In January 2019, Billy Porter stepped onto the red carpet at the Golden Globes, crossed one Gucci slipper over the other, flicked his arms up from under the silver cape that matched his suit, and revealed a giant swathe of fuchsia satin with a flourish. Standing next to him, Elisabeth Moss could only watch as he stole the show; the next day’s headlines described his grand entrance as a “cultural moment”.
An invite to the Oscars arrived shortly after, to which Porter wore a black velvet gown with a skirt to rival Deborah Kerr’s in The King and I. “That was the moment that changed everything, not only for me but the entire world,” he says, looking fabulous in a gold metallic dress and knee-high boots as he orders a second glass of Moët in the rooftop bar of a London hotel.
In Hollywood, success stories tend to fall into two categories: a stratospheric rise or a slow burn. Neither quite fits the bill when it comes to Porter. An actor, pop star and screenwriter with an Emmy, Grammy and Tony to his name (he’s an Oscar away from the coveted Egot), the 53-year-old has come to stardom late in life. After enjoying early success in the 1990s on Broadway with small parts in Grease, Little Shop of Horrors and Miss Saigon, he found himself out of work for over a decade, and didn’t make it back to Broadway until 2013 with Kinky Boots.
These days, he might be best-known for his starring role in Pose, the award-winning drama series about drag queens in 1980s New York (in which critics hailed him as the standout performance), but the industry has evolved all too slowly – for years, his “queerness” was a barrier.
“I was told from allies and haters alike that my queerness would be my liability. And it was, for decades,” he says, a look of defiance in his eyes. “But you find [the drive] or you die on the vine. There’s no real choice. I choose life, period. I will always choose life.”
It’s an attitude he cultivated from a young age – Pittsburgh Pennsylvania in the 1970s wasn’t an easy place to be out. “My church kicked me out and said I would never be blessed.”
There were no black queer role models, and he discovered the writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin – whom he is about to play in an upcoming biopic – only in his twenties. He is respected now “because I demand it”.
With his smoky Pennsylvania drawl and infectious confidence (he tells me he’d like this piece to make him sound “thin and important”), it’s hard to imagine how Porter ever found it hard to command respect. And yet he says, “With my first mainstream album, when it imploded I realised that I had failed as somebody else.” His upcoming disco album Black Mona Lisa is his first since 1997, and judging by his single Fashion, it will be finally, truly authentic.
This is his third week in London and he is relishing every moment away from home, where his divorce looms and Hollywood’s summer of strikes fills the news. Porter is hopeful about their impact, but says the UK is a better place to be an artist. “You all revere the arts. Everybody, no matter what socioeconomic [background], the arts is a thing. And that is not America. “That’s why we’re striking, because they think they could just do it with anybody… and we should be getting six-cent cheques.”
Success hasn’t come with financial security for Porter. “I already have to sell my house. And I’m one of the lucky ones who works all the time … I’m still cheque to cheque.” That won’t change until he makes “f--- you money”, he says. “And I have not made f--- you money yet … I’m on the way.”
The money is partly the reason why he’s in London; he is meeting theatre producers. “It’s time for me to do something in the West End. It’s time for my name to be above the title.”
The show he co-produced, A Strange Loop, starring Jennifer Hudson, opened at the Barbican in June, with The Daily Telegraph’s Claire Allfree declaring it “a musical for our times, a slickly tender, affirmative exploration of otherness”. He loves the British theatre scene, which “gets to experiment more” because “your government respects the arts …those expansive ideas are subsidised by the government. In America, they have to be paid for.”
He does have a bone to pick about the price of our programmes – a timely remark that chimes with David Tennant’s critique this week about the extortionate price of theatre tickets. “I shouldn’t have to pay $15 to know who is in the play after I’ve given you $100.” In America, playbills are free. “You can give me a two-page pamphlet with inserts of the understudies. It’s not that expensive. It’s so disrespectful to the work that we do.
“Unless you’re a star and people are coming to see you, nobody knows your name? We do eight shows a f------ week. It’s not fair. I do not like that.”
You don’t have to spend much time in Porter’s company to see that he is trailblazer. In the four years since that “moment” on the red carpet, Harry Styles has graced the cover of Vogue in a frothy floor-length gown, Brad Pitt wore a messianic skirt to a premiere, Oscar Isaac has made a pleated kilt his preferred red-carpet look, while the annual Met Gala has rapidly become a competition for who can arrive in the most boundary-crossing, gender-switching outfit (Porter’s 2021 appearance as Cleopatra, complete with gold bodysuit, sedan chair and six obliging shirtless attendants, immediately went down in Met Gala history).
But the Harry Styles cover vexed him. Just months earlier, he’d done a Q&A with Anna Wintour in front of Condé Nast staff. “That b---- said to me at the end, ‘How can we do better?’ And I was so taken off guard that I didn’t say what I should have said.”
Which was? “Use your power as Vogue to uplift the voices of the leaders of this de-gendering of fashion movement … Six months later, Harry Styles is the first man on the cover.”
His problem isn’t with Styles (after he first spoke out against the cover, Porter sent him flowers “as an apology”). “It’s not Harry Styles’s fault that he happens to be white and cute and straight and fit into the infrastructure that way … I call out the gatekeepers.”
Porter doesn’t claim to be “the first” to push gender stereotypes in culture. “I know David Bowie existed, I know Sylvester existed.”
Styles, however, is “white and he’s straight. That’s why he’s on the cover. Non-binary blah blah blah blah. No. It doesn’t feel good to me. You’re using my community – or your people are using my community – to elevate you. You haven’t had to sacrifice anything.”
In 2021, Porter revealed that he was living with HIV. The response was, he says, largely benign. “I didn’t hear anything negative, but I’m not that person – I don’t go digging … I did it to get this off my chest.”
Speaking about it publicly brought with it a “freedom”, a sense he can finally “say and do anything that I want”. “I don’t have any fear about anything … Everybody knows everything already.”
He hopes being “an open book” means people will focus on his work. “My undeniable work. Whether y’all play my record or not … It’s been nothing but doors slammed in my face for my entire life. And I’m still here.”
‘Black Mona Lisa’ is out next month on Island Records