Billy Porter on Season 2 of ‘Pose’ — and why he loves to rock dresses on the red carpet

Billy Porter has been in show business for decades, but you may not have noticed. 

Before FX’s “Pose,” an 1980s period piece about the New York LGBTQ community and drag balls, debuted last year, you may only have known the actor if you were an avid Broadway fan. It’s where he spent much of his 30-plus-year career performing, and where he won a Tony in 2013 for “Kinky Boots.” 

But now, even if you haven’t seen Porter’s thrilling performance as MC Pray Tell on “Pose,” you probably know his name. Maybe you caught his tuxedo dress on the Oscars red carpet, or a peek at him being carried into the Met Gala on a litter by a retinue of shirtless men.

Just Sunday night he continued his red carpet reign with a red and pink look accented with a long train and plenty of tulle. With Season 2 of “Pose” debuting Tuesday (10 EDT/PDT), Porter is posed to break out into mainstream stardom (and maybe nab an Emmy nomination, too).  

Billy Porter arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP) ORG XMIT: NYAG902 (Photo: Richard Shotwell, Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

“I didn’t know it could look like this,” Porter, 49, says. “I’m completely free of the chains that bound me earlier in my career. I’ve been hired for my authenticity … And that has not always been the case. One of the reasons why I haven’t been on many sets is because who I am and what I represent was not a story people wanted to hear or tell for a very long time.”

USA TODAY talked to Porter about what’s next in “Pose,” how he comes up with his red carpet looks and the conversation Hollywood needs to have about masculinity and fashion. 

Billy Porter attends the 73rd Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 9, 2019 in New York City. (Photo: Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images)

Question: Can you tell us more about Pray Tell’s journey in the new season?

Porter: Pray Tell becomes an activist. He steps out of the ballroom. He realizes what’s going on around him, he realizes that nothing’s going to change unless the people change it. And he joins the people who are about affecting change.

Q: Did you draw on any part of your past as an activist?

Porter: All of it. I am an activist. I’ve been an activist since I came out. I came out in 1985 in the middle of the AIDS crisis. We went straight to the front lines to fight for our lives. I’ve lived what this is. I know this story by heart … The only way we can stay in a democracy is if people rise up and speak truth to power when it’s necessary.

Danielle Cooper as Wanda, Sandra Bernhard as Nurse Judy and Billy Porter as Pray Tell on "Pose." (Photo: Macall Polay/FX)

Q: Obviously you made a splash at both the Oscars and the Met Gala with unique looks. What is the thought process behind your style? 

Porter: The first thing that I do with my stylist is create a safe space where we can artistically and creatively dream anything. And then from there it’s also context, it’s also what is appropriate for the event. And then it’s also the freedom to just be.

I’m not in competition with myself, I’m not trying to top myself … Whatever it is I feel for that moment is what I’m doing … I’m from the theater, we know how to do (create a moment). We had rehearsals for (the Met Gala); we had a choreographer. That wasn’t just, ‘we’ll show up.’ We worked on that. 

Billy Porter attends The 2019 Met Gala. (Photo: Charles Sykes, Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Q: Were you ever worried about how people would react to your style?

Porter: I’m not scared about anything. I don’t care what people think. People’s opinions of me are not my problem. I really, truly do not care. I spent too much time caring in the past. 

Q: Fashion criticism and commentary is beginning to include men more and expect more than just a routine black tux from male stars on red carpets. Do you think that’s a good direction?

Porter: Men in show business are under a heteronormative, performative, masculine construct that society places on you … They can’t wear another color other than that black tux, because the people (in Hollywood) who cast them will penalize them if they play on the runway. Because then it becomes, ‘Oh nobody will now believe you (as straight).’

If you are trying to be a leading man and you wear pink on the red carpet – I’m not even talking about dresses! I’m just going to anything outside of the box. (At the Oscars) I literally just put a dress on. That’s all I did. And the world turned upside down. It’s crazy. It’s the good news for me, and it’s complicated news for the rest of the culture.

More fashion and TV:

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  • The 5 returning shows to watch this summer from ‘Pose’ to ‘Stranger Things’
  • ‘Big Little Lies’ is just as good the second time around

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