Billy Porter and LGBTQ Ally Anna Wintour on Fashion's Inclusivity and Arriving at Met Gala as an "Egyptian Sun King"

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The Vogue editor-in-chief and Conde Nast artistic director and global content adviser chats with Porter about what being an LGBTQ ally means to her.

When Billy Porter made his Met Gala debut last year — carried on a throne by six shirtless male attendants while dripping in gold, emboldened with wings and wearing a custom ensemble by The Blonds — Vogue proclaimed: “Billy Porter Just Made the Most Fashionable Entrance in Met Gala History.” The Emmy-winning Pose star credits Anna Wintour with helping him rewrite fashion's history books at the iconic event as she oversees the Costume Institute benefit and organizes the coveted invite list. One year later, Wintour agreed to join Porter on a Zoom call to discuss what it means to be an ally, her personal history with the LGBTQ community, personal favorites from queer media, and why she said yes to Porter’s idea. 

The first question I have for you is how do you see yourself as an ally to the LGBTQ community, and how does that manifest through fashion?

Fashion is a deeply inclusive community, Billy, and I feel very lucky to be part of it. If we just look at what's been happening in the past few months, at how the fashion community has really supported each other — both from a domestic and from a global point of view: They are a community that is not judgmental, that is very respectful of people's values, and will always stand by each other, maybe even more deeply in America than in some of the other countries that I've been lucky enough to work and live in.

We see that if we look back to the '80s and the AIDS crisis. I'm sure you've been thinking about it a lot after losing Larry Kramer, who was such an incredible icon for all of us, and if you remember how the fashion community came together at a time when, honestly, even in a city like New York, people were not really talking about the devastation of the AIDS epidemic and what it meant. There were people in society that didn't even want to mention the name. [The industry] said, "How can we help?" We all came together and created Seventh on Sale to raise money for people who needed it the most at that time. The theater community is very similar. Nobody says no; they're just there and they've got your back. So, I feel very privileged to be a part of that world.

Everybody asks me about my entrance at the Met Gala and how that came together. My stylist, Sam Ratelle, was like, "You should come in being carried by sexy shirtless men." I thought it was a good idea, but I also thought he was crazy. I said, "Ms. Wintour has a very particular way of doing things, so ask her, because that’s the only way it’s going to happen." Why did you say yes?

I get a lot of emails, a lot of text messages, every single day. I don't often get an email saying, “I would like to arrive at the Met as an Egyptian sun king surrounded by six young men with no shirts on.” I mean, how could you possibly say no? I don’t know if you know this, but when you arrived, there was such a roar from the crowds across the street that you blew out all the phones that the red carpet team had, and we had to get them new ones. The applause was so loud. It was beyond anything and it was magnificent — such a perfect, fantastic choice for that particular night. It was historic. Congratulations.

Thank you for facilitating and helping me fulfill it. I have to say, you have been a part of the group of people that's opened the door for me to be whatever it is that we're calling me being at this point — I just live it. I showed up and it’s been great. This is a three-part question: Where did the concept of [Camp: Notes on Fashion] come from? How do you find camp these days? Why do you think camp became a way of describing people in a derogatory way?

I actually don't think of it as derogatory at all. I think of it as a celebration. If you look at the history of what the word means, it means that things that are a little bit off — rather than the way that I think some people think of it. Camp is celebration of self-expression. In terms of the exhibition itself, that’s always the brainchild of a wonderful curator, Andrew Bolton. With the celebration of 50 years of Stonewall last year, he very much wanted to do something that was recognizing and celebrating gay culture. It goes back to sun kings and drag queens. We’ve been looking at the influences of gay culture in terms of how people dress for centuries.

If you look carefully through the exhibition, you saw the beginning and, through the words of Susan Sontag, you saw how Andrew explored its history. To me, it was a wonderful history lesson of secret signs and messages, ending up in that glorious exhibition room at the end where you saw this riot of color and joy with a sense of freedom. What we all wanted to celebrate in that exhibition is that you need to be who you are, and nobody should tell you anything else. 

It was beautiful.

Each Met Gala responds to what the exhibition subject is. Some have been a little bit more stiff, like when we did [Charles James: Beyond Fashion] or more aggressive, when we did [Punk: Chaos to Couture]. It all depends on what the exhibition is. Camp was the happiest night that I can remember in all the years because I think people just so enjoyed themselves, enjoyed dressing up and not having any sense of, "Do I look right?" It was, “This is who I am.” Everybody had a smile on their face.

I feel so honored to have been invited. Was there a moment in your life, like an inciting incident or an inflection moment where you became aware of the LGBTQ community? Did your relationship evolve over time or were you always an ally?

I was very lucky in that I was brought up by very open parents. Both were journalists. My brother is a journalist. My brother and my sister worked in different fields of social justice. We come from an open community and a very open family. My parents always taught me to respect what they believed in and not to criticize. So, I think it was because of my very liberal, loving and nonjudgmental background.

I moved to New York in the '70s, and I was a little bit naive. I didn't question the gay community. They were just my friends. Not until I moved to New York did I understand a little bit more how people were judged by the color of their skin or sexual orientation. One of my very first jobs in New York was working at New York magazine. The man that sat next to me was the men's fashion editor and his name was Henry Post, from the famous American family. He was never able to be open about his sexuality or his feelings. I watched him become very sick after contracting the disease while never discussing it, and then eventually, sadly, not come to the office anymore. After losing him, I decided that this was a cause I wanted to take up, embrace and do anything I could do to help. It took coming to New York to really open my eyes. I don’t know what it was for you …

I was right in the middle of it. I came out as queer in 1985 at 16 years old. It was "gay" then — now we call it "queer" — but it was the middle of the AIDS crisis. We went straight to the front lines to fight for our lives. Speaking of a Larry Kramer, you know, it was the summer of '89 and I was doing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in New Jersey at Montclair State University. The ensemble boys invited me to Gay Pride, and we met at Fifth Avenue right in front of Saks Fifth Avenue, in that church. I got there a little late and my friends threw a T-shirt on me that said "Silence Equals Death." It wasn't a decision if it was the thing to do — there was no other choice. Then I went into the Broadway community and they taught me that everybody fights. I learned how to show up and be an activist through that time. What are some ways that Vogue has celebrated and been inclusionary of the LGBTQ community under your leadership? 

I like to think that we are inclusive with a set of values that guide us every single day. Condé Nast stands for respect to all. I'm very honored to be a chair of Condé Nast's Global Employee Council for Diversity & Inclusion. I take that responsibility incredibly seriously. I believe that all of our titles, not just Vogue, need to reflect the world that we live in and everything that that means. We need in our workforce an inclusive as a society as we possibly can. Since I've become global content advisor and editorial director of Condé Nast, we've launched them., our LGBTQ site. I've been very aware of who we're bringing into the company in terms their backgrounds and their cultural way of thinking.

What we reflect on our Vogue sites, and in print side and everything we do, is so important. But I like to think that in a small way I've been able to influence the company in terms of who we are and what we stand for. Obviously, when we have parts of the company that are based in territories like China and Russia, it's more difficult, but the conversations we wouldn’t have been able to have 10 years ago, now we are thanks to the digital world we’re living in now. Maybe more than ever, society is more open and more aware. This year more than any other year, I feel we have to be committed to a fair election by encouraging people to vote. We need to support Vice President Joe Biden and everything he stands for. 

Yes. To divert just for a minute, I always say that American democracy is an experiment. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don’t. We're not succeeding right now. The one thing I do know is that love always wins. There will be blood, but love always wins, and it takes people and leaders in a position of power to make the difference. We got to play the game we’re in, and the game right now is Biden, period. 

It’s very important that we support him. He will listen, and I believe that he will surround himself with right-minded people who think as we do. I believe that he will surround himself with people of color. I believe that he will surround himself with women. I believe that he will surround himself with experts and he will listen. We need that level of leadership right now, and I’m privately hoping that he will find a place in his cabinet for Mayor Pete [Buttigieg], who I thought was fantastic. He'll be back. 

Yes, he'll be back. Do you have a favorite LGBTQ film or TV series?

Billy, what do you want me to say? Pose?

I'm not pushing you in any one direction or the other. (Laughs.)

I loved and have been thinking a lot about A Normal Heart and Angels in America. Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance is a remarkable, remarkable night at the theater. I saw it first in London and then when it came to Broadway. He's an incredibly talented young man. I’m very interested to see what work is going to come out of the time we’re living in now from all of the incredible, amazing talent from Broadway, film and television writers. How they must be using this time to create ...

I've been the most creative I've ever been. I’m waking up with the birds at 5 in the morning, sitting with my coffee, writing until 10. I'm seven chapters into my memoir. I finished the treatment for my children's picture book, told from a little black gay boy’s perspective. I finished a pilot for a series I’ve been trying to develop for years. I finished a musical. I’m working through trauma and grief that I never processed or metabolized. I’m getting freer. 

For the first time, we’re all going through this together, this period of isolation. It makes you realize how little you actually need and what your values are. It's been very interesting talking to the younger generation. They say they are really happy to be working remotely, and some are giving up their apartments in New York City and talking about living in Arizona for a month or, maybe, Maine. They don't want that responsibility of a mortgage or rent. They're enjoying the freedom. That’s a huge switch.

It’s a global reset. I'm the kind of person that presents like I have everything together, and I don't. It can be hard to find somebody to lean on. Who is your ally? Who do you turn to when you need someone to lean on?

I'm very lucky in that I am sheltering in place with my daughter and her husband, my daughter-in-law, my two granddaughters, my husband, and my son is here sometimes. He's a doctor at Cornell working in the ER, in the COVID ward, so we don't see him that often. We're all here as a family unit, every night having a family dinner — that is something we haven't done since my children were kids.

I've been cooking for my husband every night. What is your hope for how the fashion industry emerges from this? How will it change the way fashion and society relate to each other?

Like so many industries, [the pandemic] has been devastating for the fashion community. It’s one of the reasons the CFDA and Vogue repurposed the fund that we have that supports young designers in America to create a common thread where we are giving out grants to young people, young businesses in our communities that are most in need. After we announced its launch, we had over 1,000 applicants within a week. The last couple of weeks we've been going through all the application forms, and we announced the first 44 grants that we were able to give out.

But, I honestly think that we're going to lose a lot of talent. A lot of people are going to lose their businesses. At the same time, as you are resetting and rethinking and looking at what's important in your life. We are all doing that in our community. It will slow down. There will be a real sense that creativity is important. That clothes, accessories, everything that the fashion community stands for should not be thought of as disposable. Clothes can be emotional — they could and should be full of memories. Our readers, our customers, they will want to associate themselves with designers and brands and stores that are in step with their own values. A huge part of that is going to be sustainability, diversity and inclusivity. They’ll want to invest money — that they're going to have less of — in things that are meaningful to them. So, all of that is good. I think there'll be less of an emphasis on what's new, what's new, what's new and more on craft and creativity. I'm sure you're feeling the same way about your industry.

Yeah. I'm looking forward to what’s to come from this. I already know, as a creative person, I can feel what’s coming out. This is the time when creative artists are most important as we’re the ones who reach into the hearts and minds of people, and we can change the molecular structure in a way that's not theoretical, that's not just about what's on the page but what is emotional. And then we can understand what that emotion is and how to then focus it.

We’re in the middle of it right now. When people ask, "Where is fashion going?" you can give the answers I've given. But in a way, to me, this is a transition period. Anyone who says clearly, "It's going to be this" or "It's going to be that," we don’t know. This is going to take two, three years for everything to settle and become clear. We might say the same thing about Broadway. We were very locked into a ritual of going to shows, emphasizing what's new and everything moving very, very quickly. Of course, when we reemerge, we will want to get back to the physical because it’s part of human connection, but we may see things differently for a while. There may be a mixture of virtual and physical. We are a creative community and we are also a community that should reflect change.

I love you so much. I have one last question that is coming expressly from me: How did you balance everything that is coming at you with having a family? I only have one husband and these last few years have been rough trying to figure out where the balance is. Speak to that, for the younger generation, who want to have balance while also having it all.

I come from a family of four with two brothers and a sister. We were brought up in a very loving, tight-knit family, and we're still all very, very close and see each other all the time. Family gives you the balance. They don't care what the press writes about you. They don’t care what people say. You’re just a sister or a mother. Having that balance of a family unit is what’s kept me, at times, sane, and has brought me down to Earth. I'm very lucky in that regard. I had such a great example growing up. I have very brilliant children who always tell me what they think. I just feel privileged every day to be a mother.

Interview edited for length and clarity. 

A version of this story first appeared in the June 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.