‘Being a Black queer man, I’m really not supposed to be here’: Billy Porter talks triumphant disco album, surviving the AIDS crisis and earning his age

Black Mona Lisa is Billy Porter’s fifth studio album, but in a way it feels like the Grammy/Tony/Emmy-winning Kinky Boots and Pose star’s debut — because, as he tells Yahoo Entertainment, it marks his “return to the mainstream music space.”

“My first album came out in 1997, Billy Porter, and the R&B music industry was violently homophobic at the time. They kicked me out. They kicked me out of the business. There was no place for me. They shut me down. Nothing,” says Porter. “At that time there was a lot of talk about, ‘Oh, just be who you are!’ — that performative ‘authenticity’ conversation. But it’s easy to be who you are when what you are is what’s popular. In 1997, my truth was not popular, and I had no place to go.

“But the good news is, I kept going when everybody told me no,” Porter stresses. “I’m multi-hyphenated, so I could go down all these other roads. And now, 27 years later — 27 years later! — I get to come back into this mainstream pop music space on my own terms.”

Some might think that Porter, who once dreamed of being the “male Whitney Houston” and is a guest judge on a Whitney-themed episode of Dancing with the Stars this week, has gotten a little bit closer to that childhood goal with the shimmering, anthemic disco of Black Mona Lisa. “Well, being the Fabulous Godmother in Cinderella sort of fulfilled that dream for me — so I’m ready to be the ‘male Billy Porter,’” he laughs. Below, the 54-year-old entertainer chats candidly about the album track that was inspired by his decision to publicly reveal that he has been living with HIV since 2007; finding a safe space in discotheques, aka “gay church,” as a club kid during the AIDS crisis; appearing with a pre-fame Britney Spears on Star Search in the ‘90s; and embracing his hard-earned age and late-in-life success.

Billy Porter in his 'Black Mona Lisa' era. (Republic Records)

Billy Porter in his ‘Black Mona Lisa’ era. (Republic Records) (Franz Szony)

Yahoo Entertainment: You were 43 years old when you joined the cast of Kinky Boots. Is it kind of a blessing in disguise that although you went through all these struggles, when you finally did achieve mainstream success, you were at an age where you were able to appreciate it more?

Billy Porter: It’s not in “disguise.” It’s a blessing, period. It was never in disguise, so we can stop saying that. Even when I was going through it, I understood what my calling is, what my ministry is. I was watching Oprah years ago. She had on Maya Angelou and they were talking about service and that when one can refocus their intention to service, everything else would work itself out. And so I stood in front of a mirror and I asked myself, “What does service look like for me in an industry and, quite frankly, a world that’s inherently narcissistic and homophobic?” And it hit me like a ton of bricks: “It’s your queerness.” This was 1999 or 2000. There was no evidence, there was no blueprint, that told me that making that choice would work out. So, I had to take a leap of faith and pray that what those brilliant women were saying would be true for me.

Along with racism and homophobia, there’s also a lot of ageism in this business. But you’re definitely bucking the odds in that way, and really embracing your age. There are a lot of lyrics on Black Mona Lisa about that, like “gotta let these children know what time it is,” or “I’ve been on the Soul Train for a long time,” or “some things get better with age.”

Listen, with age comes wisdom. I am trying to speak to anybody who needs that — who needs a message in their pop music, who needs inspiration in their pop music, who needs a call to action in their pop music. I grew up with protest music. I’m first-generation post-civil rights movement. I came out as gay in 1985. We went straight to the frontlines to fight for our lives. The only thing I know is to show up and fight for what’s right, and fight for the soul of humanity. So, that’s what this album is. That’s what my intention always is with my work and my art. And I worked hard for this age. I look at any child who wants to talk about my age and I say, “Call me in 25 years — if you’re even still alive.”

I’m alive. What an accomplishment. That’s the first lyric [on Black Mona Lisa]: “I’m alive. What an accomplishment for my kind.” Our government means to kill Black men, Black people. They are shooting us in the streets every day for no reason. On paper, being a Black man, I’m not supposed to be here. Being a Black queer man, I’m really not supposed to be here. But I am. Yeah, I’m 54. I earned this age. This is what 54 looks like, honey. I’m at the top of my game, baby. I’ve never felt better. It’s like a fine wine, it’s true. And we have to learn how to embrace that. … I love myself enough at 54 years old to be able to talk about my age, and now everybody else will learn to love that age too. I love it first.

There are two songs on Black Mona Lisa I want to specially ask about. One is “I’m Not Ashamed Anymore.” What kind of shame are you referring to, and how did you get past it?

I wrote that song with [British pop artist and songwriter] MNEK. I was writing with him in London, and I was really anxious. I was on the verge of panic attacks and I was like, “What is wrong with me?” And then I realized, “Oh, I’m coming out on the cover of the Hollywood Reporter as HIV-positive next week.” I had done [the THR interview] two months prior to that, so I had forgotten. So, we sat down and wrote that song about that.

Wow. Even though you were nervous at the time, that must have felt very…

freeing. Yeah. And healing.

Another track is “Audacity.” There’s a line that stood out to me in that one, about how your silence was once your self-defense, when you were younger. Obviously, you’re not silent anymore.

Yes, because silence equals death. That’s some old Larry Kramer/Keith Haring stuff. Silence on any level, about something being wrong, is death. I choose life. I will never be silent. I choose life.

Billy Porter today. (Republic Records)Billy Porter today. (Republic Records)

Billy Porter today. (Republic Records) (Franz Szony)

Was there any epiphany in your life that made you break your silence, so to speak, and become more vocal?

The AIDS crisis, and living through that, starting as a teenager. And being in a Broadway show, opening in Miss Saigon on April 11, 1991, and by April 11, 1992, there were four people in our cast dead. It was Broadway Cares and Equity Fights AIDS who taught an entire generation how to activate and how to speak. Nothing gets done unless the people show up. … My humanity has been up for legislation since the moment I could comprehend. I’ll never be silent, and this music happens to be protest music. That’s what Stevie Wonder used to do. That’s what Aretha Franklin used to do.

It’s not easy to do an album that has this sort of messaging but is still full of bops. And I hear a lot of joy in this record.

I’m choosing joy. You have to choose it.

Black Mona Lisa is very disco-inspired. Tell me about what that era means to you.

The clubs [in the ‘80s] became the space inside of the trauma of the AIDS crisis, for the community to come together and heal, activate, take care of each other. We called it “gay church.” So, I look fondly back at my club-kid days, because the joy and the celebration of those spaces was what kept us all alive — what kept me alive. I wanted this album to throw back to that. It reflects the joy, the celebration, the life-force energy that comes from that music and supports everybody who’s a part of it.

The ”Disco Sucks” movement of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s was definitely rooted in both homophobia and racism. It’s nice to see the genre being embraced now by people like Dua Lipa or Beyoncé. Were you inspired by the idea of taking disco back, so to speak?

Absolutely. That was the absolute inspiration: taking back the narrative because of my age. I’m a part of that generation, so I am embracing being in it. I was 6 or 7 years old when “Knock on Wood” came out at the cookout. I literally remember distinctively going, “What is this?” I was in the middle of Wellsville, Ohio. I knew that being this age, I needed to align myself with a form of music that supported me, supported my efforts to reenter the mainstream music market that is very ageist. Dua Lipa is great. She’s paying homage. Beyoncé is amazing. They’re paying homage — in a brilliant way. But I actually am the thing. I’m the thing. This is not an homage. This is the thing. I’m the thing.

It’s a very unique position to be in, that you can kind of be part of a revival when you were actually there the first time around. You mentioned you released your first album in ‘97, but before that, you were actually on Star Search! And you won your episode!

Oh, I won the whole thing.

Wow! So many people went on that show before they were famous: Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears…

Britney Spears was on my episode. She was like 11, 12 years old. She actually sang very well. She was good.

Did you have a chance to speak with her then?

No. She was not famous. She was not the “Britney Spears” that she grew up to be. She was an 11-year-old child. She was in a different [junior] division, and I was trying to win $100,000. So, no, I did not speak to her. I did not care. I was in a competition with myself.

Billy Porter after receiving his $100,000 'Star Search' check from Ed McMahon in 1992. (YouTube)Billy Porter after receiving his $100,000 'Star Search' check from Ed McMahon in 1992. (YouTube)

Billy Porter after receiving his $100,000 ‘Star Search’ check from Ed McMahon in 1992. (YouTube)

When you were on Star Search and you won that $100,000, did you think, “OK, this is it, I’ve finally made it now”?

No. The show was in syndication. It was no longer in primetime. You had to search your TV Guide to find it. There was no internet. There was no guide on the cable box. There was no DVR. There was none of that. It was an early childhood dream that I just went on and fulfilled, but I had no delusions of grandeur that it was going to do anything for me. I was in Miss Saigon at the time. I was in the ensemble of my first Broadway show at the time. I took my vacation to go out there to be on Star Search.

So, with all the things that you went on to accomplish in your career, what was the moment where you did feel like you’d “made it?”

I still have a problem with that [phrase]. It is hard to relate to that because celebrity is weird, especially when it hits when you’re 49 years old and you’ve had a whole full life before that. And the other part about it is, celebrity does not equal wealth. We live in a world where if you’re a celebrity, everybody thinks that you’re wealthy and you have no financial problems. I think one of the reasons why it’s hard for me to relate to the “celebrity” thing is because I’m still at a financial place that’s not completely solvent. It takes one strike of a hundred days and I’m selling my house. I haven’t made “F-you money” yet. See, there are many different tiers. You have hand-to-mouth, which is tier one. You have check-to-check, which is tier two. You have doing all right, which is tier three. You have set for life, which is tier four. And then you have “F-you money,” tier five. I was somewhere [before the SAG-AFTRA strike] between doing all right and set for life. … So, there is no money coming in with this fame. That’s the long answer to your question. The short answer is, I haven’t felt it yet. I haven’t truly felt it yet because I’ve been scrambling to figure out how to pay my bills. … The good news is, [due to the strike] I have had time to really focus on [the new album]. I’m trying to receive that with grace.

Billy Porter's fifth album, 'Black Mona Lisa.' (Republic Records)Billy Porter's fifth album, 'Black Mona Lisa.' (Republic Records)

Billy Porter’s fifth album, ‘Black Mona Lisa.’ (Republic Records)

You’ve witnessed, participated in, and helped foster so much social change since you started out. And yet it must feel discouraging sometimes to see that the more things change in society, the more they stay the same.

There’s so much progress, though! And we have to focus on the progress. The change has already happened; that’s the reason for the severity of the pushback. That’s what happens. Think about it. Go back to the Emancipation Proclamation, right? There was the abolishment of slavery, and then the backlash of Jim Crow [segregation laws]. That’s what happens: You make this progress leap, and then you get the pushback. That’s life. And I hope that this album reminds people that you don’t give up. You don’t give in. This is a lifelong mission. This is what we do till we’re dead. I hope this album is a call to action to remind people that there’s no time for us to be disengaged from the world and what’s going on in it. Democracy only works when we all participate, period. The end.

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This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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