Behind the Scenes: Getting Ready with Billy Porter for the 2019 Oscars

Billy Porter_Oscars 2019-Publicity-H 2019
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"I wanted to take my power back from when I was silent in the '90s about my sexuality," Porter says about his tux gown from Christian Siriano.

When Pose star Billy Porter stepped onto the Oscar red carpet in his Christian Siriano gown earlier today, it was the last stop in a run that started two months ago at the Golden Globes. But, he says, it was also the culmination of a journey that started more than 20 years ago.

“I wanted to take my power back from when I was silent in the '90s about my sexuality and trying to be an R&B recording artist,” he told THR in a phone chat a couple of days before the Oscars. “You know, just the silencing of my spirit, of my humanity almost took me out of here. And one of my biggest things was finally embracing my feminine side in public and in my career, vis-a-vis Kinky Boots.

Porter says putting on those heels made him feel the most authentic — and the most masculine — that he’d ever felt.

“And then you move on to Pose and these transgender girls teach me what courage is, what authenticity is, in the deepest way more than I have ever seen in my life,” he says.

That led Porter and his stylist, Sam Ratelle, to reach out to Siriano, saying that he’s been a huge fan of the designer ever since his Project Runway days, both for Siriano’s “fearlessness and heart” and his willingness to be inclusive and dress regular people who aren’t “a size 5.” And after his recent NYFW fall show, Ratelle says they knew the designer “would bring the drama” need for the ultimate red carpet.

Siriano says when Porter came to him looking for a ball gown, the only dictate was that it be amazing during their fitting.

“So in the room, we were kind of like, ‘OK, let's play with this idea that it can masculine and feminine. This is our version of a tuxedo because he's wearing a kind of tuxedo jacket over a gown” Siriano says. “It’s like, ‘What is menswear? What is women’s?’ People should be able to wear whatever they want.”

For displaying Porter’s “feminine energy” on the red carpet, Siriano created a completely custom gown in black silk velvet with a ball skirt and extended train. The top has a square neckline, and underneath Porter will wear a white cotton shirt with a high, ruffle-edged collar, a nod to Renoir. Completing the look is a matching black velvet bolero-style tuxedo jacket with silk satin lapels. “It was really a pretty quick decision,” says Siriano, “and much like any other fitting except, of course, Billy has no bust."

Ratelle says they chose black velvet for the turnout because of its “grandeur” and accessorized with diamonds, including an eye-popping 20-carat yellow diamond ring from Madison Avenue jeweler Oscar Heyman, who has been working with Porter all season. Siriano also made a second tuxedo look with trousers for Porter to change into when he interviewed celebs on the red carpet for the ABC preshow.

“That one doesn't pull focus, so I can do my job,” Porter laughs. “A black gay man in a ball gown is going to pull a lot of focus.”

Incorporating the same cropped jacket, Siriano fashioned matching black velvet palazzo-style pants with a high waist for the menswear version. Ratelle added a black silk necktie and vintage diamond gardenia brooch from Heyman, “to pay homage to Karl Lagerfeld, who loved pins,” says Ratelle. To give both versions of Porter’s eveningwear a rock 'n' roll edge, he’s wearing Rick Owens platform boots.

After the ceremony, Porter’s donning the gown again and plans to dance the night away at the various post-show parties. He says when he debuted his dress-wearing persona at Golden Globe parties, he was astounded at the amount of attention it caused, with crowds “parting like the Red Sea.”

“It's infuriating that a man in a dress still garners this much attention. Women wear pants every day and nobody bats an eye. But you put a man in a dress and it's like the sky is falling,” he says. “Are you saying that women in pants equals masculine and that’s good? But a man in a dress equals feminine and that’s bad? Well, I’m done with that."