Unless you’ve been living under a very dull, grey rock, you’ve probably noticed that Billy Porter is not afraid to be seen on the red carpet. The Pose (FX) star first made major waves at the 2019 Oscars in a now-iconic tuxedo gown, and has continued to outdo himself ever since. Who could forget his Egyptian-inspired entrance at the 2019 Met Gala, in which a team of sculpted men lifted Porter, decked head-to-toe in shimmery gold. Whether elegant or campy, Porter’s style is defiantly bold and intentional in a moment when few men in Hollywood dare to step outside the traditional black and white.
His most recent look at the Tonys this year featured a nod to the ongoing abortion debate in states like Georgia and Missouri which threaten to all but eliminate reproductive freedom. Porter wore a bright scarlet and pink tuxedo gown, complete with tulle accents and jaunty capri pants. The detailing was meant to evoke a uterus, and the message was clear: stay out of it. The gown also held a personal sentiment; its red velvet came from the stage curtain of “Kinky Boots,” the Broadway show in which Porter’s portrayal of Lola won him a Tony in 2013. Porter was keen to distinguish between his current style and the style of his former onstage character, insisting that just because he was a man in a dress, doesn't mean he's in drag.
Porter has always considered himself an activist, similar to his character Pray Tell on Pose, a ballroom emcee who joins an activist organization in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Exhausted by the constraints of typical menswear, Porter has come to define his red carpet presence in terms of personal and public statement. And he’s done nothing if not start a conversation.
“I want to flip the question of what it means to be a man,” Porter said in an interview with The New York Times. “This question of masculinity, this sort of microscope of heteronormative masculinity that we are very often held up to, especially as leading men, needs to be shattered. You know, it’s toxic and I’m over it and I’ve lived it and I’m not doing it anymore.”
Porter’s freedom on the red carpet follows a new-found freedom in the roles he’s received and the stories he’s been able to tell onstage and onscreen. With his earlier roles, Porter has experienced a blind spot in representation for gay black men. He couldn’t identify with the scripts being fed to him, and the characters he did portray felt inauthentic.
“Now I’m being hired for exactly who I am,” Porter said. “I don’t have to pretend anymore.”
As Pose Season 2 debuts, Porter’s opportunities will no doubt multiply as he ushers in a new era of queer representation in television. Pose is unique in its coverage of 80s underground ball culture, forefronting gay and trans people of color in an entertainment arena that trends towards the pale, skinny, and cisgender. Porter is leading the charge to diversify how we view the LGBT+ community both on and off the red carpet, and the rest of us will just have to ride on his coattails.
This Pride season, we’ve done you the favor of finding a Billy Porter outfit for every color of the rainbow. If anyone has the range, it’s him.