Billy Porter on Thinking "Beyond the Boundaries of the Binary" When It Comes to Gender
The star of the new 'Cinderella' remake talks playing the fairy godmother and ignoring the haters.
Back in 2019, Billy Porter stirred up a lot of conversation when he appeared on the Oscars red carpet in a black tuxedo gown. Like all of his red carpet appearances, Porter didn't simply walk; he performed, and his performance was one that proudly defied fashion's gender norms. The Broadway-star-turned-on-screen actor knew exactly what he was getting himself into at the time, telling Vogue ahead of his appearance: "People are going to be really uncomfortable with my black ass in a ball gown—but it's not anybody's business but mine." Now, a few years later, Porter is still holding firm in this belief and continuing to publicly push societal ideas about gender.
"The gender conversation has exploded over the last decade or so," Porter tells HelloGiggles over the phone in April. "Everyone is learning that gender has no boundaries. There's the masculine, the feminine, and everything in between and on the outside of it."
Indeed, not only have we seen more male celebrities, like Harry Styles and Jared Leto, following in Porter's gender-bending footsteps on the red carpet in recent years, but we've also seen more trans and non-binary characters represented on screen, with shows like POSE (in which Porter stars) leading the way.
The actor includes himself in that population of people who are still learning more about gender, explaining how he, at age 51, is largely informed by younger generations. "These conversations are important and they're being led by our young people, who are inspiring me and encouraging me to think beyond the boundaries of the binary," he says.
Porter is using that inspiration for his turn as the fairy godmother—which has historically been depicted by a woman—in the upcoming Cinderella remake, set to release this year. "I'm so lucky and blessed to be inside of that [gender] conversation with a character like the fairy godmother," he says. Though Porter's groundbreaking role was first announced in 2019, he made headlines last year by revealing that he was portraying the iconic character as "genderless."
"My tagline is 'magic has no gender,'" he explains now. "It's not about gender. It's about magic and magic is about love...that is really what Cinderella is about. And I hope that everyone will take that message away when they see [the movie] and incorporate it into their lives and how they move through their lives."
Unfortunately, though, anytime there's a modernized take on a classic (think: the female-led reboot of Ghostbusters), a wave of backlash is to be expected, and that's been the case for Cinderella. Yet just as Porter was prepared for negative responses to his 2019 Oscars gown, he knows it's bound to come along with his fairy godmother role, too—and he truly doesn't care.
"I do not now, nor will I ever, adjudicate my life or humanity on sound bites on social media, let me just say that," Porter says. "What people think about me is none of my business."
"My only purpose on this planet is to be authentic and true to myself and spread as much love as I can possibly spread—that's all I'm interested in."
Porter says he has "metaphorically wiped clean" his life of hate, refusing to let it consume him. Referencing his brand partnership with Clorox Scentiva, the star adds, "If Clorox Scentiva disinfecting wipes were something that you could literally use to wash your skin clean [of negativity], that's what I have done."
Porter first teamed up with Clorox, which was ranked the number two most essential company (second only to the U.S. Postal Service) per The Harris Poll, right before the start of the pandemic, and now he and the cleaning brand are collaborating once again. "I think [the partnership] has even more resonance now, after having been through this pandemic, because the focus has been on cleaning and disinfecting and Clorox Scentiva has gotten me through it," Porter explains.
Through his partnership, Porter is promoting the YAS CLEAN! Sweepstakes, which you can enter now through June 30th for a chance to win a grand prize of $5,000 toward a dream home makeover, plus another $5,000 toward a selected charity. The sweepstakes also offer over 100 prizes for runners-up. To help promote the contest, Porter started his own TikTok challenge in March, encouraging users to take their homes from "drab to fab" and show their cleaning transformations. Though he's an experienced performer with over 30 years of experience, the star admits that creating a TikTok video was a bit out of his comfort zone.
"I'm a 51-year-old man," he says. "I don't know how to do this stuff by myself." To make it happen, Porter got some help from "the young people and professionals," he says, and he ultimately thinks the video, "came out real good." You can see for yourself below.
While TikTok may not be Porter's area of expertise (even though he clearly still killed it), something he does have years of experience in is being a role model and advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. For the past three years, the actor has delivered an LGBTQ State of the Union address in partnership with Logo TV to break down the state of politics, social movements, and current events and provide messages of hope. For this year's address, which aired on March 30th, Porter emphasized the "compassion and resilience" of the LGBTQ+ community amidst the past year of living in a pandemic, during which LGBTQ+ individuals faced higher rates of isolation, housing insecurity, and financial stress than heterosexual and cisgender individuals.
"While we continue to face many of these adversities in 2021, I can confidently say that our union remains strong as we march toward greatness and inclusivity," Porter said in his address. "Brighter days are ahead of us if we continue to work toward them together. Be safe and be good to each other. And remember, we will feel joy again soon."
Porter, who became the first openly gay man to win a lead actor Emmy in 2019, says that his experience as a visible member of the LGBTQ+ community has put him in a "unique position" to thoughtfully direct the upcoming film What If. His directorial debut follows the high school love story of a Black, trans teenage girl played by Yasmin Finney.
"I've gone from having no representation to being the representation," Porter explains. "So I understand what the kids need." What that is, he adds, is simple: a rom-com that centers trans love, not just hardship and pain.
According to Deadline, What If, which has yet to set a release date, is billed as a cross between the recent coming-of-age films Booksmart and Love Simon. The film "follows high school senior Khal who posts on [reddit thread] r/relationships about his crush on Kelsa, a trans girl at his school. The internet encourages him to go for it and the two navigate a high school senior year relationship that neither could have expected."
In Porter's words, "It's about normalizing the othered—that's what we're doing." He adds that it's like "an old John Hughes movie"—referencing the director of the classic rom-coms Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty In Pink—"but all of a sudden it looks like what the world looks like today."
In addition to What If, Porter also has the upcoming third and final season of POSE on the horizon, as the episodes will be released May 2nd. While he won't give many hints on specific plot points, he does note that, "everybody should be prepared to have the full range of emotions, every episode. We're coming for it hard."
What Porter really hopes viewers get from the final season of POSE, though, is consistent with the mission at the root of all of his work, whether he's stepping out on the red carpet in gender-binary-defying fashion, directing a trans love story, or portraying a gay man in the '80s battling AIDS. "My hope is that the takeaway is that everybody's life matters—everybody's," he says. "No matter who you are, no matter what you are, your life matters."