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The Realness of Billy Porter

“My authenticity was a liability for me for a long time.”

Palomo Spain top, $1,440 at www.palomospain.com. Photo: Campbell Addy
Palomo Spain top, $1,440 at www.palomospain.com. Photo: Campbell Addy

One does not simply wear a cape; capes are meant to be worn, as in worked. They have to fly.

No one understands this better than Billy Porter, a Broadway performer, screen actor, singer, and superhero in certain circles. He wore a pearlescent, floor-length Randi Rahm couture cape to the Golden Globes this year, where he was nominated for his role in Ryan Murphy’s Pose on FX.

“Elisabeth Moss from the Handmaid’s Tale was in front of me, the Black Panther people were behind me, and there I was, in the middle of all these stars,” Porter recalled a few months after his red-carpet debut. Presuming he was of lesser importance, a woman he refers to as the “clipboard bitch” tried to rush him along, but photographers started calling his name. “Twirl the cape, Billy!” they begged. “Twirl the cape!”

“So, I looked at this girl and I was like—” Porter turned to me, shrugging with his eyebrows. “And I just started—” He threw his arms back, almost knocking several paintings off the wall at the restaurant where we were eating lunch. On the carpet, he caused a bigger scene, forcing Elisabeth Moss to swerve out of the way when he revealed the cape’s bright, Barbie-pink lining, a matching suit, and heeled Gucci loafers — an ode to Louis XVI. He gestured like a matador, but moved like one of those mating birds of paradise on Planet Earth, spinning around to show off the intricate floral embroidery covering the cape’s back and shoulders.

The resulting images quickly went viral. “It was so much fun,” Porter said, still slapping his knees with satisfaction. “And I got to fuck everybody up in the process.”

At the Academy Awards the following month, Porter outdid himself in a custom black velvet Christian Siriano outfit, which combined a fitted men’s suit jacket and bow tie with a voluminous gown. That fucked everybody up. In one video from the night, actress Glenn Close sees him on the red carpet and nearly falls over with admiration, and maybe even envy. The Times called his gender-bending appearance a “fabulous third way to be,” as in genderless. “Billy Porter Won the Oscars Red Carpet Before It Even Began,” read a headline on The New Yorker’s website the next day. Vogue.com also published an as-told-to essay (a form previously reserved for Beyoncé) about his outfit.

Schiaparelli dress, price upon request at www.schiaparelli.com. Photo: Campbell Addy

“First time out the gate — first awards-show season — and I’m killing everything!” Porter said. “Had I known, I would have put a dress on 20 years ago.” It was almost too easy. Like, really? A man wearing a dress is still that big of a big deal? He paused, raising a stern finger. “I did know, though, and I was silenced.”

A lot of celebrities make headlines with their clothing during awards season. Timothée Chalamet and Michael B. Jordan, for example, wore Louis Vuitton harnesses on red carpets this year. Numerous female celebrities wore suits. We applauded them for going beyond the traditional red-carpet fashion binary, but their outfits didn’t provoke in nearly the same way that Billy Porter’s did, both positively and negatively.

Porter played with what power looks like, specifically masculine power, and that made some people (like conservative commentator Tomi Lahren, for example) uncomfortable. Even the way he carried his body, puffing out his muscular chest while folding his hands elegantly by his cinched waist, was a challenge. His energy was both masculine and feminine; hard and soft. No one could define it. He wasn’t in drag. He wasn’t in costume. He was just Billy Porter.

For the majority of his life and career, Porter, who is almost 50, has been told that who he is is not acceptable. He’s too flamboyant. Too black. Too gay. Too feminine. And up until the day before he was called to audition for Pose, that was still the case.

“We’re taught this sort of ‘authenticity’ thing these days, but it’s bullshit most of the time,” he told me — especially in Hollywood. “When a man wants to play on the red carpet, the powers that be who cast him decide he’s not masculine enough for that superhero job,” Porter continued. “It’s homophobic. Let’s be honest about it.”

Hollywood can keep its superheroes, though, because Porter is done trying to fit in. “For the first time in my life, I was able to say: I don’t care,” Porter declared after his experience at the Oscars. “If they can see my work, and still judge me because I’m gender-bendy in my regular life and minding my own black, faggot-ass business, I don’t want to work with them. It took me 40-something years to get there. But I don’t care. I don’t care!”

(Left) Ann Demeulemeester top, price upon request at www.anndemeulemeester.com. Tiffany and Co. necklace, $98,000 - $105,000 at www.tiffany.com. (Right) Moschino jacket, $10,995, and pants, $8,995, at www.moschino.com. Saint Laurent scarf, $595 at 3 East 57th Street. Thom Browne shoes, $1,290 at 100 Hudson St. Photo: Campbell Addy

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Porter was raised by stylish, churchgoing women. His father left the house when he was young, and he was brought up by his mother, who is disabled, and his stepfather. He came out at 16, and was bullied throughout his youth for what he wore and who he was, including by members of his own family. His stepfather subjected him to years of harrowing sexual and physical abuse, which he detailed in an essay for Out magazine last year.

Porter’s ticket out of the house was a drama scholarship from Carnegie Mellon University, where he learned that bringing costumes to life is an integral part of playing a character, and was trained on how to twirl a cape and scoop up a ball-gown train. From there, he moved to New York City and broke into Broadway. He also dabbled as an R&B artist, but was quite literally silenced by industry figures who told him not to speak in meetings.

“I realized I had never seen an image of myself reflected at me in any way, in any positive form — ever,” he wrote for the Times in 2017 about the first half of his career. In 2000, he moved to Los Angeles, enrolled in a screenwriting program at UCLA, and decided to try his hand as a writer and director until a more substantive acting role came along. But after an extended period of hopping from couch to couch, Porter eventually had to file for bankruptcy in 2007 and return to New York.

Over a decade later, the opportunity to play a character he saw himself in finally arrived. Porter was cast as “Belize” in the New York Signature Theatre Company’s 20th-anniversary production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. The play itself hit home as well: As a result of the AIDS crisis, Porter said he’d watched more of his friends die by the age of 21 than his grandmother had at 85.

Three years after Angels in America, Porter landed the role of “Lola” in Kinky Boots on Broadway, which would earn him a Tony and a Grammy. “Everything that I was told was my liability as an artist was exactly what they needed to make that show work,” he said. Lola is a cabaret performer and drag queen, who helps to save a struggling shoe factory with a pair of fabulous high-heeled boots. “Putting on the pumps grounded me more than anything else in my life,” he added. “I felt in my own skin and in my own body. It’s powerful! Pumps are powerful.”

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For the six years Porter was part of the show, he came to work dapperly dressed from head to toe, usually in a jacket with a pocket square. “With Kinky Boots I went geek-chic, because it was the antithesis of the drag queen that I played every day,” he explained. He wanted to keep some distance from his work, but still dress up. “He would look his best every day he came to the theater, no matter how long of a day he had or where we were in our rehearsal process,” says Cyndi Lauper, who wrote the music for Kinky Boots.

Still, it was only after Porter joined the cast of Pose that he was inspired to finally wear a ball gown — something he’d always wanted to do deep down, but only joked about. He describes playing his character, Pray Tell, an authoritative ballroom-competition emcee, costume designer, and caring mentor, who is also HIV-positive, as a “healing” experience. “Those of us who survived [the AIDS crisis], we know how to fight, but we do not know how to live, and we do not know how to love, because the people who were supposed to teach us died in the plague,” Porter said. Pose brought all those feelings back to the surface and gave him a public platform to express them.

Historically, balls have served as havens for those marginalized by more traditional gender ideals. “Balls are a gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else,” explains Blanca, a trans woman and mother of the House of Evangelista, played on Pose by Mj Rodriguez. Individual members of “houses,” or chosen families, dress up and “walk” against one another in different category competitions. In the first episode of Pose, one such category involves royal garments, like capes. (“Disney better watch its ass,” Porter’s character jokes.) Others like “femme queen realness” and “executive realness” prize one’s ability to pass in spaces that tend to exclude those who aren’t heterosexual, cisgender, white, and wealthy.

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In the mostly black and Latinx ballrooms where the term was first coined, “realness” was a mode of play as well as survival. If you could “walk out of that ballroom into the sunlight and onto the subway and get home and still have all their clothes and no blood running off their body, that’s realness,” the drag queen Dorian Corey explains in Paris Is Burning. This still rings true today, but the role of realness in ballroom culture is being questioned for its promotion of the status quo. Are you any less “real” if you can’t pass? Porter and his co-stars — a history-making cast of trans women — are bringing their own realities to the red carpet. “Realness for me, in this context, is about embracing the totality of who we are, no matter what, and exhibiting that through my clothes,” Porter told me.

In order to bring his own red-carpet walks to a winning level, Porter hired stylist Sam Ratelle last March. He also started shopping more freely on his own. “I went and dropped so much money at Rick Owens,” he said. “When I walked into his store I was like—” Ported clutched his chest and gasped for air. “That was the beginning for me: the Rick Owens platform boot. There’s femininity inside of it, but there’s also a strength to it.” He loved the six-inch boots so much that he wore them under his dress at the Oscars.

On May 6, Porter will attend the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute gala, solidifying his place at the top of the red-carpet food chain. This year’s theme of “camp,” inspired by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay on the subject, is particularly well suited to his sensibilities, as it not only celebrates exaggeration, androgyny, and the cultivation of you-ness, but also being alive.

“Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature,” Sontag writes. “People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as ‘a camp,’ they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.”

Like every Met Gala ensemble, Porter’s outfit choice is shrouded in secrecy. It might include a cape — that would be very camp. But he doesn’t need one. No matter what he wears, the fact that he gets to serve Billy Porter realness on the fashion world’s most exclusive stage means he’s already won.

“My authenticity was a liability for me for a long time. And I got used to it. I got fine with it, whatever that was,” Porter said to me at one point. “But I got to a place where I had to tell it. We cannot be silent. That’s what I learned from Pose, my friends, and that era. I had to be honest. I had to be real.”

The Realness of Billy Porter