Billy Porter knows a thing or two about glamour. And by a thing or two, we mean more than the space-time continuum allows.
He owned the "fab" in fabulous as the Fabulous Godmother in Amazon’s latest Cinderella adaptation. He played our heartstrings as Pray Tell, the feisty ballroom announcer turned heart of FX’s Pose. He poured blood(-red boots), sweat and tears into the role of Lola in Kinky Boots on Broadway.
And how could you forget that Christian Siriano 2019 Oscars tuxedo gown?
But life was far from glamorous for Porter, 52, as he details in his new memoir Unprotected. Many bullied and underestimated the Pittsburgh native; his own stepfather even raped him for years during his childhood — trauma he fully began unpacking during the pandemic, though he’s "always been on the road to healing."
"I really, really, really have needed this past year to work on myself and try to become a better person," Porter says in an interview.
His stepfather Bernie’s abuse traumatized him and riddled him with grief. "I split off from myself at 7 years old and began to experience myself as a grown-(expletive) man," he writes in the memoir. "I had no other choice. How was I to know that those sessions under the cloak of night with Bernie were wrong?"
Porter shed a layer of his vulnerability earlier this year in an emotional interview with The Hollywood Reporter. In May, he told the outlet that he was HIV-positive; he found out his status in 2007 following filing for bankruptcy and learning he was a Type 2 diabetic. The aftermath of his revelation?
"I feel free in a way that I have never felt in my life," he says. "And that is free of shame. Free of shame that has been placed upon me since I was 5 years old."
Pose, indeed, propelled his life journey forward; his character also discovers he’s HIV-positive.
"Pray Tell truly was a proxy for my personal healing," Porter says. "I could put the energy inside of the character, and figure out how to work my way through to healing through a character. That’s what we get to do as artists, period."
Pose co-creator Ryan Murphy, who took up space on Porter’s vision board before they even worked together, gave him the best possible gift: not telling Porter to tone it down — a.k.a., not to dial down his queer quotient.
"My hope was that he would tell me to let it go and he did," Porter says.
Porter won a history-making Emmy for the first season of Pose as the first openly gay man to win best actor in a drama series. The actor acknowledges Hollywood’s efforts toward inclusion, but he knows the work is not done.
He struggled throughout his life and career with not being seen as Black enough, or being too gay to play gay; only straight people could play gay (and many still do). Eventually he stopped caring about both dilemmas.
"For me, it didn’t matter where the chips fell, I needed to just make sure that I was taking care of myself and being as authentic as possible," he says. "Turns out that’s how you do it even when everybody tells you it’s never going to work."
Consider his Tony-winning turn in Kinky Boots and Emmy-winning turn in Pose as proof of that. And now, of course, in the Fairy Godmother role Whitney Houston famously played opposite Brandy in the 1997 TV film Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella.
"I screamed and ran around the house screaming, ‘I got the Whitney Houston part! I got the Whitney Houston part!’"
He embraces the moment with heart and humility: "It’s very significant to me, because it marks a real change in our culture, especially for queer men of colour. When I got into this business over 35 years ago, it would never have been possible to even think about having the Fairy Godmother be a non-binary/queer character."
Plenty of space exists now for Porter to stand with up-and-coming queer artists like Lil Nas X. Porter appeared in a video for Lil Nas X’s song That’s What I Want off his new album Montero.
"I am a part of the generation that kicked the door down so that Lil Nas X can exist," Porter says. "We don’t always get to walk through those doors, we don’t always get to benefit from that work. And I’m getting to do both."
Now, Porter has set his prophetic sights on more than just acting. On top of this book, expect new music and his feature directorial debut. He also just sold a new TV show to Warner Bros. and Peacock.
"We, who are people in positions of power, need to hold the gatekeepers accountable, and become gatekeepers ourselves," he says. "That’s what I’m interested in. It’s time for me to be a gatekeeper."
— USA Today