Billy Porter: 'I've Gotta Be Me'

The Tony-winning Kinky Boots star chats about the divas who inspired his latest solo album, Billy's Back on Broadway, and how he's hoping to inspire a whole new generation.

BY Brandon Voss

April 15 2014 7:00 AM ET

Do you feel a responsibility to use your celebrity and creativity to inspire people, particularly LGBT youth?
Yeah, I do think it's a responsibility, but I didn't know that was the ministry at the beginning of my career. I grew up in the Pentecostal church, where being gay wasn't really allowed, so I had to get to the place where I understood that the only thing I could do was be the best version of myself. Being that best version meant I'd be swept to the forefront of a movement, but that was just a happy accident. I was fine being in the closet at the beginning of my career because that's what you were supposed to be — until I realized that it didn't serve anybody and I was left feeling utterly empty. This is who I am, so I've gotta be me.

Cyndi Lauper, who wrote the Tony-winning Kinky Boots score, joins you on "Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy," a duet made famous by Streisand and Judy Garland on The Judy Garland Show.
Cyndi is a dear friend and so supportive. She's such a godmother of individuality, so it wouldn't make any sense for me to make this album without having her on it. Hers is the kind of energy I'm trying to embrace as an artist, so I needed the lady in the building!

Did you have to arm-wrestle Cyndi over who got to be Judy and who got to be Babs?
[Laughs] No! Our vocal ranges are so different, so it was more about figuring out what key we could both sing in, because the song's generally sung by two women.

Which traditionally female-sung show tunes do you sing in private but wouldn't dare do in public?
Oh, my. I can't really say there are any! I recorded some of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" on my last record, so I'm not really shy about singing big girl songs. I mean, "A Piece of Sky" from Yentl was my audition song for 15, 20 years.

You've been performing in Kinky Boots on Broadway, living in Lola's fabulous skin, for more than a year now. Was it hard to shake her off when it came time to record your album?
I'm not one of those actors who gets so taken by a role that I can't live my life. I'm the type of actor who goes to work, transforms into a character, takes you on a journey, and then comes back home to be Billy. When I'm in it, I'm in it, but I know how to get out of it. When you can't shut it off, you're a crazy person. I'm not crazy.

Billy's Back on Broadway is available now.

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