Billy Porter Broke Barries on Stage and on TV. Now, He’s Shifting His Focus to His ‘Original Dream’

Billy Porter Broke Barries on Stage and on TV. Now, He’s Shifting His Focus to His ‘Original Dream’

December 1, 2022

Billy Porter is three decades into a career he was repeatedly told would never happen.

A Black, queer artist with a booming voice and indelible screen and stage presence, Porter has ascended to extraordinary heights by defying those expectations.

“It’s been a wild, unexpected, glorious ride to get to this place of knowing and living what was possible then to what is possible now,” he tells Variety. “Who I am now was an impossibility then.”

Now a Grammy, Tony and Emmy-winning legend, the 53- year-old will be honored on Dec. 1 with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The “Kinky Boots” and “Pose” star was surprised by news of the honor, even if his collaborators aren’t.

“It’s only right for his name to be etched in history for people to stop, stare and remember how much weight he has and how lasting his impact is,” says Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, his “Pose” co-star.

In his career, Porter has never limited himself to one ambition, but it all started with the “original dream,” which was born the moment he watched Jennifer Holliday perform “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” at the 1982 Tony Awards.

“I was hooked,” he says. “That right there, that’s what I want to do.”

On the stage or the Billboard charts, he wanted to be the male Whitney Houston — and he had the voice for it.

He attended a performing arts high school in his native Pittsburgh and later Carnegie Mellon’s drama department. It was all the right moves for anyone paving a path to stardom, even in an industry that wouldn’t make it easy.

Porter first encountered the Walk of Fame in December 1991 at the age of 22 when he visited Los Angeles to compete on “Star Search,” the same year as Britney Spears. He landed on a Friday and immediately taped back-to-back episodes at the tail end of Season 10. He won both episodes.

By the following Saturday, he clinched the season title and $100,000 prize.

“I remember it being a whirlwind,” he says. “I was out there for a week and I came home with the grand prize.”

But “Star Search” wasn’t the launchpad it had been in the 1980s. Porter had hoped to be the next Sam Harris, the show’s first breakout who earned a record deal off his win. But by Porter’s season, the show was in syndication and airing sporadically.

“There weren’t many people who saw it outside my family,” he says. “It wasn’t necessarily
the gamechanger I hoped it would be, but it was a wonderful experience.”

Fortunately, someone was listening and signed Porter to a record deal at A&M Records. While working on his 1997 debut album, he was performing “Love Is on the Way” at a birthday party for Jenifer Lewis when he caught the attention of none other than Bette Midler. She pulled him aside to say she wanted his song and his voice on the soundtrack for her next movie, “The First Wives Club.”

“Most of the people in that audience didn’t know that was me, that’s how long I’ve been in this business,” he laughs.

But again, Porter found it tough to build on the momentum of the moment.

“At that time, when you could sing like I sang and you were the kind of performing artist I was, there wasn’t a whole lot for us to do in the theater as Black artists wanting to play real human beings,” he says. “I couldn’t get cast in ‘Cabaret’ as the Emcee. I couldn’t get cast in a Sondheim show, they were barely casting Black people in those shows then. I couldn’t get cast in ‘Les Mis’ or ‘Phantom.’ I couldn’t get the same things my white counterparts were building careers on.”

Then came Lola.

The proudly Black and queer lead of “Kinky Boots,” the Tony-winning role of a trailblazing drag queen was a revelation for the representation Porter had waited to see — he just happened to be the one bringing it to the world eight shows a week in six inch-high heels.

“I made my desires specific,” he says. “I had to go through the trials and the tests to have the testimony on the other side. On the other side, ‘Kinky Boots’ came to me because that’s what I asked the universe for 15 years prior.”

His co-star Annaleigh Ashford got a front-row seat to the transformative work from the intimate first table read to a rapturous opening night and beyond.

“She felt familiar and now fully realized,” Ashford says. “I always knew this character and Billy’s portrayal of her had the capacity to change people’s hearts and minds… He does something unique and wonderful with an audience — he makes them feel both at ease while he’s teaching them and opening their minds. He’s one of our greatest of all time.”

Porter attributes his career triumphs to committing his life to service, taking the advice of Maya Angelou and Iyanla Vanzant on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” he says. “It is your queerness. You have to lean into the truth of that and that is going to be your service.”

That truth is all over the screen in FX’s “Pose,” in which Porter played Pray Tell, the ringmaster of ball culture in 1980s and ’90s New York City. For three seasons, Pray Tell was a force of love and nature in a time when his community was in danger from disease, discrimination and demonization. Porter shared most of his screen time with Rodriguez, who played Blanca, the maternal center of the House of Evangelista.

She credits Porter in always being there to pull her from the depths of self-doubt in her first major role.

“The one thing that I can sum up about the incomparable Billy Porter is that it was a true honor to be right next to him creating change,” Rodriguez says. “As we both continue, I will make sure it is my duty, just as he uplifted me, to do the very exact same.”

As Pray, Porter became the first Black gay man to be nominated for and win a lead acting Emmy.

After “Pose,” Porter made his feature directorial debut with this year’s Prime Video teen romance “Anything’s Possible” and returned to Broadway as a producer of the Tony-winning musical “A Strange Loop.”

He also launched his Incognegro production company with producing partner D.J. Gugenheim to tell stories, as he says, “from the vantage point of me.”

But prioritizing the not-yet-conquered part of that original dream — a music career — will earn his focus in the coming months.

Next spring, he’ll release his first album of original music in years with executive producer Justin Tranter.

“I’m trying to play out stadiums within the next three years,” he says. “This album is my heart, it is exactly what I want to say to the world in 14 songs.”

Beyond that, the skies the limit: “I want to keep telling our stories and changing the world one story at a time, one song at a time, one episode at a time. James Baldwin says it is an artist’s job to disturb the peace and I take my job very seriously.”

TIPSHEET
WHAT: Billy Porter receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. Dec. 1 WHERE: 6201 Hollywood Blvd.
WEB: walkoffame.com

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