NEW YORK — There comes a time in every man's life when he must hang up his flaming red, knee-high stiletto boots. That time is fast approaching for Billy Porter.
The Tony Award-winning actor will leave Broadway's "Kinky Boots" in November, but saying goodbye has left him "anxiety-ridden." It's been no ordinary job.
"This show and this character has represented something that's so far beyond anything that I could have ever imagined," he said. "This show has taught me to dream beyond anything that I could imagine."
Porter has seen the world change while playing the cross-dressing Lola — he calls her Miss Lola — in the Tony Award-winning musical about a British shoe factory that retrofits itself into a maker of drag queen footwear.
The show recently reached its 1,000th performance, and Porter estimates he's played Miss Lola 900 times. Wayne Brady will take over the role.
Jerry Mitchell, who directed and choreographed "Kinky Boots," has been a friend of Porter's for years and invited him to audition for Miss Lola. He was instantly swayed: "It was just that moment when you know the artist and the material are a perfect match," Mitchell said. "I said, 'This is the guy.'"
In the two years on Broadway since the show began spreading its message of unconditional love and acceptance, huge steps have been made for marriage equality and transgender rights.
"It's an astonishing thing to know that in the history books I will be a part of that, we will be a part of that and Miss Lola will be a part of that," said Porter.
"She was a character who was able to be transcendent enough and human enough — in her own skin — to embrace the bigots, to embrace the negative, and turn that around."
A few weeks ago, Porter joined the national tour of "Kinky Boots" in his hometown of Pittsburgh and could feel the change. He reconnected with relatives and had "real true healing moments."
"We sold out the Benedum Center in two days — that's a 3,000-seat theater," he said. "Twenty years ago, I was fag-bashed down the street going into a gay bar. There's a difference."
The show has been a life-changer in other ways, too. Porter won a best leading-man Tony Award and put out a CD. He got a play he wrote produced off-Broadway and directed two works by others. He booked concerts.
More personally, he has a boyfriend now and a personal assistant — "It's so crazy that I have an assistant and I need one," he said, laughing. He's also in the shape of his life, thanks to eight shows a week in which he dances in 6-inch heels and changes in and out of wigs and dresses all night.
"I look the best I've ever looked in my entire life," he said. "When your workout is your job, it's way easier to stay in shape."
Porter has a gig waiting when he leaves "Kinky Boots": He will join an all-star lineup for a reworking of the 1920s musical "Shuffle Along" with Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry.
"I'm trading my high heels for tap shoes. I haven't tapped in 23 years," he said, laughing. "At least I'll stay in shape. I have that to look forward to."
Porter, who spent 13 years away from Broadway after finding his career stalling, likely won't have that happen anytime soon. He's become one of the theater community's favorite people, the guy who earned his success.
"I had to fight for it. I really, really did fight for this moment. When I say fight I mean fight, not work. Fight. I fought tooth and nail to be right where I am," he said. "And I think that's what people are responding to — because they saw the fight. They saw the struggle. They saw all of it."
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits