‘Pose’ Star Billy Porter on His Emotional Episode and the Importance of Visibility

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “The Fever,” the fourth episode of “Pose.”

In the premiere episode of FX’s “Pose,” aspiring ballroom culture mother Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) received an HIV-positive diagnosis. Just a few episodes later, ballroom MC Pray Tell, played by Billy Porter, learned he was HIV positive as well.

Although Porter admits there were “hints” at where the story would go early on, he didn’t know just how deep they would go with Pray Tell. But when he finally learned of Pray Tell’s diagnosis, he felt ready for it.

“I feel like I’m standing [up] for all of my friends who didn’t make it and whose stories were buried for so long,” Porter tells Variety. “Their stories are getting told [now] and I’m one of the people who’s getting to tell them, and that means everything to me.”

Porter came out in 1985 and shortly after lost his first friend to the disease, followed by quite a few more in the years that followed. He moved to New York in the 1990s and says he lived through a lot of the tension, fear, and heartbreak that the characters in “Pose” experience — along with a sense of community.

“I lived it, so that part of the preparation is already done,” he says. “There will be roles in my life that come later, that I have to dig deeper for things. But everything that I’m doing in this show is completely and totally in my wheelhouse.”

Unlike Blanca, Pray Tell opted not to share his diagnosis, which Porter feels is a very true response to the times.

“It was new — nobody knew how to do any of it,” he says. “We have 35 years now … of how to talk about it, how to explain it, but [then] it was like you got it and you were going to die. You were diseased. You were like a leper — even to the people who loved you. So the last thing he would want to do is tell anybody.”

Porter says that Pray Tell is still “trying to set an example” for the kids like Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) who got tested, got a clean bill of health, and hopefully will make even safer choices.

“I think when you do have a ticking clock on your life, the bucket list comes out, the gratefulness for life comes out,” he says. “The one thing I will say that is new and interesting and fresh and fabulous for me is they’re giving me a love interest. They’re not cutting my dick off! There’s a version of the gay story that the straight world was comfortable with, and very often it’s very two-dimensional. … All of these characters get to be three-dimensional on ‘Pose’ and it’s just so refreshing.”

Porter acknowledges that such a story comes with extra responsibility, but it’s one that he is more than willing to carry.

“Responsibility is not a burden to me,” he explains. “I am a descendant of slaves and civil rights marchers and people who instilled in me the necessity of responsibility.”

Porter admits he never thought he’d “live long enough to see [a show like] this,” but the fact that he not only gets to see it but also gets to be a part of it is not something he takes lightly.

“This experience has taught me to dream about the impossible,” he says. “Art illuminates. Art is a catalyst for change. It always has been. That’s why the first thing that dictator-like governments want to take away — because it creates a space where people can think for themselves, think outside of the box [and] people can dream, people can become leaders. I think it’s something that’s empowering our community. … Visibility, I am convinced, is the first and probably one of the most important steps in self-actualization. When you can see something else that looks like you, you’re empowered to keep going.”

“Pose” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on FX.

More TV

  • How Cooking-Travel Shows Are Changing TV

    How Cooking-Travel Shows Are Changing TV

    Toyo hunches over his street food stove, cooking tuna with a blow torch, stopping to light his cigarette with it and produce a cheeky grin. The Japanese chef, who owns a roadside stand in the city of Osaka, is one of many highlighted in the Netflix series “Street Food.” Over the course of 30 minutes, [...]


    SAG-AFTRA Leaders Approve Proposal for New Film-TV Contract

    The SAG-AFTRA national board has approved proposals for a successor deal to its master contract covering feature film and primetime television — a key step in the upcoming negotiations cycle with companies. The board approved the package Saturday with the performers union declining to reveal any specifics — its usual policy. The board established the wages [...]

  • Shannen Doherty'Jennie Garth: A Little Bit

    Shannen Doherty Joins 'Riverdale' Season 4 in Luke Perry Tribute

    “Riverdale” is planning to make a special tribute to Luke Perry. The show’s executive producer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa announced at Comic-Con that Shannen Doherty, Perry’s longtime friend and “Beverly Hills 90210” co-star, will guest star in the season 4 premiere. The tribute episode will “reflect Perry’s enduring legacy and the indelible imprint his character” Fred Andrews [...]

  • Supernatural CW

    'Supernatural' Team Gets Emotional Final Season Sendoff at Comic-Con

    The cast and creative team of “Supernatural” bid a fond farewell to the attendees of San Diego Comic-Con on Sunday. At the show’s final panel in the gargantuan Hall H, the team thanked the fans for all of their support over the years as the series prepares to enter its final season. “I’m trying not [...]

  • Alicia Rodis photographed by Alicia Rodis

    SAG-AFTRA Moves to Standardize Guidelines for Intimacy Coordinators

    SAG-AFTRA is moving to standardize guidelines for intimacy coordinators as part of an effort to establish policies for union members when their work involves nudity and simulated sex. “Our goal is to normalize and promote the use of intimacy coordinators within our industry,” said SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris. “Intimacy coordinators provide an important safety net for [...]

  • SDCC TV News Roundup: Syfy Releases

    SDCC TV News Roundup: Syfy Releases 'The Magicians' Season 5 Clip (Watch)

    In today’s SDCC TV news roundup, Syfy shares a clip from “The Magicians” Season 5, and Amazon sets the Season 4 premiere of “The Expanse.” CASTING Julie Gonzalo and Staz Nair have joined the cast of “Supergirl” for its upcoming fifth season. Gonzalo will portray iconic DC character Andrea Rojas aka Acrata, a polished businesswoman [...]

  • Doom Patrol -- Ep. 101 --

    'Doom Patrol' Renewed, Season 2 to Stream on DC Universe and HBO Max

    “Doom Patrol” has been renewed for a second season and will soon be available outside of DC Universe. At San Diego Comic-Con, series executive producer Jeremy Carver and star Diane Guerrero announced not only that the show will be back for another season but also that it will be available on HBO Max, the upcoming [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content