I like to think I’ve always been ahead of the times. Contemporary. Progressive. In the know. And I certainly was when it comes to the multi-talented star of FX television’s “Pose,” aka Mr. Billy Porter. I was onto him long before he became a runway icon, Grammy winner or even Tony winner.
Now all these Johnny-come-latelies are coming out the woodwork to profess his brilliance. I first scooped it nearly 30 years ago. The year was 1996, and I was living in the Sunshine State. This was back when there was a Democrat in the governor’s office, Anita Bryant had long been vanished and Ron DeSantis was barely out of high school, where he no doubt served as president of the Racist Republicans Club and the Anti-Homosexual Union.
But I digress. It’s just that life was good in the Magic City known as Miami. I was living on the 30th and top floor of a downtown high rise — then the tallest residential building downtown and now dwarfed by buildings twice its height and higher — with a view of the Port of Miami. I used to walk from my apartment to the nearby and long shuddered Omni Mall. It was my favorite place to see a movie, and “The First Wives Club” would prove to be one of my favorite films. In a weary scene wherein Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn reconcile after a frivolous fight, a song starts to play in the background.
From the very first somber and melancholy notes, I was hooked. When a luxurious and velvety voice sang the first line – “Waking up alone in a room it still reminds me” – I was moved. The lyrics to “Love Is on the Way” spoke straight to my lonely heart. The song was actually a prayer I whispered every night.
And the voice. Oh, that voice! Soft and delicate at the start, a powerful vocal freight train at the song’s climax. Then gentle again at the end. I ran straight to the music store after the movie and bought the film’s soundtrack just for that song!
That’s the moment I discovered the terrific talent that is Billy Porter. Fast forward four years. I was back in the Motor City and writing for Between The Lines. The paper had sent me on my first trip, to Washington, D.C. to cover the Millennium March for gay rights, and I was ecstatic. I flew out of City Airport on a plane along with my friend and soon-to-be-frequent traveling partner, the late BTL columnist Charles Alexander.
There were tons of events taking place in the nation’s capital that long weekend beside the Sunday march. There was a Pride festival, a huge concert at the massive outdoor JFK Stadium featuring the late George Michael, Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, Chaka Khan, Garth Brooks and many others. Then there was a banquet hosted by Rita Moreno and Charles Nelson Riley that featured a keynote address by Judy Shepard, the mother of the late Matthew Shepard who had been strung up on a Wyoming fence to die for allegedly making a pass at a straight man.
I was excited to find out that multi-octave vocalist, Broadway star and “Star Search” winner Sam Harris would be among the featured talent performing that evening. However, Sam, it was soon announced, was unable to make it and was being replaced by none other than Billy Porter. As if the trip was not wonderful enough already, hearing and meeting Billy was the absolute icing on the cake. It was a marvelous night!
I spoke to Billy and his manager about doing an interview for BTL. They agreed. Less than a week later I was sitting at my kitchen table when Billy called for our phoner. We spoke about his first album and how it had highlights, such as “Love Is on the Way” and a few others incredible standouts. Commercially, the album hadn’t done terribly well. Billy had also just shot the independent film “The Broken Hearts Club,” which tugged at my heartstrings. The film was released in 2000, at a time when independent gay films rarely crossed over into the mainstream.
In short, Billy’s career wasn’t exactly taking off at the speed of lightening. Call me Miss Cleo, but I knew big things were in store for Billy. And I was right. His talent was too incredible to be contained. He was going to bust out and into the big leagues eventually.
He continued to work on Broadway and recorded sporadically. Then, more than a decade after we met, he won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for playing Lola, the lead in “Kinky Boots.” He would go on to win a Grammy for the play’s soundtrack. He racked up three Golden Globe nominations and won the 2019 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for his work on the television series “Pose.” This made him the first gay Black man to be nominated and win in any leading category at the Primetime Emmy Awards.
Yes, the list of Billy’s accomplishments is long, and I take great satisfaction in knowing that for once one of my predictions came true. He’s just an Oscar away from becoming an EGOT. He’s become a true superstar, though he was already that to me when I met him back in 2000. His song “Love Is on the Way” will always be my anthem. (And make no mistake about it, it is his song. Not even Celine Dion’s cover could compare!)
But I digress — again. The point is I knew Billy Porter was brilliant way back when. I’m glad the rest of the world finally caught up.
Billy Porter will be appearing in his Black Mona Lisa Tour: Volume One at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit at 8 p.m. on Thursday, May 18. Tickets are available through the Fisher Theater box office or through ticketmaster.com.