Billy Porter's memoir 'Unprotected' - Broadway & TV actor's life story

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday February 1, 2022
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Billy Porter's memoir, and as Pray Tell in 'Pose'
Billy Porter's memoir, and as Pray Tell in 'Pose'

Actor and singer Billy Porter begins his autobiography with the following disclaimer: "This is not a coming-out story. It's not a down-low story either. I never could have passed for straight, even if I'd wanted to, and so I never had the dubious luxury of living a lie."

After reading Unprotected, Porter's frank, blunt, raw memoir, no one can ever accuse him of dissembling on a 30-year rocky circuitous journey to reach his current level of fame.

"There have been times in my career when I deserved jobs I didn't get, for various reasons. Too Black, too gay, too specific, too much."

But it was Porter's talent that sustained him through so much unspeakable pain and bigotry. "My art is my calling, my purpose, dare I say my ministry."

Unprotected is his testimony of how that art helped him overcome adversity and heal trauma. Porter is a long-suffering charismatic survivor. A friend/understudy had prophesied in 1992, "The world's not ready for you yet, Billy. But they getting' ready! Ain't nobody like you. You just gotta be patient. Never give up. It's gonna be hard on you, but know this—you are the head and not the tail, you are above and not beneath. The power of the divine is all over you. I can feel it."

By the time readers finish Unprotected, they will also feel Porter's unbreakable determination to claim his dignity and worth has finally brought him to the top of his game.

Praised and punched

His beginnings were not promising. He was born in 1969 at Pittsburgh's impoverished Hill District to a mother disabled at birth because of a botched delivery. She married the first guy that showed any interest, but he did so based on a dare he could be the first to seduce the "church cripple." The disastrous marriage ended after Porter's birth. She later remarried.

Billy Porter's album 'Children'  

Porter's stepfather initially taught him how to fight off schoolyard bullies who constantly attacked him, sometimes brutally, leaving both physical and emotional scars. Then at age 7 he started sexually molesting Porter twice a week for the next five years. It prevented him later from romantically loving Black men.

Meanwhile, he grew up in a Black Pentecostal church which recognized his extraordinary gifts as a soprano singer. However, the sexual abuse and "religiosity" of his relatives resulted in internalized shame and self-hatred he'd spend a lifetime purging. For years his mother tried to convince Porter his homosexuality was a sin.

He notes, "Every time I showed up at church, the sermon would turn to the abomination of men lying with men. There was no apparent reason for this topic to surface so relentlessly. I couldn't help feeling that somehow they knew about me."

Thus, Porter was simultaneously praised and punished for his talents, and for just being himself. His candor often got him in trouble. At age 11, after watching Jennifer Hudson perform a song from Dreamgirls on the Tony Awards broadcast, he craved a theater career. His incredible voice, a knack for successful auditioning, and relentless pursuit of his craft ("Can't have nothin' if you don't work for it") opened up opportunities that otherwise never would have happened.

Despite obstacles, he graduated from the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School in 1987 and with a theater scholarship the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University.

Broadway to broke, and back
He made his Broadway debut in 1990's Miss Saigon while still in college. In 1992 he won $100,00 on the talent show Star Search, but didn't invest the money. He played Teen Angel in the 1994 Broadway revival of Grease, yet it led to no other shows, resulting in his being homeless and poverty-stricken.

He lost roles to straight white guys because others thought him "too flamboyant." Then there's the "unspoken roadblock" of race, such as being told during his Miss Saigon audition to "sing something a little less R&B." His debut solo album, Billy Porter on A&M Records in 1997 was badly marketed and sold miserably.

Billy Porter in 'Kinky Boots'  

But he didn't let his imperfections defeat him. Inspired by choreographer Bob Fosse, he channeled his deficiencies into his dances.

"It felt like a message for me that my own 'flaws' and vulnerabilities might actually be arrows pointing straight to the heart of my power as a performer and dare I say my artistry."

Porter's setbacks included being diagnosed in 2007 with type-2 diabetes and HIV. He filed for bankruptcy in March 2007.

He continued to work through his personal traumas, so eventually his fortunes turned when he was cast as drag queen Lola in Broadway's Kinky Boots in 2013, winning the Tony award for Best Actor in a Musical, followed by a Grammy for Best Musical Theater album.

In 2018 he auditioned for the role of Pray Tell, the gay emcee of the gender-nonconforming 1990s drag ball culture in Pose, where creator/director Ryan Murphy asked him to talk about the state of America, leading to Porter's 45-minute rant. He got the part, followed by the 2019 Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series Emmy, the first Black gay performer to win that category. He's been happily married to Adam Porter-Smith since 2017.

Gowns and glory
Porter remains forthright throughout the book with tirades, resentments, and settling scores, such as dubbing choreographer Jerome Robbins a racist, calling out director Spike Lee when he accused Porter of not being Black enough, and excoriating Kinky Boots producer Daryl Roth for attending Donald Trump's inauguration.

But Porter also praises his Angels, people who gave him opportunities and confidence "to cultivate my own agency and be my own advocate." Scattered through the book are diary entries written during the pandemic with diatribes against Trump, racism, and homophobia, some of which are tiresome and pontificating.

Billy Porter in the Christian Siriano black tux/black gown he wore at the 2019 Oscars  

Porter discusses how his devotion to fashion helped him develop his own distinctive voice and style, such as the Christian Siriano black tux/black gown he wore at the 2019 Oscars ("activism in black velvet that won the red carpet)" or his sensational arrival at the 2019 Met Gala on a litter carried by six shirtless men in a "Sun God" ensemble that included a bejeweled catsuit outfitted with 10-foot wings and a 24-karat gold headpiece, along with custom gold-leaf Guiseppe Zanotti shoes. Vogue called it the most fabulous entrance in Met Gala history.

He wrote, "I think we as artists have the power to change the molecular structure of people's hearts and minds."

Even as a child he was challenging gender norms loving the 'wrong' kind of clothing, but fashion's transformative power in his life was motivated by Black church women's powerful form of resistance.

"Many of them were employed during the week as domestic servants, security guards, or custodians, and were required to wear uniforms meant to reinforce their status as less-than. To dress impeccably and regally on the Lord's Day, then, was to insist on their own dignity and worth in a world that sought to systematically strip them of both."

Porter is the embodiment of sassafrass and recognizes he doesn't appeal to everyone's tastes, but doesn't worry whom he might offend. His memoir is a testament to art as a mode of survival, learning from an early age that "just because a stage was rightfully mine didn't mean I would be allowed to mount it ... that if I wanted to stand in that light, I would have to fight for it, wage a fierce and tireless struggle with all my heart, soul, and might."

What makes Unprotected so riveting is his declaration that he is enough, just as he is. He didn't have the luxury of passing as gay and instead learned to lean into his truth, his queerness, his authenticity, which became assets instead of liabilities.

One wishes Porter had talked more about Pose, especially behind-the-scenes, now that the program was cancelled in its third season. After reading his memoir, we see how much of Porter there is in the Pray Tell character.

Unprotected is the no-holds barred unfiltered tale of an at-times-difficult diva's travails and triumphs, with Porter sounding like a Baptist preaching truth but also love and forgiveness. His battles have broken ground for younger queer POC performers.

"My desire to be seen and heard in spaces where my humanity was consistently diminished or dismissed was my unconscious goal. This unnamed burning in my soul would turn out to become the engine that fuels my focus and my dreams to this very day."

It was never easy for Porter to be himself unabashedly, but readers of his exhilarating but exhausting, occasionally uncomfortable, harrowing journey will be glad he "respected myself enough not to let bitches take advantage of me" and fought to share his artistic integrity with the world. As he states, "Impossible dreams do come true."

Unprotected: A Memoir by Billy Porter. Abrams Press, $28.00

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