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Billy Porter of Kinky Boots on Coming Out of the Closet, Coming Back to Broadway, and Coming to Terms with Internet Criticism

Broadway's Tony-nominated drag diva du monde shares his aspiration to play Lola in front of the US Supreme Court, hunty.

By • New York City
Billy Porter takes a bow on the opening night of <I>Kinky Boots</I> as castmate Stark Sands looks on.
Billy Porter takes a bow on the opening night of Kinky Boots as castmate Stark Sands looks on.
(© David Gordon)

Billy Porter is bringing the house down nightly at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre as Lola, the high-heeled star of the Tony-nominated new musical Kinky Boots. Porter has been nominated for a Tony and a Drama Desk Award. He is also the winner of an Outer Critics Circle Award for Leading Actor in a Musical.

Based on the 2005 film, Kinky Boots follows Northampton shoe-factory owner Charlie (Stark Sands) as he tries to save his business by manufacturing a line of transvestite footwear, divinely inspired by London drag superstar Lola.

Porter has been away from Broadway for over a decade pursuing a career as a writer and director. He was last seen on Broadway in Miss Saigon in 1999. We spoke to him about his return to the Great White Way and what brought him back.

Billy Porter
Billy Porter
(© David Gordon)
How is the show going?

Amazing.

Is it true that you just called up Jerry Mitchell and asked for this part?

Well...okay, let's be clear: Everybody knew that I was writing and directing and I had taken time off. I was very unhappy with the type of roles I was being offered. So I knew that if I wanted to transition to something else as a performer, I was going to have to extract myself from the business so that people could forget me. We were close enough that Jerry knew what I was doing. So I called him up and said, ‘I would come out of semi-retirement to play this part.' There were two parts I really wanted: Belize in Angels in America...

Which you did.

Yes, and this. You know, when you're showing up to do eight shows a week, after a while, if it's not exactly what you want it to be, there's no reason to do it. It's too hard. I'm 43. So that call got the ball rolling. Now, make no mistake: I auditioned like everybody else. I did my due diligence to get this part.

What drew you to the role?

I saw the movie. I remember watching it in the theater and going, ‘Oh my God, why am I not in this movie? Oh…I don't live in London.' It's just so perfect for me! It's the combination of all the things I do well. I call it ‘sissy with a heart of gold.' I do sissy with a heart of gold really well. What I love is the duality of being the flamboyant, over-the-top performer (which I'm sort of known for), but also stripping that away to reveal a human being underneath. And that was what I was missing in my own career. The fact that I get to strip away the drag and stand center stage and sing ‘I'm not my father's son' is worth everything. It's worth the last twenty-five years of my life. This is what I was waiting for.

This is your first time on Broadway in thirteen years. What has changed?

The ticket prices. I remember Miss Saigon had a premium ticket price of $100 in 1991. There were so many stories. Everybody was up in arms. The ticket prices are ridiculous. I also think that the internet has created...there were always critics, but the internet has ushered in a whole new...

Commentariat.

Yes! Thank you for that word. It's all these people. It's yet another group of people who comment on and critique something they can't do themselves.

[ed. Note: Check out TheaterMania's review of Kinky Boots here!]

It's so common and so easy to stumble on it. And then you realize, Oh my God, Oh My God, no...no no no no no. I can't read this. I just can't. Every so often I will read one of them before I know that's what I'm doing. It's just on the page. It's even on your Facebook page! I go to my Facebook page and I'm reading the comments and even that's a critique.

So it's mostly bad changes?

A lot is still the same. I love the community of theater. There is something about the camaraderie: People who show up eight times a week to do a show. It's unlike any other business. It's just lovely. You feel like you're in a family.

Billy Porter as Lola in <I>Kinky Boots</I>.
Billy Porter as Lola in Kinky Boots.
(© Matthew Murphy)
You keep a very eccentric work schedule. What do you do with your downtime when you're not doing those eight shows?

I'm still figuring that out. Right now, I'm sleeping. I'm trying to figure out how to build my ‘show calluses.' You know, that muscle you build so that the eight-show-a-week thing becomes second nature.

You're not there yet?

I'm almost there. I would say I'm about 80% there.

Do you find it difficult to have a social life with people who don't share that theater schedule?

Yes, I do. Not impossible, but it's very much ‘I'll see you on Sunday night.'

Tell me about your advocacy work with the Ali Forney Center. Why is that an important cause for you?

I've worked with a lot of gay and lesbian organizations. I sit on the board of the Empire State Pride Agenda. I've also done a lot of work for Broadway Care/Equity Fights AIDS. I think it's important because, when we can be of service to others, it only enhances our lives. I've been helped a lot in my life. There's a climate in this country that says that helping others is not necessary. That generally comes from people who have been lucky enough to have not needed help. They don't realize that, just because you need help does not mean you're lazy or you've done something wrong. Life happens sometimes. The Ali Forney Center's focus is homeless gay youth. I remember what that was like, having nobody to turn to.

When did you come out to your family?

Well, I had to come out to my mother three times over a twelve-year period, but I first came out to her when I was sixteen. It didn't go over so well, because I grew up in the Pentecostal Church. It was a very strict environment. She has since done a lot of work and has really blown my mind. She has learned about my life and has changed her mind. That is why I love Kinky Boots. There's a line at the end of the show that is, ‘You change the world when you change your mind.' I think it's the fear of that which we don't understand that causes all of these issues.

If you had to take this show anywhere in the world, where would you want to play Lola most?

I would take the show to Washington, D.C. and I would play Lola in the Supreme Court; I would play her in the Senate; I would play her in the House of Representatives, because it's the legislation that sets the national tone. It comes from the top down. I would also play Kinky Boots in every single church around the world. It's those two places that there's still a sense of sanctioned religious-based homophobia that needs to be cracked wide open. It's not OK.

Has your family seen the show?

My mother and my sister have come to the opening. My mother and my sister have always been the most supportive of me. My sister organized a group — I don't know how many — of people who are coming from around Pittsburgh to see the show. For most of them, it will be the first time they've ever seen me perform.

Wow. Are you nervous?

No. I'm not nervous. You know, it used to hurt, but now it's like, wait...I'm Billy Porter and I've been in the business for twenty-five years and you've never seen me do anything and you're my family. I mean, what do you say to that?

Billy Porter and the cast of <I>Kinky Boots</I>.
Billy Porter and the cast of Kinky Boots.
(© Matthew Murphy)

For more information and tickets to Kinky Boots, click here.

Tags: BroadwayKinky BootsBilly PorterJerry MitchellDrama DeskTonyAli Forney Center


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