Pose star Billy Porter: ‘I should have put this dress on 20 years ago’

Main image: Billy Porter wearing a Graham Tyler jacket, Givenchy shirt, Feng Cheng Wang trousers, Thom Browne boots, Wing & Weft gloves, Eddie Borgo choker. Styled by Jo Jones for The Guardian Photograph: Heather Favell/The Guardian

In February, Billy Porter, star of Broadway and the TV series Pose, went to the Oscars wearing a black velvet tuxedo gown. As he stood, statuesque, in tailored jacket over full-skirted dress, he wasn’t just enjoying his moment in front of the world’s press. In fact this went beyond the Oscars, the red carpet or even fashion. Porter was releasing himself from the constraints of conventional gender expectations – and sparking a discussion about what it means for the rest of us, too. “I’m not a drag queen,” he said at the time. “I’m a man in a dress.”

Six months later, Porter reflects on the reaction – which saw images of him shared around the world, and a bump in his fashion profile. After a 30-year career, he says it was the moment that introduced him to the mainstream. “I knew it was going to be a thing,” he says. “I didn’t know it was going to be,” his voice drops to a stage whisper, “a thiiinnng.”

Billy Porter photographed by Heather Favell in the Russian tea Rooms Manhattan. Styled by Jo Jones, for The Fashion, September 2019 shot 1 0111RETOUCHED Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Billy Porter wearing a Xllullan blouse, skirt and coat, Wing & Weft gloves and Gucci boots. Styled by Jo Jones for The Guardian Photograph: Heather Favell/The Guardian

Since the Oscars, Porter’s red carpet fashion exploits have been well-documented, spawning Buzzfeed articles, a spot on The Late Show and a gig headlining London’s Pride in July. That’s because his outfits transcend trends: a red and pink number for the Tony awards was designed to resemble a uterus, to draw attention to reproductive rights, while his show-stopping sun god look for the Met ball celebrated camp as “one of the highest forms of fashion and art”.

Pose is also breaking new ground. It shines a spotlight on New York’s underground ball culture of the 80s and early 90s, seen in cult 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, where “houses” of mostly trans young people of colour compete in voguing competitions and drag categories. Pose fictionalises this world (“Our version is a little glossier, but the energy: verbatim,” Porter says), following the lives of members of rival houses Abundance and Evangelista. It brings the scene to a new generation and an inclusivity to mainstream TV. According to creators FX, the show stars the biggest LGBTQ recurring cast ever in a scripted series and the most transgender actors in regular roles in TV show history.

For the first 25 years of my career, I was told my gayness was my liability

Porter plays the sharp-tongued ballroom emcee Pray Tell whose voice drawls the show’s catchphrase: “And the category is…” Pray Tell is the grounding influence, the fatherly figure to the younger characters. While at the house of Evangelista for dinner, he corrects young dancer Damon, played by Ryan Jamaal Swain: “Oregano is an herb, not a vegetable, darling boy. Who is educating these children on their nutrition?” With writing like that, plus grade A outfits, it’s compulsive viewing, attracting two Golden Globe nominations, including best actor for Porter, and a loyal base of obsessed fans, including his 849k Instagram followers.

Billy Porter wearing Givenchy suit and shirt, Gucci boots, Native Ken glasses Fashion editor Jo Jones Photography Heather Favell Styling Sam Ratelle at RRR Creative Grooming La Sonya Gunter With thanks to russiantearoomnyc.com Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Billy Porter wearing Givenchy suit and shirt, Gucci boots, Native Ken glasses
Styling: Sam Ratelle at RRR Creative. Grooming: La Sonya Gunter. With thanks to russiantearoomnyc.com Photograph: Heather Favell/The Guardian

Today, wearing a checked jumpsuit by Mr Turk, he is still fascinated as to why his gown caused such a stir. “So women wearing pants isn’t a problem. But when a man puts on a dress it’s disgusting?” says Porter, who turns 50 this month. We are talking after his photoshoot in Manhattan’s decadent Russian Tea Room, during which he moves expertly between poses, intermittently making exclamations such as, “Vegemite’s nasty!” and bursting into song. “Fashion is one of the highest forms of art,” he says, “and if I can be a walking piece of art when I show up, preferably political art, I love it.”

If this is Porter’s mantra, he certainly lived up to it at the Met ball. Carried in on a velvet sedan by six topless men, clad in a golden jewelled catsuit accessorised with 10-foot wings and a 24-carat headpiece, it was an entrance unlikely to be forgotten. When he got the invite and saw the theme, Camp, he could not believe his luck. “Any success I’ve had prior to Pose was me being campy, so I know how to do that.”

If I can be a walking piece of art when I show up, preferably political art art, I love it

The sun god idea started with Pose co-creator Ryan Murphy, who suggested Porter do the entire Diana Ross montage from the 1975 film Mahogany. He vetoed that (too many outfit changes) but referenced Ross’s ancient Egyptian look, with help from New York brand the Blonds and his stylist Sam Ratelle, in what Vogue declared “the most fabulous entrance in Met Gala history”. High praise when you think of Beyoncé’s latex look, Rihanna’s “omelette dress” or Kim Kardashian’s feathered naked gown.

On mention of the Vogue headline, though, Porter bursts into gravelly laughter. “I think we as a culture are prone to hyperbole. You know, everything is ‘the gr-eatest of all!’” he says in ringmaster style. While the positive reactions are nice, he has given up caring what other people think of him. He cites Colin Kaepernick, the NFL star who knelt during the US national anthem to protest about racial injustice: “You’ve got to risk yourself in order to make a difference.”

Porter’s current state of liberation has been a lifelong journey. He discovered style as a boy at church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (“a fashion show from head to toe”) and his grandmother would get patterns and make “amazing” dresses. Other childhood memories are not so happy – last year he wrote about being sexually abused by his stepfather – but after a lot of work, he says, he has learned to love himself “unconditionally”.

If it’s Pray Tell for which a new generation knows him, it was playing cabaret star and drag queen Lola in Kinky Boots on Broadway from 2013 that kickstarted his journey to red carpet activism. “It’s the archetype I ran away from for the first 25 years of my career – I was told my gayness was my liability.” Putting on Lola’s red thigh-high boots made him feel masculine and powerful. It also won him a Tony and a Grammy.

Porter in 2019 is on a roll. Living in Harlem with husband Adam Porter-Smith, co-owner of eyewear company Native Ken, he’s making music, has a book deal and is directing a play. Next up? Ambitions for a creative empire like Oprah’s. “I’m not putting no limits on it,” he says.

Porter adores fashion – from Rick Owens’ androgynous styles, to newer designers Palomo Spain and Wooyoungmi, as well as Valentino, Gucci and Prada. His move away from the traditional suits for men on the red carpet was entirely conscious. When his manager aired doubts, Porter ignored him. “If they want to judge me because of what I’m wearing, I don’t want to work with them. Let’s flip it,” he says. How does it feel to be getting such positive reactions? “I was like, ‘I should have put this dress on 20 years ago,’” he laughs.

Perhaps this vindication is down to a serious point behind his style revolution: a desire to “be present for the younger generation, so I can help them” – a theme that is echoed in series two of Pose. Until recently, he felt marginalised – but he refused to let it silence him. Instead “it made me louder and more aggressive in making sure I am heard. Because we all are human beings that deserve a space in this world.”

• Series two of Pose is on BBC Two in October.

How to be more Billy

Going for gold: at the Met Gala in May. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Going for gold: at the Met Gala in May. Photograph: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

When in doubt, just add gold
From brooches and jumpsuits to the full-on set of golden wings Porter wore to the Met ball, going for gold always brings glamour. Accessorise with golden interiors where possible.

The devil is in the detail
Porter’s outfits are all about big impact. But the little things still matter. See statement rings, a hint of a silk glove, or the blue lipstick he wore to WorldPride’s celebrations in New York.

A blue lip: Billy Porter at New York’s Pride in June. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
A blue lip: Billy Porter at New York’s Pride in June. Photograph: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

Suit up
Breaking down gender norms is integral to Porter’s style – but that needn’t mean shying away from the classics. From a waistcoat at the Tonys to a tux at the Oscars, looking sharp in a suit is a solid starting block.

Porter arrives at the Oscars in Hollywood in February. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Porter arrives at the Oscars in Hollywood in February. Photograph: Dan MacMedan/Getty Images

You can leave your hat on
A skill perfected during Porter’s role as Pose emcee Pray Tell. The bigger and bolder, the better: sailor caps, top hats and even a pale pink stetson have all featured.

The category is...Porter on screen in an episode of Pose. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The category is…Porter on screen in an episode of Pose. Photograph: BBC/FX/Pari Dukovic

Make a scene
Don’t be afraid to take up space. Porter is about making a statement in style. At London’s Pride, he wore the rainbow flag, reimagined in tulle.

On the march at World Pride in New York City in 2019. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
On the march at World Pride in New York City in 2019.
Photograph: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

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