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Billy Porter on the Importance of Service, Giving Back, and Style as Activism

If the capitalistic push and shove of the holiday season’s got you feeling glum, allow Tony, Emmy, and Grammy-award winning superstar Billy Porter to cheer your soul. I recently chatted with the triple threat about the importance of service, the power of giving back, and how style can be used as a tool of activism.

My conversation with the Pose star came about because of his recent collaboration with PayPal’s Giving Tuesday and Giving Better campaigns. Started in 2012, these initiatives have grown into global generosity movements that are powering people and organizations to transform their communities for the better. Porter is a new ambassador for the campaign, which he says feels like a natural fit.

“Being a person who grew up in the church, one of the things I learned first was that giving was the only way to live,” Porter told me about his decision to team up with PayPal. “I’m excited to get that message out to the world in this time in which we seem so divided. It’s about us coming together, giving, and paying it forward to make this world a better place.”

Billy Porter
Michael Simon

While the idea of “paying it forward” can be intimidating for folks who don’t necessarily have the extra funds to give to charitable organizations, Mr. Porter stressed to me that it’s not always about money. In fact, his whole giving ethos is rooted in something else entirely: Actively showing up for yourself and others.

“You just have to show up,” he explained. “You have to show up for your life. You have to get off Facebook, get off Instagram, you have to stop comparing yourself to other people and just simply show up.”

“It’s not about what they did that I can’t do,” he continued. “It’s not about that. It’s about, I’m here, this is what I have, this is how I give. It’s personal. It has to be personal. It has to be connected to the personal without validation from the outside.”

Giving back, then, is as much a meditation on the individual as it is on the community. By digging into the specifics of who you are and what you have to offer, you can discover what your unique service language is. If you’re a painter, the logic goes, you might design a mural for an elementary school. If you’re a numbers guy, maybe you help folks with their taxes. And if you’re Billy Porter, you might just give back through the way you dress.

If you’re a red carpet fiend like I am, chances are you’re already familiar with some of the iconic looks Porter served up in 2019. While varied in tone, extravagance, and scale, they’ve all been unified by the ways in which they challenged and commented on ideas of gender, sexuality, and race. They’ve also lit up headlines and scored a great deal of media attention.

Billy Porter at the 2019 Met Gala
Billy Porter at the 2019 Met Gala Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

As a queer style writer, it’s something I noticed, and something I was curious to know more about. Specifically, I was interested in hearing whether or not there was a link between Porter’s activism and the fashion choices he makes. In short, there is. In long … there definitely is.

“There’s a conscious choice for everything that I do,” he explained. “Just so we’re clear: Everything you see and everything I’m doing is intentional. Always, forever. So, yes … my goal is to be a walking piece of activism every time I show up on a red carpet.”

As Porter deftly told me near the end of our conversation: “Every day of my life is service.” It’s the throughline that connects his fashion to his work on Pose, his much-anticipated turn as the Fairy Godmother in the forthcoming live-action Cinderella, and his partnership with PayPal. It’s a style of giving back that truly keeps on giving, and one to which we’re all supremely lucky to bear witness.

For more service tips, check out our guide to giving back during the holidays!