Earlier this week, I was among the lucky audience members at 92Y in New York City as the celebrated star of stage, music, television, and screen, Billy Porter sat down for an intimate Q&A conversation with fashion guru Fern Mallis.
Mallis is a renowned design and fashion industry leader with a prestigious 35-year career, which includes, to her credit, the creation of “Fashion Week.” For the past eight years, Mallis has welcomed audiences to sit in on her conversation series featuring the most prominent style icons in Hollywood and fashion. Her highly anticipated one-on-one with Billy Porter was one of her most dynamic as Porter held back nothing in discussing his rise to meteoric success and the tragedies as well as triumphs that got him there.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave with no connection to the outside world, you know Billy Porter. He’s the ‘over-night sensation’ – decades in the making. He honed his performance skills first at the prestigious Carnegie Melon University, small live stages and then onto Broadway landing a role in the massive hit show, Miss Saigon. Years later, he landed the career-defining lead role of “Lola,” the fierce and feisty drag queen in Kinky Boots on Broadway. That performance won Porter a Tony Award in 2013.
What the public knows mostly about Porter today is that he is a creative force to be reckoned with and a natural-born-slayer of the Red Carpet. His mega star turn happened over three years ago, however, when television show creator Ryan Murphy cast him as the shade-throwing, quick-witted Pray Tell in the hit FX show Pose. It was the role of a lifetime – a perfect culmination of a scripted character whose foundation is one that directly correlates to many of Porter’s personal real-life experiences.
As Porter explained to Mallis during their conversation, like the character he portrays on Pose, he was actually in New York City during much of the era depicted in the show. Part of bringing Pray Tell to life in the most authentic way is being able to reference real-life relationships Porter had with ballroom kids, some still here and others who are no longer.
His connection to his character is further aligned, as he shared with Mallis that he too, like Pray Tell endured sexual abuse as a child. It began when his mother remarried, and from the age of seven to twelve years old, his stepfather sexually molested him. As devasting as that is for a child to endure, Porter is quick not to play the victim or seek pity. In fact, quite oppositely, he reflects on that ordeal in a way that may make some uncomfortable as he embraces it, and attributes it to shaping the man he is today.
Porter’s story is so much more than a personal one. It serves as one of inspiration from which everyone can learn. His life is a lesson in self-love that can make a difference in how we navigate through life’s possibilities and obstacles. One of the most poignant takeaways Porter bestowed upon the crowd is that in life, you must live in the now and not get caught up in the history of the past no matter how traumatic. Living in the now allows you to be present and available emotionally for what life has in store for you today. As Porter shares,
“People always ask me how did you land that groundbreaking role as Lola in “Kinky Boots.”
To which he replies defiantly in Pray Tell fashion,
“Honey, I showed up, I was prepared, and I auditioned! People ask as if there’s some magic thing that happens but, NO I showed up. I auditioned like everybody else, I mean people, you have to be present!”
Other great nuggets in the conversation were Porter sharing more lighthearted moments like how he proposed to his now-husband while on a trip to London. Of course, the ever-so-astute Mallis spilled the tea, clarifying,
“Yes, then you married Adam Smith, and you proposed in London, and you guys had met many years earlier, dated, then broke up, then got back together again…”
At which point, Porter gave Mallis a raised eyebrow, then looked to the audience and jokingly quipped,
“Woo Honey … She got ALL THE INFORMATION!
It was a fun exchange and it showed that Porter has stayed humble and without pretention. He takes nothing for granted but also has no problem letting you know, “Baby, this is all happening because I put in the work and stayed true to me!”
He concluded the night by sharing that he looks forward to returning to the music business as a full-fledged recording artist with industry-supported releases. This ambition eluded him in his early days of being signed to record labels where execs told him to be “less gay” and to “butch it up” to sell records. He was basically being told not to be himself which is a kiss of death for an artist. Fast forward to hugely successful acts like RuPaul, Clay Aiken, Adam Lambert, Todrick Hall, Pabllo Vitar, and more. It’s a different world. We have progressed. Now is the time for Billy Porter to claim all the things he was denied years ago due to homophobia in the industry.
The conversation with Mallis lasted an hour, followed by a VIP reception. Unfortunately, Porter could not attend as he had to head directly from the stage to a waiting car that would whisk him off to Carnegie Hall, where he was scheduled to perform his new Christmas duet with Ana Gasteyer. Still, the reception was lovely full a few of Billy’s friends and admirers, hosted by Mallis. A lovely wine bar was provided by Legende Wines and delicious bites were provided by the famed Magnolia Bakery.
It was a fabulous evening of conversation, cocktails, cupcakes, and course anticipation to see Billy’s upcoming films Limited Partners with Tiffany Haddish and Selma Hayek, and Cinderella in which Porter will portray ‘The Fairy Godmother.’