Sometimes indelible pop culture impressions are made in a very short time. Yvonne Craig played Batgirl for just one season — the third and final — of the 1966-’68 TV series “Batman,” yet it’s the role she’s best known for nearly 50 years later.
And although the character appeared once on the big screen (in the oft-derided 1997 movie “Batman & Robin” in which she was portrayed by Alicia Silverstone), it is Craig, by far, who is most identified with the role.
Craig, 77, was a steadily working actress throughout the 1960s and beyond racking up appearances on “Perry Mason,” “The Barbara Stanwyck Show,” “My Three Sons,” “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” and — donning head-to-toe green body paint — as Marta, an Orion slave girl, in the classic “Star Trek” episode “Whom Gods Destroy.” She also played opposite Elvis Presley in two feature films — “It Happened at the World’s Fair” (1963) and “Kissin’ Cousins” (1964). She was brought on “Batman” for the 1967-’68 season to play Commissioner Gordon’s librarian daughter Barbara whose alter ego Batgirl could be counted on to ward off villains with Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward).
After years of legal wrangling, the series was finally released on DVD and Blu-ray last November. That was our initial peg for reaching out to Craig, but several delays including gall bladder surgery for the otherwise-healthy actress, pushed things back. We spoke to her by phone from her Los Angeles home two weeks ago. Quick to laugh and always ready to launch into a funny anecdote, Craig — who’s straight and happily married — was willing to indulge any inquiry. Her comments have been edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: Have you lived most of your adult life in Los Angeles?
YVONNE CRAIG: Yes. We moved up to Nevada, to south Lake Tahoe, about three years ago and we moved back last year and I’m so grateful to be back. You can only look at so many trees and eventually you say, “Where’s the classical music? Where’s the ballet company? Where’s the art museum?” Well, they’re not there.
BLADE: Let’s start with “Star Trek.” Sci-fi fans in general are often so ardent and you had such a major role on one of the most famous episodes of the iconic original series yet I’m sure for you at the time, it was just another job. What’s it like when you meet fans and they assume you’re going to be a walking encyclopedia of “Star Trek” ephemera?
CRAIG: Well, it’s been lovely for me and I loved the part. I did a convention where a young woman came up to my room to walk me down to where I was supposed to do a Q&A and I said to her, “There are so many weird people here,” and she said, “We’re all weird, we’re all misfits and the reason we like this is because we can all get together and understand one another and it’s the only place we’re really accepted by our peers.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s really insightful.” … I’ve always liked the fans and they’ve been charming to me. It’s just when they come up and say to me, “Do you remember the third rock on the left in the such and such,” and I say to them, “You know what? I’ve only seen two ‘Star Treks.’ One was mine and the other was ‘The Trouble with Tribbles,’” you know, the furry little things. (I’m told) “Whom Gods Destroy” is the second most popular episode after “Trouble with Tribbles.”
BLADE: Was it hard to relax between takes with the green body paint?
CRAIG: No, but getting it off at night was a disaster. I started with a shower at the studio, then I had to go home and take an oil bath, then take another shower. I think if I were doing it today, I would have just slept very carefully somewhere at the studio.
BLADE: Aren’t you glad you didn’t have to play her for several seasons?
CRAIG: Oh, wouldn’t that be horrible? We also had trouble making it stick during the day. We were at our wits’ end and it’s like the fourth day and finally … we found a makeup guy who could make it stick. He wasn’t really supposed to do it because at the time male makeup artists were not allowed to put body makeup on women, but I didn’t care. We brought him in and sure enough, he did the last two days and it never moved. It was great but we never told because he could have been fired. It’s so sexist I can’t believe it.
BLADE: Have you followed the various “Batman” film adaptations over the years? Do you have much interest in that?
CRAIG: Yes, I do. I liked Michael Keaton. I just loved him but in the second one, he got stuck with the Penguin and it had, like, six endings. You think it’s over and the Penguin is gone and he would come back spitting ink again. So I just knew immediately why when Michael Keaton said he’s not doing anymore, I knew immediately why. Who wants to be second banana to a penguin? … I thought George Clooney was just going to be terrific … and I thought Chris O’Donnell … would be a good match … then you get to the movie and it’s just awful. I don’t know what was going on, if George Clooney was just doing too many things at the same time so he didn’t think this out or something. Every time they mentioned that Alfred was ill, no Alfred isn’t just sick, Alfred is going to die, he just had this smirk. I’m like, “What’s funny about that? This is the man who brought you up, what is going on?” And then Chris O’Donnell just kept whining about a car and I thought, “God, I hate this movie.” I actually thought Alicia Silverstone would just be darling as Batgirl and I wrote her a note and said, “You’ll just knock ‘em dead.” … First of all, they made her whole relationship she was Alfred’s niece or something instead of Commissioner’s daughter, which was screwy, then they put them all in these Robocop outfits so they couldn’t even move, it was horrible. I didn’t like Val Kilmer but once they got Christian Bale, I loved it. I mean I really like him. He’s an excellent actor. So yeah, I keep up with them.
BLADE: They’ve gotten so dark. Why?
CRAIG: Well, when we first started there were people who remembered the (serial) films from the 1940s or whenever they did them and that was dark. So I think they are kind of of their time. We were busy being hippies and throwing flowers and love and peace and all of that and people were offended. They said, “This isn’t what Batman should be.” Those were the diehard ones. Now they’re all dead because it was a long time ago. The one with Michael Keaton, I thought was pretty dark and a couple of times you couldn’t see who was fighting whom, so you weren’t invested. If you can’t see who the villains are and who the good guys are, you lost interest. Then they got lighter for a while but our times have changed. I think we’re going back to dark because these are darker times. We have drive-by shootings and terrorists with no conscience. So I don’t know what the next thing might look like but I bet it will be scary.
BLADE: I guess “Batman v. Superman” (slated for 2016 release) is next.
CRAIG: Oh is it? Well, I may have to see that one.
BLADE: Should Batgirl be in it too? Do you feel any investment in these things as you hear of them?
CRAIG: No. I loved doing the role. I liked the way the writers wrote her. When people come up and say she was a role model, I always think, “Wow, I wish I had one of the writers next to me to hear this” because they’re really the ones who wrote this. Everybody forgets that the actor can only do anything with what they’re given. Writers never get the esteem they should have.
BLADE: Yes, but so many of the actors on the ‘60s show really became synonymous with the parts. When we think of the Riddler, we think of Frank Gorshin, we think of Cesar Romero (the Joker), we think of you as Batgirl and of Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt as Catwoman. Why did that series have such impact?
CRAIG: Well it was a top-rated show and nothing had ever been seen before that looked quite like that. It was really a comic book that was live action so you saw “bam” and “pop” and all of those things you saw in a comic book. The colors were brilliant and they had this crazy thing where when the villain entered the camera was tilted. So it was innovative and unique for its time. There were a lot of things only the adults would have understood, double entendres, … yet it was safe to watch with kids because it wasn’t violent. You’re not seeing body parts and blood and guts and people shoot one another. … As far as being attached, I was only in the third season and I had a body of work before and I didn’t have a problem at all doing other things. I think Adam (West) was a whole other story because he has a very distinctive speech cadence. (Imitates West) “That’s just the way he talked — (pauses) — citizens.” When he’d go read for other parts, they just thought he was doing Batman so he had a hard time getting hired. … Now he’s doing voiceovers and it’s working for him again and I like that. He’s a nice man.
BLADE: Was the costume stretchy?
CRAIG: It was. I was used to being in leotards, so it was perfect for me. … It was easy to work in, easy to get in and out of and I did stunts, so it was easy to dance in, kick in and all those things. I had no problem with it. Lee Meriwether (Catwoman briefly in 1966) and I were on a panel together once and she said that was the most uncomfortable costume she has ever worn and it was kind of the same as mine, that same stretch fabric. I think it just has to do with whether you were used to wearing leotards or not and I was.
BLADE: Did you keep anything, the costume or any props or anything?
CRAIG: No, because it didn’t belong to me.
BLADE: That was your own hair as Barbara?
CRAIG: Yes. I told them I didn’t mind being a redhead as long as it was a wig, which it was and you saw it very prominently displayed in her secret room. A friend of mine at the time wanted to set me up with this guy. I was single then. She told him, “She plays Batgirl.” And he said, “Oh, well I like the little brunette better.” And I thought, “Oh he’s too dumb to go out with.”
BLADE: Was it a fairly chummy set?
CRAIG: Oh yes, the happiest set I’d been on since “Mod Squad.” … It was terrific. The cast liked one another, the crew liked one another and we all loved having all of these people on we’d never have worked with otherwise. I never would have worked with Milton Berle or Ethel Merman (otherwise). And they all loved it too because it was so different from anything else they’d ever done. It was a happy place to go to work every day.
BLADE: Burt’s (Robin) memoir was quite interesting.
CRAIG: Yes. I think he had a very vivid fantasy life.
BLADE: His (“Boy Wonder: My Life in Tights”) was quite different from yours (“From Ballet to the Batcave and Beyond”).
CRAIG: It was. He had asked me to write the foreword for his. I said sure, send it to me. He never did. He’d call and read me funny things and finally we were getting tight on time. I was leaving the country and he said he needed it so I sent him something that said, “I have not read this book.” (“Batman” writer) Stanley Ralph Ross said, “You can’t write a foreword to a book you haven’t read,” so I read the book and it was just relentlessly sexual. Even if it were true and it wasn’t, nobody wants to think of their little Robin as this voracious satyr. … I know there are different takes on things, but I can tell you truly in the third season, nothing happened on that set, nothing. And I can almost guarantee you nothing happened the first two seasons either. Now what they did when they were out on the road, I have no idea but as far as it happening on the set — he claimed he was behind scenery — but we were there working, they had somebody building on the next set we were going to use and we had stunt people, including me, off in a corner trying to figure out the fight scene. We shot those in three days. I mean it was just gangbusters, go! So I don’t know where he found the space or the time and I never saw any of it. … Plus we had children visiting the set almost every day.
BLADE: Would you have continued on another three or four seasons had it been renewed?
CRAIG: I would have. I loved doing it.
BLADE: How far into the season were you when you heard it wasn’t being renewed?
CRAIG: We had a wrap party for the third season and we all went home thinking we would be picked up and only when it was time to start shooting again did I hear we weren’t. So we never really had an over party. We just went home for Thanksgiving or Christmas or one of those and we didn’t know. And of course, we didn’t know 50 years later people were still going to be talking about it. We just said, “OK, on to the next job. What else do you have lined up for me?” because that’s the way the business runs.
BLADE: Alan Napier (Alfred) said once that Eartha Kitt (Catwoman on the third season) was “kind of marvelous” but complained a lot on the set. Agree?
CRAIG: I don’t know. In the scenes I had with her, she wasn’t complaining at all. She was a woman, oh boy, who was I would say rather conflicted and very insecure so who knows, she might have complained and he might have heard her or he might have had more down time sitting with her than I did because usually when I wasn’t shooting, I was off with the stunt people. But no. One time we did some kind of reunion-type thing and my husband was excited to meet her and she was just so nervous about doing this, I don’t know, it was like a talk show or something. And she said, “I’m sorry, I can’t meet him, I can’t meet anyone, I have to get myself together for this.” And I thought, “How strange — this is just a talk show.” But you know, her background was not wonderful. I can see it. You’re black, you’re in America, you purportedly said something not very nice to the first lady (Lady Bird Johnson). I didn’t see anything wrong with what she said, she was just asking a question. But you know, it probably adds up.
BLADE: I know you didn’t work with Julie Newmar (Catwoman, first two seasons) on the show but you’ve made appearances with her at various events since then. Have you gotten to know her at all?
CRAIG: Not really. At the conventions she’s done, she always arrives late but she has a great work ethic. Somebody said to her one day, “OK, Julie, so when you get up, what do you do?” And she said (slipping into Newmar’s purry voice) “Well — pauses — I put on a little makeup — pauses — and then I have some coffee …” And I figured, “OK, well, that’s why she’s always late,” but I’ll tell you what, she’s wonderful with the fans and she will stay until the last person sees her. There are a lot I could mention who don’t do that, so I think she and I have the best work ethic of the group.
BLADE: It was obviously such intentional camp. You seemed to play it very earnestly. Was it hard to find the right tone with the material?
CRAIG: No. I played it completely straight and that’s the clue. I think if the material is completely over the top, you play it straight and that makes it funny for the audience. If you play it with a wink, then it isn’t funny. This tends to happen a lot with child actors.
BLADE: Were you happy to see it finally released?
CRAIG: Yes. We don’t get any residuals or anything because, of course, there was no such thing as DVDs back then. I probably won’t watch it, but I’m glad to see it out. I live in the present and I don’t look back other than to say, “Well, that was a wonderful experience,” and if it weren’t a wonderful experience, as in the case of, say, Bill Shatner (Kirk on “Star Trek”), who I don’t think ever allowed anyone to have a wonderful experience with his acting, I just feel we only have a certain amount of time and I don’t want to spend it looking back.
BLADE: I saw a photo not long ago of you with Bill Bixby (“The Incredible Hulk”) and you were in a bathing suit. What was that from?
CRAIG: We were on “Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and “My Favorite Martian” together but I was never in a bathing suit. In those days, God, I sound like such a codger, they had Photoplay and these fan magazines, so they would set up these photo shoots. One time Adam took me out on his boat and we took pictures but it was just for photos, I had never been on his boat before or after.
BLADE: But you and Bill were friendly?
CRAIG: We dated! … We remained friends, but it just wasn’t a good match.
BLADE: They kept casting you as different girlfriends of Dobie Gillis. Did that seem odd to you at the time?
CRAIG: I don’t remember thinking that. I think I just thought, “Oh, I get to play somebody new.” Dwayne Hickman (Dobie) still cracks me up. My husband doesn’t understand it. He looks at me and says, “He’s not that funny,” and I just say, “To me, he is.” It’s like George Burns or Jack Benny. All I have to do is look at Dwayne and I laugh. I did four “Dobies,” I think. It’s really weird when I tell people who all I worked with. Once I even worked with (silent screen legend) Francis X. Bushman on (“Dobie” episode) “The Flying Millicans.” He played my father. He had this long gray hair and we were trapeze artists. To think that I actually worked with somebody who was in silent films!
BLADE: Lynda Carter said once that DC Comics reached out to her when they were going to change the Wonder Woman costume. Have they ever lent you any sort of Batgirl emeritus status or consulted you on anything over the years?
CRAIG: No, not at all.
BLADE: Both “Star Trek” and “Batman” were modest hits during their original runs but went crazy in syndication and ran forever. Any theories on why?
CRAIG: I honestly couldn’t tell you. I haven’t the foggiest idea. We only went three seasons and we were a mid-season replacement so it wasn’t even like they were long seasons. Some of those Westerns went on for like 22 years or something crazy.
BLADE: Like “Gunsmoke.”
CRAIG: Yes. And I hated doing Westerns.
BLADE: Did you do many?
CRAIG: Oh yeah, a whole slew of ‘em. “Wagon Train,” “Bronco.” As long as the horse hits his mark, they don’t care what you say. They figure, “OK, the horse is in place, she’s up there, we can always loop it.” It’s all predicated on a horse.
BLADE: Do you see any homoerotic subtext in Batman and Robin, either on the show or in any other incarnation?
CRAIG: I never really felt there was. I think a lot of people who were reading into that were not gay. It’s the homophobes who would say, “You know, an older man, I bet he’s diddling that kid.” People who do not understand homosexuality at all.
BLADE: Did you have a favorite villain?
CRAIG: Oh yes, Vincent Price (Egghead). Not because of the villainy, but any time you had down time with Vince Price, he was just wonderful. He was bright, he was curious, he had a great sense of humor, he knew a lot about art, he knew a lot about ballet. He was just very well informed and you knew he kept up.
BLADE: Did you know he was gay at the time?
BLADE: How did you feel when you heard Elvis had died?
CRAIG: Oh dear. Well first, he was just the sweetest man. He was so polite and he took all this unsolicited advice from me, what he should do with his hair, crazy stuff like that. … When he died, the Dallas Morning News called me up, I was seeing my future husband at the time, and this reporter said (slipping into exaggerated Southern accent), “How did you feel when Elvis died, were you just devastated?” I said, “Well, no, because I think dead is really a thing just like alive except you have less choices to make.” And there was this dead silence. Finally she said, (returning to accent), “OK, well thank you very much.” He said to me, “Nobody understands what you mean when you say that,” and I just said, “Well, that’s her problem.” I was sorry he died so young. There’s a group up in San Francisco that are just huge Elvis fans. They have his leading ladies up to talk and I’ve been there and then they have an impersonator come out. When I was there, it was Elvis Herselvis, this rather fat, gay woman. She does a wonderful job.
BLADE: Have you kept much career memorabilia?
CRAIG: No, nothing. When I did the book, all the photos were from fans who’d sent them to me at one time or another. When Capital Cities bought ABC, they sent me a whole stack of pictures they were just going to otherwise throw away and said, “Do you want them?” But that was it. I don’t keep stuff. I probably don’t have much of a sentimental bone in my body.
Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington celebrates 40th anniversary with virtual concert, retrospective
Veteran choir soldiers undeterred through pandemic with Zoom rehearsals
GMCW Turns 40
Streaming begins Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m.
Available through June 20
Discussion of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington quickly becomes emotional for its members both veteran and newbie(-ish). They’re the kind of strong feelings that only exist when one has sacrificed and invested in something.
“It’s an experience that touches our soul in a way that not that many LGBTQ+ people get to experience,” says tenor Javon Morris-Byam, a gay 28-year-old music teacher who joined three years ago. “We have music tying us together and in the end, we make a product that we can share with the public and that’s a humbling experience.”
Steve Herman, 79, is a founding member, though he doesn’t sing. One of a group of “non-singing members,” he joined in June 1981 and has helped over the decades painting scenery, designing ads, serving on the board and more. His partner at the time had joined the chorus as a singer.
Now retired after 47 years in the federal government, he says the Chorus “has been a major centerpiece of my life.”
“This may sound corny, but I couldn’t imagine my life without the chorus,” Herman says.
The chorus is celebrating its 40th anniversary this weekend with a streaming concert simply dubbed “GMCW turns 40” that can be streamed starting Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m. and can be viewed until June 20.
Selections will include “From Now On” (from “The Greatest Showman”), “Rise Up,” “Make Them Hear You” (from “Ragtime”), “Truly Brave” and a new song called “Harmony’s Never Too Late!” written for the occasion by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, composers of “Ragtime.” Video clips of past performances will also be included in a montage. Tickets are $25 at gmcw.org.
Thea Kano, the Chorus’s artistic director since 2014 (she was associate director for a decade prior), says “Make Them Hear You” has “kind of become our anthem over the last 10 years,” so contacting its composers for a commission made sense. They premiered it last summer virtually at the Chorus’s Summer Soiree, a COVID-induced postponement of its usual Spring Affair.
Kano, a straight ally, directs the Chorus with aid from Associate Conductor C. Paul Heins, Assistant Conductor Joshua Sommerville and accompanist Teddy Guerrant. Justin Fyala has been the Chorus’s executive director since 2016. Staff also includes Craig Cipollini (director of marketing), Kirk Sobell (director of patron services) and Alex Tang (accompanist).
Under the main Chorus umbrella are five ensembles: 17th Street Dance, a 14-member performance troupe started in 2016; Rock Creek Singers, a 32-voice chamber ensemble; GenOUT Youth Chorus, a teen choir of about 25; Potomac Fever, a 14-member harmony pop ensemble; and Seasons of Love, a 24-voice gospel choir.
Musically, the Chorus’s repertoire is eclectic.
“(We sing) everything from spiritual to glam rock to punk to traditional classical, and everything in between,” Morris-Byam says. “I love when the chorus is all together and able to produce a big powerful sound.”
Kano says working with Fyala is “a dream” and says under his leadership the Chorus is “in a very healthy financial place, which is wonderful and a very humble thing to be able to say right now particularly given that we’re in a pandemic — that’s not the case with a lot of arts organizations.”
The D.C. Chorus is a quasi-unofficial spin off of its San Francisco counterpart. During an early ’80s national tour, the San Francisco group performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center and had a profound effect on local audiences. Marsha Pearson, a straight woman who lived in Dupont Circle at the time and enjoyed hanging out with gay men, was one such person.
“I couldn’t believe we didn’t have one of these,” she told the Blade 10 years ago for a story on the Chorus’s 30th anniversary. “I thought, ‘We’re the nation’s capital, how come we don’t have this?’”
She hand wrote fliers — four to a sheet — had her sister photocopy them at her office, cut them up by hand and passed them out at Capital Pride in 1981. Accounts vary about how many showed up to the first practice at the long-defunct gay community center (no connection to the D.C. Center) on Church Street. Pearson remembers about 30. Others say it was more like 15-ish. It was June 28, 1981 and, by all accounts, an innocuous beginning.
Pearson never sang with the group — it was exclusively a men’s chorus. She asked if anybody had any conducting experience. The late Jim Richardson did and became the first director.
“I still remember the first chord,” Pearson told the Blade in 2011. “It was just a simple thing, you know, like do, mi, so, do, but I just got goosebumps. I was just elated that even one note came out, I was so excited. I got those same goosebumps at the anniversary concert last weekend. I put their CDs on and I get the same thing, especially on certain things they sing. You just can’t believe it sounds so great.”
COVID has, of course, wreaked havoc on the operation. Thankfully, Kano says, no members have died from it, though a handful (she says fewer than 10 that she knows of), including Kano, have had it and recovered.
The Chorus continued its Sunday evening rehearsals via Zoom, which, because of the precision required for musical performance, was tougher to take online than, say, a business meeting. It never occurred to the Chorus leadership to take a hiatus.
“I look back now like, ‘Why didn’t we take some time off,’ but I think off the top of my head at the time it was like, “We sing and we’re a social justice organization and community is such a big part of who we are,’” Kano says. “And so for suddenly, with no notice, to have something that we love so much and are so passionate about …. to suddenly just turn the lights off, that wasn’t even an option.”
With the Chorus and dancers and GenOUT, there are about 200 current volunteer performers. It’s been slightly higher at times. Some were deterred by the thought of rehearsing via Zoom although some former members no longer in the D.C. area — even a few overseas — rejoined when virtual participation became possible.
The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement last summer and beyond was a galvanizing event. The Chorus responded with its “Let Freedom Sing” concert, which Kano says celebrated the intersection of Black and LGBTQ people.
“It was our way of saying we raise our voice in solidarity with those facing injustice,” Kano says.
But does that get messy at times? Surely not everyone in a choir of this size is on the same page politically, even in a progressive city like D.C., right?
As a nonprofit, the Chorus avoids anything ostensibly political. Kano says the issue did arise when they were invited to sing at a Virginia-based gun-reform event last year. They participated, but carefully.
“So anytime you mentioned guns, it becomes political,” Kano says. “It’s not about whether or not we support the Second Amendment. It’s us standing in solidarity with those who have been victims of gun violence.”
Kano says there’s “a very good chance had this been a non-pandemic year,” they would have been invited to sing at the Biden-Harris inauguration, which she says they “absolutely” would have agreed to.
“We did wonder, though, a few years ago what we would have said if 45 were to ask us,” she says. “We didn’t spend a lot of time on it because we knew that wasn’t gonna happen,” she says with a chuckle.
Herman says performing at big, pro-LGBTQ “statement”-type events is woven into the Chorus’s history and is understood.
“Every Christmas Eve, we’d sing for the patients at NIH,” he says. “We still do, only then it was primarily AIDS patients. We sang special concerts when the (AIDS) Quilt was first displayed and when there was a March on Washington. We did a lot of community work and outreach at a time when it was really needed.”
Morris-Byam says even today, with so much progress having been made, the Chorus still is needed. He, by the way, calls Kano “one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve ever met.”
“I believe the Chorus is a strong political statement in itself,” he says. “When we’re making a strong, joyful noise, it’s celebrating everything we are, what we can be, and everyone who has gotten us where we are.
There have been challenges over the years — finding new office space, patching together individual vocal parts for virtual performances — but no warring factions. Kano is, by most accounts, extremely well liked.
The future, Kano says, is bright. She hopes to resume in-person rehearsals in the fall. She spent a big chunk of early lockdown transcribing a Puccini “Gloria Mass” for tenor/bass chorus. She plans to program it with works by Cole Porter eventually.
Ultimately, Kano says, her goals for the Chorus are about making great art.
“Art comes first,” she says. “Because that’s how we deliver our mission. And if we put great art first, it’s going to attract great people. It’s going to both as members and as audience members and patrons, and therefore it’s going to attract great funding, and then all that goes right back into the arts we can further our expansion and our ability to get the mission out.”
Billy Porter talks about his HIV diagnosis and keeping secrets
The Tony, Emmy, and Grammy-Award winning actor revealed the secret he’s been keeping for 14 years in the Hollywood Reporter Wednesday
NEW YORK – Daytime talk show host Tamron Hall welcomed Broadway icon and star of the hit tv show “Pose,” Billy Porter on her show that aired Wednesday. The Tony, Emmy, and Grammy-Award winning actor revealed the secret he’s been keeping for 14 years that was made public in a piece for the Hollywood Reporter published Wednesday.
Porter discusses his HIV diagnosis from over a decade ago which the actor said he felt a sense of shame that compelled him to hide his condition from his castmates, collaborators and even his mother, and the responsibility that now has him speaking out. “The truth is the healing,” Porter said.
“I was on the precipice of obscurity for about a decade or so, but 2007 was the worst of it. By February, I had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. By March, I signed bankruptcy papers. And by June, I was diagnosed HIV-positive,” he wrote. “The shame of that time compounded with the shame that had already [accumulated] in my life silenced me, and I have lived with that shame in silence for 14 years. HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God’s punishment,” the actor wrote.
Final season of ‘Pose’ is must-see TV that matters
Groundbreaking FX drama has left its mark
When the COVID pandemic hit in the early months of 2020, there were certainly more pressing and essential worries for us to grapple with than how it would impact the next season of a TV show. Yet it’s a testament to the power of “Pose” that many among its legion of fans were at least as concerned about the show’s disruption as they were about the possibility of running out of toilet paper.
The powerhouse FX drama — which spotlights the legends, icons and ferocious house mothers of New York’s underground ball culture in the late 1980s — had already made history. Not only did it feature the largest cast of transgender actors in regular roles, it boasted the largest recurring cast of LGBTQ actors ever included in a scripted series. In its first two seasons, the show racked up accolades and honors (including a Primetime Emmy for Billy Porter as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series) while breaking new ground for the inclusion and representation of queer people — and especially transgender people of color — in television, both in front of the camera, and behind it. With the end of its second season in August 2019, fans were hungry for a third — but thanks to COVID, its future was suddenly in question.
So, when word came that the show’s third season would have its debut on May 2, it was the best news since finding out the vaccines were finally going to start rolling out. But it was bittersweet: Along with confirmation of the series’ imminent return came the sad revelation that the new season would also be the last. “Pose” would be coming to an end with a final, seven-episode arc.
As any viewer of show can attest, there were a lot of threads left hanging when last we saw its characters. That means there’s a lot of ground to cover in these last chapters in order to give everyone — characters and audience alike — the closure they deserve.
The show’s official synopsis goes like this: It’s now 1994 and ballroom feels like a distant memory for Blanca, who struggles to balance being a mother with being a present partner to her new love, as well as her latest role as a nurse’s aide. Meanwhile, as AIDS becomes the leading cause of death for Americans ages 25 to 44, Pray Tell contends with unexpected health burdens. Meanwhile, a vicious new upstart house is emerging in the ballroom world, and the members of the House of Evangelista are forced to contend their legacy.
Obviously, there are a lot of details left hidden in that broad overview, and fans are undoubtedly full of questions about what they can expect to see.
Fortunately, the bulk of the show’s main cast convened on Zoom last week (along with show co-creator and Executive Producer Steven Canals and Executive Producer Janet Mock) for a press conference to discuss their “Pose” experience, and while they didn’t exactly give away any spoilers, they definitely dropped some tantalizing hints about what’s in store for audiences in the farewell season.
In truth, most of the discussion was dominated by reminiscences and expressions of mutual appreciation, sure signs that the feeling of family we see onscreen is something that has taken hold off screen, as well. But in between the affectionate banter, the cast and creatives addressed several questions that might be most on viewers’ minds.
Perhaps the most pressing of these — why, after only three seasons, is the critic-and-audience-acclaimed show calling it quits? — was taken on by Canals, who explained:
“I always knew what the beginning and what the end of the narrative would be. And when Ryan Murphy and I first met in September of 2016, we felt really strongly that that particular narrative made sense. And so, while we certainly could have continued to create narrative around these characters and in this world, and we certainly had a conversation in the writers’ room about it … I think we all agreed that it just made sense for us to ‘land the plane,’ if you will, comfortably — as opposed to continuing to give an audience story that just simply didn’t have any real core intention or a real thrust towards specificity.”
Also of interest was the obvious subject of how the parallels between the current pandemic and the AIDS crisis that looms over the show’s narrative might be reflected in the new episodes. While he didn’t hint at any direct connections in “Pose,” Porter used the subject to underscore a theme that has always been one of the show’s most important elements:
“I think the parallels are quite profound. I know that as a Black gay man who lived through the AIDS crisis, I have been dealing with a lot of PTSD during this COVID time. It’s very reminiscent of what it was like then. The best news about that is that I survived. We got through it, and there is another side to it. We can get to the other side.
“I feel like that’s what ‘Pose’ really accomplishes this season, reminding the public that it’s when we come together and when we lead with love [that] we get to the other side.”
Mock elaborated on the theme of resilience by discussing the importance of showing the strength of House mothers like Blanca and Electra (Dominique Jackson), who hold together — and lift up — their entire community:
“It’s that matriarchal power and lineage that I think the ballroom is, and what trans women are to one another, that then feeds everyone else and enables them to shine and have all the things that they want in the world. For me, it is [about] that celebration […] of Black trans women — that they’ve created this space, that they brought everyone else in with them, and that, at the end of the day, they are often the ones most often forgotten.
“I think with this season, I want everyone across the industry, the audience, to realize that. I think it’s essential, and it’s important.”
Mock also talked about the way “Pose” focuses on the small, day-to-day lives of its characters as much as it does the larger-than-life splendor of the ballroom culture in which they participate:
“We wanted to ensure that we show the everyday, mundane moments, as well as the great, grand celebrations. The ballroom is are presentation of what it means to congregate and share testimony and to love on each other, and our show is a celebration of the everyday intimacies. So, for us, while we were plotting these big, grand moments […] we wanted to bring in traditions — weddings, matrimony, all this stuff — that our characters get to engage in. We wanted to be a part of the tradition of that, and all the moments that a family shares together. We wanted to make sure that all of those things were celebrated in this.”
When discussion turned to the unprecedented level of support and collaborative inclusion with which the show’s queer cast were bestowed by Ryan Murphy and the rest of the creative staff — from the presence of trans women like Mock and Co-producer Our Lady J in the writers’ room to the extensive reliance on the insights and talents of real-life members of the ballroom community — Jackson was quick to add that besides giving the show its ferocious authenticity, it gave her an increased recognition of her own worth:
“I will never, ever, ever walk into a space thinking that I need to impress them […] I will never walk into a space being fearful of my identity stopping me from anything. Because of this journey, when I walk into spaces now, my identity is not because I’m an abomination. My identity is a plus. My identity is my value. So, when I walk into spaces now,they need to impress me. You can be the biggest Hollywood director, producer, whatever, but you’re not going to take my story or relay stories that are reflective of my life or my existence and make them into anything you want, because of ‘Pose,’ because of Ryan, because of Steven, because of Janet and Brad [co-creator/executive producer Falchuk), because of Our Lady J, because of my cast members.
“I will never walk into spaces or live a life or an existence thinking that I need to impress anyone.”
Porter concurred, adding:
“There was never, ever a space in my brain to dream what‘Pose’ is, what Pray Tell is. I spent the first 25-plusyears of my career trying to fit into a masculinity construct that society placed on us so I could eat.‘Pose,’ and Pray Tell in particular, really taught me to dream the impossible […] the idea that the little, Black church sissy from Pittsburgh is now in a position of power in Hollywood in a way that never existed before. You can damn sure believe that I will be wielding that power and there will be a difference and a change in how things go from here on out.”
If the cast members themselves have found themselves feeling more empowered thanks to “Pose,” so too have the millions of LGBTQ people — and allies — who have tuned into it since its premiere in 2018. The show is one of those rare entries into the cultural lexicon that simply allows its queer and trans people to live authentic lives, giving long-withheld representation to countless viewers who were able to see themselves reflected back from the screen for perhaps the very first time. It’s that powerful sense of validation provided by “Pose” that keeps it standing tall in an entertainment market now providing so much LGBTQ inclusion that it’s becoming dangerously easy to take it for granted.
Whatever moments of heartbreak, joy, and celebration “Pose” brings us as it plays out its final act — and there are sure to be many — we can all be sure it will leave us with a message expressed through an oft-heard line of dialogue that Mock says she found herself writing “over and over again” during the series’ run:
“You are everything, and you deserve everything this world has to offer.” It’s that nurturing sentiment the “Pose” has been instilling in us from the beginning, like a mother to us all.
And that’s why so many of us can’t wait until the first two episodes of its final season air at 10 p.m. (both Eastern and Pacific), Sunday, May 2, on FX.
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