Billy Porter’s Jampacked Trip to London

On a warm Sunday afternoon in September during London Fashion Week, Billy Porter, the award-winning actor, activist and recent red-carpet sensation, takes his seat at the Victoria Beckham spring 2020 show held inside a grand government building in Westminster. Dressed in a map-printed shirt, flared orange trousers and a silk head scarf — all of Beckham’s design — he talks with his front-row seatmate, Dame Helen Mirren, as they wait for the show to begin. Then, after swooning over Beckham’s collection of neat tailoring and flowing dresses, he makes his way backstage to congratulate the designer, clearly still reeling from his encounter with acting royalty. “It’s been lovely to get to the place that Helen Mirren knows my name and binged on my show,” he says, referring to his hit FX series, “Pose.” “It made me burst into tears.”

It’s a particularly busy time for Porter, who suddenly seems to be everywhere at once. After winning a Tony and a Grammy for his role as the drag queen Lola in the 2013 Broadway production of “Kinky Boots,” he was nominated for an Emmy Award last year for his role as the ballroom M.C. Pray Tell on “Pose.” Since then, he has directed a play, “The Purists,” which opened in Boston in August, and made a splashy appearance performing “as a biker bride” at the Blonds’ runway show during New York Fashion Week earlier this month. Following his whirlwind tour of London Fashion Week, which he is attending as a guest of the British Fashion Council, he plans to fly to Los Angeles to celebrate his 50th birthday and to get ready for the 2019 Emmy Awards, where he is again nominated for his role in “Pose.”

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Porter attended the Oscars earlier this year in a custom Christian Siriano tuxedo dress, which challenged traditional masculine aesthetics and helped skyrocket him to international renown. “I didn’t know it was going to make a statement as powerfully,” Porter says now. “I knew it would cause a stir, but I didn’t realize it would be the defining moment in my career.” A few months later, at the Met Gala, themed around “camp,” he upped the ante, arriving on the red carpet in a gold bodysuit with massive wings, carried aloft on a recliner by six shirtless men in gold trousers. “I’ve been in show business long enough to know lightning doesn’t strike twice,” he says. “I want dressing up to be fun, whimsical and creative.”

That’s a philosophy Porter has certainly taken to heart during his trip to London: He and his stylist, Sammy Ratelle, planned no less than 20 outfit changes over the course of his four-day stay. (An entire room in the suite has been reserved just for Porter’s wardrobe alone.) On Sunday, he changes into a purple opera coat by the demi-couture brand La Doyenne, accessorized with magenta gloves and a hot pink hat, to speak on a panel — and then throws on a sparkly Ashish number to sit in the front row of that designer’s show. Sometime around 8 p.m., he returns to his hotel suite with his husband, Adam Smith, to get ready for the evening’s event — a party at the Royal Opera House feting a capsule collection designed by Gareth Pugh for Richard Branson’s cruise-ship venture, Virgin Voyages. After selecting a daring, skintight black dress slashed to the thigh by the young New York-based brand Mannequin Concepts, which he pairs with a black hat and chunky platform shoes, he struts in front of the mirror declaring, “I feel slinky, I feel sexy, I feel like Naomi Campbell!”

As he attends fashion shows over the next two days, Porter draws a crowd wherever he goes, whether talking with the designer Erdem Moralioglu backstage at his show, posing with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alumnae Miss Fame and Aquaria or getting advice from Anna Wintour while sitting in the front row at JW Anderson. The significance of an out-and-proud black man so openly embraced by the fashion community is not lost on him. “Growing up, I had no idea I was meant to see myself reflected back at me,” he says. “It was always white people who did everything, and I wanted to be like them. It was only seeing people like André Leon Talley or Iman or Beverly Johnson that you realize you weren’t even in the conversation before that person got in.”

For Porter, dressing up remains the ultimate means of self-expression. “I’ve always embraced the masculine and feminine in my regular life, but for a large portion of my career, I was told you can’t be that gay, you have to be a more masculine person, otherwise you are dismissed, canceled,” he says. “So to be accepted now, and to be able to vibrate in the high fashion world, is a dream come true. I treat it with grace, with joy and honor. It’s special.”

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