As well as being another seminal Shapeshifters moment finely crafted by Simon Marlin, ‘Finally Ready’ is also a very personal song for his co-writer Billy. "'Finally Ready’ hits on so many levels for me. First, being ‘finally ready’ to experience what real love is. And thankfully, I have somebody who loves me enough to love me through trauma, to be present, and allow me to grow, into this. I’m also ‘finally ready’ to be who I am, who I’ve always been. It has been a rough road, I’ve been through so many changes, but I always kept the faith and now I’m here.”
Having kept faith in himself throughout and finally started to reap the rewards, in 2013, Porter landed the role of Lola in Kinky Boots on Broadway. Inspired by a modestly received 2005 UK movie, the theatrical revamp proved hugely successful. Porter took the role of drag queen Lola. “For me having gone through all of the things that I went through in my life — choosing myself, choosing my sanity over my fame, choosing my authenticity and taking all the hits that come with that to finally get my shot — to be starring in a Broadway show as a drag queen and say that that character is straight would be irresponsible of me,”(5) he told Esquire. So, he made Lola gay – winning the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical, followed by a Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album.
Back in the Studio
This renewed Broadway success enabled Billy to get back in the recording studio for the Billy’s Back album (2014) – “what we’ve done is we’ve taken very well known songs from the Broadway canon, and then what I wanted to do was create an environment where stylistically, we can go from the classic to the contemporary.” This was followed in 2017 by Billy Porter presents the Soul Of Richard Rodgers, where Billy and guests contemporised the celebrated Rodgers songbook – “because of the time that Richard Rodgers grew up in, where theatre music was the pop music of the day, that was the Beyonce, that was the Kanye West, everybody on the planet knows a Richard Rodgers song.” These previews will whet your appetite.
Having presided over huge hits such as Nip/Tuck,Glee and American Horror Story, Ryan Murphy was dubbed “the most powerful man in television” after penning a mega-bucks deal with Netflix in 2017. By this time Murphy, already celebrated for the pro-LGBTQ+ storylines and representation in his shows, had embarked on one of his most ambitious projects to date. Pose would document New York’s marginalised but often vibrant, life-affirming Ballroom culture of the 1980s – and it would do so with the biggest transgender cast and crew ever assembled for a TV series. Writing for Vogue Porter, who won a Best Actor Emmy for his role as Ballroom MC Pray Tell, said: “I’m a black, gay man, and I had little idea about the challenges the trans community have faced, the erasure of people of colour within the narrative of LGBTQI+ activism, the danger and difficulties of being a woman. The show is teaching me as much as it’s teaching everybody else. That’s what’s been so beautiful about it… We can move the conversation forward, we can make a difference collectively, but it has to start individually.” (3) Pose was lauded for putting these issues front and centre – it also put Billy Porter front and centre, an opportunity he has relished and used to great effect.
Art as activism
“The conversation is not about tolerance or acceptance. They are two words that we have thrown about for decades. For me, the demand is about respect for humanity — we are all human beings. That’s the space we need to get to.”(3) This theme has run through countless interviews that Billy Porter has conducted since the success of Pose. He intuitively understands the dominant role commerce plays in the entertainment industry, and that with Pose, Ryan Murphy succeeded in creating “a space where the art and the entertainment collide, the message, the activism, where they collide and explode, then it's successful and everybody's making money.”(4) The next challenge? “We’re in this middle space of trying to figure out how social media and activism unite. Where do they come together for modern, real activism, not just likes on Instagram? I don’t know what the answer is. I’m trying to figure it out, but until you get out on the streets, nothing changes.''(6)
Billy has also recorded a haunting version of Buffalo Springfield’s late 1960s counter-culture protest song ‘For What It’s Worth’, re-purposing its message for 2020. The video juxtaposes the lyrics “there’s a man with a gun over there / telling me I got to beware” with images of a Black Lives Matter rally, while the release also promotes the #Vote2020 campaign, encouraging those who are often left disenfranchised in America to use their vote.
Style as activism
In addition to pushing the art as activism agenda, 2019 saw Billy own the red carpet at several major shows, every move, every outfit a carefully considered one. As he told The Guardian, “Fashion is one of the highest forms of art, and if I can be a walking piece of art when I show up, preferably political art, I love it.”(2) Vogue serenaded “the most fabulous entrance in Met Gala history”, but arguably the Christian Siriano gown he donned for the Academy Awards made an even bigger splash – but as Billy told Esquire, his end game extended far beyond Oscars night: “LGBTQ narratives and stories and arche types are initially very performative,right? So, you make the statement. What I'm interested in is the conversation that comes after the statement.” (5) As for those interested in working with him, they had best understand that: “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.”(8)
Oh, and Billy also stole the show inside at the Tony awards, not just on the red carpet…
Want to see and hear more Billy Porter? Check out these in-depth interviews.
With the Screen Actors Guild
With Carnegie Mellon University
With Ryan Murphy (Producer of Pose)
…plus: Billy’s YouTube channel
- New York Times, November 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/21/theater/billy-porter-the-first-time-i-refused-to-keep-playing-a-stereotype.html
- The Guardian, September 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2019/sep/15/fx-pose-star-billie-porter-interview
- Vogue, January 2020 https://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/billy-porter-interview
- W magazine, July 2019 https://www.wmagazine.com/story/billy-porter-pose-hollywood-inclusivity-interview/
- Esquire, June 2019 https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27817829/billy-porter-pose-interview-2019/
- Deadline, August 2019 https://deadline.com/2019/08/pose-billy-porter-ryan-murphy-emmys-fx-interview-1202671510/
- Allure, January 2020 https://www.allure.com/story/billy-porter-art-issue-cover-interview
- The Cut, May 2019 https://www.thecut.com/2019/05/billy-porter-fx-pose.html