May 14, 2020
EP. 7 — Billy Porter
Billy Porter joins Jameela to discuss his meteoric rise to fame, what it means to “do the work,” proving himself after almost losing his singing voice, making his “Idina Menzel” Oscars moment, and finding his incredible sense of style.
7 — Billy Porter
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to another episode of “I Weigh” with Jameela Jamil. Thank you for joining me again. I hope you’re well. I myself am fine. I am. I’m concerned. I’m a little bit freaked out because last week I told you, I dared to say this out loud. I said that I was starting to find great comfort as a socially anxious person in lockdown and that I was l, almost even. No, I fully admitted to the fact that I was afraid of being unleashed back out into the world because I’m, I am a socially inept person who just prefers stinking alone in my underpants. And I didn’t see it coming that a couple of days after I said that it would be announced by the mayor of L.A., where I am currently living, that he’s extending lockdown here for another three months at least. So very much so be careful what you wish for, but also not that I think I have this kind of power. I would still like to formally apologize for even saying that out loud, for putting that out into the universe. If I have in any way jinxed us, I’m sorry. ‘Cause I, I really thought it was gonna be over soon. And it’s been keeping me up at night worrying I’ve had anything to do with it. Obviously, I never wanted this for anyone else. Just me personally, because, you know, I’m a sort of naturally lonely twat. Anyway, for those of you who are now still in lockdown for longer than you had anticipated, I hope that you have coping mechanisms. I hope you have support systems. I hope you have some sort of access to some sort of therapy. I hope you have good, good carbs around you and, and, and batteries. You must have batteries for all of your sex toys. These are the sort of thoughts that I have day to day. I am particularly happy to have today’s guest on, especially at this point in lockdown, because he’s a very strong and inspiring and motivational human being. He is the actor, singer, writer, director and Broadway star, fashion icon, Billy Porter. I am so lucky that he made time to chat with me. His story is just remarkable. And he has lived such a long and full and interesting and textured life, which he tells me all about in great detail. Now, I did not remember. And this is my mistake to trigger warning last week’s episode with Roxane Gay, where we discussed briefly some graphic sexual violence. But I am going to remember to do that today. Billy and I again, very briefly discuss something abusive that happened to him in his childhood that might be triggering for anyone. So if you are someone who has, is sensitive around those sort of issues, then I would warn you to maybe step away from this episode. But outside of that, it is just a joyous, funny and inspiring, galvanizing, just treat over chat. I really feel changed since speaking to him. He goes off on one point and on a five minute motivational rant at me about the work that we have to do as human beings to better our own lives and how we must take control. And it, his words have just stuck with me, and I find myself more motivated and driven than I have seen myself in years. So I hope this episode has the same impact on you. And I hope you fall in love with Billy the way that I did. He really is just such a special star. And we’re so lucky to have someone like him be able to share such a remarkable story with such strength and clarity. And so please join me in just loving the living shit out of Billy Porter. Hello, Bill Porter. Welcome to “I Weigh”. How are you?
BILLY PORTER [00:04:23] I’m good. How are you?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:04:24] I’m good. Thank you for turning up. Looking so fabulous as ever.
BILLY PORTER [00:04:29] Oh thank you, thank you.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:04:29] I love that you just threw on some completely extra glasses and that’s it. And you already look amazing. Red carpet ready.
BILLY PORTER [00:04:34] Well listen, I have to, I have to tell you that right before the Oscars, I got a new prescription.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:04:42] OK.
BILLY PORTER [00:04:43] And my stylist took some frames and had bejeweled for the Oscars. So I have two pairs of the glasses that have my new prescription better. That’s why I’m wearing these ridiculous glasses.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:04:55] I love them. I love it.
BILLY PORTER [00:04:58] This season.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:04:58] I was like, what in the name of Elton John is that?
BILLY PORTER [00:05:04] I know, I know.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:05:05] They’re great. I think you should wear them all the time. Thank you so much for being here. How are you coping through the pandemic? Are you doing OK?
BILLY PORTER [00:05:13] I’m OK. You know, I’m trying to turn lemons into lemonade. I’m getting a lot of time to spend with my husband, which is awesome.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:05:23] Also, you’ve been so fucking busy for like, I feel like three years straight. It must be nice to-.
BILLY PORTER [00:05:28] Yeah. It’s like a cup, it’s like a, yes. Yeah, that’s been really wonderful to reconnect and have this time to reconnect like that.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:05:37] I’m glad. I’m glad that you’re good. I’m glad you’re getting time with your husband after what has just been the most meteoric rise I’ve seen a really long time. I feel like the last 18 months have been wild to watch and so thrilling. You are the person I most look forward to on any given red carpet. I enjoy your interview so much. I enjoy your vibe. I love your story. And I guess that’s why I wanted you to be here today, because you have such an interesting intersection of race and, and gender and, and what I mean not, I know that you are cis male, but I’m just saying.
BILLY PORTER [00:06:15] Yes.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:06:16] You exist within the intersection of the stories of gender and race and sexuality in a way that’s so important. And also, you’ve journeyed through the more oppressive side of this industry all the way through to the most progressive time in television that we’ve ever seen.
BILLY PORTER [00:06:33] Yes.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:06:33] So you have a unique perspective on the world, but also this like, this nucleus of society where media bleeds out across the rest of-.
BILLY PORTER [00:06:46] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:06:46] The globe.
BILLY PORTER [00:06:48] Yeah. That’s really interesting. It does feel as though all of the, the journey, which is what I call it, that at times has been very difficult for me, has led me to the place that I’m in. And it is the perfect time for me, for a person like me. And, you know, the world has sort of caught up to where I was when I entered the business in the 80s, but it wasn’t time. It wasn’t time for the business. And it wasn’t time for me either. You know, I had to live. I had to live long enough to understand what this moment in time is for me and for the world and how to engage in the, in the best way possible.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:07:49] It’s this-.
BILLY PORTER [00:07:49] And I wouldn’t have been able to do that earlier in my life.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:07:51] For sure. I was gonna say that I love it when people make it big later in life because they have the opportunity to well, they are afforded the dignity of being a disaster in their 20s. Like we all are. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. I wish I hadn’t been on Twitter in my fucking 20s. What a nightmare. What an idiot one, asshole I am. I am so mortified. I’m even mortified about being on my phone, on Twitter in my 30s because of the mistakes that I continue to make. But I, I, I’m definitely glad that I entered Hollywood, at least in my 30s.
BILLY PORTER [00:08:29] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:29] And you are having this moment right now where you seem like you are just ready for everything that comes, like all of your decisions have felt so thoughtful and, and meaningful.
BILLY PORTER [00:08:41] And intentional.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:42] Yeah. And in an industry-.
BILLY PORTER [00:08:44] It’s intentional.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:44] Exactly. And in an industry that, that’s so obsessively centers itself around youth and puts such young people right in the middle of the spotlight when they are not equipped to, to really handle, marry anything together properly.
BILLY PORTER [00:08:59] Right.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:59] It’s so fucking mad because it’s grown adults who know what to do with this platform and you’re using it so, as you said, intentionally, so expertly. I want to take us back to when you were 5.
BILLY PORTER [00:09:14] Yes.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:09:14] Which I believe you said was the first time you ever engaged in therapy.
BILLY PORTER [00:09:18] Yes, I was a sissy. And the people around me were afraid that I wasn’t masculine enough, which is always the conversation, and I was sent to a therapist to assess why I was not masculine enough at 5 essentially. You know, and I went to this man for a year every Wednesday after kindergarten and eventually, you know, he said, oh, he’s fine. You just need to get him a man around the house to teach him to be more of a man. You know, and it just it’s like that’s where it began. It started at 5. I’ve never been masculine. For anybody.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:10:10] Whatever the fuck masculine means.
BILLY PORTER [00:10:11] Whatever the fuck that means.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:10:13] Yeah.
BILLY PORTER [00:10:13] Whatever that means. But for whatever reason. You know, in our world and in our society, it’s still is the thing to aspire to. You know, I speak of it even inside of how I’ve been playing with clothing. You know? Nobody questions when a woman wears a pantsuit on the red carpet. Nobody questions it. Because it’s masculine and masculine is good. It’s run by the patriarchy. The world is run by the patriarchy, which is men. So women in pants is celebrated. Men in dresses are disgusting. What is that? And why is that the conversation? And why did we forget that Jesus wore a dress? We like to call them robes, but it was a dress. Why do we forget that? India, Africa, you know, even as early as far back as America, there were all types of different kinds of garments that weren’t just about masculinity or femininity.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:11:28] And they were way more comfortable. Oh my God, allow the balls and the shaft to be free. Set them free. Why do we keep them enclosed all the time? It’s not right.
BILLY PORTER [00:11:40] “The balls and the shaft”. I’m going to kill you.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:11:43] I worry about the balls and the shaft.
BILLY PORTER [00:11:46] “The balls and the shaft”.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:11:46] I think about them all the time.
BILLY PORTER [00:11:50] That’s hilarious.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:11:50] I think they should be allowed to have free range.
BILLY PORTER [00:11:52] To be free. Yes, honey.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:11:55] Yes. I really feel passionately about it. But you’re right. There is, there is a definite extra discrimination on anything that is effeminate about a man because women are qualified as weak and lesser than.
BILLY PORTER [00:12:10] Right.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:12:10] And it’s a devastating misunderstanding in humans.
BILLY PORTER [00:12:14] I’m not in that conversation anymore. I’m not doing that anymore.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:12:16] Yeah.
BILLY PORTER [00:12:17] You know, just like-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:12:17] What were your teens like after that? Like how? Was there, was there a concerted effort to insert masculinity into your surroundings?
BILLY PORTER [00:12:27] It was always over my head, you know, it was always, but the issue for me was that, unfortunately, you know, at the end of that therapy, when when the, when the therapist said you need to get a man around the house. Teach him, to teach him to be more of a man. My mother within a year had met and married my stepfather, who then proceeded to sexually molested me for five years.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:12:57] Oh, my fucking God.
BILLY PORTER [00:12:59] So for me it was like. Oh, well, these are my man lessons. So this must be my man lesson like this is what, you know? So I didn’t even really know that there was anything wrong. And then around the age of 11, 12, you know, the preacher was preaching abomination. You know, I heard about AIDS on television, on the news. I thought I had it. And that was what launched my teenage years. So I, you know, we spoke of the other day in the pre-interview about trauma and dealing with that kind of trauma. And I’m, I’m, I’m going back to that right now to really-. I mean, I’ve dealt with it my whole life, but now I’m really, sort of getting into, peeling back the layer of how that has affected me in my adult life. And one of the things that got me here was, to this place of openness. To this place of needing. Go through whatever the pain of that trauma is as opposed to compartmentalizing it. Because I’ve gotten really good at that part. Was a part of that decision. First and foremost was that I’m in a relationship and it affects that relationship. So now I need a different kind of help. The second part of it was extracting myself from the masculinity race game, whatever you want to call it. It really has opened me up and freed me up to do this kind of work because I don’t give a fuck anymore. I don’t care. I don’t need to be masculine for anybody. I don’t care. I need to actually be free and I need to heal. And if that looks too feminine to everybody, fuck it. I don’t care. So that’s sort of where I am and it’s a gift to be in a space where one is ready to heal.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:15:27] And also where now for the first time in your life, you’re not only living in self-acceptance, but you’re living in mass acceptance and celebration. So many people are looking to you to either celebrate you from the outside or those who live inside a similar existence as yours are looking to you as an inspiration for them. And so I didn’t know that about your childhood. And I’m so, so sorry that that happened.
BILLY PORTER [00:15:53] It’s all good.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:15:53] But I, I’m also so thrilled for you that you have access to the care and to the people, the support structure around you now to find your way outside to the other side and be able to use that to talk about it for other people. What was your mental health like in your teens? After all of that, like, what were the?
BILLY PORTER [00:16:15] You know, my art sort of. Supplanted any, kind of, break down or issue that would come from that, I could always just go to my art. I was lucky, you know? My art has always been a gift, whether it was my voice initially singing to then dancing to then go into drama school, then writing, then directing, you know, over the 30 year career that I’ve had, I’ve always just been able to put it all in my work.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:17:07] And I mean, this industry is imperfect in so many ways and representation has been fucking abysmal until now. But.
BILLY PORTER [00:17:14] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:17:15] But I do also know that of all of the industries you could have entered, that was probably the safest one for the fact that there were so many people who were from different walks of life and in particular different sexualities within that industry. Would you have said that about the arts back then?
BILLY PORTER [00:17:30] Yeah. I would say that the arts masquerades as being inclusive. The people inside of the industry are very inclusive. Generally. You know, but they have to answer to the bottom line. And the bottom line has not always been inclusive. So, yes. And no.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:18:11] Well, it’s, yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s a funny one with the bottom line because I really feel like we’ve just seen it proven again and again and again and again that it was just that they were too afraid to take the risk of what would happen if you show reality on a TV screen, if you show people with disabilities or you show people of different races, and if you make, you know, we saw it with “Bridesmaids” the first time when we made a film like that, it was a smashing success. Same thing with “Crazy Rich Asians”, “Black Panther”, “Pose”. You just, you name it. And every time we have just slightly broken that barrier and tried to show something more realistic and more representative of the whole world around us. It is a roaring success. And then afterwards you see a million copies of the same thing come out.
BILLY PORTER [00:18:56] Right.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:18:57] The bottom line is, has been predicted by a bunch of idiots.
BILLY PORTER [00:19:02] All the white.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:19:03] Yeah.
BILLY PORTER [00:19:04] Men.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:19:04] And who are, people who are afraid to try and they jump straight on the bandwagon. It’s not like they’re so hateful even that once they’ve seen it works, they won’t make the same. They follow where the money goes.
BILLY PORTER [00:19:14] Right.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:19:14] They just never took a chance on us.
BILLY PORTER [00:19:16] That’s what I say.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:19:17] Yeah.
BILLY PORTER [00:19:18] It’s all based on the bottom line on the show. You can be anything you want. If you’re making money, you can do anything you want.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:19:23] So what was your solace in your sort of 20s when you were struggling somewhat with your career and kind of trying to find your place as someone who’s still having to, I guess you were still having to kind of hide your femininity.
BILLY PORTER [00:19:38] No, well, it wasn’t about hiding it. Because I never could hide it, and I wasn’t, and I was never that feminine. It was just as a black man.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:19:50] Yeah.
BILLY PORTER [00:19:51] In 1987.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:19:54] Yeah.
BILLY PORTER [00:19:55] Slash ’91 when I came out of college. If you didn’t play a drug dealer or a thug, you didn’t work. If there were, if there was a breadth of roles like there are today for young people where I can play a professional, where I could play a lawyer or a doctor or, you know-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:20:16] Or fairy godmother.
BILLY PORTER [00:20:16] That didn’t exist. Fairy godmother. That didn’t exist then. You know, you were a thug or you were unemployed. You were a drug dealer or you were unemployed.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:20:27] And you were always straight.
BILLY PORTER [00:20:29] And it was always straight and violently so. Or you could be the butt of the joke. You could be, you know, the flaming queen as the butt of the joke with, you know, a scene here and the scene there, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t about three dimensional human beings.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:20:48] No, it wasn’t empowering or representative.
BILLY PORTER [00:20:49] You know. And I just wanted to be that. I’ve wanted to be a human being. I remember going to see “Angels in America”. The very first production on Broadway. Not the first production of the play, but the first production in, on Broadway. And, you know, seeing the character of Belize in Tony Kushner’s magnum opus. It really changed my life. It was like, oh. Right. I am a human being and I look like that. That’s what it looks like. And that’s when everything changed for me because I took myself out of where I was headed and shifted my focus. And it took me a long time, but “Pose” is where I always wanted to be. “Pose” is a manifestation of making that change in that shift all the way back in 1994.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:21:48] So. Pre-“Pose” when you were still somewhat struggling to be able to be recognized for your talent on a mainstream level, what were you doing to maintain your sense of self in what was still a very homophobic and racist time in America? Not to say that it isn’t still now in many ways, but it’s, I think it’s better than it was before.
BILLY PORTER [00:22:11] I just keep, I just kept doing the work.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:22:14] You just kept doing the work.
BILLY PORTER [00:22:14] You have to stay focused on the work.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:22:16] You stayed in therapy all that time and you?
BILLY PORTER [00:22:17] I stayed in therapy and you do the work. When you do the work, you know, George Wolfe, one of my mentors said, you don’t, you can’t ever wait for somebody to give you permission to practice your art. You have to be practicing it consistently all the time. That’s also very similar to what my grandmother, my great aunt and my mama always said to me, you know, stay ready. If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:22:42] I love that so, I love that so much. I’m getting that tattooed across my tits.
BILLY PORTER [00:22:48] It’s, it’s true.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:22:50] I love that.
BILLY PORTER [00:22:50] The work looks like if you stay ready, whatever it is that you do, whoever it is that you are. Do the work. If you want to be an actor, do the work. Make sure that you’re in class. Make sure that you’re auditioning. Make sure that you’re reading plays. Make sure that you’re going to the theater. Make sure, the work, y’all know what the work is.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:23:10] Mmhmm.
BILLY PORTER [00:23:11] And if somebody has to tell you what the work is, then you don’t want to do the work. You know what the work is. Anybody who wants to do anything knows exactly what the work is. And if you don’t know what it is, find out. It’s easy to find it out. You know, for me, it was like, I can’t get, I can’t get hired to do a play. Nobody thinks I can act in New York City. So what did I do? I started doing plays at regional theaters all over the country. I stopped doing Broadway. I took a pay cut and I started doing plays at regional theaters because they were the only people that would hire me. That’s the work. Whether it’s Louisville, Kentucky, whether it’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, whether it’s Atlanta. I did the work. I went out of town. I did the, you know, the “Top Dog, Underdog” and the “Angels in America”. And, you know, it’s like, well y’all won’t hire me in New York, but I’m going to do it somewhere. I’m going to practice and I’m going to make sure my muscles are, are-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:24:14] Warmed up.
BILLY PORTER [00:24:15] Trained. So that when, you know, the audition for the revival of “Angels in America” in 2010 came around, you know, and, and they called me the day before. And my agent was so, you know, so angry. Because I didn’t have time to prepare. And I said to him there, there’s one role in the entire canon of the world, that looks like me. It’s 20 years old. If I don’t know that part already, that’s my fault. I knew every line of every scene. Seven hours I knew every line. I’m ready, I’m already ready. I know they’re doing this play. Why would I not already be working on this play and this audition? Why would I not be doing that? That is the work.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:25:11] Yeah.
BILLY PORTER [00:25:12] So when they call you the day before, I already knew the scenes and I was already off book. And that “Angels in America” audition is an example of that.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:25:21] For sure.
BILLY PORTER [00:25:22] You know, when I teach, I go around and I teach, you know, and I’ve, I have taught a lot in musical theater classes. And I’m like, look at what’s on Broadway. Look at the roles that are right for you.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:25:34] Mmhmm.
BILLY PORTER [00:25:34] And prepare yourself. That audition might come around. If you, if you’re black, if you’re a Latin man or a black boy or a black girl or a person of color in any kind of way, and you don’t know every single word to “Hamilton”. Tha’st your fault. If you have to scramble to learn the material when you get the audition, that’s your fault. If you’re a young white boy who can sing his ass off, or black boy, now, because the role is black now and you don’t know every single word to “Dear Evan Hansen”. That’s your fault. You can’t wait for somebody to tell you to get prepared. Be prepared. That’s what the Boy Scouts told me, for the two weeks I was in it.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:26:31] Jesus Christ, you should write them a letter. What an impact they made. That is, that’s so fucking brilliant. And I feel like my, my generation and the generation after me definitely are prone sometimes, you know, to the thing that we’re most mocked for, for apathy or for waiting for opportunity. And this is the message that we most need because we are in such a competitive situation. And even though there are thousands of shows, it doesn’t take away the fact that there are thousands of people waiting in line for those shows. And the fact that you just stayed warm like an athlete throughout that. You didn’t just wait for the Olympics. You were training all, all of the time.
BILLY PORTER [00:27:09] The whole time.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:27:10] Yeah.
BILLY PORTER [00:27:10] So, yeah, I mean, that was really, a very, that’s just been really the point for me. And how I have. I’m very, very blessed, you know, because I learned that skill set from growing up. I learned that from going to Carnegie Mellon University. You know, they really taught us how to self generate, how to, you know, being an artist, you have to you have to show up for yourself. You have to generate it for yourself. You can’t wait for other people to tell you what to do or how to do it. You have to do it.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:27:50] Yeah.
BILLY PORTER [00:27:53] You know?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:27:54] No, I totally, totally hear you. So then “Kinky Boots” came along. And that was a really big moment for you, both in your career, but also emotionally. How did that feel to finally start to get that recognition and finally start to really feel as though you are a valued and respected member of your theater community?
BILLY PORTER [00:28:21] You know, it was the original dream come true. You know, I had taken some time away. I had taken space for myself, creatively, to figure out who I wanted to be and what I wanted to say in the world. And I chose myself. And I chose myself at a time when it wasn’t popular to choose the person that I am, you know, I always say it’s easy to be who you are, but what you are is what’s popular. Who I am was not popular. You know, so to choose myself at the time that I chose myself meant bankruptcy, unemployment, being dismissed, being ignored. Not having work for a decade or more like it wasn’t like a couple of months or a couple of years, it was a very long time that I sat on the cliff of obscurity, wondering if I would ever be able, if I would ever be able to come back, if I would ever have the life that I had dreamed for myself. So when “Kinky Boots” came around, it was like that’s the role. That’s the role that is at the end of this, the light at the end of this darkness, this tunnel that I’ve been in. I chose myself and now I get to play this part where this human being in this, in this play chooses himself as well, slash herself. You know, it’s like I lived it so I could be it. That’s the same thing with “Pose”. I lived that. I lived it. I lived through the AIDS crisis. You know? I lived it. I was there for that. So what a gift it is, you know, to be able to step into my own story and remind the world that we’re here. We always have been. We always will be. And we ain’t going nowhere.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:30:50] I love that. I want to ask you about the audition in just a second. We’re going to go to a quick break. And we’re back. OK. So you’ve taken time out at this point, the audition of your life turns up, the role you have been waiting for for decades is there. How, how fucking scared were you? How much hinged on that for you?
BILLY PORTER [00:31:18] I wasn’t scared at all.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:31:20] I want to be you.
BILLY PORTER [00:31:20] You know, I was having, but with this, I had gone through a really rough time from the day after 9/11. I developed a severe case of acid reflux. That attacked my voice. And I had cords of steel up until the age of 30, 31, and then this thing happened and all of a sudden. My voice was in transition. You know, it wasn’t as, I couldn’t depend on it as much as I could in the past. You know, the musculature with which I sang, you know, which I have labeled extreme singing for those of you who don’t know what that is. It’s like. Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Jennifer Hudson. You know Cynthia Erivo. You know, like it’s that-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:32:28] Diva.
BILLY PORTER [00:32:28] That, it’s that voice. I had a voice like that when I was young as a man. I could sing like that.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:32:37] Wow.
BILLY PORTER [00:32:38] And so. That went away, and I think it was a combination of me longing to be received as something more than, more than a voice. But also having to go through the journey of what that is not having the voice, not having the crutch, not having that thing to lean on forced me to go deeper. In every way. Go deeper in my art. Go deeper in my humanity. Go deeper because my voice was my weapon for so long. My voice was my savior for so long. And all of a sudden, it couldn’t be so fast forward. Now I had, I had pretty much healed from it, but I would have bouts of my voice just going away because of stress. So I remember the last, you know, the stress of the audition process for this show because quiet as it’s kept, there was a reputation that then preceded me. “He can’t sing anymore”. “Can he sing anymore”? “Can he do eight shows a week”? “Can he do this”? You know, there was that kind of-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:34:11] Doubt.
BILLY PORTER [00:34:12] Doubt in other people’s minds. That was being dumped on me in, in the sense that the audition process for me was about proving something that I had already spent two decades proving. It’s not like I had just gotten off the bus. So the fact that you question, can I do it, at all was like that stressed me out a bit. And that sort of brought up my acid reflux.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:34:58] Oh, shit.
BILLY PORTER [00:34:59] During the audition process, during the final, final audition, and I lost my voice in the middle of it, in the middle of that process, it was like, I went to my final audition. Or no, I went to final work session vocally. And here was that doubt. In that music session, not from the musical director who was a friend of mine, but from some of the people in the room, some of the producers in the room. I don’t know what, who it was or whatever. And by the time I got home that night my voice was gone. I couldn’t even phone at all. I couldn’t even speak. And I called my mother and I was like, I need you get on your knees and pray for me right now. So that I can have a voice tomorrow at noon ’cause, that’s my audition. So I woke up the next morning at like 7 o’clock and I slowly warmed up my voice and just tried to get any sort of tone in it at all. Went to the audition. I could croak through it. And the minute I left the building, I couldn’t speak.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:36:35] Did you think you-.
BILLY PORTER [00:36:36] But I got the job.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:36:36] Did you think you might blown it when you were in there?
BILLY PORTER [00:36:39] No.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:36:41] Great.
BILLY PORTER [00:36:41] I didn’t think I blew it. You know, I didn’t think I blew it. I just thought they’ll be smart or not. They’ll be smart and hire me or they won’t.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:36:54] So did it feel good when you got that call and you got that job?
BILLY PORTER [00:36:58] Yes, it did. And I stayed with it for three years, doing eight shows a week to prove to everybody in the industry, stop questioning me. Are we done with the questions about whether or not I know what I’m doing and how to do it?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:37:12] Mmhmm.
BILLY PORTER [00:37:13] I didn’t just get here. I didn’t just get off the boat. I’ve been doing this my whole life. Stop questioning me.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:37:20] Yeah. And so you told me when we were chatting in our pre-interview that it was actually after “Kinky Boots” that you had your realization around the way that you wanted to present yourself. It wasn’t during, there was something about finishing that project, walking away after that that you found your own in embracing your sort of, I guess, escape of the binary.
BILLY PORTER [00:37:47] Gender fluid, flu-, gender fluidity.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:37:50] Yeah.
BILLY PORTER [00:37:51] Yeah. So I played Lola in “Kinky Boots”. You know, I sort of leaned into this thing that everybody in my whole life prior to that told me would be my liability. So here I am. Now, this feminine side of myself has, you know, gone viral. I’m winning awards. I’m starring in a Broadway show. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You know, I always knew that I wanted to have an intersection between my art and fashion. And I was going on tour and I was trying to. Figure out what it would look like, and I was really trying to figure out how to re-enter the, the music industry space for real. You know, like what would that look like at my age? I need to have a look. What is that look? And I was in search of what that would be, and I stumbled across a designer named Rick Owens. And I went into the store and it was all this sort of androgynous, gender bending, gender fluid stuff. And it just blew my mind. It had never occurred to me. And it was like, oh, shit. Right. It’s like this is an extension of Lola. Which is an extension of myself. Why not put this on? Like, why not? Why am I holding myself back from wearing a dress If I want to wear a dress?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:39:19] Set those balls and that shaft free.
BILLY PORTER [00:39:22] Set the balls and the shaft. Set balls and the shaft free, you know, so like, what is that? Like why am I? So I just dip my toes in the water for that moment. And then “Pose” happened. And as I was hiring, you know, my stylist and trying to figure out the direction that I wanted to go. You know, I knew that I wanted to investigate and play with this gender thing that I had been playing with on my own, and it just sort of naturally evolved. It was an evolution that sort of was organic and made sense. Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:40:12] Was there any influence also from “Pose”, the fact that you were sort of, you know, you’ve talked before in interviews about how much you learned about the ballroom community and how much you learned about different parts of the LGBTQ spectrum. And how you learned, yeah.
BILLY PORTER [00:40:28] Yeah, the transgender community, the tran-, the “T” in LGBTQ was largely absent from my-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:40:35] Experience.
BILLY PORTER [00:40:36] Knowledge and my experience. And, you know, I always say I was ballroom adjacent because I just wasn’t in the community because I was doing eight shows a week on Broadway. I was. That’s just what it was for me. My activism was through the Broadway community, vis-a-vis, Broadway Cares, Equity Fights AIDS, you know, and the Actors’ Fund and stuff like that. However, you know, when I think about “Paris is Burning”, you know, just like “Angels in America”, that was one of the only spaces, places where we saw, where I saw myself reflected back at me. So with “Pose”, I just thought, well, it’s about this sort of freedom. The show is about this kind of independence. You know, this kind of authenticity. So. If there was any time where playing with gender on the red carpet, would be in alignment with the work that I’m actually doing. It would be right now. This is the moment. You know, because what I’m doing on the red carpet reflects actually what I’m doing on television. I got a call to host the Oscars and to host the red carpet on the Oscars. And I’ve remembered my friend Idina Menzel, who, you know, a few years prior to, to my invitation had been invited to sing from “Frozen”. And, you know, John Travolta said her name wrong and she became a household name overnight. And I thought, I need an Oscar moment. I need somebody to say my name wrong at the Oscars. I literally said that out loud, when it happened, because I knew when it happened what was going to happen to her. You know, because the Oscars is our Super Bowl. And as a businessman, I understood that. So once again, I have, it was intentional. I got the call and I was like, well, what am I gonna wear? What am I gonna wear? And I wear, it was my first fashion, it was my first time at Fashion Week. And I walked into a Christian Siriano show and I remembered how inclusive he naturally has always been.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:42:55] And for people who don’t know, who are familiar with Christian Siriano, he is one of the first designers, first mainstream, huge designers to actually expand the sizing for his clothes, to be willing to dress bigger actresses and actors and to be inclusive on the runway and in his sizing for people to buy. And when he did it, something that the rest of the fashion industry has been too afraid to do, he tripled his income in the first year.
BILLY PORTER [00:43:22] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:43:22] So that’s Christian Siriano, someone who really believes in change and has such a diverse runway.
BILLY PORTER [00:43:27] And because of knowing the pushback that we have already been receiving from designers who were, did, who thought that they could decide for me. Was like, well, we were asking for masculine and feminine clothes to be sent over and they would just not send feminine thing. They didn’t just not send it.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:43:50] I’m not asking you to name names, but is there anyone who’s dressing you now who wouldn’t dress you back then the way you wanted to be dressed?
BILLY PORTER [00:43:57] No.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:43:58] So have you cut those people off? You just didn’t go back to them?
BILLY PORTER [00:44:01] I just didn’t, we just haven’t gone back. We just, it was just, it’s OK. But like, I get to choose that. And so being at that Christian Siriano show, having gotten that telephone call remembering, you know, joking with my friends watching the Oscars in college. Oh, I’m going wear a ball gown. I’m gonna wear a ball gown was like, oh, shoot. Wait a minute, wait a minute. This might be ball gown time. You know, but I knew that I would need to find somebody who would be willing to do it. Find a high end designer who would be willing to do it. And I walked into the Siriano show and I thought, Oh, my God. This is it. So at the party, he had a little dance party. I went to the dance party. I cornered him on the floor. And I just whispered in his ear what my idea was, which was I want to do a tuxedo gown. I didn’t know how they were gonna shoot it, but I just thought if they if the shot is tight and it looks like from, you know, from the waist up that I’m wearing a tux. And then when they pull back, they see that it’s a ball gown.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:45:11] That’s your Idina Menzel moment.
BILLY PORTER [00:45:13] That’s my Idina Menzel moment. The world will gag and-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:45:18] And gag it did.
BILLY PORTER [00:45:20] The world gagged a lot more than I thought they would. I really don-, you know the, the, literally I speak of it in terms of BO, AO. Before Oscar and after Oscar, my career before the Oscars and my career after the Oscars is starkly different.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:45:46] That was when I first came across you and I had been sitting there choosing my best dressed, best dressed, best dressed, and then your picture came up and I was like, fuck everyone else, I’m raising them. This is my best dress. This person is my best dress. Who the fuck is Billy Porter? I have to know him. And then the Met Gala. Jesus Christ. Did you blow the Oscars off the stage? You turned up in dressed in gold like Cleopatra being carried by six men who were topless and hot as fuck, by the way. They carried you in on like you like it was a Britney Spears VMA entry. It was one of the best and most regal things I’ve ever seen. What gave you the idea to do that?
BILLY PORTER [00:46:33] You know, it’s nice to have-. OK. So Ryan Murphy, I was at Ryan Murphy’s table and he said you should go as the entire mahogany Diana Ross montage. And I was like, bitch. I don’t want to work that hard. Where am I going to change? Like it’s like everybody wants. And it’s like, that’s a great idea. But like, I’m the one who has to do it. So, like, what is it going to be? What? Like, I went and watched the montage and I said, what would be the most fun outfit to sort of take from this? And it was the Egyptian look. And so we decided, OK, let’s go Egyptian. And then, you know, my stylist, Sam Retail was like doing research and the sun gods and, you know, bowing to the sun and, and, and the sun gods, they don’t walk. They’re carried everywhere. So like it just expand-, you know, the idea just expanded from there. We went with blondes and blondes had their idea and the wings and the decade-. You know, I mean, I know how to wear it.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:47:48] Yes, you sure as shit did. Oh, my goodness. Even when you-.
BILLY PORTER [00:47:51] Once it’s on me, I’m gonna wear it. I’m gonna do what I’m supposed to do in it.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:47:55] That moment where you stepped off and they let you down and you lifted, what kind of felt like wings up to the sky on those stairs.
BILLY PORTER [00:48:04] They are wings.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:48:07] Goodness. That was, it was, I get hot just thinking about it. It was such a glorious moment of such like self, it was the official Billy Porter has fucking arrived. I don’t remember anyone else going to the Met Gala that year. I feel like you just went on your own. It was as you and your henchmen.
BILLY PORTER [00:48:31] Thank you.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:48:31] Just so fabulous.
BILLY PORTER [00:48:32] Thank you.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:48:33] It’s been a real joy because also what you have beyond the layers of fabric, of the fashion that you have used to bring you to the global attention of everyone is that you’ve brought a story and a messaging and you are using this opportunity to talk about representation, to talk about the experiences of your community or communities that you were adjacent to. And that’s something that I really appreciate you. And you’re talking about mental health and child abuse and all of these different things. You are, you are a kind of embodiment of de-stigmatizing. And it’s something that I find very inspiring about you.
BILLY PORTER [00:49:07] I’ve never heard it like that before. But thank you for that. I appreciate that.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:49:10] Well, thank you for sharing with everyone. It’s really hard to go through so much trauma and then be able to find the tools to look back into that trauma, take it apart, rationalize it somewhat, and then share it with other people so that they can unpack their own pain.
BILLY PORTER [00:49:26] That’s the gift of being an artist.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:49:28] Yeah.
BILLY PORTER [00:49:29] And that’s our job as artists, I think, for me.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:49:33] Mmhmm.
BILLY PORTER [00:49:33] You know, it’s like that’s how I have healed through seeing that kind of representation, through art, through, you know, it’s, it’s changed me. It’s saved me. I’m sane. I’m an actually sane person because of the arts, because of that. And I just have to pay it forward. I really, really must pay it forward.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:49:58] Well, we’re gonna go to a little break and then I want to talk about “Pose”. I want to talk to you about “Pose” because of the impact this show has had on so many people around the world, on the insight it’s given so many of us into this beautiful and inspiring community that is the ballroom community and “Pose” has been such a labor of love of Janet Mock and Steven Canals and something that Ryan Murphy helped to bring to the mainstream. What has this show done for you on an emotional level? We know what it’s done for career stuff.
BILLY PORTER [00:50:37] It’s taught me to dream the impossible. You know, I’ve always had huge dreams. I never imagined, but they were always spring boarded off of something that I had already seen. I was never dreaming the impossible. I was never dreaming something I had never seen before, which is me. The world had never seen anything that looks like me before, you know? That looks like us. They haven’t seen it, you know, and so I’d never dreamed That I would be in a mainstream television show where I get to tell the story of my life, represent my life. Tell the stories of the people, my friends who didn’t make it. Remind the world that they were here. You know, like, I have no words for it. You know, it is such a gift and, you know, I’m so grateful that I lived long enough to see this day and, and, yeah, that really is the truth.
BILLY PORTER [00:51:57] And it’s an opportunity for the world to see two gay black men in love onscreen, which is such an important story to be able to tell. And also, they’re both living with HIV and we’re having that conversation in a de-stigmatized way. The trans conversation is happening in a de-stigmatize way and something I talk about a lot is my desire to to do anything I can to help tell stories about, in particular, the black and LatinX like trans community stories that don’t revolve just around the horror that we read in the news, because it’s, it’s only, it’s such a small fraction and such a sensationalized fraction of their existence. And what I love about “Pose” is that it shows the full spectrum of their experience, the good and the bad and the love in that community. I’ve never, I’ve only recently been lucky enough to enter into that space. And I’ve never seen such love even in the most brutal moments of competition where everything is on the line, straight afterwards, after all of the worst things are said. The love that pours out between the competitors and between the members of the community is just something, there’s nothing like that.
BILLY PORTER [00:53:11] There isn’t. You know, through the, through the darkest, you know, we choose love.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:53:18] Mmhmm.
BILLY PORTER [00:53:19] You have to choose it. Doesn’t just happen.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:53:22] And what have you learned?
BILLY PORTER [00:53:24] You have to choose it.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:53:24] What have you learned other than learning how to, other than being inspired to dream the impossible? What have you learned about other people on this show that has changed you? I’ve heard you talk about understanding the experience of trans people more and the experience of women and-.
BILLY PORTER [00:53:38] Yeah, I just didn’t. I think this just goes. I mean, this goes back to pre, you know, this, this is like, women in general. You know, with the whole Hillary Trump thing, like I didn’t really understand the woman thing and then you add trans on top of it like I just didn’t, I just didn’t get it because I was in my own trauma. You know, so it lifted me. Being on this show lifted me out of my own trauma and my own perspective and dropped me in the middle of somebody else’s journey. So that I could, so that I could even be more empathetic than I already am and understand it more than I already than, I ever could possibly before. You know, it’s like we’re all human beings. We’re all human beings. Even when it’s uncomfortable. Even when it’s uncomfortable we’re human beings. And we have to treat everybody with respect, human respect. That’s all.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:54:51] I love that. And it’s true and I think it’s on the way. We just need more and more and more of these stories. I’m glad to hear that Janet’s got that deal with Netflix, where now she has the access to tell more of these stories and the budget to tell more of these stories.
BILLY PORTER [00:55:05] And I’m working on my own too.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:55:07] Oh yeah, what are you working on? I would love to know.
BILLY PORTER [00:55:10] You know, I’m working on a bunch of shit.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:55:11] Yeah.
BILLY PORTER [00:55:12] You know. Well, you’ll see. It’s coming. I’m working on my memoir and I’m working on a pilot. And you know, I’m working hard, I’m working a lot of stuff.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:55:20] So will you tell us the story of your life one day on screen?
BILLY PORTER [00:55:23] Yeah. Definitely.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:55:25] Well, before you go, and thank you so much for being so candid and giving me such an interesting insight into your life, will you please, billy Porter, tell me what you weigh?
BILLY PORTER [00:55:38] You know, I weigh my relationships. You know, with my family, my mother, my sister, my husband, my friends. I weigh my artistry, I weigh my activism. You know, and I’m just trying to be compassionate about it because I weigh, you know, I have weighed in a way that’s not always compassionate to myself and I’m learning how to do that and how to be that. I’m trying to learn how to be compassionate while moving the energy forward.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:28] Where does your compassion not still lie?
BILLY PORTER [00:56:32] In myself, being compassionate with myself.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:34] Over what?
BILLY PORTER [00:56:36] Over everything.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:37] Really? You’re still beating yourself up?
BILLY PORTER [00:56:39] Oh, I beat myself up over everything. It has to stop. It’s coming to an end.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:43] OK.
BILLY PORTER [00:56:44] It’s coming to an end.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:46] OK. This is it, this is the final chapter. Well, maybe you can use this this moment of respite, we are no longer on planes and trains and automobiles to do that final bit of work.
BILLY PORTER [00:56:56] Yes.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:56] ‘Cause you’ve done so much work to get to this headspace and this level of strength and being so robust and now being such a role model, which is a whole other level of pressure and people wanting to-.
BILLY PORTER [00:57:09] Role model is not pressure when you’re 50.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:57:14] Ok. Well, that’s-.
BILLY PORTER [00:57:14] It’s not pressure. It’s the point. That’s why I’m here. I don’t have any pressure with that. That’s not, you know, I understand when you’re younger and you’re, you know, you have to grow up in front of the world. I’m not growing up. I’m grown. I’m grown already.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:57:28] Well, good luck on your battle with your inner demon. You are a true light to the world. I can’t wait to see you once this ban is lifted and red carpets are reopened. I can’t wait to see what you’re going to bring out the bag. Thank you very, Billy Porter. Loads of love.
BILLY PORTER [00:57:44] Thank you.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:57:45] Thank you so much for listening to this podcast. I just want to give an extra massive thank you to people who helped me make this. Sophia Jennings, my producer and researcher, Kimmie Lucas, my producer, Andrew Carson, my editor, James Blake, my boyfriend who made the beautiful music for this show. And now I’d like to leave you by passing the mic to a member of our community, sharing their “I weigh”.
I WEIGH COMMUNITY MEMBER [00:58:07] I weigh being queer, being proud and eating a lot of Twizzlers. Love you, Jameela. Ryan from Salt Lake.
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