“I’m having a hard time this week,” actor and singer Billy Porter confides right at the start of our Zoom interview. “America is fucked. It’s really fucked. To sit and watch the news as a Black man at 50 years old and see… it’s all because of whiteness. It’s a cancer that has metastasised all over us, all over the rest of the fucking world.”
The source of Porter’s righteous indignation soon becomes apparent: Donald J. Trump, 45th president of the United States. “Nobody has stood up to this man. Nobody stopped him because everybody who was in a position of power to stop him was white. And whatever he was and whoever he is, and whatever he represented, [it] supported their whiteness.”
“America is fucked”
“Some days I’m fine,” adds Porter, the Emmy-winning star of Pose and voice of new song ‘Finally Ready’, a life-affirming modern disco banger he’s recorded with The Shapeshifters for Pride season. We’re speaking several months after coronavirus halted production on season three of Pose, the groundbreaking show which spotlights Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ people from New York’s underground ball culture in the late ’80s and early ’90s. During lockdown, Porter has had plenty of time to reflect. “And some days,” he adds with a sigh, “I literally want to smash things.”
Two days after this interview, Trump will finally wear a face mask in public for the first time since the start of the pandemic. But when we speak, the president is still setting a shockingly cavalier example to the nation which has the highest coronavirus death toll in the world – at the time of writing, more than 140,000 Americans have succumbed to COVID-19. When NME acknowledges that the British prime minister’s response has been “fucked up” but not quite as bad as Trump’s, Porter draws a line between the two leaders.
“Listen, here’s what I say: Boris Johnson actually believed his bullshit. He’s actually living his bullshit – that’s why his ass got sick,” Porter says. “Trump ain’t sick yet. He’s lying to us and doing something else behind closed doors… There is no way on the planet that that bitch shouldn’t be in the hospital on a ventilator if he was living the way he’s talking. It’s called genocide. That’s what it’s called; who’s gonna say that? Who’s going to remove him? It’s treason.”
By now, Porter’s magnificent voice – the one that makes his Pose character Pray Tell such a commanding emcee of the high-drama ball scene – is quivering with fury. “I can tell you, if it was a Black man, it would not have happened,” he says. “I can tell you that shit for sure. I can tell you for certain. If Obama had done one of the things that this white man has done, they would have hung him from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, from a tree for all the world to see, two weeks into this mess. You can trust and believe that.
“Whiteness is a cancer that has metastasised over the whole fucking world”
“You want to know what white privilege is – that’s what white privilege is,” he continues. “White privilege is: we’re sitting in the shit of what white privilege means. That this white man who was a D student, who was a liar, who’s a con artist, can win the presidency of the United States of America and destroy the entire world in the process? That’s privilege. That’s the white privilege ’cause the Black man would never be able to do that.”
Porter pauses, then laughs warmly. “I’m sorry, girl. I just dumped all over you. You saw my political side.” He fetches a photographer’s light from the back of the room and switches it on. “You should see my face – because it’s pretty,” he says with immaculate timing, brightening the mood in an instant.
This blistering start to the interview takes me by surprise, but later I realise that it probably shouldn’t have. Porter hasn’t shied away from speaking his truth since Pose – and his dazzling fashion choices at events such as the 2019 Met Gala, where he arrived on a velvet litter carried by six shirtless men – has won him a global platform.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Porter ran away from home at 15 to work as an entertainer at an amusement park. Before he decided to strike out on his own, he had been repeatedly sexually abused by his stepfather between the ages of 7 and 12. When he recounted this experience using stark and visceral detail in a 2018 op-ed for Out magazine, the publication warned readers that Porter’s story was “very explicit”.
“It was scathing, and it was, you know, violent. My trauma was really on display. But I had to get it out,” Porter says today. “And when [Pose’s co-creator] Ryan Murphy saw it, he called me up and said, ‘Um, how comfortable would you be with us using this as a Pray Tell storyline? And I was like: ‘Please use it as a storyline.’ And that’s how episode eight of season two happened.” This profoundly moving episode titled ‘Revelations’, which premiered last August, could well snag Porter his second Emmy. Either way, he’s already three quarters of the way to joining the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Whoopi Goldberg and John Legend in the prestigious ‘EGOT’ club of performers who’ve won an Emmy (Pose), Grammy (the soundtrack to hit musical Kinky Boots), Oscar (the missing piece) and a Tony (also Kinky Boots).
Clearly, success is not new to Porter. But he admits that the first season of Pose, which launched in June 2018 to enormous critical acclaim, “was more film and TV than I had ever done in my life.”
Pose deliberately focuses on trans characters such as Mj Rodriguez’s Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista, a “house mother” tending to her chosen family of talented outcasts, and Indya Moore’s Angel Evangelista, a conflicted sex worker who becomes romantically involved with a married straight man. But Pray Tell is a vital part of the show’s inclusive cast – which features more trans actors than any scripted series in history – so it’s surprising to hear that he was a relatively late addition.
“They created the character for me,” Porter explains. “They had called me in [to audition] for the dance teacher. And I said to the casting director after I auditioned: ‘Listen, I’m not trying to step on nobody’s toes, but like, I lived this. And it would be a waste of your time and mine to be doing the show about the ball culture, and not have me in the ball culture community. Like, you know, what about one of the mothers of the houses or something?'”
In the ball culture world, a house mother is a revered senior figure. Both a glamorous leader and an unofficial adopted parent, she leads her “children” into battle at regular balls where they use chic costumes, fierce moves and lashings of attitude to compete for trophies in categories such as “supermodel” and “executive realness”. The goal is to look as much like a real supermodel or executive as possible – no mean feat when you’re living hand-to-mouth in a marginalised community in yuppie-era New York City.
Since Pose debuted two years ago and Porter became a gender norm-slaying scene stealer on the red carpet, he says the sudden gear shift from working actor to global celebrity has been “a lot to wrap my head around”. He was already used to being approached by fans within “the 10-block radius of Broadway”, but now he’s recognised everywhere he goes. Porter married his partner Adam Smith in 2017 and says he’s aware the ever-brightening spotlight has an impact on him too.
“It doesn’t matter what sunglasses I’m wearing,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if I’m on the subway reading. The spaces, the boundaries, there are none. So I now have to figure out what the boundaries look like for me in this new reality I’m living.”
“I was 49 years old – and you have me fucking a 25-year-old on camera!?”
Along with the extra attention, Porter is seeing more doors open for him than before. Early in his career, he found himself pigeonholed as “the clown” – by which he means queer characters who would often provide comic relief – but now he’s offered roles he never imagined getting. Poignantly, he says that when he was sent a script for a new TV series recently, he couldn’t work out which part he was up for – because it was the lead. “I still have not internally made the transition to thinking that when someone’s calling me for something, they want me to be the lead,” he says. “And in this case they want me to be the leading man – not just the lead, but the leading man, the one who’s sexually desired. Like, I had my first [on-screen] kiss on episode eight of Pose season one. That’s the first time I kissed anybody romantically in anything in my entire career!”
He’s clearly relishing his breakthrough, but Porter can’t resist sending himself up a bit too. “And then those motherfuckers [on Pose] gave me a sex scene! Are you kidding me?!” he hoots. “Y’all want to see my old, shrivelly… you know, I go to the gym and it’s fine, but I was 49 years old, so, like, don’t get that camera too close. Y’all didn’t do this when I was young. And now you have me fucking a 25-year-old on camera. What is happening? It’s so much. And it’s amazing. I’m figuring out how to receive it all.”
Next, Porter is due to direct an episode of Pose’s third season – another career milestone – and will play a “genderless” Fairy Godmother in the upcoming Cinderella movie starring Camila Cabello. He’s also working on “an animated series from a Black queer boy’s perspective” and hoping to direct a film about a trans high school student.
“I have the luxury of being 50 years old and having been in the business for 30 years,” he says. “So now I know exactly what I want to do. I want to be the Head Bitch in Charge. I’m saying it out loud and people can think whatever they want to think about me. You know: ‘He’s conceited.’ I’m speaking it. Because I have stories to tell. I’m trying to build an empire where I can tell myself ‘yes’, where I can green-light my own projects, where I can tell the stories and support the people and the artists that I want to support”. Porter’s overall aim is entirely admirable and right-on: “To give voice to the people who are voiceless”.
“I want to give voice to the people who are voiceless”
He’s also relaunching his hitherto sporadic recording career with ‘Finally Ready’, a joyful, disco-flavoured collaboration with ‘Lola’s Theme’ hitmakers The Shapeshifters. Porter has such a great voice that it’s surprising he hasn’t leaned into music again sooner, but he says that “as a 50-year-old re-entering the marketplace”, it took him a while to figure out his niche. Then he realised he should use Sylvester, the visionary disco singer behind ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’, as a “template”. In the past, Porter has recorded everything from R&B to show tunes, but disco really suits his rich expressive voice – and he clearly feels an affinity with Sylvester, a fearless and flamboyant performer who challenged heteronormative notions of gender before dying of AIDS-related complications in 1988.
“You know, he was before his time,” Porter says reverently. “He was Black. He was queer, he was out and he was non-binary before we even had that language. He was genderfluid before we even had the language. He died way too soon, and I’m picking up the torch where he left off.”
Writing ‘Finally Ready’ was clearly cathartic for Porter. On the rousing chorus, he sings that he’s “finally ready to fall in love”. “You know, I wrote it from the perspective of being a survivor of the AIDS crisis,” he says. “Going from sexual abuse as a child to coming out at 16 in 1985 – then straight into the AIDS crisis and fighting for our lives. And now I’m married.” The aim was to channel the galvanising house music of the HIV/AIDS era when “the club was the space where we all came collectively to heal”. He also says that as he writes and releases more new music, he’s hoping to “pull a Tina Turner”. He’s now eyeing the remarkable comeback that the rock queen pulled off in the mid-’80s, several decades into her career.
Who’d put it past him? Porter is exactly the Head Bitch in Charge that the entertainment world needs right now. And to paraphrase Miss Turner’s iconic 1984 chart smash, his love – for his community, for performing, for the opportunities that storytelling can provide – has everything to do with it.
Billy Porter’s new single with The Shapeshifters, ‘Finally Ready’, is out now via Glitterbox Records