The untold truth of Billy Porter

If Billy Porter didn't take your breath away when he stepped out onto the red carpet at the 2019 Oscars in a tuxedo gown or blow your mind when six shirtless men carried him to the 2019 Met Gala, you're simply missing out. The veteran actor finally broke out into the mainstream with his role as Pray Tell in Pose, and he's truly seized the moment to show the world that Billy Porter is here to stay and on his terms.

In addition to being one of the hottest fashion stars out there, Porter has been working in the entertainment industry for decades. From Broadway to television and beyond, Porter has been a trailblazer in every way, refusing to compromise his authenticity or listen to the voices who told him to tone it down. That's just not going to happen.

So what else is there to know about the most fabulous man in show business? And what makes the pioneering actor and musician tick? This is the untold truth of Billy Porter.

Billy Porter made history with his 2019 Emmy win

History was made at the 2019 Emmy Awards, as that night Billy Porter was the first openly gay black man to win the award for best actor in a drama series (via Los Angeles Times). He received the honor for his incredible portrayal of Pray Tell in Pose, of course, beating out other fan favorites like Jason Bateman, Kit Harington, and Bob Odenkirk for the trophy.

Porter was visibly delighted about the win, as well as deeply emotional. "I am so overwhelmed and I am so overjoyed to have lived long enough to see this day," he proclaimed in his acceptance speech. "James Baldwin said, 'It took many years of vomiting up all the filth that I had been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the Earth as though I had a right to be here.' I have the right!" Preach, Billy!

This wasn't Porter's first big award, as he previously took home a Tony Award for his role in Kinky Boots and a Grammy Award for his work on the show's cast album, according to Harper's Bazaar. He's only one letter away from EGOT status now!

Billy Porter always knew he wanted to be an actor

Obviously Billy Porter is at the top of his game, having snagged a huge role in a hot show and taken home the biggest prize for it. But did Porter always want to be an actor? "Yes. From the time I was eleven years old," he revealed in an interview with W magazine. "I went to Reizenstein Middle School in Pittsburgh and I was introduced to musical theater and I fell in love." That also helped Porter find his "tribe," as he wasn't good at traditional masculine activities like sports.

Porter was good at acting and singing right off of the bat, which helped him truly discover who he was inside. "I don't know if there was something in that that gave me a clue that maybe this might be something that I could do, and be popular doing it, and not be bullied anymore," he continued.

Destiny really clicked into place when Porter saw Jennifer Holliday perform at the Tony Awards, and decided that he was going to act in musical theater as a profession. And that he did!

When Billy Porter first kissed a girl, he knew he was gay

Most people remember their first kiss, whether it was incredibly spectacular or bitterly disappointing. But Billy Porter remembers his first kiss for a different reason, even though he was in love with the girl he shared it with. "She came to my room before she went to college, in a sundress, and we kissed and that's when I knew I was gay," he recalled in an interview with W magazine. That's definitely not something you forget!

Lest you think it wasn't a good experience, think again, as Porter clarified that it was a bit more complicated than that. "I don't mean that in a sense that the kiss wasn't good. The kiss was great," he continued. "But it was just like, 'Oh I really think what I'm feeling on the inside is actually true. This just isn't the gender that I'm attracted to.'" Well, when you know, you know.

Homophobia is something Billy Porter has fought against his entire life

Although Billy Porter knew from a very early age that he was gay, he grew up in a very religious household, which prevented him from truly being himself. "My childhood was the typical 'you're going to Hell' story," he explained in an interview with Metrosource. "It's the same one that we've all heard over and over again, so to regurgitate that again is really to give it way too much energy." To that end, after unsuccessfully trying to bury his sexuality, he left home when he was a teenager.

While that was the right move for Porter, he still encountered anti-gay beliefs throughout the entirety of his career. "The homophobia, the systematic homophobia, in the business at large, the attack on my masculinity really [led] me to a crossroads," he revealed in an interview with W magazine," because it was like, 'Well you have to fix yourself or you won't ever have success.'"

Fortunately, Porter has managed to find real success without compromising himself, although it took many, many years. That's just one more way he's a true trailblazer.

Billy Porter found love with husband Adam Smith

In January of 2017, Billy Porter married his longtime partner Adam Smith in an intimate ceremony in Manhattan, as reported by The New York Times. The couple met in 2009 when they were introduced by friends, and they initially split after dating for a year. But they got back together in 2015, and it's been nothing but love ever since.

Of course, Porter and Smith were incredibly happy to take this new step together, something that felt exceedingly right for them. "We're looking forward to understanding and learning how to share your life with somebody," Porter shared with People magazine. "I'm really thrilled to figure out what that means — together, with my soul mate!" Awww, congrats you two!

The move was partly politically motivated, too, as they made the decision to wed before Donald Trump was inaugurated as president. "This is an extension of our activist side," Porter continued. "It's still important to show the world what our love looks like; it's important for us to take that stand." He added that getting married has been incredibly empowering, especially given all that they had been through as gay men.

Billy Porter's role on Pose was created just for him

When Billy Porter's manager got him an audition for Pose, the character Pray Tell didn't exist, as the part had not been created yet. Instead, Porter auditioned for a role that he wasn't interested in — but he sensed an opportunity. "So I went in and read the part I was called in for, and then I said, 'Okay, listen: I lived through this era. I think it would serve everybody if I was in that world because I'm from that world,'" he recalled in an interview with Metrosource.

Once he had creator Ryan Murphy's ear, he proposed playing one of the house mothers, but Murphy planned to cast transgender women in those roles. "I said, 'That's an amazing idea, but they're going to need a father figure,'" he continued. "They're going to need a male energy over there, right? Like a godfather, and there wasn't one." Yet.

After that meeting, Murphy told Porter that he would create a role specifically for him, and thus Pray Tell was born. Talk about going after what you want!

Billy Porter is not a drag queen

When it comes to bucking gender norms, Billy Porter is all about it, especially when it comes to fashion. He's not afraid to wear clothing that is usually coded as feminine, such as long, billowy dresses and glittering heels. But that doesn't mean Porter is any less masculine than the next man, or that clothing changes who he fundamentally is. "I'm not a drag queen," he proclaimed in an essay in Vogue magazine, "I'm a man in a dress." And usually it's a designer dress, one that Anna Wintour herself would approve of.

Additionally, Porter is aware that his fashion choices might not sit well with everyone, but he believes that it's fundamental to be accepting of one another. "From this moment, I want people to understand that you don't have to understand or even agree with other people's authenticity or truths, but we must all respect each other," he continued. "People are going to be really uncomfortable with my black a** in a ball gown — but it's not anybody's business but mine."

Billy Porter made his character in Kinky Boots "super gay"

Before Billy Porter was known to the world as Pray Tell on Pose, he was killing it on Broadway, specifically as Lola in Kinky Boots. And though Porter is not a drag queen, Lola is, so he played the role as such.

But because of the way that drag had been portrayed in popular media — think Mrs. Doubtfire, Madea, and Tootsie — Porter was concerned about how his character would be received by the world at large. "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," he explained in an interview with Esquire.

So he made Lola "super gay," as noted by Esquire, and wound up winning a Tony Award for his performance. Porter's commitment to being genuine was finally starting to pay off!

Billy Porter has a secret skill

It's fairly obvious that Billy Porter is good at acting, as well as making fashion choices and slaying it on the red carpet. Plus he's good at singing and being all around fabulous. But in addition to all of Porter's many skills, there's one you might not know about. "My secret skill would be cooking," he revealed in an interview with W magazine. "I could always cook, but then about a decade ago or so, a little bit more, I stumbled on the Food Network. I just really took a shine to it." 

Now there's nothing Porter can't do in the kitchen, as he's become quite the skilled chef. "I started learning different techniques and learning how to do anything," he continued. "Give me a recipe and I'll cook anything. I would like to go on Rachel Ray and cook with her at some point." Hey, Food Network — take notice!

Higher education is super important to Billy Porter

In order to have a successful career as an actor, whether it's on Broadway or on television, you don't necessarily have to have formal training or higher education. But Billy Porter opted to go that route in order to give himself indisputable credibility. "I didn't have the same kind of opportunities as my white counterparts who were famous 20 years before I got this opportunity — because they're white," he explained in an interview with Metrosource. "So I needed to back my s**t up with real stuff." 

For Porter, doing so was essential, as people couldn't just write him off or exclude him from the conversation. "I'm just being honest," he continued. "When I walk into the room with an undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon, a graduate degree from UCLA and two honorary bachelor's degrees, white people listen to me. Period. You've gotta know what the game is."

Billy Porter is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse

One very personal thing that Billy Porter has shared with the public is that he's a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. In an op-ed that he penned for Out magazine, Porter described in graphic detail the abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather, who abused him starting when he was 7 years old.

Sadly, Porter knew that if he wanted it to stop, he had to get out of his home. "At seven, at twelve, I could look around and see all of these adults with no capacity to do anything to help me," he confessed in an interview with Esquire. "I knew there's not an adult around me that knows what the f**k to do. I will do it myself." And so Porter found a way to escape.

In retrospect, Porter has been able to extract some good out of the experience, as it motivated him to leave an abusive situation and get out into the world where he belonged. "I was able to extract myself from that toxic energy without fear, without guilt," he added.

Billy Porter believes in art as activism

Billy Porter has always been artistically inclined, even when he was a child. That shines through in his acting, singing, and fashion choices, all of which are informed by his artistic philosophy. "You know, it's very important to pay it forward and I really am an artist who believes in art as activism, art as inspiration," he mused in an interview with W magazine. "We as artists have the capacity to reach into the real heart of people and change the molecular structure of their insides and change hearts and minds." That's a really beautiful and powerful sentiment.

Additionally, Porter is serious about art with good reason, and he hopes that others look to him as an inspiration. "My life was saved by the arts," he continued. "So I hope to continue to do that for others." Given all that Porter has already accomplished, there's no doubt that he is.

Billy Porter lived through the AIDS crisis

Viewers of Pose know that Billy Porter's character on the show is HIV-positive and worried for his future, given how deadly the virus was at the time. Considering that Porter himself was present for the AIDS crisis in the 1990s, that hit home, although playing Pray Tell has also been healing. "It made me very thankful that I've lived long enough to see this day," he shared in an interview with Vulture. "I've lived long enough to see this transition in our culture to be able to tell this story."

Pose has also brought these feelings to the surface for Porter's survivor friends, who have reached out to him to talk about them. "I have a lot of friends who have been texting and calling, and crying and laughing," he continued. "It's nice to go back and remember, and I'm re-bonding with a lot of people who I haven't seen or spoken to in a really long time." He added that one of his friends was able to let go of his decades-old "survivor's guilt," which shows you just how powerful the show is.

Billy Porter says that Madonna "stole" Vogue

If you were alive in 1990, it was pretty much impossible to escape the song "Vogue" by Madonna, which was in heavy rotation on MTV. According to an article in HuffPost, Madonna was inspired to write the song after attending an underground ball event in Chelsea, where people — mostly queer people of color — were dancing the vogue. 

That's exactly where Season 2 of Pose opens, just after the release of the hit song, which thrust ball culture into the mainstream for the first time. And for Billy Porter, it is time to acknowledge that Madonna borrowed a little too much from the artists in the ball scene and claimed ball artistry for herself. "We call it 'appropriation.' I call it stealing," he shared in an interview with Rolling Stone. "So just let everybody know where it all came from. This season is a reclamation." Way to tell it like it is, Billy!