Success is “Practice – even when no one is looking,” says Billy Porter

Billy Porter wearing a white coat with hands raised up in front of him
Billy Porter: Photo from Billy's Facebook page.

Look for the Pose star in next month’s feel-good comedy 80 For Brady

Billy Porter: Photo from Billy’s Facebook page.

Billy Porter — the Tony, Emmy, and Grammy winner — needs no introduction, especially to the many fans of his character Pray Tell on Ryan Murphy’s hit TV series Pose.

Coming up exclusively in theaters February 10th, Porter will star as a Super Bowl half-time show choreographer, opposite Oscar winners Sally Field, Rita Moreno, and Jane Fonda, and Tony winner Lilly Tomlin, in the feel-good comedy 80 For Brady, a comic homage to popular quarterback Tom Brady.

Porter rocketed to superstardom when he originated the role of Lola in the Tony-winning Broadway musical Kinky Boots just over ten years ago. But show business was always in his blood. “I started singing in church at a very young age,” he says. “By fifth grade, the bullying had stopped and in middle school, I got involved with theater. I dreamed about being on Broadway and becoming the male Whitney Houston.”

Porter knew he was onto something when he won $100,000 on Star Search in 1992 but he never expected success would come easy. “I took all of the necessary steps to prepare myself for a career in show business,” he says. “There have been moments of frustration, but no one is entitled to anything. I’ve practiced acting every day for decades. I went to Carnegie Mellon. I went to graduate school at UCLA. To this day, I still take singing lessons. I have the patience of Job. My best advice for anyone who wants to become a professional is to practice — even when no one is looking.”

How did Porter prepare himself for a trajectory in acting and a career in fashion? “I decided at a very young age to dress for the job I wanted, not the job I have,” he explains. The ”Oscar” dress, which made Porter a viral sensation, wasn’t something that “just happened.” In 2013, while Porter was in Chicago doing previews of Kinky Boots, he met with fans at the stage door after every performance. “It was right at the time when social media was taking off, especially Instagram photos, and I was dressing geek chic.

When I looked at the news the day after the first performance I saw pictures of myself and I looked like a bag lady. From that moment on, I dressed up every day. After every show, before I went out the stage door to go home, I dressed up.” From then on, any candid photos that people did take of Porter were not only flattering but trend-setting.

“For three years, while I was on Broadway with Kinky Boots, I dressed up after every performance, just to go out to the car to go home.” In 2019, just a year before the pandemic hit, Porter started to gain attention for some of the most fabulous outfits that have ever adorned any human. At the Grammy Awards, he wore an embroidered suit and pink cape. That same year, at the Academy Awards he wore the famous black fitted tuxedo and velvet gown created by Christian Siriano, accompanied by six-inch Rick Owens boots.

The gender-fluid outfits worn by Porter that are now famous the world over were not intended to be labeled. “All of the outfits I have worn aligned with the roles I was playing. The term ‘non-binary’ never occurred to me.” And now Billy Porter has become an inspiration for celebs such as Harry Styles, who posed on the cover of Vogue last year in a Gucci dress. “You said that, not me,” Porter insists I disclose. “I have a calling,” he admits. “It is funneled through artistry.”

Tim Nasson
Tim Nasson grew up in Somerville, MA, moving to Boston's Back Bay in 1993. He launched the movie website Wild About Movies in 2004. Beginning at the age of 17 he traveled from Boston to LA on American Airlines almost every other weekend to interview celebrities for their upcoming theatrical movie releases. Until 2019, his interviews were syndicated to some of the largest newspapers and magazines in America. As of 2019 his features appear in Boston Globe Media Partners and elsewhere.