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.
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.