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Billy Porter makes peace with himself: 'I set myself free, honey. No more secrets'

Billy Porter attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party. "Fabulous and serious, can go hand in hand. I am proof positive of that," he says.
Frazer Harrison
Getty Images
Billy Porter attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party. "Fabulous and serious, can go hand in hand. I am proof positive of that," he says.

Actor Billy Porter grew up in Pittsburgh, immersed in the Pentecostal church and convinced that he would be damned for being gay. It wasn't until he was introduced to the world of theater in sixth grade that Porter began to imagine a different future.

Theater, he says, "cracked open a space for me to dream beyond my circumstance."

Porter's family didn't have much money, but he managed to get into a high school for performing arts, and then attended college at Carnegie Mellon, studying theater and voice. After graduation, Porter headed to New York, determined to make it on Broadway.

Theater roles were scarce, Porter says, because he is Black and was often considered too flamboyant — even for characters who were described as flamboyant. But he landed the lead role in the Broadway musical Kinky Boots, and, in 2013, he won a Tony for that performance and then a Grammy for the cast album the following year.

More recently, Porter won an Emmy for his starring role on Pose, an FX series set in the underground gay and trans ball culture of the late '80s and '90s. Porter's character, Pray Tell, is diagnosed with HIV in Season 1 and dies from HIV/AIDS in the third and final season. While that season was airing, Porter also revealed he is HIV-positive. He says being open about his health status felt like a rebirth.

"That has been a very powerful, powerful thing that has come out of the show," he says. "I set myself free, honey. No more secrets."

Porter says that while he and his Pose character, Pray Tell, share the same sharp tongue and sharp wit, they have one key difference: "I am always leading with kindness and compassion."

Porter tells his story in the new memoir, Unprotected.

Interview Highlights

/ Abrams Press
Abrams Press

On realizing as a teenager that he could make a profession out of being in the theater

I happened to be washing dishes in my kitchen ... and the Tony Awards came on and Jennifer Holliday sang "And I'm Telling You, I'm Not Going" [from Dreamgirls] and ... for some reason, seeing theater on television registered that I could make money doing it. ... It was seeing Jennifer. It was seeing that show that helped me understand, "Oh, I can make a living doing this? I'm going to figure out every way that I can to do that."

On why he kept his HIV status secret (he was diagnosed in 2007 and didn't reveal his diagnosis until 14 years later)

Shame. You know, shame is a silencer. Shame is a killer. Shame is a murderer. And you know, I had nothing but shame in my entire life. And so, you know, it was actively working through the shame to get to the other side of that, which is truth and healing and authenticity.

On playing Pray Tell, a character on Pose who is diagnosed with HIV

The first two seasons, I was so excited that somebody was finally taking me seriously as an actor that I didn't even realize I was being triggered. You know, I was so excited that I was able to play a character where I could use the work to sort of try to heal my own pain, my own shame as it related to my own HIV status. And ... the day I went in to shoot my death scene, I said to the whole cast and crew, "This is the death of Pray Tell, but the rebirth of Billy."

On being abused by his stepfather, beginning when Porter was 7

I was raised by a lot of women. There were a lot of women and I was effeminate, and we were religious and they were afraid that I was too effeminate. And so I was sent to a psychologist ... [and] the doctor told my mother that I was fine and that she just needed to get a man around the house and that would teach me to be more of a man. ...

When I would have nightmares prior to my stepfather, my mother would come in and just lay beside me. And, you know, it was just her presence that was sort of enough. And then I would wake up in the morning and she would be gone and it would be cool. And so when she got married, she started sending him in, and that's how it kind of started. And so, you know, I called it an "affair" till I was 25 years old and in therapy.

On his decision to wear a tuxedo gown to the 2019 Oscars

Porter, shown here at the 2019 Academy Awards, says he's always been "a fashion person."
Frazer Harrison / Getty Images
Getty Images
Porter, who wore an iconic tuxedo gown to the 2019 Academy Awards, says he's always been "a fashion person."

I'm first generation post-civil rights movement, and we were taught that the first impression is what you look like. And I also grew up in the church, in the Black church, and as we all know now, the Black church is a fashion show. [Growing up], my favorite time of year was Easter and Christmas, because I would get a new suit every Easter and Christmas for church. I was the kid that dressed up in a shirt and tie to go to public high school. ...

It didn't occur to me, even after playing Lola on Broadway, that I, Billy, would ever sort of entertain the idea of wearing feminine clothing in my real life, because there's such a taboo on it. And so I didn't know. And then I got Pose and I thought, "Well, if I'm going to do anything on the red carpet that plays with gender, this is the role and the space to do it." ... So that's a good justification to sort of try it. And so I was just trying it and testing the waters. And then the Oscars happened.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Seth Kelley and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.

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