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Photo: John Ganun
For his first solo album since becoming “Tony and Grammy award winner Billy Porter,” Broadway’s kinkiest drag queen is taking off the corset and stepping out of those iconic heels. With _Billy’s Back on Broadway_, the Pittsburgh-born crooner continues to honor his passion for musical theater, taking on songs made popular by some of the most revered icons of our time: Liza Minnelli (“But the World Goes ‘Round”), Judy Garland (“Happy Days Are Here Again / Get Happy”) and Barbra Streisand (“Don’t Rain On My Parade”).
During our chat, Porter, 44, talked about his fondness for strong women, how he aspires to be Cyndi Lauper (whom he calls “the godmother of individuality”) and the personal catharsis he’s experienced while transforming into a woman for “Kinky Boots.”
Was winning the Tony for Best Performance by a Lead Actor in a Musical last year one of those surreal moments where you give your speech, and then walk away and it all becomes a haze and you wonder what the hell you just said?
No – because I wrote it! (Laughs) I had to write it down. I have amazing people and friends, and my manager of 23 years, Bill Butler, and one of my dear friends Jordan Taylor, the casting director at Public Theater, both said to me before it happened, “Look, you have a one in five chance of winning. Write something down. Write it down!” And they know I’m not the kind of person who wants to come across as being cocky or anything, so they both were like, “It’s not being cocky; it’s honoring the moment. It’s better to be prepared and to be able to look back at this time and, if it happens, have had said something intelligent.” I said what I wanted to say as opposed to getting up there and fooling around, so I’m glad that they made me write it.
You’re right, though: Some people think it comes off as cocky when people prepare a speech.
And it’s actually really not that. It’s more about the moment. Lemme write something down so I don’t look like Boo Boo the Clown up there.
Your first album, “Untitled,” was released 17 years ago. How do you reflect on that experience and compare it to recording “Billy’s Back on Broadway”?
It was a different time for me as a human being, as well as for the industry. I feel like I’ve always been this kind of hybrid artist that comes from a very Pentecostal church music background, along with R&B, soul and gospel music, and I sort of fell into the theater – and fell in love with the theater!
The market couldn’t support that before. They didn’t know what to do with me, and I just got lost. It was also very homophobic and very misogynistic at the time. And if you were black, you were an R&B soul artist. And if you weren’t putting out that kind of energy, there wasn’t a place for you, nobody was interested in seeing or hearing you, or speaking to you. So, it’s interesting now because, with, ultimately, the breakdown of the industry due to the digital era, the market has opened in a way that I, Billy Porter, can show up and do a Broadway album with a full orchestra and a major record label actually wants to produce it and put it out. That’s a huge difference and a huge change from what it was like when I started in the industry. And it’s a welcome change for me! It’s where I feel most at home.
You collaborate with Cyndi Lauper on “Happy Days Are Here Again / Get Happy.” She, of course, wrote the “Kinky Boots” music, so she’s a colleague of yours. But what is she like as a friend?
I always say she has the biggest heart of anybody that I know. It’s been such a wonderful experience, because, for me, she is one of the godmothers of individuality. She understood really early on how to embrace the totality of who she is no matter what anybody thought or said. That’s a hard lesson to learn as a human being in general – and then trying to be an artist on top of that! So she’s always been that person to me, but then to have her in the room and to see just how regular, normal and down to earth she is is really refreshing and encouraging. That’s the kind of person I want to be, and that’s the kind of artist I want to be.
Do you not feel like you’re already there?
Am I the kind of artist I want to be? I don’t know. I think as artists we are our own worst critics, so I’m not sure that there is ever a scenario where I will feel like I have arrived or like I’ve made it, because that’s just not in our nature. I also feel like there’s always more to learn, there’s always a deeper exploration, there’s always a deeper growth point to reach in our consciousness, so I try to use my art and my talent to continue to explore that and to be the best version of myself I can be.
You’ve said that, in your own life, you could never be as bold as Lola, the character you play in “Kinky Boots,” and dress as a woman. So, the first time you put the heels, the corset and the wig on, what did you feel?
It felt empowering. It’s such an empowering thing, and Lola talks about it at the top of the second half with the song “What a Woman Wants.” I think we live in a world that’s so black and white sometimes that we forget that the majority of life is gray. It’s the gray area that ultimately gives us our strength and our power.
Understanding and embracing your masculinity as well as your femininity gives a person balance, and until one can be balanced you’re… off balance. (Laughs) I was trying to find a sparkly word, but there’s no other word. You’re either balanced or you’re not.
On “Billy’s Back on Broadway” you cover songs from Liza, Barbra, Jennifer Holliday and Judy Garland. Isn’t it a rule that gay men can only devote themselves to one diva?
Mmm, no! I don’t live by those rules; don’t you know that by now? (Laughs) I don’t have no rules in my life. I live to break the rules.
Why are you drawn to these women?
It’s less about the women and more about how empowered they are, whether it’s the character that’s empowered or the actual person that’s empowered. I was raised by strong women, I respond to strong women and I think that’s what it is. I just respond to that. It’s not about masculine or feminine – it’s about their survival instincts.
If you could invite any one woman to dinner, whom would you take out?
It’s always been Oprah for me. I mean, to watch what she has done in her life is just like… I don’t even know. Every time I turn on the OWN network and I watch her, I’m like, really?! Really?! OK, woman. OK, black woman from the thick of wherever you came from, wherever it was, with your outhouse. It’s like, what?! Just the fact that her whole life is about paying it forward is something that I find really inspiring. I hope to harness that energy in myself someday.
Have you met Oprah?
I have met Oprah! I was on her show once about 10 years ago. But she would never remember. (Laughs)
She needs to get you back on.
She’s a little busy.
On this album you include “Not My Father’s Son,” a pivotal song from “Kinky Boots.” I know your relationship with your own fathers – your biological father and your stepfather – was strained, and even though it’s Lola’s song, what’s its significance for you? Where does it take you every time you sing it?
It’s really interesting because it was the first song that I learned. I had seen the movie, I had fallen in love with the movie and I heard that they were doing a musical. I knew if there were any role that’s right for me, it would be this. I always knew that there was a story deeper than the surface of being a drag queen, which I think very often, when you have someone like Lola, when you have a character who’s larger than life, it’s very easy for the humanity to get lost in the interpretation.
I was concerned and nervous going in that, as a black, gay man, as a person who has experienced marginalization from all different directions, the truth and the power of this character’s journey might get lost in the character’s kind of fabulousness. I walked in and they played “Not My Father’s Son” and all of those fears went away. These people knew exactly where the heart of this show was.
At its heart is a story of acceptance.
And forgiveness. For me, it’s forgiveness. For me that song is about forgiveness, and every single time I sing it I feel a little bit more of that.
Toward your fathers?
Yeah. It’s been a long journey, but it’s interesting because it affects me, and it’s lightened my load. Both my father and stepfather are now gone. They passed on. And you know, they both passed on before there was any real closure, so I’ve had to deal with the closure of these strained relationships after the fact.
So “Kinky Boots” has really helped you work through that?
Yes, very much so.
I’m betting other people have experienced a similar transcendence. What’s a story that really stands out to you regarding the influence your role as Lola had on somebody?
The ones that really get me are the kids, the young 8- to 14-year-old little gay boys who write me and say, “I listen to you and I follow you because you give me strength – and you let me know that it’s gonna be OK. I can go to school and I can get beat up and I can get harassed now but, at the end of the day, if I hold on, it’s all gonna be good.” Those are the ones that really get me, because there is power in what we do as artists. We can reach people, and there is a responsibility to show up.