NEW YORK — While all haircuts are important, the one Billy Porter got late last week was even more critical: It was his last trim before Sunday’s Tony Awards.
“I just need a trim,” he tells stylist Valjean Guerra, crunching his hair with both hands to show the textured look he hopes to maintain. “I want to keep the same shape.”
Porter, nominated for best actor in a musical for his role as a drag queen in “Kinky Boots,” then settled into a leather chair in a chic Harlem salon for an hour of pampering before a cast album party and another grueling show.
It was nine days before the Tonys – the perfect amount of time to wash and trim what he calls his “chunky thing.” If done too close to the awards, his haircut might look forced.
“I like it to breathe a little bit. I don’t want it to look so clean or too perfect,” he says. “I like it to look clean but not like I got my hair cut yesterday. You know what I mean? Hair is actually a little bit better when it’s a little dirtier.”
Smiling nearby is Brenda Braxton, a Tony-nominated actress who owns the luxury men’s spa BBraxton where Porter sits. A veteran of “Chicago” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” Braxton has known Porter for decades. After comparing foot pains and calluses, she confesses that she’s giddy that people are finally recognizing his talent.
“Very seldom do you get people who know what it’s about and respect the business,” she says. “We don’t always get it when we think we’re going to get it, but we get it. He’s paid his dues. It’s his time.”
Making sure his Tony look is just right isn’t just about vanity for Porter. He’s also showing respect. The Tony Awards in 1982 changed his life as an 11-year-old boy.
He grew up in the Pentecostal Church in Pittsburgh, and “it always felt like there was a calling on my life.” He had dabbled a bit in theater, but never connected to traditional Broadway music. He had a higher goal.
“When you grow up in the church, the only translation in that insular world that people understand is preaching. You’re supposed to be a minister. So I was going down that path and then I saw the Tonys.”
On the telecast, Porter watched Jennifer Holliday, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Loretta Devine and other cast members from “Dreamgirls” perform “It’s All Over” and “And I’m Telling You (I’m Not Going).”
What he saw were beautiful African-Americans in unbelievable costumes singing powerful songs. He was hooked. “It was a moment where I realized, ‘Oh, my ministry is that. A version of that.’ ”
He was named the 1992 male champion on “Star Search,” graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and showed up in New York 23 years ago with a voice that could break glass. Then he lost his way.
“I played my trump card,” he says. His voice was amazing – a “blow-the-roof-off-the-joint-and-stop-the show kind of thing.” To land jobs, he would play that card, assuming he could then show off his other gifts.
He earned Broadway roles, “Miss Saigon,” “Five Guys Named Moe,” “Grease” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” among them. But proving he was more than just a singing voice proved difficult.
“The expansion wasn’t actually happening. I found myself in jobs that felt limiting,” he says. “I realized pretty quickly that I was going to have to do something on my end to change the perception of the kind of artist that I am.”
How? “I was going to have to disappear.”
Porter left the stage – for 13 years. He went to graduate school at UCLA’s screenwriting program and moved to Los Angeles for several years, becoming the artistic director of the Upright Cabaret.
He re-imagined “The Wiz” at the Byham Theater in Pittsburgh and conceived the Las Vegas musical revue “Signed, Sealed, Delivered: The Music of Stevie Wonder” in 2002. He played Little Richard in the CBS miniseries “Shake, Rattle & Roll.” He was testing his own skills.
“It challenged me to understand my creativity in a different way,” he says. “I had to embrace that side of myself before I could require anybody else to see me differently.”
What brought him back to the New York stage permanently was a play that had changed his life years ago. When he was in “Grease,” Porter managed to get to the adjacent theater to see “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s riotous, almost operatic masterpiece. Porter adored the role of Belize, a left-leaning gay black nurse and former drag queen.
“There was finally a representation of me onstage – a black, gay, Christian, out man,” he says. “I had never seen that portrayed onstage before.”
Some 18 years later, he won the part of Belize when the Signature Theatre Company revived the seven-hour epic in 2010. “I got an opportunity to actually play my dream role,” he says.
These days, you can find Porter, 43, playing Lola, the soul of “Kinky Boots,” the Cyndi Lauper musical about a British shoe factory that retrofits itself into a maker of footwear for drag queens.
Fun and glitzy, the show is at heart about opening your mind. It features two men from different worlds who learn to trust each other, forgive their fathers’ wrongs and change the world.
“This role encompasses all that I asked the universe for,” Porter says. “I asked for a role that meant something to me, that fed my soul. A character in a show that had an impact, some sort of social impact. And I get to do my own British accent. And fierce clothes.”
To win the Tony, Porter has to beat Bertie Carvel of “Matilda The Musical,” Santino Fontana from “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” Rob McClure from “Chaplin” and his own co-star Stark Sands. (“He is truly my rock. We’re a team. If either one of us win, we both win,” Porter says.)
All Tony nominees have earned the honor, but Porter seems to have especially done so: He dances in 6-inch heels and changes in and out of wigs and dresses all night. He goes to physical therapy twice a week and gets a massage every seven days. He relies on ice and bath salts to reduce swelling.
“You have to be completely aware of your body,” he says. “I try to stay ahead of whatever is creeping up. We’re doing things to our body that is unnatural. We’re athletes. If you think of a baseball player or a football player, none of them play eight days a week.”
His haircut finished and his sideburns nearly sculpted, Porter’s smock is removed and he takes a look in the mirror. The new trim complements his geek chic outfit – bow tie, knee-length shorts, patterned socks and glasses.
“Good,” he pronounces as his hands dig into his hair, gently messaging his scalp as if aerating soil. “You’ve got to work with it. That’s why I wanted to get it a week before.”