Porter marches over to the makeup chair, where his beloved glam team is waiting. Makeup artist La Sonya Gunter has been working with Porter since 2013, when he was headlining the Broadway hit Kinky Boots, for which he won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. “You may see us bicker because she’s like my sister,” he tells me, waving his hand at Gunter. “From the first day,” she drawls. Later, his real half-sister MaryMartha Ford (nicknamed “M&M”), who works as one of his managers, drops by. It’s clear that Porter surrounds himself with a fun but selective mix of biological and chosen family. At one point, hairstylist Cheryl Bergamy-Rosa and Porter give me a lesson on “doodoo” or “dookie” braids — so called because they are the thickness of poop. “That’s an old-school southern term — we are lettin’ you in, woman!” Porter howls with a throaty laugh.
Letting people in seems to come naturally to the extroverted Porter, though in his 2021 memoir, Unprotected, he admits to erecting emotional walls to keep people out. And with good reason. His childhood was challenging, to say the least. At age five, he was sent to a doctor in an attempt to “fix” his love of girlie clothes and skipping rope. He was bullied and beaten (even on his first day of school), twice landing him in hospital. His stepfather sexually abused him from ages seven to 12, a violation that is even more heinous considering how he manipulated Porter into viewing him as a father figure and a source of comfort. Singing became an outlet, then a job, then a career. Things got off to a great start when he won Star Search, and US$100,000, in 1992 at age 22. But this is a world in which talent isn’t always enough. Porter has been told he sings too high and speaks too white. He’s been pigeonholed into playing Black stereotypes and passed over for being “too flamboyant.” But along the way, he learned to stand up for himself and was always certain of his talent. If you haven’t seen Porter’s confidence on display, Google his impromptu rendition of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” at the 2019 Tony Awards.
Kinky Boots arrived at a point when he was bankrupt and homeless and sleeping on a patron’s couch. Even so, he took a chance and spoke up to convince the producers that his character should be gay and not a straight cross-dressing boxer, as originally written. They agreed. It was the first time he would see himself — a gay Black man playing a gay Black man — on Broadway.