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The business of performing at Pride

Show me the money: Crowds expect big names but most events are non-profits

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Icona Pop, gay news, Washington Blade
Icona Pop, gay news, Washington Blade

Icona Pop perform at the 2013 Capital Pride Festival. (Washington Blade file photo by Tyler Grigsby)

When asked why she made Pittsburgh the site of her first Pride appearance in 2012 as opposed to a trendier city, out rocker Melissa Etheridge was matter of fact: “Pittsburgh showed me the money,” she told the crowd to a huge round of applause.

In retrospect, though, it wasn’t the stretch it might have seemed at first glance. Despite her industry cred as a Grammy-winning soul rocker with enough pop sensibility to have secured an impressive run of radio hits in the ‘90s, Etheridge has always projected a rootsy, blue-collar vibe much the same way Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp have straddled the heartland/A-lister fence for decades on end. And yet, for Pittsburgh Pride, it was a huge moment.

“She really was up there just preaching and having fun,” says Gary Van Horn, president of the board of the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh, the agency that produces Pittsburgh Pride. “She used the pulpit and she was speaking to her people.”

Van Horn says Etheridge was contracted to do a 75-minute set but ended up playing for about two-and-a-half hours. And although details of her contract are protected, as is the industry norm, by a confidentiality clause, Van Horn says he didn’t find her fee outrageous considering she travels with 11 people counting band members and manager, whose travel and hotel expenses have to be paid. After deciding in 2006 to move Pittsburgh Pride downtown and have a big-name headliner give a full concert-length set for which patrons would have to purchase tickets, Van Horn says he and his team couldn’t have been more pleased with Etheridge’s set.

“At the end of the day, I would be very, very shocked if she cleared more than thousands of dollars just knowing she had to pay everybody,” he says. “There is a thought process out there that they should be doing this for free since it’s a non-profit Pride event, but this is their job. This is how they pay their bills, they go and perform. Obviously it’s important to do charity work sometimes, but there are over 120 Pride events in the U.S. that I know of and we’re only talking about a handful of artists that are even remotely available to that group and the same handful of folks at every Pride organization wants them, so to just expect them to do it for free is just not feasible. We showed her the money because she needed to have that.”

The behind-the-scenes business of bringing celebrity entertainers in to perform at Pride events — historically seen as a stage for either up-and-comers or past-their-prime acts that haven’t had hits in years but to whom gay men have been traditionally loyal — is a dicey discussion. Obviously everybody wants to dream big and hope for a legend, but there are many factors involved: tour schedules, riders, appearance fees, whether the show is free or requires a ticket and more. Because the Capital Pride Festival is a free event, few would expect somebody of Beyonce’s caliber would be willing to give a free two-hour show. That hasn’t, however, stopped organizers — many of whom, like Van Horn, are volunteers — from exploring how many branches up the higher-hanging fruit sits.

“Of course I would always aim high and then get shot back down,” says Steve Henderson, a Capital Pride volunteer who worked for 17 years (his last year was 2013) on the entertainment planning committee. “Unless they were going for a pro bono show, we would never be able to get a Gaga, Britney or Madonna-like act. Not while it’s a free festival. Gaga is a minimum $1 million plus more riders than Pride could ever handle. She also required a 10-truck load in and performance rehearsals weeks in advance, which we cannot do since the stage is installed the evening of the festival. That has been the problem with the ‘A grade’ headliners.”

Henderson says he worked for years on a shoestring budget of about $15,000-20,000 at most for the day, a figure that had to include traveling expenses, lodging and everything. As you might imagine, most of the entertainers who play throughout the day on the Capital Pride main stage — the Gay Men’s Chorus, the drag cast at Ziegfeld’s, emcees such as Destiny Childs, etc. — donate their time. Corporate sponsorships and partnerships have given current organizers bigger budgets, he says. Ryan Bos, Capital Pride executive director, says he’s not allowed to disclose the budget for headliners.

Despite the challenges, Henderson, who now lives in Chicago, has many good memories and says he’s proud of the many acts they brought in over the years — RuPaul in 2009, Chely Wright in 2010, Deborah Cox in 2012 and Cher Lloyd, Emeli Sande and Icona Pop in 2013 and more.

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Cher Lloyd performs at the 2013 Capital Pride Festival. (Washington Blade file photo by Tyler Grigsby)

He says only two acts ever cancelled — Mya gave about three weeks’ notice citing a skiing accident in 2010. Chely Wright had just come out and was happy to fill in. The biggest nail biter, Henderson says, was Kelly Rowland’s 2011 cancellation about a week before the event. His years of working as a DJ with various record labels was always a help, but especially then, he says. Broadway belter Jennifer Holliday, who’d just sung with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington the week before, saved the day.

“I didn’t really have time to freak out, I just had to figure out who we were gonna get,” Henderson says. “Thankfully I knew Jennifer from past work and I literally called her within a minute of it happening. She was somebody we had discussed about being a headliner or a co-headliner but we didn’t have the budget to do both. We had landed Kelly, which was pretty huge since her song was so big at the time, we really felt we had a winner.”

Henderson says her camp gave no reason for the abrupt cancellation.

“It was just a real quick e-mail. ‘Sorry, not-gonna-be-able-to-make-it’-type thing. No reason.”

Bos says three years ago the team that now plans main stage entertainment opted for a different approach and now bring in three co-headliners who each perform 25-35-minute sets to give the event more of a festival concert-type feel.

“We did it to diversify, to set ourselves apart a little and to not throw all the eggs in one basket,” he says.

This year’s concert, co-presented with radio station Hot 99.5, will feature En Vogue, Wilson Phillips, Amber and Carly Rae Jepsen. He says ‘90s acts like the former two were purposefully chosen to dovetail with this year’s Flashback theme as it’s the 40th anniversary of Capital Pride. Last year’s lineup was Karmin, Bonnie McKee, DJ Cassidy and Betty Who.

Pride, gay news, Washington Blade

Betty Who performs at the 2014 Capital Pride Festival. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

And while there will always be a spot for yesterday’s hit makers at various Pride events — one recalls Inaya Day (“Nasty Girl”) who played Capital Pride in 2010 or Taylor Dayne (“Tell it to My Heart”) who’s found new life headlining Prides all over the Eastern Seaboard — Bos says the notion that Pride is a place for washed-up divas of yesteryear is an anachronism.

“I think that’s an old perception,” he says. “For artists who are trying to launch an album, Pride provides an opportunity to get in front of a huge community. For those who have been around a while, they know the support from the gay community so they see it as a way to give back, but that perception has been shifting for a while now and you see it at other Prides as well.”

Michael Musto, gay author and Musto! the Musical! columnist at out.com, agrees.

“It used to be unfairly thought of as a dubious career move to do Pride-related events, but as LGBT became more accepted, so did Pride,” he told the Blade. “Once big names started performing at the Pier dance after the parade here in New York City (for big money of course), there was no stigma at all. They can also work the parade itself or do any number of things around the country for Pride and it’s considered a good move for all involved.”

Van Horn says the caliber of talent at Pittsburgh Pride started an uptick after they brought in Tiffany in 2006 and Kimberley Locke in 2007. In recent years, besides Etheridge, they’ve brought in top acts like Adam Lambert and Patti LaBelle. This year’s headliner is Iggy Azalea.

He says overall the community understands and established acts like Etheridge and LaBelle bring in their own fan bases, people who ordinarily wouldn’t attend Pride.

“Of course, yeah, everybody wants Cher or Cyndi Lauper or J. Lo or Beyonce but they have to be realistic,” Van Horn says. “They’re in high demand and they get paid a lot. We have a list that continually gets updated via committee and we get suggestions from the community and then we start putting feelers out there with agents and management companies.”

He also says there are a bounty of expenses involved in bringing in household names that the general public would never think of such as the logistics of building a downtown stage for a one-off, lights, power, security, portable toilets, fencing, clean-up services — all in addition to the event itself. The Delta Foundation has one paid staff member and a host of volunteers.

“You’re a victim of your own success in a way,” he says. “You continue to attract more and more people and yet it’s also up to you to make sure they’re all safe and provided for as well. Our Sunday event attracts about 90,000 people so you have to make sure they’re all safe, have food to eat and drink throughout the day, the tents, tables and chairs — you have to provide all that.”

So what’s it like from the other side? Are there any unwritten industry rules for playing Pride events among artists and managers?

Howard Bragman, a gay PR veteran of Fifteen Minutes who’s worked with many LGBT acts, says not really. Several acts in his stable will be at various Prides this year including Chaz Bono who will appear at Toronto Pride with Lauper and Pussy Riot, and Ty Herndon who’s slated for Chicago Pride.

“I think it depends on the person and the moment,” Bragman says. “Somebody ends up in the news and comes out and suddenly all the Prides come after you. It’s a great honor. Even when they have to say no, it’s a great honor because you’re representing a community. … Nobody is offended. It’s a totally flattering moment.”

He says in New York and Los Angeles, where celebrities often live, it’s not uncommon for them to donate their time but if travel is involved, most Pride organizers know they’ll have to pay.

“It just depends,” he says. “But inevitably, yeah, it’s a family rate, it’s not their top-dollar corporate rate and for these people who have speaking engagements, generally it’s not just come in and ride in the parade for two hours. You come in the Friday before, there’s a reception, there are many interviews, sometimes on Saturday you cut the ribbon at the festival and then there’s the parade on Sunday. It’s a lot of work, but the best ones are the ones that are well organized and have been doing it a long time. Those are the ones they’re the happiest to do.”

Van Horn says it’s practically impossible to gauge how close Pride fees jell with rates the same artist would require for a regular appearance. Pride sets are typically much shorter than a normal show.

“There isn’t much data available on how much people pay for an artist because it’s all confidential,” he says. “Like at New York City Pride when Cher came out and sang four songs (in 2013), I know what Cher gets paid and I know New York City Pride wasn’t paying her typical fee.”

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Cher performs at New York Pride’s ‘Dance on the Pier’ in 2013. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Out singer-songwriter Eric Himan has played many Pride events since his first in South Florida in 2002. Now based in Tulsa, Okla., happily married and promoting his new album “Playing Cards,” he says Pride events have changed radically over the last decade or so.

“The thing about Pride is that Pride means something different to everybody and so every organizer has a different approach,” he says. “For some, it’s a rally. For others, it’s a day to get away from politics and just enjoy being out. The trajectory of how much Pride has changed from being something in the park that only gay people go to, to moving downtown and incorporating a lot of businesses and corporate sponsorships so it’s not just the gay bars sponsoring it, I’ve definitely noticed that change. So when you go in, you have to find out from the organizer what their idea of Pride is. I always viewed it as an opportunity to go be in my community and voice my ideas and concerns about how gay people fit into the world however you might go and everybody just wants a big dance party so you have to think about how you’re going to fit into that as the acoustic, live musician.”

He says there have been times the mid-tier musicians get shafted when various Pride committees spend the bulk of their budget to bring in a name act.

“Sometimes I’m glad to donate things, like CDs for a raffle or something like that,” he says. “My only concern is when I find out, ‘Oh hey, we just spent 80 grand on yada yada but will you play for free?,’ that’s kind of when I’m like, ‘That doesn’t seem correct.’ … When you go spend all your money on one person you wanted to bring, that’s when I get nervous about being a part of it.”

Playing for the exposure is a common bone some organizers toss, he says.

“Sometimes that’s OK but exposure is something you can’t really promise. What if it gets rained out that day? Well, there goes your exposure. Or what if the main act is at 12 that night, but they stick you on a stage next to it at 11 a.m.? Early on when you’re starting out as a musician, you don’t play for much money so the exposure works, but I’ve always found the times I’ve really gotten the best exposure have always been at paid gigs. I can’t recall one gig where they promised exposure and it was like, ‘Oh god, it worked out.’”

Pride, gay news, Washington Blade

Eric Himan performs at the Capital Pride Festival in 2013. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Henderson gets that but says over his 17-year tenure at Capital Pride, he guesses 70-80 percent of the acts, especially the community groups, donated their time.

“I had long-running relationships with a lot of these labels, so I was able to negotiate a lot of pro bono stuff,” he says. “Icona Pop was pro bono. So was Consuelo Costin and obviously all the local people like the Gay Men’s Chorus, the D.C. Cowboys and all the local favorites. They all came in to donate their time and production and give up half of their afternoon on a steaming hot Sunday.”

He also says the role of the Pride entertainment committee volunteer chair is a thankless job. He got involved as a “way to give back” but says it can easily ramp up into a second full-time job in the months leading up to Pride. He also says working by committee has a downside as well.

“We lost out on some really big ones over the years waiting for the board to make a decision,” Henderson says. “I wasn’t the one making the final decision and a couple times they waited too long and we lost out. Foster the People, Imagine Dragons and Diana Ross to name a few.”

Van Horn says all the artists he’s worked with have been easy and he has “no horror stories.”

“They always have safety and security concerns but that’s understandable,” he says. “There are crazies in the world. But no, there have never been any requests for M&Ms but take out all the blue ones or anything like that.”

Henderson says the hardest part of the job was always keeping things running smoothly backstage where there are only three cooled dressing room/trailers. Making sure they’re clean and free for who needs them at any given time is tough, he says.

“There’s always something going on like (local drag legend) Ella (Fitzgerald) shows up early and there’s no dressing room ready so her whole face melts off in the 100-degree heat,” he says with a laugh. “Getting the headliners from the hotel to the backstage area to making sure they had a dressing room ready and clean especially when you have 40-50 entertainers throughout the day, those logistics were always the hardest part.”

But on the occasions where it worked, there were magical moments. Henderson says when Pepper MaShay sang the “Dive in the Pool” song from “Queer as Folk” at the 2012 event with its famous line “Let’s get soaking wet,” the fire department’s decision to spray the crowd was not planned.

“It was probably 105 degrees that day and they were there to have some water stations so people could cool off because it was just so hot,” he says. “Ironically they had put this big main hose on a ladder truck maybe about 10 minutes before Pepper went on so we ran over to the fire chief and said it would be kind of neat if you could spray the crowd when she sang that line. When it happened, everybody thought it was pre-planned but we just decided that minutes before. People were dancing and going crazy. It was fantastic.”

Bragman says he always encourages his celebrity clients to do Prides anytime they can and says the payoff isn’t always in dollars.

“Pride is always a big deal,” he says. “It’s really powerful. I always say go with the right attitude, go and have fun and you will be changed. You always go home with so much more than you gave, that’s just the nature of the beast. It’s such an emotional high.”

Pride, gay news, Washington Blade

Chely Wright performs at the Capital Pride Festival in 2010. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

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Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington celebrates 40th anniversary with virtual concert, retrospective

Veteran choir soldiers undeterred through pandemic with Zoom rehearsals

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Members of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington gather in front of the Supreme Court on Sept. 3, 2013. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

GMCW Turns 40
Streaming begins Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m.
Available through June 20
Tickets: $25
gmcw.org

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.

A Gay Men’s Chorus performance in 1983. (Washington Blade archive photo by Leigh Mosley)

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.

Thea Kano, center, joins members of the Chorus at the United States Supreme Court on the day of the Obergefell v. Hodges marriage equality decision in June of 2015.(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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.

GenOUT Youth Chorus. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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?’”

The Chorus performs at the popular gay nightclub Tracks in 1984. (Washington Blade photo by Doug Hinckle)

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.”

Click here for more about the history of the group. A bio/history is also available at gmcw.org.

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.”

A GMCW rehearsal in 2007. (Washington Blade file photo by Henry Linser)

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.

Featured soloists perform in ‘Let Freedom Sing.’ (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“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.

The holiday shows for the Chorus often involve elaborate costumes, as in this scene in 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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.

The Chorus celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in a performance at Lincoln Theatre in 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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.”

Craig Cipollini leads the ‘Grease’ dance auditions in 2010. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)
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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

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Billy Porter appearing on Tamron Hall's show Wednesday (Screenshot via YouTube)

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.

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Final season of ‘Pose’ is must-see TV that matters

Groundbreaking FX drama has left its mark

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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.

The final season of “Pose” will begin to air on FX on Sunday, May 2, at 10 p.m. ET. (Photos courtesy of FX)

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