myself...

SANDERS: Woof.

PORTER: ...Into a clown space that it took me 20 years to get out of. You know, when you're gay and you're talented and your talent can't be denied - in everybody's defense, they we're trying to find a space for me.

SANDERS: Yeah. But they just don't know you.

PORTER: People were trying to find a space for me. You know, "Grease" was very kind and gracious and artistic people trying to find a space for me. They were trying.

SANDERS: Yeah. So then what changed, do you think, either in you or in the industry, that helped get you to where you are now where you've rejected that?

PORTER: I walked away. I walked away. I want to be seen for roles, real roles, real parts, real things. And the work dried up, just as I suspected it would. Don't worry about it. I'll do it myself. And that is when the gift of being the creator, having it come from me.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: I always say to people that I - as a 50-year-old man, you know, I'm the last generation of people who were taught to be brilliant interpreters of other people's material.

SANDERS: Ah. Talk more about this. I like this.

PORTER: The Internet - well, because the Internet and the younger generation and social media and all of that has created an entire generation, for better or for worse, who knows and feel empowered to have the content and the creation come from within themselves.

SANDERS: And who we are has to inform the role and the work. And we can't just, you know, be this blank slate for any script.

PORTER: That's not what it was - that's not how it was taught in my generation.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

PORTER: I didn't understand that the people, you know, who I admired in, you know, musical theater, for instance, like a Stephen Sondheim or a Jason Robert Brown or an Adam Guettel or all these people who I came up with - they didn't live my life...

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: ...So they can't tell my story.

SANDERS: Yeah. Tell me what part, what role, what moment when you felt that all those things were fully realized. A lot of folks will say it's your performance in...

PORTER: "Kinky Boots."

SANDERS: ..."Kinky Boots." OK. That's what I thought. I want to talk about that for a second. You really went about making the role your own.

PORTER: Yeah.

SANDERS: How different was the role that they were trying to give to you to what you ended up playing?

PORTER: Well, obviously, you've done some research on this, so I'll just take your lead.

SANDERS: I have. Yes, sir.

(LAUGHTER)

PORTER: I will take that prompt. So the original movie, Chiwetel Ejiofor played Lola. And, you know, he was a man in a dress.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: He was, you know, a part of a genre that is acceptable - straight man in a dress for comedic effect...

SANDERS: Exactly, yeah.

PORTER: ...Because everybody feels comfortable knowing that that straight man is going to go home and have sex with his wife.

SANDERS: And put on pants.

PORTER: Right.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: And for me, it was this film and watching this film and getting this part. And initially, they wanted him to be a straight boxer.

SANDERS: A straight boxer. OK.

PORTER: And it was like (laughter) I saw this movie. The boxing is not the point.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

PORTER: I know for a fact, personally, that with everything that I have gone through for me to finally get the moment where I get to create a role I play who happens to be a drag queen and that I'm going to say she's straight is irresponsible.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: It's actually irresponsible.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: So I can't do that.

SANDERS: All right. Time for a break. Coming up, we talk more about Billy's work on "Pose" and the parallels he sees between the AIDS crisis of the '80s and the pandemic that we're in today. BRB.

We're talking about "Kinky Boots" and how that was still a moment where you had to declare that you were going to make this character gay. And now you're on "Pose," a show that is decidedly queer all the way up and down.

PORTER: Yeah.

SANDERS: And it signifies even more shift, I think, in the industry. Are you...

PORTER: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Surprised by that shift? I mean, there's continued, I think, positive movement in terms of representation of queer people. And to see your show "Pose" and to see you up for so many Emmys this awards season, are you surprised it's happening now in 2020? You know, I mean, a lot of folks might have still said, not now.

PORTER: It blows my mind.

SANDERS: OK. Tell me about that.

PORTER: When I started coming to New York in the late '80s and trying to be in the business, you know, there was no context for someone who looked like me, you know? So there was no context to dream about it.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: Like, I've always had huge dreams. What I - but they were always springboarded (ph) off of something I had already seen. What this experience with "Pose" has done for me is taught me to dream the impossible, to take my own glass ceiling off of my dreams and dream the stuff that I can't even see yet.

SANDERS: I mean, it is really hard to overstate, you know? This is a show about ball culture, a show about queer people of color dealing with the HIV crisis. I mean, this is - it's really hard to overstate how big of a deal this is. Do you think...

PORTER: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Besides just the trajectory of the industry getting more inclusive, is there something about the now that's making this pop? - you know, because ball culture has been around for some time. "Paris Is Burning" is now decades old. Madonna was voguing or ripping off queer people in the '90s. Like, why is ball culture itself with "Pose" really hitting right now, you think?

PORTER: I think we need hope. We can't forget about hope.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: And this group of people chooses life anyway in the face of nothing. They have nothing. The world has rejected them. Their families have rejected them. There is a disease ravaging the community. Like - and they choose life anyway.

SANDERS: Yeah. And they dance through it.

PORTER: They choose love anyway.

SANDERS: And it's beautiful. Yes.

PORTER: And I think that's a lesson and a message that the entire world has to be reminded of, especially in this period of time...

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: ...Where, you know, there are days that feel very hopeless to me.

SANDERS: Yeah. I mean, you were saying earlier that your spirit is on the verge of being broken. I don't want to pry, but actually, I do (laughter). How hard is it?

PORTER: It's just difficult. It's difficult to watch America devolve into what it has become and really be confronted with the truth that whiteness, white privilege, white supremacy are the only things that matter in this country.

SANDERS: Well, you know what's so interesting to me - we are in this year where race is on the front page, you know, like you're saying. We're having conversations...

PORTER: Again.

SANDERS: ...About the systemic oppression of people of color that's happened in this country for centuries. And it's kind of a dark time, I think, when it comes to race relations. And yet shows like yours, full of Black joy - shows like "Insecure," full of Black joy, are making...

PORTER: But that shouldn't be a surprise to you. That shouldn't be a surprise. Art is always at the forefront of change.

SANDERS: Yes.

PORTER: It's moments like this when, in fact, shows like "Insecure" and "Pose" thrive because we're the necessity.

SANDERS: Tell me more about that.

PORTER: We're the antidote to what's going on in the world. We've always been the people to speak truth to power first. We always have. It's historical.

SANDERS: And speak joy to darkness.

PORTER: Yes. So it should be no surprise that "Pose" exists in this space because this is when it has to.

SANDERS: I want you to take a second for those who were living under a rock to talk about what...

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL FORK CLANKING ON BOWL)

SANDERS: I hear a spoon. I thought I heard some cereal munching earlier. That's fine. I don't mind. We got to eat.

PORTER: I'm eating lunch. I have so many things going on, so I apologize.

SANDERS: No. Listen. Do not apologize. You have to eat. What are you eating? I'm just being nosy now.

PORTER: A salad.

SANDERS: Like, I'm hungry, too.

PORTER: A salad.

SANDERS: Oh, look at you - so healthy.

PORTER: (Laughter).

SANDERS: I want some tacos, but I'm going to get those afterwards. Anyways, I digress (laughter).

PORTER: Yes.

SANDERS: For those who have been living under a rock and missing their blessing, tell folks what "Pose" is and who your character on the show is briefly.

PORTER: "Pose" is about a community, the ball culture community, based in the 1980s - African American and Latino and people of color, LGBTQ people who have been rejected from their communities, from society, put out of their homes for being LGBTQ. And they find comfort in family - chosen family - in this culture. The houses sort of represent family, and the balls are, you know, Sunday church, essentially (laughter).

SANDERS: Oh, it's totally church. It's totally church. It's totally church. And you are - your character Pray Tell is the ringmaster of sorts.

PORTER: Yeah, essentially. I'm the emcee. I am the father figure in this space. Our show has five transgender women of color at the helm. Mj Rodriguez is Mother Blanca.

SANDERS: Yes.

PORTER: And she really is the emotional heart and soul of the show.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: I would say she carries our show like Jesus with that cross on his back on the way to Damascus, honey.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

PORTER: She carries it all.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: She carries it all.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: You know, I'm so grateful to have lived long enough to see this story is actually being told, this story is actually being honored as valid.

SANDERS: And not just valid. I just find it particularly timely.

PORTER: Yeah.

SANDERS: Especially - you know, especially talking about your Season 2 arc for Pray Tell. You know, Season 2, he has an HIV diagnosis, and he becomes an AIDS activist.

PORTER: Yeah.

SANDERS: And you're seeing him deal with what was then a pandemic. And to see "Pose," which is about the pandemic that was HIV/AIDS - to see it air now, I feel some parallels between how America is dealing with the pandemic that we're facing today.

PORTER: Yeah.

SANDERS: Do you - I mean, I'm sure you must have had those conversations, too. Like, there are lessons, I think, for America and how to deal with a pandemic that can be learned from shows like "Pose" and for the communities that lived through the worst of the AIDS crisis, I think.

PORTER: Yeah. There are many similarities. And...

SANDERS: Which similarity do you think is the biggest?

PORTER: The destruction, the death, you know, the death toll with a government whose response clearly is about not caring, you know? If it doesn't affect the people in power, they don't do anything about it.

SANDERS: How does it feel, then, as a Black gay man, to see that kind of response today after having seen a response that was in some ways similar with the HIV/AIDS crisis and a different White House?

PORTER: Well, that's what I'm talking about when I say I'm on the brink. You know, it is devastating, and my anxiety is through the roof. And, you know, for the first time in a really long time, I am scared.

SANDERS: For those that are looking for some historical comparison or maybe some hope from our past, as someone who lived through the AIDS crisis, as someone who is a part of that community that was so affected, what do you think the lesson America needs to learn from that pandemic is in the midst of this one?

PORTER: Love always wins. Love always wins.

SANDERS: Tell me more.

PORTER: That's it.

SANDERS: Time for one more break. When we come back, Billy Porter takes us to church. BRB.

You know, speaking of lessons and learning lessons, you know, we haven't talked about church yet, but I think we should now because all through this interview...

PORTER: OK.

SANDERS: ...I'm just hearing church, and I'm seeing church in your looks. And you've talked about this. I mean, the attitude you bring to the runway...

PORTER: (Laughter).

SANDERS: ...For me, that feels very much informed by that Sunday strut down the aisle at church. The way you're doing this interview with me feels very much like a sermon Sunday at church. Like, I - as a Pentecostal church kid, I can just, like, literally feel the spirit in you. And I want to just ask, how much is just the ethos of that church, of that Black church still working through you and in you through your work? - because I feel it.

PORTER: Well, I always say that my art is my ministry.

SANDERS: Yes.

PORTER: You know, when I was young - I, too, am from the Pentecostal church. And what I'm about to say - I don't mean it to sound shady, but the reality is unfortunately sometimes - oftentimes - our church communities inside of the Black community are the only spaces we have.

SANDERS: Yes.

PORTER: Right?

SANDERS: Yes.

PORTER: So to dream outside of that infrastructure and those doctrines is often not an option for many people.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: It's not an option. So when I was coming up and people felt something was special about me, immediately, they go to little preacher land.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah. Any kid who is in any way charismatic or even flamboyant and, like, a good performer - the only track sometimes that your church family can see for you is the pulpit.

PORTER: Right - because that's all they know.

SANDERS: And I think also, in a strangely caring way, the Black church wants to keep - especially young Black boys who are gay, they want to keep them in the church so they can protect them.

PORTER: Right.

SANDERS: I think a lot of them say, you'll be safer in here with us than out there in that world that can be really mean to gay people. And...

PORTER: Right.

SANDERS: It's weird. Like, it's limiting, but it's also - in this roundabout way, they care. I don't know. Anyways, all this to say...

PORTER: Yeah. No, it is.

SANDERS: ...You end up as - you end up giving a sermon at the age of 11 at your church because they see the gift in you, and so you've got to preach.

PORTER: Yeah.

SANDERS: Do you remember that sermon?

PORTER: I don't remember what I said, but I remember doing it. I remember being in front of the pulpit. I remember hating it.

SANDERS: Really?

PORTER: I remember telling my mother afterwards, that's not it.

SANDERS: What did she say?

PORTER: She said, OK. I said, that's not it.

SANDERS: (Laughter) OK.

PORTER: I don't like it. That's not it. And she was like, OK. You don't have to do that. And...

SANDERS: It sounds terrifying.

PORTER: It wasn't terrifying. I was fine at it.

SANDERS: OK.

PORTER: I just didn't like it. It didn't feel real.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: It didn't feel - it felt limiting.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: I can dream outside of this sort of marginalized space and reach more people, reach a different kind of person. Like, it's a different - it's different.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: You know, but this is my ministry. You are seeing my ministry in front of you.

SANDERS: "Kinky Boots" is your sermon. "Pose" is your sermon.

PORTER: Correct.

SANDERS: What do you think you've taken most from the church into your work?

PORTER: Well, the Black Pentecostal church is all theater and all show.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

PORTER: So my showmanship - like you just said earlier, it's from the church.

SANDERS: Yeah.

PORTER: You know, that's my showmanship. The other thing that I've been able to take into life are just the fundamental values, you know, that - I think even though we as human beings don't live up to those values sometimes, they are there, and they are taught. And I was blessed to be grounded in a place of love.

SANDERS: Yeah. I wonder - you know, this is - you now - if you're back in that same church now as an adult, as the Billy Porter, and they ask you to preach again and they say, we love you and accept you for just who you are; you can preach about whatever you want, what is the topic of this sermon now in 2020?

PORTER: That y'all are wrong.

SANDERS: OK.

PORTER: You're just as wrong about gay people as white people were wrong about Black people.

SANDERS: Wow.

PORTER: That's the sermon.

SANDERS: Wow. Yeah.

PORTER: White people have used the Bible to justify slavery, to justify racism, to justify Black people being one-third of a person or three-fourths of a person or whatever that Bible verse they got from the Bible to subjugate us.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah.

PORTER: Y'all are wrong. And I'm here in front of you to tell you that you're wrong. That's what I was put on this planet to do and be. I am a human being. I am a human being, and there's nothing wrong with my love, period.

SANDERS: Thanks again to Billy Porter. He is up for an Emmy this year for his work on the FX show "Pose."

All right. Listeners, don't forget you're a part of this show as well. This Friday, we're back with another episode. And in that episode, we feature listeners sharing the best parts of their week. We want to hear from you for that segment. Just record yourself on your phone sharing the best part of your week, and send that file to me. Email it to samsanders@npr.org. Till Friday, thank y'all for listening. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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