BEING FABULOUS WITH BILLY PORTER
The House Diva the world needs right now.
Interview: Terry Farley
Through his role as sharp-tongued Pray Tell in the acclaimed TV series Pose, Billy Porter has helped shine a light on the New York ballroom scene for a new generation. Taking inspiration from Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, this fictionalised account of the ballroom world might be glossier but it’s equally moving in its portrayal of the members of the rival Houses of Abundance and Evangelista. Alongside the biggest LGBTQ cast ever featured in a TV series, Porter shines in his role. It follows his Grammy and Tony Award for his role as Lola in the Broadway production of Kinky Boots in 2013, part of a 30 year career that began when the Sound Factory child first arrived in New York. A few days after Billy appeared at the Glitterbox’ Virtual Festival singing his new record ‘Finally Ready’ with The Shapeshifters, one of his biggest fans Terry Farley popped him a few questions.
I read an article where you said ‘I’m from that world‘. So I was interested to know what your introduction to ballroom culture was and how you were involved in it.
I always say I was ballroom adjacent. I moved to New York on December 27, 1990 to start rehearsals for the Original Broadway Cast of Miss Saigon. I also later did a workshop of a piece called House Of Lear (King Learset in The Ballroom culture) at The Public Theatre. Paris Is Burning premiered and I saw myself reflected back at me for the first time. And I was a club kid fo’ sho’ in the 90’s. So, you know…I had some shit to pull from.
A lot of people over here in the UK were first introduced to ballroom culture through Paris is Burning. Was it something of an influence on you? I’m thinking particularly of the great MC with their phrases like “Banjee - walk like the boy who just robbed you”.
Yes! Paris Is Burning was the very first time we chocolate children saw ourselves on screen. And while it was a true story of Greek Tragedy proportions, we were there!
The fact the ‘Houses ‘ and families within were so important during the AIDS devastation in the 80’s were beautifully shown in Pose. I would imagine it was very painful to play those scenes?
I experience it as a gift. I lived through AIDS. I lost a lot of friends. The world lost a lot of incredible artists. I survived for a reason. This is why. I survived to tell the story, to remind the world that we’re here, we’ve always been here, and we ain’t ever goin’ nowhere!
The Vogue scene has become ever more important globally and has helped people learn more about ballroom culture. How important do you think the positive representations of that culture have been as a beacon of light for Gay POC? The idea that something whose roots are in struggle and pain can represent the most beautiful art and the finest in people that others can aspire to. I call Pose a "reclamation of appropriated culture". History proves that the contributions from queer artists of colour to the cultural fabric of America and thereby the world are profound. I’m proud to be part of a piece of art the educates and entertains.
Growing up as a teenager in Pittsburgh is a world away from Manhattan’s club and social scenes. I should imagine it was tough growing up gay and black there. What were the cultural reference points that helped you through those days?
Whitney Houston, Dreamgirls, Contemporary Gospel Music, Stephen Sondheim Musical Theatre, Donny Hathaway.
What were the clubs you hung out at when you arrived in New York? I read somewhere that you used to go to The Roxy at on West 18th Street. Were there any other spots you enjoyed hanging out in?
I went to AWWWLLL the clerbs…If there was a clerb, Daddy was in it. Some of my favorites as well as The Roxy, include The Sound Factory, The Sound Factory Bar, The Eagle, The Palladium, Club USA.
You are definitely THE Style icon of the last 12 months with the Egyptian Sun God outfit at the Met Gala something that would have achieved ‘10’s ‘ across the boards at Elk’s Lodge. Could you talk about how you worked with designers etc to create that fabulous outfit?
I mos def would have won Grand Prize. Ryan Murphy had actually suggested that I go as Diana Ross’ entire fashion montage from Mahogany, and I said, “Bitch…I ain’t werkin’ that hard!” Cut to: Being carried in on a chaise by six, hunky shirtless men. I mean…somebody had to do it!
‘Finally Ready’ sounds a real heartfelt anthem personally for you but also for our times. What story had you wanted to tell and how was it working with Simon/Shapeshifter. I feel he's an artist with rooted in the modern world but with a real respect for the past.
Working with Simon/Shapeshifters has been a dream come true. I’ve been at this music situation for over two decades now and this time in my life, this is everything I want to say. I’m FINALLY READY to walk into my season and spread as much love around the world as I possibly can!