Billy Porter: “Dream the impossible, because the impossible is possible”

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Credit: CBSNews

▶ Watch Video: Billy Porter on juggling the demands of stardom

“Pose” star Billy Porter said, “The calls I’m getting now is for me to be Billy – the Billy that was rejected for decades. They want me to show up in my dresses, they want me to show up in my gowns, they want me to show up in my wings.”

Correspondent Seth Doane asked, “Does it surprise you?”

“Yes, it surprises me! I spent the first 20 years of my career trying to be masculine enough so I could eat!”

He has an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony, but long before he was turning heads on the red carpet, Porter was attracting the sort of attention he did not want.

“I was born queer,” he said. “I was born gay, and I was effeminate.”

And, he says, he was beaten up repeatedly by his classmates: “And it was always the torment, like, having to go to school every day; ‘So, what’s gonna happen today?’ Until fifth grade talent show.”

Which is when people went “Wow.”

“And then, all of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, well, you know, leave him alone – he can sing!’ That was my cue. I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, well, let me sing! Let me keep singing so I can stop getting beat!” he laughed.

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The Tony-, Emmy- and Grammy-winning actor-dancer-singer-director (and now author) Billy Porter. 

CBS News

He’s not stopped singing, whether in leading roles on Broadway, in the movies, or a recording studio in his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he’d returned to direct a movie, and was finishing up his pop single, “Children.” That song will be released this week.

His memoir, “Unprotected,” comes out later this month.

Doane found a man grateful to be juggling the demands of stardom. “I believe in walking through the doors that are open, and kicking the other ones down,” the actor said.

“How is it to be having all of this happen at the same moment?”

“I’ve prepared a long time for this, and so I’m ready. I’m 52, and I’m grounded in ways that allow for me to be able to enjoy this.”

Of those industry prizes, he was awarded the Emmy most recently, for his role in “Pose” on Netflix, in which he plays Pray Tell, a flamboyant emcee who rules trans and queer nightlife in 1980s New York City.

It’s not the type of role he could’ve imagined as a kid who grew up in a religious family and was sent to a psychologist. “He said to my mother – in front of me – ‘Oh, Billy’s fine, he just, you know, you just need a man around the house, teach him how to be more of a man. That’s all.’ 

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Abrams

“So then, fast-forward to within a year, my mother had met and married my stepfather, who then proceeded to molest me from the time I was seven to twelve. And in my mind, I thought those were my ‘man lessons,’ because that was, right? That’s what he’s here for?”

Doane asked, “Did you realize you were being abused?”

“No. I didn’t realize it was abuse until I was in my late 20s.”

“You say the story now with such strength.”

“I’ve had 40 years to work through this, you know?” Porter said. “It’s a devastating trauma.”

He found a safe haven at a Pittsburgh performing arts high school. He said, “It saved my life. I’ve been able to use my art to heal my trauma.”

Searching for bigger stages, he saved up to travel to auditions, and after a number of appearances in Broadway shows, he became a star as the drag diva Lola in “Kinky Boots,” earning, in 2013, both that Tony and the Grammy.

Porter said, “After having been told that my queerness and my femininity would be my liability, ‘Kinky Boots’ happened. I never felt more powerful and more grounded in my life up until that point, as Lola, in high-heeled platform boots!”

Those platform boots are still a staple. Standing next to Doane, he said, “We are actually the same height in real life, but I like being able to see …”

“But you’re not wearing this to the grocery store?” Doane asked.

“No!” he laughed.

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CBS News

And his style has become part of his signature.

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Billy Porter (with correspondent Seth Doane, left) in front of a mural of Porter, painted by artist Camerin “Camo” Nesbit, underneath the Fort Duquesne Bridge in Pittsburgh.

CBS News

In front of a street mural in Pittsburgh, Doane said, “I guess you know you’ve made it when you have a mural.”

“Really good – it actually looks like me!” Porter said. “And it really is, you know, one of my ‘slayage’ moments on the red carpet.”

The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion - Arrivals
Billy Porter attends the 2019 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 6, 2019 in New York City.

Getty Images

Porter said, “I didn’t know that my fashion choices could start a cultural conversation.”

“What do you think that conversation is?”

“You know, this gender attachment that we have to clothing – women wearing men’s clothes is fine, that’s powerful; a man puts on a dress, and it’s ‘disgusting.'”

“And you want to change that?” Doane asked.

“Yeah! What are we saying?”

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Actor-singer Billy Porter arrives for the 91st annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on February 24, 2019.

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

He says that being “fabulous” and “serious” should not be viewed as mutually exclusive.

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Billy Porter with a fan in Pittsburgh. 

CBS News

Porter’s message resonates, and we found his fans want more than just a selfie. One passerby on the street said, “Hi, hug me please! Please, I love you so much!”

“I love you back!” Porter said. 

But for someone who’s credited with “authenticity,” Porter had been living with a secret since being diagnosed HIV-positive in 2007. “It was devastating,” he said. “It really almost took me out, it really did.”

“And you kept it quiet?”

“And I kept it quiet for 14 years.”

Because? “Shame,” Porter said. “I’m of a certain age. I was supposed to know better. How did this happen?”

But when that role in “Pose” came along, playing an HIV-positive character, he recognized yet another opportunity to find some relief through his art: “I made the decision to let my character of Pray Tell stand in proxy for Billy’s healing.”

And this spring, he revealed his diagnosis, in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “Here’s the information. Ain’t no secret. I’m fully transparent and I’ve laid everything bare.”

Billy Porter finds strength in controlling the narrative, and freedom in being and celebrating who he is. The most important role to him now is to inspire.

“What this moment has taught me is to dream the impossible, because the impossible is possible,” he said. “This is possible. If you told me in 1982 that my Black church sissy ass would be famous for being a sissy, I would have laughed in your face! You know what I mean?”

Doane said, “You can convey so much just with a look, a raised eyebrow!”

“She’s old, Bitch! I’ve been doing this a long time, honey. I ain’t new to this!”

     
BOOK EXCERPTS: “Unprotected: A Memoir” by Billy Porter

     
For more info:

    
Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Lauren Barnello.

     
See also: 

At the 2019 Tony Awards, Billy Porter performs “Broadway Karaoke” during a commercial break:

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