Billy Porter's Next Act? Music Stardom (And Out's New Cover)

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“I wanted to be the male Whitney Houston.”

That was Billy Porter’s first dream. He didn’t always aspire to be a Tony Award-winning Broadway star. Or an Emmy Award-winning actor. Or a fashion icon. Or a movie director. Yet he’s done all those things.

That’s just what happens when you “stay ready,” he says with a smile. “I came in with the skill set to be multihyphenated from the start, from the beginning.” He’s not bragging, just stating facts. “I’m a singer. For the first 20 years, I had to fight to try to convince the powers that be that I could act.” Now at 53, an age Houston never lived to see, he’s ready to show the world every trick he has, on his own terms. It’s clear he’s a born storyteller.

Sam Waxman

“When I was a kid, I’d go to church a couple of Sundays a month with Mom,” he recalls. “She’d dress me up in black loafers and some awful striped polo she’d bought from JCPenney, and I’d mentally prepare for the three-hour 12 p.m. service. My Houston megachurch always begins the service with 45 minutes of live gospel music. That was always my favorite part, when the choir would croon and stomp and praise till they were exhausted and the pastor would stumble out, sing-talking over the organ, Let the church say amen-ing until the crowd would get louder and louder, working themselves back up into a frenzy, voice rising to the heavens, the choir jumping to their feet for another round of worship.”

I feel like I’m back in those pews, awestruck, as I talk to Porter — a powerful sensation to evoke over Zoom. I’m in my West Hollywood apartment; he’s at his New York home outside of the city. Porter’s cadence ebbs and flows as he speaks with the passion of a preacher. Even his voice is iconic, often imitated on TikTok and impersonated in comedy sketches.

If Porter takes his fans to church, it’s because that’s where his entertainment career began — initially, to less favorable reviews. He started singing in a Pentecostal church when he was 5. “The adults sensed a special energy around me,” he recalls. That was code. “Being a sissy, I was a target, and the preacher said I would never be anything. I was told I would never be blessed because I was queer.”

Porter preached his first and last sermon at the age of 11 because he discovered the vehicle that would change the trajectory of his life: musical theater. “That summer,” he says, “I happened to stumble upon the Tony Awards as I was washing dishes in my kitchen.” It was 1982, and Porter witnessed Jennifer Holliday’s iconic performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls on live TV. “That was the defining moment of my life. In that moment, I understood that I would be OK, that I would be OK for real.” His voice wavers as the tears well.

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“All of a sudden something clicked.” He began acting, and people began to respect him because of his talent. “It gave me a platform to sing in front of my bullies. The bullying stopped as a result.” He began to understand his power — and his potential.

Porter then attended the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School and went on to Carnegie Mellon’s prestigious School of Drama. Though he loved musical theater, he never lost sight of his original dream to be a singer. He just didn’t quite know how to go after it.

“There was no connection to the music industry; there was no space for me,” he says. “I didn’t know nobody who could get me into the music industry. That only existed in New York and Los Angeles. This was even before Atlanta, you know, this was even before Babyface. So my only way into being creative on a daily basis was to train in theater, dance, acting.”

Porter was in his last semester at Carnegie Mellon when he went to an open call for Miss Saigon. After numerous callbacks, he booked a spot in the original cast, received internship credit for his last semester in the spring of 1990, and officially moved to NYC. Then he landed Grease. Then Smokey Joe’s Cafe. And he then competed on Star Search against a young Britney Spears and won $100,000.

But at the time, that win “didn’t really do anything. It’s a great credit to have.” He waves the accomplishment off. “With taxes, it’s 40k, just so we’re clear. Nobody told me how to invest it. I should have put a down payment on a studio apartment in Midtown [Manhattan]. I would be a billionaire right now.”

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While he is grateful for his early Broadway run, Porter says, in the moment, he wasn’t exactly happy. He struggled to make ends meet between shows. “I couldn’t get hired on major summer stock jobs because I was Black, and they weren’t hiring Black people and when they did, it was like one or two tokens, a girl and a boy. Those slots were filled. That girl and that boy continued to come back every season.”

So he took what he could get. And when he did get featured roles, “I just felt like a coon…. It’s hard to talk about it because I don’t want to disrespect the moment,” but Porter says he “suffered at the hands of a lot of racism and homophobia in the business.” Take his run in Grease, for instance. You can still watch his jaw-dropping performance of “Beauty School Dropout” on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno on YouTube.

“They put me in 14 inches of orange rubber hair and a space suit and made me prance around like a Little Richard automaton on crack.” He still slayed it, but “nobody took me seriously as a human being for 25 years. I spent years digging myself out of that millennium coon hole.”

It would not be the last time he’d be asked to play the role of the “magical fairy Negro.” In the rehearsal for Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Porter says “the choreographer told me to bug my eyes out more.” He also recalls auditioning for the revival of Cabaret “that made Alan Cumming a star and they came back with, ‘That’s not the story we’re telling.’” It’s about racism and discrimination, he says, and Black people existed in Nazi Germany too. “You’re telling me that that’s not the story. Please stop this bullshit.”

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But Porter soldiered on. He leveraged his Broadway success into a record deal and released his debut album, Untitled, in 1997, which included the singles “Show Me” and “Borrowed Time.” The music videos are hilarious artifacts of the time, doused in sepia-tone filters and cheesy R&B tropes, including the female love interest. There was no space for gay R&B stars in the industry, so the label forced him to sing about (and kiss) women.

“I’m masculine! I did a good job being straight,” he laughs now, “and they made me feel like I was the most disgusting, faggoty, feminine…”

Porter didn’t just have to pretend in music videos. “I was literally told, before going on to The Rosie O’Donnell Show to promote my album, to not speak. Don’t speak, because if I speak, somebody will know I’m a faggot.” He spent the first 20 years of his career going along with the facade because “I knew that I would not be able to eat if somebody didn’t think that I fucked women.” Porter couldn’t watch those videos for a long time. “I was so traumatized.”

Many male R&B stars were forced into the closet to sell love songs to women. Among them were Tevin Campbell, a ’90s star who only just came out as gay in 2022, and Luther Vandross, the pop culture icon who hid his sexuality his entire career. The tears jump back to Porter’s eyes when I mention the name. “I can be alive because Luther Vandross laid his faggot life down for me.” He lists other names: Sylvester, James Baldwin, Billy Strayhorn.

By the time “2000 came around my record deal imploded,” he says. “I was really unhappy with the trajectory of where my theater career was going because I was only being used as a showstopper.” So he “just walked away from all of that. I was like, if this is what it’s gonna be, I’m done. I’ll find something else.”

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Porter began to audition for television and film but initially “didn’t have a lot of luck” in the industry. “The code language was always ‘flamboyant.’ Too much. If the character description did not start with ‘flamboyantly dot dot dot’ I was not considered,” even if the character was queer. “I’m too flamboyant to play a gay character and then you go and cast a straight person almost every time.”

Porter almost landed the role of Emmett on Showtime’s Queer as Folk, which first aired in December 2000. It’s easy to imagine Porter as the lovably over-the-top character, but he says he bombed the audition.

It was “the only thing I ever screen tested for in a traditional fashion. It was me and Peter Paige.” When he went to the screen test, producers asked him to sign a contract as if he’d already secured the role, a standard industry practice that Porter was unaware of. “It threw me off my game, and I tanked that audition. I was flabbergasted.” How different the world might have been if a young gay Black boy could’ve seen Porter on the groundbreaking drama, which ended up with an all-white principal cast.

Porter does shout out Love, Simon director Greg Berlanti, who cast him as Taylor in The Broken Hearts Club despite the character being “specifically described in the script as white and blond.” Porter’s presence is persuasive, and he “went into the room with the director and booked the gig.”

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When his acting career hit a lull, Porter discovered The Artist’s Way, a self-help workbook by Julia Cameron that’s helped millions of people tap into their creative potential. The revelations came flooding for Porter, most notably that he did not want to be an R&B star as he’d previously thought — especially if he had to make himself smaller to fit in the boxes demanded by the industry. “I discovered, Oh, shit, I’m a visionary. I want to be the master of my own fate. I want to be a mogul. I want to be Oprah, I wanna be, you know, Bill Cosby at the time. I wanna be Steven Spielberg. I want to be Ryan Murphy.”

Porter didn’t know how he would get there, but trying was the only option. He just kept putting one foot in front of the other. “I grew up watching my disabled mother get up every day and show up for her life with no prospects, with nothing.” That was his inspiration, sheer determination, and it kept him going through the hardest year of his life: 2007. “February, diagnosed diabetic. March, signing bankruptcy papers. June, HIV-positive.”

The inner preacher jumps out once again as fresh tears come. “The God I know, the universe, whatever you wanna call it. A higher power kept me in the center of the conversation, kept me sane, kept me alive. I’m so glad I lived long enough to see the human being that I am. My generation died in the plague. I wasn’t supposed to make it.” Porter’s voice cracks. “I choose life…and to choose life means that you show up for your life.”

And Porter showed up. He returned to Broadway in 2010, starring in a revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Three years later, Porter originated the role of drag performer Lola in Kinky Boots, bringing his Black ferocity to the Great White Way and winning a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. In 2017 he landed the role of Pray Tell in Pose, FX’s groundbreaking drama centered on trans and queer people of color in New York’s ballroom scene.

Pray Tell led him in 2019 to become the first out gay Black actor to win an Emmy for Lead Actor in a Drama Series. The show pushed Porter into the mainstream. That same year, he wore the iconic tuxedo dress, crafted by Christian Siriano, to the 2019 Oscars, effectively drop-kicking the door open for gender fluidity on red carpets.

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“I was just trying to do something fierce,” he laughs. “I had no idea that it was going to change the face of fashion forever.” Porter jabs his finger at his chest to set the record straight. “I changed the face of fashion forever. And I’m gonna say it out loud. I’m gonna stop being silent about it because I’m tired of forces and energies trying to give that distinction to other people. I’m not gonna let it happen. You can call me conceited, you can call me whatever the fuck you want to call me. But I’m not gonna let y’all give my shit to somebody else anymore. And you know what I’m talking about. It’s not his fault.”

Porter is coy for a beat before he starts naming names. “This is not about that cutie Harry Styles. He’s fabulous.” But it was Porter who “sacrificed everything to sit inside my truth and my authenticity. Me showing up in an antebellum Oscar dress could have gone horribly wrong. I wouldn’t have been sitting here, and I would be destitute back in Pittsburgh, living on my best friend’s sofa. I sacrificed everything to be this. Y’all ain’t taking that shit away from me.”

In the years since, Porter directed his first film, the transgender-led rom-com Anything’s Possible on Amazon Prime Video. He’s launched his production company Incognegro alongside D.J. Gugenheim. He’s teaming up with Berlanti to produce the Peacock drama Fruits of Thy Labor. And he’s signed a new deal with Republic Records.

Gone are the days of ballads crooned to women. Porter’s ready to dance in all his glory, face beat to the gods, strutting in a dress, or however the hell he wants to be. “I’m bursting at the seams,” he says. This album “is everything I’ve ever wanted to say as an artist,” beginning with the first single, “Baby Was a Dancer,” a disco-infused celebration of life. Porter enlisted songwriters Justin Tranter, MNEK, and more for the album, titled Black Mona Lisa, which comes out this summer. And Porter is gearing up for his first national tour.

“This is my Songs in the Key of Life, this is my magnum opus,” he declares. “It’s not just one song. It’s the whole experience. I’m 53 years old, you’re gonna need to listen to the entire album and you will understand, even the young people with no attention span.”


And the community better show up for him like they do for female pop stars. “I’m a diva with a dick!” he says. “I represent all the things you love about all those ladies. It’s time for us to crack open our minds to receive that.”

“I’m excited to just be able to finally communicate my gift artistically and creatively with the world,” he adds. “God gave me the gift of song, and it was so expansive. That’s what gave me the courage to stretch out and become all these other things.”

Billy Porter has always been a mogul; he’s only now just been empowered to show the world. “I don’t want no ceilings on my shit. White folks don’t get ceilings. I’m gonna be in movies. Imma direct movies. I’m writing them. I’m producing shit. I’m nominated for an NAACP Award being a voice with The Proud Family. I’m doing all of it. No glass ceiling, no limitations.”

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photographer SAM WAXMAN @wamsaxman
photographer’s assistant AUSTIN RUFFER @austinyourface
stylists TY HUNTER @tytryone COLIN ANDERSON @colinmanderson
assistant stylists MANUEL MENDEZ @itsamanuworld MARIO SOLARES @oxandsnake
hair CHERYL BERGAMY @cheryltbergamyhair
makeup LA SONYA GUNTER @lasonyagunter
nail tech NIA MUCH
videographer AUSTIN NUNES @austinunes

This article is part of the Out March/April issue, out on newsstands April 4. Support queer media and subscribe -- or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.