billy porter

Thoroughly Modern Billy

The actor’s suddenly hot career demands intense time and energy. What might his success leave behind?

Jeremy Kinser Current PSL, Fashion & Style, LGBT, Watch & Listen – LGBT

billy porter
Billy Porter is wearing a Pucci vintage caftan from Mitchells Palm Springs, Amon Itomi jewelry and Ooh la-la de Paris from Palm Springs Sunglasses.
PHOTOGRAPH BY AARON FEAVER

There’s something to be said for striking while the iron is hot. Billy Porter has taken this old proverb to heart. Three decades into his career, he finds himself propelled into today’s headlines as ubiquitously as any controversial politician. It’s astonishing he musters the time and energy for his omnipresent pace.

“Doing eight shows a week in the theater in high heels breeds thoroughbreds,” Porter says, nodding to his Broadway turns in hit shows, such as his 2013 Tony Award-winning role as drag queen Lola in Kinky Boots. Adjusting the fluffy white bathrobe that keeps slipping down his shoulders to expose a nipple, he collects his thoughts about the sudden demand for him and the worry about overexposure. “I’ve been able to apply the same skillset that goes into doing eight shows a week into this moment where I really need to be present. I need to show up for everything because I’ve worked 30 years to get here. I’ve got to show up, I’ve got to be ready, and I am!”

Show up, the guy does.

VIDEO: Go Behind-the-Scenes with Billy Porter at a midcentury home in Palm Springs.

“I’ve got to show up, I’ve got to be ready, and I am.”

There’s his hit television series, Pose, for which he made history earlier this fall as the first openly gay man of color to go home with an Emmy Award as best actor. The show is a buzzy fantasia anchored by Porter’s moving,  outrageously witty turn as Pray Tell, the HIV-positive emcee at a Harlem drag ball who mentors a group of young underground performers. It’s also chock-full of watercooler moments — including Porter’s graphic sex scene with decades-younger costar Dyllon Burnside — and has been renewed by FX for a third season.

In 2018, he appeared as a warlock in five episodes of the Goth-horror sensation American Horror Story: Apocalypse and earlier this year cameoed in the video for Taylor Swift’s LGBTQ anthem “You Need To Calm Down.” In August, he topped the Billboard charts himself with his own dance hit “Love Yourself.” This past October, he nabbed top billing over Debra Messing and Larry David in a star-studded staged reading of the Robert Mueller report in Beverly Hills. A week later, he participated on a panel at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago. In between, he hosted a fundraising gala for the Ali Forney Center, the Manhattan-based LGBTQ youth support group. And this month, he takes center stage at a jazzy holiday concert in San Francisco.

billy porter pose show

Gucci suede jacket, pants, turtleneck, boots, bracelet, and handbag; Nick Fouquet hat; bespoke scarf, from The Little Project; La Akua sunglasses, Palm Springs; Aman Itomi jewelry. 

Being so busy is nice, Porter says, but “I have to stay focused on the work, and that has kept me sane in this business that can be so crazy sometimes.”

In January, he has a scene-stealing role alongside Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne, and Salma Hayek in the female empowerment comedy Like a Boss. “Praise the Lord, I got a really good part,” he says with a laugh. “I’m ready to be a movie star, y’all!”

The movies finally seem ready for him, too. Next year, Porter will enchant audiences as the fairy godmother (yes, mother) in Sony’s musical adaptation of Cinderella. “I thought they would change it to the fairy godfather, but they’re not changing the gender,” he says, of what will be another history-making first. “I will be playing it as my fabulous self, but I’m not going to be a drag queen. I’m not going to be a woman.”

Perhaps most fascinating — particularly for a 50-year-old queer man — is that he can’t walk a red carpet without landing a coveted spot on the best-dressed lists. His spin in a Christian Siriano-designed black tuxedo gown at this year’s Academy Awards won the night. In September, he spent three days in London and crammed in 15 fashion shows (many seated next to Vogue empress Anna Wintour), prompting that magazine’s staff to publicly wonder if Porter possessed a transporter. Just try to keep up with this guy’s to-do list.

To say Porter is having a moment would be the height of understatement. The multi-hyphenate entertainer is having a year — and the time of his life, though he seems to take it all in stilleto-heeled stride, knowing he has been patient for all of this success.

In Palm Springs on a toasty afternoon for a Palm Springs Life photo shoot — the sun beating down as he lunches by the pool at a midcentury modern home with Shirley Bassey songs blasting on the loudspeakers — Porter puts down his sandwich to ask a pressing question.

“Where is my James Bond theme song?” He dramatically raises his hand into the air as Bassey’s 007 anthem, “Goldfinger,” begins to play. “That will get me my EGOT!” he bellows with a throaty chuckle. The comment is a wink at pundits who frequently question whether Porter will be the next entertainer to garner the quadruple win of an Emmy (check), Grammy (check), Oscar (maybe soon), and a Tony (check). If this man has learned anything, it’s that all good things come in time.

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billy porter singing

Tom Ford evening jacket, turtleneck, and trouser; Fleur’d Pins leather lapel flower; Ruthie Davis pumps; Aman Itomi jewelry; vintage Ted Lapidus sunglasses, from Mitchells Palm Springs; vintage pearls. 

billy porter palm springs

Sandra Bernhard, who costars on Pose as Pray Tell’s compassionate, no-nonsense nurse and is surely as savvy as anyone in show business, also knows the industry is all about good timing and attributes Porter’s “it boy” status to just that.

“He’s been around a long time,” she says. “Being seen in a theatrical production is different from being seen by millions of people week after week. His full potential got realized in the role of Pray Tell at a time when the show has a resonance that speaks to many people and has opened many people’s eyes about that time and the AIDS conundrum in the ’80s, and it all just came together.”

Porter has finished his lunch and takes a few moments to lounge, appearing pleased to exhale in Palm Springs for the weekend. It’s a place where he has always found a respite from the chaos of Los Angeles and New York. In the late 2000s, Porter coproduced a cabaret show that helped open the Ace Hotel & Swim Club. He thinks back to those days, when he mentored up-and-comers, such as Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. “These mountains are so serene and stunningly beautiful,” he states. “The air is so relaxing. It’s just … lovely!”

He has been working non-stop for decades before the spotlight was so relentlessly pointed at him. There was a standout role as a suddenly single gay man in Greg Berlanti’s 2000 rom-com The Broken Hearts Club. There were the requisite guest spots on TV dramas, such as Law & Order. There was a stint as an R&B recording artist that didn’t go as well as he’d hoped, despite a number of well-received albums.

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billy porter emmy outfit
“This is the life I wanted for myself.”
billy porter emmy
billy porter awards

Norma Kamali pantsuit; Alice and Olivia Go Love Yourself T-shirt, from Saks Fifth Avenue; Ruthie Davis shoes; Michael Sui top hat.

A few years later, he was cast as Belize, the liberal nurse forced to care for vile attorney Roy Cohn, in the 2010 New York revival of Angels in America. Porter views this as a turning point in his life. When the show was first produced on Broadway in 1994, Porter was around the corner belting out “Beauty School Dropout” in a production of Grease headlined by Rosie O’Donnell but caught a performance of the searing AIDS-era drama. It stirred something inside him.

“I thought, how do I go from playing the teen angel with 14 inches of orange rubber hair on my head, prancing around like Little Richard on crack, to that?” he recalls. “That play was the turning point for me in choosing a different direction in my life and ending up where I am sitting in front of you today. This is the life I wanted for myself. I’m doing it on my terms, and it was Angels in America that launched that journey for me.”

It’s easy to draw a through-line between Porter’s role in Angels and Pray Tell in Pose. The TV series is famed for being the scripted program with the largest-ever number of trans people in front and behind the camera. The producers pull no punches in showing how the AIDS epidemic affected queer people. Bernhard suggests the series and Porter resonate because they present an opportunity to experience what it was like to be marginalized by society and forced to find an outlet outside the mainstream to unleash their full creativity and talent. “There’s a beautiful balance of what people’s lives were like,” she says. “The series is obviously very entertaining, and there’s an element of fantasy that makes the times more palatable for people who weren’t there or didn’t understand the consequences of their times.”

“Praise the Lord, I got a really good part.
I’m ready to be a movie star, y’all.”

Pose co-creator Steven Canals thinks the show is reaching such a broad demographic (the series has a sizable straight, white female fan base) in large part due to the genuineness of Porter’s work. “I think Pray Tell is one of the characters on the show that you wish you knew in real life,” he shares. “Many folks who watch the show have probably known some version of that character. I think a lot of our viewers, regardless of their identity, are seeing their own history, their own experience on the screen.”

Canals adds that Porter has a positive influence on set, as well. “He serves as a model to our cast in how to navigate his career and this crazy business with class and with grace, and patience.”

The constant demand comes with a cost. Sought after in the states and abroad, Porter risks burnout but shrugs off the concern. “I know what my limits are,” he states with conviction. “I say ‘no’ way more than people think I do. I say ‘no’ a lot. I really do.

“The way that it’s coming at me right now is so extreme, but I do know how to take care of myself — I sleep!”

The jet-setting creates challenges in maintaining a stable homelife with his husband, luxury eyewear designer Adam Smith. “Let’s move past that question,” Porter insists emphatically when asked. “Let’s move past that because it’s not a pleasant answer.”

billy porter oscars
billy porter kinky boots

Pucci vintage caftan from Mitchells Palm Springs; Norma Kamali sequin spat leggings; Ruthie Davis shoes; Amon Itomi jewelry; Ooh la-la de Paris, from Palm Springs Sunglasses.

Thinking about it further, he offers, “We’re finding the balance. It’s been a rocket ship liftoff, and it leaves the subject and the people around the subject wherever they’re at. It’s a lot. I’m in a space of trying to figure out how to balance it.”

Being recognized and asked to pose for selfies may annoy some celebrities, but Porter refuses to let it inconvenience his daily life. “I don’t want to be a recluse, and I don’t want to be the kind of person that can’t go to the Whole Foods around the corner from my house and pick out my own produce,” he says, with a mild chuckle. “I’m old school like that. I’m 50 years old. I don’t want to not be able to engage in real life with real people. I’m in the process of figuring out what that looks like. I’m figuring out that I get to control the narrative and create those boundaries for myself. I’m still figuring it out.”

Bernhard thinks Porter’s future holds infinite possibilities. “He’ll do something profound,” she declares. “He’ll star in projects that offer him great characters to play.”

Besides the upcoming Cinderella, there are reports that Porter will ventriloquize the voice of the man-eating plant Audrey II in Berlanti’s musical remake of The Little Shop of Horrors. Even more interesting are two upcoming biopics, both involving Canals, that Porter accidentally revealed.

“I’m figuring out that I get to control the narrative.”

When Porter won his Emmy, Canals tweeted that he was at work on a script that might get the performer his Oscar. Pressed on what the project might be, Porter says the two are trying to obtain the rights to the story of Donny Hathaway, the best-selling R&B recording artist who battled paranoid schizophrenia before falling to his death from the 15th floor of the Essex Hotel. Canals confirmed the news, adding that there’s yet another project in the early stages of development. Porter reveals it’s a biopic of legendary queer writer James Baldwin. “Those are the people that I should be playing,” he shares. “I’m so thrilled that I’m at the position now where people want me to play those people.”

It seems that Oscar and EGOT status are within Porter’s reach, even if downtime is not. But that might change soon, too.

Porter is looking forward to a few weeks this month when much of the entertainment industry takes a hiatus. He hopes to whisk his husband away for some R&R. “I need that break,” he says. “I think my husband and I may go away someplace. We’re going to take a break. I don’t know what and I don’t know where, but we’re going to take a break!”

Maybe he really can have it all.

billy porter age

Studio 54 shirt, from Michael Kors Collection; Eidos jacket; “Richfresh” bespoke trouser; Ruthie Davis pumps; Ooh la-la de Paris, from Palm Springs Sunglasses; Aman Itomi jewelry.

Who’s turning Billy Porter’s head these days?

Here are three people he wants you to know better:

Ta-Nehisi Coates
“He wrote Between the World and Me a few years back that was on the national bestseller list, and he’s an African-American thought leader. I love him and what he stands for. He’s a modern-day truth-teller who speaks the truth to the power.”

Mykal Kilgore
“One of my protégés just released an R&B soul album that is so astonishingly beautiful. It just makes me cry every time I hear it.”

Ryan Murphy
“[The AHS and Pose co-creator] constantly uses his powers for good. His creativity is beyond anything I’ve ever seen. He understands the balance of message and entertainment. If the children aren’t going to be entertained, you’re not doing your job.”

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Styling by Neil Cohen | Hair & Grooming by Jamal Hammadi