Billy Porter Is Finally Free
The actor has never shied away from statement-making fashion — but embracing feminine style was not as effortless as he's made it look.
After almost a full year in quarantine, legendary showman Billy Porter considers himself a changed man. It all started last March: As COVID-19 concerns were running high in New York City, Porter and his husband, Adam Porter-Smith, decided to temporarily relocate from Manhattan, where he's lived for 30-plus years, to Bellport, Long Island, a quaint seaside village full of artists and creative types. Porter is diabetic and therefore high-risk when it comes to the virus, so at first the move was logistical — a way to stay safe while escaping the chorus of blaring sirens outside his Harlem apartment. But then something unexpected happened: The longtime New Yorker fell in love with the small town and decided to stay for good.
Dialing in over Zoom on a wintery Friday night from his new home in the country, he looks happy and at ease, curled up on his couch in a cozy red flannel that's certainly more cottagecore than the flashy couture we're used to seeing him in. "This is the thing I didn't know I needed," Porter, now 51, says of the move. "I had no idea I was missing the woods, the animals, the beach, and the consistent peace. For the first time, there's no noise. And because of that, there has been a healing. I decided I have to stay where the healing is."
The change of pace has given him the space to reexamine everything, from the nonstop speed at which he's been working in film, TV, and theater over the past three decades to his ever-evolving sense of style. It's also allowed him to savor the simple joys of a more domestic life, like cooking breakfast with his husband and planning movie nights. The couple even recently became dog dads to a cockapoo puppy they named Bader Lola Majors. The initials BLM are a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement, though they call her Lola, after Porter's grandmother and, of course, the beloved drag queen he played in Broadway's Kinky Boots.
Another perk of living outside the city? Anonymity. A few months before the big move, Porter recalls a particularly chaotic subway ride where the requests for selfies from fellow commuters ventured into uncharted territory. "I had on sunglasses, a coat, and earphones and I was on my iPad reading, but it didn't matter," he says, laughing. "I thought, 'OK. I think I've crossed over.' Don't get me wrong. I'm grateful, but there's an adjustment period with being a celebrity, or whatever this is called. Now we're tucked away in a little cul-de-sac, and there's a normalcy I've been able to carve out for myself. Do people know who I am? Yes. But they're more like, 'We don't want to bother you, but, hey, welcome to Bellport,' as opposed to, 'Oh my god, can I have a picture?'"
Part of his loss of privacy over the past few years stems from his larger-than-life Emmy-winning turn as Pray Tell in FX's ballroom-culture drama, Pose. The other part of it has to do with the massive following he's gained since the 2019 Oscars, when he arrived in a statement-making, gender-bending custom Christian Siriano tuxedo gown that both broke the Internet and launched him into instant fashion-icon status.
When speaking about his evolution, Porter puts things into two categories: "BO or AO," meaning before Oscars or after Oscars. The impact of the look on his career was no accident. Porter knew he was about to step onto one of the world's biggest stages and was ready to seize the moment. "I thought back to when my friend Idina Menzel was at the Oscars [in 2014] to sing 'Let It Go,' from Frozen, and John Travolta mispronounced her name onstage," he says. "I literally said out loud, 'She's going to be a household name in less than 24 hours.' And she was. As funny as it may sound, I'm a businessman, and wearing that [Oscars] dress was a business decision, in a sense. People were like, 'Oh, he's just trying to get attention.' Well, yeah, I'm in show business! It's part of my job. Otherwise, I don't eat."
Porter's other hope was that the look would inspire a long-overdue conversation about genderless fashion. "I used to get frustrated that women could wear whatever they wanted and men had to show up in the same penguin suit," he says. "The reason why women wearing pants is considered OK by society's standards is because it comes from the patriarchy. The patriarchy is male, so suits are strong, and anything feminine is weak. I was sick of that discussion, and I knew my platform allowed me to challenge it."
While the look went viral and applause emojis showered Porter's feed in an outpouring of love, there were also a lot of close-minded comments hurled his way. A particularly frustrating moment happened in January 2020, when he was invited to appear on Public Television's Sesame Street wearing his Siriano gown. After the show shared Instagram photos of Porter on set, Jason Rapert, a Republican Arkansas state senator, wrote a Facebook post slamming PBS for using taxpayer dollars to promote a "radical LGBTQ+ agenda," adding that he could pass a bill to "cut off all funding" to the network. A petition to remove Porter's appearance on the show from pro-life group Life Petitions also began to circulate, alleging that Sesame Street was trying to "sexualize children using drag queens" by featuring Porter in his gown.
"It was based on this idea that I'm coming to get their children because of the way I dress," says Porter, shaking his head. "What is that? I'm over here minding my own business. So why is it triggering you? At that moment, I was grateful that I am a man of a certain age, because when you become a certain age, zero f—s are given. I don't now, nor will I ever, adjudicate my life or my humanity in [other people's] sound bites or responses on social media. Simultaneously, it still hurts to have people come after me for nothing."
Porter looks at his sartorial choices as another form of his artistry, much like any song he performs or character he embodies. "It's how I express myself," he says. "When Lady Gaga dresses up and performs a song on TV as if she's a man [Jo Calderone at the 2011 MTV VMAs], no one bats an eye. They receive her as an artist who's playing with different silhouettes and ideas. Same with David Bowie. When white and straight people do it, they're considered artists. When I do it, I'm a perversion. The answer to that from me is no."
Having grown up in a very religious Pentecostal Baptist community in Pittsburgh, Porter has spent most of his life overcoming criticism for simply being himself. "At 5 years old, I was sent to a psychologist to deal with my sissiness," he recalls. "It was not a safe space for me, ever." Leaving home at 17, Porter studied drama at Carnegie Mellon University before landing his first big role in Broadway's Miss Saigon in 1991, where he struggled again to define his identity in an industry that likes to put people in a box. Various fashion phases followed, from a vintage-inspired period to an Abercrombie & Fitch era ("The closest I ever got to wearing athleisure," he jokes) to geek chic when he was starring in Kinky Boots. "I dressed like a dandy with colorful pocket squares, bow ties, and shorts with argyle socks," he says. "The crazy thing was that I was playing a drag queen every single day, but it hadn't occurred to me yet that as Billy I could also take myself out of the masculinity game and show up in a dress."
Then in 2017 Porter made an album called Billy Porter Presents: The Soul of Richard Rodgers and set out on a mini tour. "I needed a new look for it," he says. "So one day I happened to stumble upon the Rick Owens flagship store, and they had all of these cool rock-and-roll pieces. The woman working there was like, 'These clothes are for everybody.' So I bought an entire wardrobe of gender-bending stuff—tight black dresses with slits up the side and killer boots. And that's what finally got the wheels turning. I had been running from my feminine side for years because I was told that my queerness would be a liability in this business. And it was for decades—until it wasn't."
Porter's current phase of fashion has certainly been his most authentic yet. "It's the freest I've ever felt," he says, reflecting on some of his greatest hits, which include over-the-top performance-art moments like getting carried into the 2019 Met Gala in a sun-god-inspired bodysuit by the Blonds or the wide-brimmed Baja East and Sarah Sokol hat with a motorized crystal peekaboo fringe that launched a million memes after the 2020 Grammys. "In the past, when I would show up to an event in a big hat or something, I used to have colleagues who said to me, 'You look ridiculous.' It's like, 'Who's ridiculous now?'"
Since Porter has come onto the scene, it's hard to ignore the impact he has had on the fashion industry and the culture at large. When I mention the names of other stars like Harry Styles and Jonathan Van Ness, who have seemingly followed in his footsteps by wearing dresses and other traditionally feminine garb on the red carpet and in editorials, he blurts out, "You're welcome!" with a sly grin before taking a beat. "It's hard because I feel like I've had an influence, but I also don't want my ego to get big. For instance, I just saw some of the latest fall men's collections, and there are a bunch of coats that have these little trains behind them. Now, I could say, 'I may have been an influence there,' but I'd rather let other people say it. When Time magazine called me a fashion icon, I finally said, 'OK, maybe now I can say it myself without sounding like an ass—.'"
What his style is not, however, is just for shock fashion's sake. "I am playing with traditional gender norms, but it's not always Billy showing up in a gown everywhere," he says. "This year has allowed me to have the space to step back and clarify what exactly it is I want to say with my look." A big part of that vision is Porter's new stylist, Ty Hunter, who is best known for his work with another fashion titan, Beyoncé. For InStyle's shoot, which took place around Bellport (including in front of the restaurant that Porter often orders takeout from, called, serendipitously, Porters on the Lane), the actor worked closely with Hunter to find the right sartorial balance. "I loved that most of it was menswear except one dress [by up-and-coming gender-fluid label Queera Wang], and yet I was still able to play with both the masculine and the feminine. Because sometimes I'm full-on masculine and sometimes I'm full-on feminine. That's just who I am."
When I ask Porter if he's ever actually ever gone to the local bistro or the bus stop in straight-off-the-runway Louis Vuitton, a scene that doesn't seem completely out of the realm of possibility for a man who so easily turned a driveway into a runway for this shoot, he throws back his head in laughter. "No, because I don't own any Vuitton!" he says. "People don't understand: You get this s— on loan, and then you have to send it alllll right back."
Though what he wears may be the thing that initially attracted everyone's attention, it's Porter and his incredible talent that have held it — and he's got an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony on his mantel to prove it. "My work as an actor speaks for itself, and that's the reason why I'm at these red carpets in the first place," he says. "I am not a social-media influencer. I'm not a clown. I am an artist, and that has been a really interesting road to navigate because it can be confusing for people. Yes, I do have influence on social media, but that's just a piece of it. It's not the whole thing."
With the upcoming final season of Pose slated to air in May, Porter's next big project will be the feature film Cinderella, which is set to be released in July. Pop star Camila Cabello will play the title role, with Porter stepping in as the all-important Fairy Godmother, or, as he says, the Fab G. "A lot of our fairy tales from days gone by are problematic, but in this version, Cinderella is her own woman who wants to be her own thing, and across the board the conceit was inclusivity," he says. "In that world, the Fab G could be anything or anybody. It's a spirit. Magic has no gender."
Porter is also set to make his directorial début with the film What If?, a rom-com coming-of-age story centered around a trans high-school girl. The project was two decades in the making. "I put it out into the universe exactly 20 years ago that I wanted to direct, and it's finally happening," he says. When he's not in production, Porter is working on new music and a capsule shoe collection. "I can't say which shoe company yet, but we're already starting," he says. "And one day LVMH will want to buy all my s— up instead of the other way around!"
He also has started writing a memoir in quarantine, which, more than anything else, has forced him to slow down and take stock of where he came from and where he's going. "One thing I've realized while writing is how grateful I am that all of this didn't happen when I was in my twenties because I wasn't ready," he says. "Who I am and what I represent is very specific, and one needs to be an adult to handle what's coming, both the good and the complicated. I've been in this business for 35 years now. I'm a grown-ass man. I know what I want. I know what I don't want. I know how to handle all of it. And I know what to do with it."
It's then that Porter gets up from his couch and disappears for a few seconds. He returns holding a handmade card with a colorful crayon drawing of a man in a dress. "This is what I do it for," he says. "This card was sent to me from a couple in Australia whose son likes to wear dresses. He came home one day from kindergarten or first grade and said he didn't want to wear them anymore because people were making fun of him. Apparently, seeing me in my gown at the Oscars empowered him to not care and to put his dresses back on."
When I ask what the card says, Porter reads it aloud: "Dear Billy: You look so happy and beautiful in your dress. You are amazing. Maybe one day we can have a fashion show together. Love, Colin."
Photographed by Robbie Fimmano. Styled by Ty Hunter and Colin Anderson. Grooming by La Sonya Gunter. Production by Jenny Landey Productions & Locations.
For more stories like this, pick up the April 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Mar. 19th.