Billy Porter, the award-winning actor, activist, recent red-carpet sensation, takes his seat at the Victoria Beckham spring 2020 show held in a grand government building in Westminster on a warm Sunday afternoon in September during London Fashion Week. Dressed in a map-printed shirt, flared orange pants and a silk headscarf — all designed by Beckham — he talks to his front-row seatmate, Dame Helen Mirren, as they wait for the show to start. Then, after swooning over the collection of neat tailoring and flowing dresses from Beckham, he makes his way backstage to congratulate designer, clearly still reeling from his encounter with acting royalty. “It was nice to get to the place where Helen Mirren knew my name and binged on show,” he says, referring to his hit F.X. series, “Pose.””It made me burst into tears.”
For Porter, who suddenly seems to everywhere at once, it’s a particularly busy time. He nominated for an Emmy Award last year for performance as the ballroom M.C. after winning Tony and a Grammy for his role as the drag queen Lola in the 2013 Broadway production of “Kinky Boots.” Pray on “Pose” Tell. He has since directed a play, “The Purists,” which opened in August in Boston and made a splashy appearance earlier this month at the New York Fashion Week runway show “as a biker bride” at The Blonds. During his London Fashion Week whirlwind tour, which he attends as a British Fashion Council guest, he plans to fly Los Angeles to mark his 50th birthday and get ready for the 2019 Emmy Awards, where he again nominated for his appearance in “Pose.”
In a tailored Christian Siriano tuxedo jacket, Porter attended the Oscars earlier this year, questioning traditional masculine standards and enabling him to rise to international renown. “I didn’t know it would make such a powerful statement,” Porter says now. “I knew it was going to cause a stir, but I didn’t realize it was going to be the defining moment of my life.” A few months later, at Met Gala, he was thinking about “camp,” upping the ante, arriving on the red carpet in a gold bodysuit with enormous wings, holding six shirtless men in gold pants aloft on a recliner. “Long enough to know the lightning doesn’t hit twice in the entertainment business,” he says. “I want to be fun, whimsical, and imaginative in dressing up.”
That is a concept Porter took to heart on his trip to London: he and his stylist, Sammy Ratelle, anticipated no fewer than 20 changes in the outfit over his four-day stay. (For Porter’s wardrobe only, all rooms in the suite reserved.) The demi-couture brand La Doyenne and accessorized with magenta gloves and hot pink hat turns him into a purple opera coat on Sunday to speak on a panel — and then throws on a sparkling Ashish number to sit in the front row of that designer’s show. He returns with his husband, Adam Smith, to his hotel room sometime before 8 p.m. to get ready for the evening case. Party at the Royal Opera House fetting a capsule line designed by Gareth Pugh for the cruise-ship company of Richard Branson, Virgin Voyages. Since choosing a provocative, skintight black dress cut to the knee by the youthful brand Mannequin Concepts based in New York, which he pairs with a black hat and chunky platform shoes, he struts in front of the mirror announcing, “I look slinky, I feel sexy, I feel like Naomi Campbell!
When visiting fashion shows over the next two days, Porter draws a crowd everywhere he goes, either speaking to the designer Erdem Moralioglu backstage at his appearance — posing with Miss Fame and Aquaria members from “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”Getting advice from Anna Wintour when seated at JW Anderson in the front line. He does not lose the meaning of an out-and-proud black man so openly embraced by the fashion community. “When I grew up, I had no idea that I was going to see myself mirrored on me,” he says. “White people did everything, so I tried to be like them. Just seeing someone like André Leon Talley or Iman or Beverly Johnson, you knew you weren’t even in the group before that person came in.” For Porter, the ultimate means of self-expression is dressing up. “In my regular life, I’ve always embraced the male and the female, but for a large part of my career, I’ve told you can’t be that gay, you’ve got to be a more male person. Otherwise, you dismissed, canceled,” he says. “It’s a dream come true to be welcomed now and to be able to vibrate in the world of high fashion. With dignity, happiness, and gratitude, I handle it. It’s a special thing.”