Unfiltered And Unfettered: Billy Porter Talks Career, Politics, And, Of Course, Fashion

Billy Porter is seasoned. He’s been around and seen some things while working in the entertainment industry for more than three decades. With time comes wisdom and Porter has plenty. From singing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he’s from to a Carnegie Mellon education, and the stages of Broadway, movies, TV screens and more, he’s traveled a lot of miles to bring his new album and tour, Black Mona Lisa, to his fans.

In a conversation with Porter, one quickly learns that he is on a mission and his experiences come with him through each new step and opportunity. LEO got the chance to speak with Porter ahead of his Louisville Palace appearance happening on Saturday, May 27. Porter shared his journey into, and through the world of entertainment, how he became political, and, of course, we talked about “Pose” and fashion. The only thing we missed in our conversation was that Billy Porter will be portraying another queer Black character when he plays writer James Baldwin in an upcoming film.

LEO Weekly: I noticed when I was reading about your career that you’ve always stayed true to things, and jobs, that aligned with who you are. So how do you choose the projects that you participate in?

Billy Porter: Those choices actually were an evolution. When my career started, like most people, I just had to take whatever jobs came because I had to work. In my early twenties, I realized that the trajectory that I was on, which, in my memoir, I called the ‘Millennium Coon Show,’ we have a tendency as Black people to be cast as a magical negro very often. You add the layer of queer onto that, and it doesn’t go anywhere. So I made a real decision, a conscious decision. After seeing Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America,’ in 1994, I made a conscious decision that I needed to be a part of work that was transformative.

I was also watching Oprah, and she had on Iyanla Vanzant and Maya Angelou, and they were talking about service. And the theory was when you align your work and your desires with service, everything will work itself out. Everything else will work itself out. I really went deep into that and I thought, well, ‘how can I be of service in an industry, and quite frankly, a world that’s inherently narcissistic?’ The answer hit me like a ton of bricks. ‘It’s your queerness.’ 

‘It’s you leaning into your queerness and being that light.’

At that time, everybody was telling me, haters and allies alike, that my queerness would be my liability. And I was in the middle of it being my liability, so it was a very interesting time for me because I had to choose myself with nothing, with no option. 

When you’re looking at projects, what is something that would make you immediately say no to a project? Like, ‘I’m not doing that.’ What would, what is something that would turn you off?

For me, it’s always the ‘Why.’ 

As a singer, as a writer, as a director, it’s like all stories aren’t happy. If, in the end, the ‘why’ doesn’t have hope in it. I’m not doing it. If it’s just bleak for bleak’s sake. If it’s just trauma porn for trauma porn’s sake, I can’t do it. I can’t do that. That’s an overall answer, but that’s pretty much my criteria.

How do you plan for an award show, say Oscars versus Grammys, or Billy Porter going to Kroger or Publix versus Billy Porter at a meeting?

Billy Porter going into Publix and Billy Porter living Billy Porter’s regular life is not a fashion show. Fashion has become my life. Fashion has become a part of my job and, while prior to all of this, I would actually dress more often, now I have to do it for work. So when I’m not working, I take breaks. I’m in sweats at Publix. I’m in regular normal clothes when I go to the drugstore. Please don’t get it twisted. 

Now for the other things, you know, I have a brilliant stylist. His name is Ty Hunter. He was Beyonce and Destiny’s Child’s stylist for about 20 years. He retired about six years ago and then came out of retirement to work with me. So he and his associate Colin Anderson were really in alignment with fashion as activism. They understand what it is that I’ve tried to do and it is, you know, you sort of answered your question. It’s specific to the assignment of wherever I’m going. You know, the Oscars are different from the Grammys. The Grammys are different from the BET awards and blessedly, I have a team that does the pre-production work.

They take it and do the pre-production work and I’m at the point now where they come in with racks of clothes and I choose. It’s a very blessed life. I have a team that really, really helps me. 

You’ve built a solid career and are coming to Louisville with an album and a show that highlights your career. What should Louisvillians expect from your live show?

Well, just for a little context, I spent the first 20 years —  because I’m a multi-hyphenate — I was always doing everything at the same time. As a Black queer man, I didn’t… I don’t have the luxury of just choosing one thing. I’m always on several different tracts.

In 1997, after my fourth Broadway show I released my first R&B album on A&M Records. Now, the industry was very homophobic at the time, so needless to say, it didn’t work out for me, at that time, musically. 

With everything that I’ve been able to do in my career, I’ve come in and I haven’t gotten a second chance. So I’m returning to the mainstream music industry after actually four albums. Now I’m getting the opportunity to come back into the pop music space. I’ve written all of the music. I’m working with the top writers, including Justin Tranter, and we’ve crafted Black Mona Lisa. This new album that says exactly what I wanna say to the world and exactly how I want to say it musically for the first time in my life. 

First of all, it’s a celebration of life, of love, of joy, of hope, of peace, and of healing. That’s what you can expect. Content wise, it’s going to be 10 songs from the new project. I’m going back to my first album. I’m gonna give you a ‘90s R&B moment. Okay. I’m going to go to my Broadway stuff and give you some “Kinky Boots,” and some other stuff, which I won the Tony and the Grammy for. Then I’m gonna give you some of my political stuff because anybody who knows anything about me knows that I am fiercely political. Then I’m gonna do some gospel stuff because that’s my route. You know, that’s where I came from. And then the final sort of 20 minutes is a dance party, a celebration. I want everybody on their feet in these traditional theaters where people don’t get on their feet. Yes. I want everybody on their feet like it’s a mosh pit. I want to give the world a big bear hug because we’ve all been through a collective trauma and we’re all still in the middle of it, and we need to heal. And the fact that we’re back out of our houses and we can gather again, gives us that kinetic and connective energy that leads to healing. I’m trying to stand at that intersection, ‘cause art is healing and music is the universal language.

“Pose” gave light to so many aspects of queer life and history that offered a look at those lives, not as caricatures but as real people. How important was that to you, as a participant, that people were shown with dignity and realness?

I came out in 1985 right in the middle/beginning of the AIDS crisis. 

We went straight to the front lines to fight for our lives. I lived through the AIDS crisis. As many people already know, because I came out to the public, I’m also HIV positive. I spent a lot of time in survivor’s guilt. And I spent a lot of time feeling really guilty about having contracted it myself, like I was the generation that was supposed to know better. And it happened anyway.

And it’s here and it’s not going anywhere. And it happened by accident. When “Pose” came around, I realized that that part of history, true to American form, had almost disappeared from the conversation, because true to American form, we like to act like things didn’t happen. And so we bury them, we like to act like history didn’t exist. 

When Pose happened, it sort of fell out of this sky for me and I knew immediately that not only did I live to be able to authentically step into the space of “Pose” and Pray Tell, and tell the story, and remind the world that there was a whole generation that got wiped out from this plague, but also for myself personally. Pray Tell stood in proxy for Billy’s healing. Art Imitates life, and life Imitates art. And, by the end of Pose, I was able to set myself free. Playing the role of Pray Tell gave me the courage to release and free myself, set myself free, and therefore set myself on the road to real healing.

In 2007, Porter was diagnosed with Diabetes Type 2 and HIV, and found himself filing for bankruptcy in what he called, the worst year of his life. 

When you look at the success of “Pose,” and then we place it in the current political climate of all of these anti-trans bills and anti-drag bills, what do you think about what seemed to be a step forward now being so forcefully pushed back?

Here’s what I’ll say: It’s a circle of life. I feel blessed to have seen this before and to have been in the trenches before, because I know that we win. I was here before. The ‘80s were like this. The AIDS crisis was like this. I’ve seen it before. They don’t win y’all. They don’t. So yes, the world only spins forward. We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it, and get over it. We as a society have gotten complacent because we’ve been in a cycle of progress for so long. Well, now we’re not. And what does that mean? It means we have to reengage and show up again, and get up in these streets again, and make sure that justice is served. 

Make sure that the right thing happens. But democracy only exists and survives when the people are engaged.  

The good news about all of this trauma is the change has already happened. And that’s what I’m trying to put forward. The change had already happened when I got into this business. My Black gay ass was not welcome. At all. Look at me now. 

That’s what the response is to. That’s why the pushback is so severe, because they’re running scared. ‘Cause they know that they don’t have any power. The only power they have is to cheat.

The only thing they get to do is cheat to try to slow us down. 

We’re gonna win. Love always wins. On that note, it’s gonna be fine.

As we close May and enter June — Pride month — this interview serves as a transition point to our Pride  issue (coming June 7) and because of that, this interview is long, with very little removed because I think it offers (what I hope our Pride issue will also offer) and that’s hope and maybe a bit of healing. I think it’s particularly relevant locally but definitely throughout America where the LGBTQ+ community is under siege by right wing politics.