Dressed for suc­cess

He brought the Os­cars red car­pet to a stand­still ear­lier this year, but Pose star Billy Porter has also rein­vented his life.

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - In­ter­view by NI­CHOLAS FON­SECA

The day be­fore he landed his break­out star­ring role on the TV se­ries Pose, Billy Porter ad­mits he was on the verge of a ner­vous break­down. “You know, I’m a very dra­matic per­son,” the 49-year-old ac­tor says as he talks to Stel­lar from New York, where he films Ryan Mur­phy’s fan­tas­ti­cal drama about that city’s un­der­ground club scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “I had to fight hard to be seen at a level be­yond ‘flam­boy­ant’. And it wasn’t hap­pen­ing in any way. It’s frus­trat­ing to feel dis­missed, and I thought, ‘I just can’t keep liv­ing like this.’”

But Mur­phy – whose projects of­ten fea­ture meaty or un­ex­pected star­ring roles for ac­tors pre­sum­ably past their use-by date – came to the res­cue. Porter’s Pray Tell is both em­cee of the fash­ion balls – dance com­pe­ti­tions made fa­mous thanks to Madonna’s 1990 smash ‘Vogue’ and the doc­u­men­tary film Paris Is Burn­ing – and the beat­ing tiger heart of Pose, which is among a raft of cur­rent en­ter­tain­ment of­fer­ings re­assess­ing the AIDS cri­sis at its height.

“[Ryan] and I are the peo­ple on set who ac­tu­ally lived through it,” says Porter. “It’s a show about peo­ple who chose life

in the midst of noth­ing. I never saw that.” Like many gay men of his age, Porter watched a ver­i­ta­ble army of his friends suc­cumb to HIV/AIDS; even now, film­ing scenes for Pose can prove har­row­ing. “I had one of those to­day,” he ad­mits. “I filmed a hospi­tal scene and I said, ‘You have one more take be­fore I’ve got to get out of here.’ But these sto­ries have to be told, and to be one of the peo­ple who is still here, and who gets to do the telling, is beau­ti­ful.”

The show’s suc­cess is em­bold­en­ing Porter, who is be­mused by the “old white ladies, all the time, ev­ery­where” who are avid watch­ers and has co-opted that old “flam­boy­ant” thing to rev­o­lu­tionise the red car­pet. In the past sev­eral months, Porter has be­come a reg­u­lar show stop­per – his tuxedo gown was the talk of this year’s Os­cars, and in May he was trans­ported into the Met Gala atop a lit­ter car­ried by six shirt­less men. “Anna Win­tour [Gala co-chair and guest-list co­or­di­na­tor] knows good TV,” he says with a laugh. “And that is good TV. Peo­ple know that I’m go­ing to turn it up when I go on a car­pet – they see how it works, and they in­vite me.”

Of course, Porter has a lot of prac­tice in the dress­ing-up de­part­ment. For years, he donned a pair of glit­ter­ing, thigh-high red heels in his Tony­win­ning per­for­mance as the star of Kinky Boots, Cyndi Lau­per’s Broad­way mu­si­cal based on the hit 2005 film.

But it goes back a lot fur­ther. As a young boy grow­ing up in Pitts­burgh, he says, “My grand­mother, my great aunt and my mama used to make patterns and they al­ways made sure we looked sharp. And I’ve liked play­ing out­side of the box, set­ting my­self free through cloth­ing. So I’ll do ex­actly what I want to do – that’s what hap­pens around 50.”

Which is why last Oc­to­ber – spurred on by a deep emo­tional re­ac­tion to the con­tentious Brett Ka­vanaugh hear­ings – Porter re­vealed for the first time he was sex­u­ally abused by his step­fa­ther as a young boy in an es­say he wrote for the US mag­a­zine Out. “I had to get it out,” he tells Stel­lar. “I sur­vived it, and I want to talk about it so it doesn’t keep hap­pen­ing. A lot of peo­ple were touched, so I’m glad I wrote it.”

Pose, the fash­ion world and even Tay­lor Swift, who en­listed him for a cameo in her celeb-filled new video for ‘You Need To Calm Down’, have given Porter a wide-open plat­form to share his tal­ents – to which he says, bring it on. “It was never about be­ing a trail­blazer, chang­ing the game or be­ing that guy. But I did al­ways see some­thing great in my fu­ture. And what’s in­ter­est­ing is that I’ve learnt any­thing is pos­si­ble.”

Pose airs 9.30pm Sun­days on Fox Show­case.

STRIKE A POSE (clockwise from top left) Ac­tor Billy Porter as Pray Tell in TV se­ries Pose; mak­ing a splash on the red car­pet in a tuxedo gown at the Os­cars in Fe­bru­ary; with Kinky Boots com­poser Cyndi Lau­per at the Tony Awards in 2013 af­ter they both won gongs for their work on the hit stage pro­duc­tion.

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