Billy Porter understands timing is essential. After a failed music career in the Nineties, Porter, 49, was bankrupt and couch-surfing, surviving on acting scraps for decades, before he transformed himself for a career-catapulting, Tony-winning turn as Lola in Kinky Boots in 2012. Now, he’s not shy about owning his moment as the flamboyant Pray Tell, the ball MC and a male lead in FX’s musical drama Pose, a role that was created for him using his own life experience as a backdrop.
“I did everything that everybody wanted me to do at the beginning of my career, and it didn’t work,” Porter says, citing years spent gunning for buttoned-up parts on police procedurals and hospital dramas. “I failed as somebody else. The thing that has worked for me in this moment is the thing that I always knew I should have been doing in the first place.”
It’s also why he defied fashion protocol and decided to wear a floor-length velvet tuxedo gown on the Oscars red carpet this year — to challenge Hollywood’s rigid definitions of masculinity and femininity. “I couldn’t have worn a dress in the Nineties,” Porter admits. “It wasn’t the right time. I mean, the time was now.” He followed that up at the Met Gala by donning a black catsuit dripping in gold embellishments while being carried in on a litter by six shirtless beefcakes in gold pants. Once he hopped onto the pink carpet, he posed in a pair of large gold-beaded wings.
Pose has given Porter the perfect platform for statement-making moments. The groundbreaking series features five transgender actresses in series-regular roles — the most for any prime-time show — and has the largest LGBTQ recurring cast in TV history. Plus, it’s largely written and produced by members of the queer community, including co-creators Steven Canals and Ryan Murphy, executive producer Nina Jacobson and trans director Silas Howard. But his chance to proclaim “Tens across the board!” to the “children” nearly didn’t happen.
Porter credits the creative team for closely observing and writing to the cast’s strengths. He originally auditioned to play the dance teacher but immediately pointed out that the role wasn’t the best use of his skills. “I lived this world,” he says. “I knew they would need some male energy over there, like a ‘daddy,’ with experience. So I went in with, like, 20 pages of declarations, and I told them my story, and Pray Tell came from that.”
The first season had heartbreaking storylines, including Episode Four, titled “The Fever” — which was written by Janet Mock and directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton — in which Pray Tell learns that he’s HIV positive and decides to keep the information a secret from everyone. Later, in Episode Six, we see him at St. Vincent’s Hospital taking care of his partner, who is dying due to complications from AIDS. “We were free to love, free to fuck, free to be our gay-ass selves in this shithole of a town,” Pray says, remembering the time before the plague began decimating a generation. “They’ll never know that feeling, that you can love without dying.” Then he sings an emotional version of “For All We Know” to his partner and others who will die soon. It is a moment of gut-wrenching honesty.
“You can’t have a testimony unless you have a test,” Porter explains. “It’s like, I can stand in front of people. I can be this character and speak from authority. I’ve actually lived what I’m talking about on this show. That creates an authenticity in the storyteller. It puts a truth in my mouth that can’t be denied, that can’t be questioned, ever. So it does ground the story.”
While the events of the show’s initial outing, which took a soulful look at the AIDS crisis, ended in 1988, its sophomore season — which premieres June 11th — will take place in 1990, in the wake of the release of Madonna’s “Vogue,” which introduced the world of ball culture to the mainstream. “We call it ‘appropriation.’ I call it stealing,” Porter says of the hit song. “So just let everybody know where it all came from. This season is a reclamation.”
As the series and his performance have racked up accolades, Porter has remained humble — but hopeful. With Emmys nominations set to be announced next month, he acknowledges that recognition by the Television Academy would be deeply meaningful. “Awards matter for this little black gay boy,” he says. “Because when I win them, people pay attention to me in ways that they haven’t before. The journey we have been on in terms of representation in the marketplace has been white. But if this black queen walks up to take a Best Lead Emmy? That’s the first time it will ever have been done. That matters.”