“”You’re a singular talent, Billy. Nobody knows what to do with you.’
“And there it is again—the smoke up my ass…Singular talent without a gig don’t pay the rent, and a bitch needs to eat.”
So Billy Porter writes in “Unprotected: A Memoir” (Abrams Press, 278 pages), a book full of its author’s singular voice, as he recounts with unusual candor his journey from precocious gay Black boy in a poor, abusive household in Pittsburgh to two award-winning roles in middle age that made him a star: Lola the boot-making drag queen in “Kinky Boots” on Broadway, and Pray Tell the ballroom MC in “Pose” on FX. His journey, he makes clear, did not follow a straight path…. in any way.
“There have been many times in my career when I deserved jobs I didn’t get, for various reasons: Too Black, too gay, too specific, too much.”
If others have dismissed him because of his too-ness, he has struggled to see these traits as precisely what makes him special. In probably the most insightful paragraph in the book, he writes at length about how choreographer Bob Fosse’s art spoke directly to him because “the most iconic aspects of his work were inspired by his imperfections. Because he was losing his hair, hats became an integral part of his pageantry. His shoulders were rounded, giving rise to his signature slouch….I was intoxicated by the way he had spun his ‘flaws’ into stylistic gold. It felt like a message for me that my own ‘flaws’ and vulnerabilities might actually be arrows pointing straight to the heart of my power as a performer, and – dare I say – my artistry.”
It hasn’t been easy for him to absorb this message.
His mother was disabled at birth because of a botched delivery, married the first man who showed any interest, although he only did so, Porter tells us, to win a bet that he could seduce the “church cripple.” The marriage lasted just until a year after Billy’s birth, when she fled his abuse by moving back home to the oppressively religious household she had married him to escape. She tried to escape again by remarrying. Billy’s stepfather treated him well — teaching him how to fend off the schoolyard bullies who had made his life hell, navigate public transit, use the tools in a toolbox, and other father-son pursuits — until he started sexually molesting him at age seven.
The abuse and the “religiousity” of his relatives, Porter writes, ignited the “internalized shame and self-hatred I would spend my life, up to this minute, trying to purge. “ The best way he’s learned how to do so, he writes near the beginning of his memoir, “is to focus on my art, to overwork myself, overbook myself….” (Near the end, he writes more optimistically, “…my life is a testimony to the power that art has to heal trauma.”)
His focus on art started at an early age. He was recognized as an extraordinary singer from the age of five, when he began soloing in church. His singing was his “superpower,” his “weapon” and his “savior,” but he pushed to learn how to dance and act from middle school on, finagling his way into an arts high school, then earning a theater scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University. His professional accomplishments began piling up, but none seemed (then or now) to satisfy him: He made his Broadway debut, in the original Broadway production of “Miss Saigon,” while still a student, at age 21, but “that was three years later than I had planned.” He snagged $100,000 as the winner of “Star Search” but he tells us the TV show no longer had the high ratings it once had, the money wasn’t much after taxes, and he was too financially ignorant to invest the winnings, instead just putting them in the bank. A major record company put out his debut album when he was still in his twenties, accompanying it with some sexy music videos (see below), but he tells us the album didn’t sell well, and he devotes several pages to detail what he considered a major betrayal by his record producers.
If he sounds hard on himself, he’s even harder on some other people, using his memoir to settle some scores and call people out. Among the many passages of outraged rants, there are some bold moments of speaking truth to power. He tells us that a Disney music director for whom he was auditioning confided to him that Disney wanted “bland” – a euphemism for white. A teacher at Carnegie Mellon advised him to take up smoking, because his voice was “too high for the American stage” – he does have a very high singing voice for a man (officially a “tenorino”) but one could take her comment as a euphemism for “too queer.” He outright calls Jerome Robbins a racist, says that Spike Lee accused him of not being black enough, and calls out producer Daryl Roth (the producer of “Kinky Boots”!) at some length for having attended Donald Trump’s inauguration, in the process also attacking her son Jordan Roth (president of Jujamcyn Theater) — as well as Jordan Roth’s husband — apparently for not speaking out against his mother. At least he’s self-aware enough to conclude his anti- Roth rant self-mockingly with: “I’ll take that soapbox back now.”
It’s not as easy to find a truth-to-power motivation behind several anecdotes he tells of his firing agents and managers on the spot, their offense apparently being that they showed him insufficient deference. To an outsider, the “power” in such a relationship seems to reside primarily with the client. Porter implies they were bigoted towards him in one way or another. (That helps explain the title of the memoir, although it originates as a description of his childhood.)
Porter tells us he was outspoken even in his youth on Broadway — as a member of the ensemble in “Miss Saigon,” an understudy in “Five Guys Named Moe,” and Teen Angel in “Grease “– and he seemed to have paid a price for it. As he puts it, “the work dried up the minute I demanded my humanity” — so much so that “homelessness and bankruptcy were part of this journey as well.” But there are other factors for why such an obvious talent had trouble getting work, one of which is indicated by an anecdote Porter tells involving director George C. Wolfe. Wolfe refused to work with Porter for years until a producer insisted he do so on a musical he was directing at the Public Theater called “Radiant Baby,” about the life of artist Keith Haring; at the opening night party, Wolfe apologized to him. “In my experience, people with the kind of singular talent you have are crazy. I assumed you were crazy.”
It would be misleading to leave the impression that “Unprotected” is full of nothing but rants and resentments. Porter is just as emphatic in his passions and his praise. He names many, many people he calls the “Angels” who throughout his life have helped him, and healed him.
In his acceptance speech after he won the Tony Award for “Kinky Boots” (which he reprints in the book), he said that hearing Jennifer Holliday sing from “Dreamgirls” on the Tony telecast when he was 13 years old made him want a career as a theater artist. I interviewed him afterwards asking him what it was about her singing that won him over. “Just listen to it,” he said then. But in the book, he devotes several loving pages to explain.
I would have preferred more passages like the ones appreciating Bob Fosse and Jennifer Holliday. I suspect that those who savor Porter for his boundary-pushing, over-the-top star turn at every fashion event over the last few years, would prefer more than the few pages he writes near the end of the book about his devotion to fashion. It also might have been nice to have fewer rambling, often pontificating diary-like entries, especially the repetitive diatribes excoriating the demagogue Porter repeatedly calls “Orangina 45.” But one of the great pleasures of “Unprotected” is that, whatever he happens to be writing about, Billy Porter is unmistakably his own emphatic self. His voice is eerily familiar, already embedded in memory.
An anecdote near the end of the book explains why this would be so. During his audition for “Pose,” series creator Ryan Murphy asked Porter about the state of America, and Porter ranted for 45 minutes. Afterward, Porter’s agent told him that Murphy had created a character in “Pose” specifically for him. When Billy Porter writes things like “My art is my calling, my purpose, dare I say my ministry,” he sounds like Pray Tell, because Pray Tell sounds like Billy Porter.