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Billy Porter

Actor Billy Porter was born on September 21, 1969 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and raised by his mother, Cloerinda Ford. Porter attended Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh, as well as the Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where he studied acting, music, and dance. He later attended Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama in Pittsburgh, graduating in 1991.

In 1991, Porter was cast in the ensemble of Miss Saigon, which won three Tony Awards and became one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history. Throughout the 1990s, he continued to appear in Broadway musicals, including Five Guys Named Moe, Smokey Joe’s Café, and the 1994 revival of Grease, in which he played Teen Angel. Porter pursued a career in the music industry, winning the 1992 season of the talent competition Star Search and releasing a self-titled R&B album in 1997 with A&M Records. Starting in 2000, he took a hiatus from acting on Broadway to direct productions like the music revue Being Alive at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Los Angeles staging of Once on This Island, and a revival of George C. Wolfe’s play, The Colored Museum. Porter wrote the solo performance piece Ghetto Superstar, which he debuted in 2005 at New York City’s Public Theatre. Porter went on to appear in the Pittsburgh premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, as well as in the off-Broadway revival of Angels in America at the Signature Theatre in New York City in 2010, where he played Belize.

In 2013, Porter returned to Broadway as Lola in the musical Kinky Boots, winning the 2013 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical, and the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album for his performance. In the years following, Porter wrote the semi-autobiographical play While I Yet Live, which premiered at Primary Stages in New York City in 2014, and played Aubrey Lyles in the 2016 Broadway musical Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. In 2018, Porter became a series regular in the television show Pose, and appeared on multiple episodes of American Horror Story: Apocalypse. He was a supporter and fundraiser for the Ali Forney Center, a community center for homeless LGBT youth in New York City.

Billy Porter was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on October 7, 2016.

Accession Number

A2016.052

Sex

Male

Interview Date

10/7/2016

Last Name

Porter

Maker Category
Occupation
Schools

Reizenstein Middle School

Taylor Allderdice High School

Carnegie Mellon University

University of California, Los Angeles

First Name

Billy

Birth City, State, Country

Pittsburgh

HM ID

POR04

Favorite Season

Spring and Fall

State

Pennsylvania

Favorite Vacation Destination

Beach

Favorite Quote

To Thine Own Self Be True.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

9/21/1969

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Fried Chicken, Collard Greens

Short Description

Actor Billy Porter (1969- ) won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical for his role as Lola in Kinky Boots. He also wrote the solo piece Ghetto Superstar and the semi-autobiographical play While I Yet Live.

Employment

Broadway

A&M Records

Film

Off-Broadway

Reprise Theature Company

The Huntington Theatre Company

Favorite Color

Purple

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Billy Porter's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Billy Porter lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Billy Porter describes his mother's family background, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Billy Porter talks about his parents' marriage

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Billy Porter talks about his mother's second marriage

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Billy Porter describes his mother's family background, pt. 2

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Billy Porter describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Billy Porter describes his earliest childhood memories

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Billy Porter describes his early personality

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Billy Porter describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Billy Porter remembers Florence Reizenstein Middle School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Billy Porter describes his early interest in musical theater

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Billy Porter remembers the influence of 'Dreamgirls'

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Billy Porter describes his early experiences of religion

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Billy Porter remembers the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Billy Porter remembers telling his mother about his stepfather's abuse

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Billy Porter describes his daily routine during high school

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Billy Porter talks about the effects of his childhood sexual abuse, pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Billy Porter talks about the effects of his childhood sexual abuse, pt. 2

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Billy Porter recalls his confrontation with his stepfather

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Billy Porter describes his decision to attend Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Billy Porter recalls his classmates at Carnegie Mellon University

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Billy Porter describes his experiences at Carnegie Mellon University

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Billy Porter describes the start of his career in New York City

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Billy Porter describes his experiences in the ensemble of 'Miss Saigon'

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Billy Porter talks about his early work as a vocalist

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Billy Porter remembers winning 'Star Search'

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Billy Porter recalls his experiences as an understudy for 'Five Guys Named Moe'

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Billy Porter remembers his casting as the Teen Angel in 'Grease'

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Billy Porter describes the first day of rehearsals for 'Grease'

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Billy Porter remembers seeing 'Angels in America' for the first time

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Billy Porter talks about his first album, 'Untitled'

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Billy Porter describes his decision to move to Los Angeles, California

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Billy Porter talks about his career in Los Angeles, California

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Billy Porter talks about his return to New York City and Broadway

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Billy Porter remember auditioning for the role of Lola in 'Kinky Boots'

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Billy Porter describes the success of 'Kinky Boots'

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Billy Porter talks about his plans for the future

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Billy Porter reflects upon the impact of HIV/AIDS

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Billy Porter reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Billy Porter reflects upon his life

DASession

1$1

DATape

2$5

DAStory

5$4

DATitle
Billy Porter remembers the influence of 'Dreamgirls'
Billy Porter remember auditioning for the role of Lola in 'Kinky Boots'
Transcript
You know so then that summer was the summer that 'Dreamgirls' was on Broadway and I was washing (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) And what year is this now?$$This is '81 [1981], the summer of '81 [1981] I think at this point.$$Eighty-one [1981], yep.$$And I was literally--and everybody knows this story because I talk about it all the time. But I was washing dishes and the Tony Awards [Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theatre] came on, randomly once again, I didn't know what the Tony Awards were. They came on, I saw people in performance on a stage like I had, like I had never--it wasn't a television show. They were on stage singing and dancing and all of a sudden without knowing it they announced 'Dreamgirls' and there they were.$$And had you heard of 'Dreamgirls' before?$$I had never heard of it. I had never heard of it and I had not made--from 'The Wiz' to the musical that we were doing, which was 'Babes in Arms,' Rodgers and Hart [Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart], traditional white folks. I didn't make the connection that this was something that I could do for a living. Seeing 'The Wiz,' it didn't--I was just doing this show [at Florence Reizenstein Middle School, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania] and I was singing 'cause I could sing. But it wasn't the way that I sang, you know I came from a Pentecostal church, I didn't sing like, you know. So it didn't register that that was an option for making a living. And then I saw 'Dreamgirls' on television and Jennifer Holliday sang "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" in the same way that I sang in church, you know. And it was like (makes sound), you know like it was so crazy. And I literally, once again literally was like a ball of like weeping, like emotion in the corner like not knowing what this was.$And as I was doing that ['Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,' Tony Kushner], I went on playbill.com (laughter) and they announced 'Kinky Boots' [Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein]. And I had seen 'Kinky Boots' in the movie theater and I said to myself, and I may have said it out loud to the person I was with, "If I lived in London [England], Chiwetel Ejiofor would have been out of a job." No disrespect to him. He's brilliant. Brilliant in the movie too, but I had understood at that point the power of who I am. When I show up and I do the thing that I do, nobody else does it, and that is the thing, one of the things that I do. And once again, 'Kinky Boots,' you know they like to act like it was like, "Oh it was always you, it was always you." (Laughter) It was like, "No I remember the audition. I remember the concerns that you had about me"--$$What were those (simultaneous)?$$--(simultaneous) with 'Kinky Boots.' You know there was just, you know, I hadn't been in the business for a long--you know I, I had taken myself out of the business. You know I had lost my voice for a while, everybody knew that, you know what I mean? But when you don't talk about--and I don't talk--and I wasn't talking about why. It was a thirteen year break from the time that I was John in 'Miss Saigon' in '99 [1999] to 'Kinky Boots.' I didn't work on Broadway for thirteen years. So when that happens, and you're not talking about it and people don't know, they make shit up. "Oh, he's hard to work with." "Oh, he can't really sing anymore." "Oh, is he a team player?" "Oh, you know, will he be able to sustain--," you know all of that shit. (Pause) There was something about all of it. And it's so funny, the last audition, the final audition, because the acid reflux stuff I was still working through it, and the final audition, you know, I had come in and I had the audition and I did the songs and sang everything and then I went home and I got a telephone call and they said, "Oh, the musical director, they want you to work with the musical director and come back tomorrow." And the musical director is a friend of mine and a person who I had worked with in a creative capacity like, you know. And I walked in and I'm like, "What the fuck? What's happening?" "Oh, they're concerned about, you know, your voice," and da, da, da. And, you know, and I was like, "But it's--but I was singing it like a pop singer. I wasn't belting everything, you know, like it wasn't all balls to the wall." He said, "Just sing it balls to the wall, just sing it balls to the wall, and just sing it balls to the wall and then you get the part, you can do whatever you want." I'm like okay fine. I go home, stress activates reflux, so by the time I got home at six o'clock, I went to open up my mouth to speak and I couldn't utter a word. I couldn't make the sound. I couldn't make the sound. Ooh, I called my mother [Cloerinda Ford], I was like, "Get on, pray, come on" (laughter), "come on. I need all the Jesus you got because I gotta be able to sing tomorrow morning at 10:30--or 12:30. I gotta be able to sing tomorrow at 12:30, my life depends on it. I gotta be able to sing. Call on Jesus, the Jesus you're connected to 'cause you're more connected than I am, please call on him right now." And baby I stayed in that house, I (makes sounds), I did all my, you know, creams and unguents and potions and, you know, I went to sleep, I woke up at 7:30 in the morning, thank god for my training. This goes back to that. I was able to get in that shower. I was able to warm up my voice slowly--$$Carnegie Mellon [Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania] (simultaneous)--$$--(simultaneous) exercise my voice slowly. Not just Carnegie Mellon, Joan Lader, since I got here, you know voice lessons all the time, you never stop learning, warming up my voice. I got it to the point where I can eek out an audition. At 12:30, I went in there, I sang those children under the table. Half hour later I couldn't speak. Jerry Mitchell called--I get a call from my agent the next day, "Jerry Mitchell, the director, wants to speak, wants you to come to his house. He wants, he wants to have coffee at his house, come to his house." And I called Jerry, who's been a friend of mine for twenty-five years, and I was like, "Listen, I don't need to come to your--is this good coffee or bad coffee? 'Cause I don't need to come to your house for bad coffee. You can just tell me over the phone." He was like, "Billy [HistoryMaker Billy Porter], just come over." (Crying) And I went to his house and he opened the door, he had a champagne glass in his hand and he said, "It's you, it's always been you. It's never been anybody else. It's never been anybody else and I'm sorry that the business is such that we had, that I had to put you through that." (Sighs) And the rest is history.