2015 Pittsburghers of the Year
This year, we honor three people who represent vital aspects of our city's heart while helping to propel it forward in three very different arenas: Karen Wolk Feinstein, Billy Porter, and Morgan O'Brien.
For 30 years, Pittsburgh Magazine has recognized exceptional individuals as Pittsburghers of the Year.
All of our accomplished recipients of these annual awards have made significant, unforgettable contributions to our city; collectively, the winners represent innumerable vital aspects of our city’s heart and help us to interpret its past, celebrate its present and shape its future.
With a major anniversary, we felt an imperative to honor more than one recipient for 2015.
Their paths from, through and back to Pittsburgh are divergent, as are their personal and professional pursuits. But the accomplished trio we’ve selected as our 30th annual Pittsburghers of the Year shares dedication, passion and vision — qualities that have always made our city and its people great.
This year, we honor Karen Wolk Feinstein for shepherding the Jewish Healthcare Foundation from its creation through its 25-year evolution into a national voice for patient safety and health care quality — and her own role at the forefront of major social movements to reform health care in Pittsburgh and beyond.
We honor Morgan O’Brien for emerging as our region’s foremost economic development champion, investing time and resources both as Allegheny Conference on Community Development chairman and Peoples Natural Gas CEO towards job creation, “sustainable prosperity” and a long list of community causes.
And we honor performer Billy Porter for his artistic talent and triumphs, for his ongoing support and promotion of the arts in Pittsburgh and nationally and for returning in 2015 to reprise his Tony Award-winning role in “Kinky Boots” — in the process embracing the city where his journey to stardom began and inspiring audiences and artists to “walk through the door that’s open.” Join us in honoring these Pittsburghers of the Year, and learn more about each of them on the pages that follow.
Born at the Right Time
Karen Wolk Feinstein
By Dennis B. Roddy
photography by Becky thurner braddock
When Lt. Norman Sandler came home from the war in 1948, his townsmen carried his casket through the streets of Des Moines, Iowa, a sad procession for a 25-year-old Navy pilot shot down over Tokyo three years earlier, months after a last visit stateside.
Before Norman died, his 20-year-old wife Geraldine wrote to tell him his furlough had created a new life. She was pregnant. Then he was gone, his remains sent home after the Japanese surrender.
The hearse drove to Glendale Cemetery, up Polk Boulevard and past Norman’s boyhood home. In the front yard, a 3-year-old girl named Karen was playing, unaware that the father she would not know was traveling past the child he had only imagined.
Flash ahead a few years. Geraldine remarried a clothing wholesaler named Leonard Wolk, and they settled in Pittsburgh, raising a blended family on Northumberland Street in Squirrel Hill. Karen Sandler was now Karen Wolk, a forward-leaning bit of a girl who preferred to spend her play hours with stacks of shoeboxes. A blended family has a lot of feet, and the boxes add up. The house was decorated with Mambo and Merengue trophies won by her dancing parents, and the kids kept busy in the family music room with a closet full of instruments. All but Karen. Neighbor Lincoln Maazel, father of the famous conductor, told the family, “I’m going to do us all a favor. I’m going to stop giving Karen lessons.”
What she lacked in musical talent, Karen made up for in shoeboxes and dreams. She would place the boxes around her room, stacking them, building imaginary, pueblo-like towns for dolls fashioned from her mother’s garter clips, all to construct a young girl’s utopia.
She did more than act out her dreams. She would fulfill those of others she would never know: extending the lives of hospital patients by sparing them from infections; saving the lives of women by freeing them of the stigma of discussing breast cancer; feeding the souls of AIDS patients in a decade when the best many of them could hope for was to be feared.
A quarter-century ago, Karen Wolk Feinstein created the Jewish Healthcare Foundation out of dreams fueled by a steely willpower. When she agreed to be its founding director, nobody knew what to do with the $75 million that was put in trust when UPMC bought Montefiore Hospital, which traditionally had focused on Jewish patients and physicians. There was no map, no flow chart, no tradition for foundations other than to disburse cash to worthy causes and hope for the best.
The Jewish Healthcare Foundation would become an entity unlike others. As it marks its 25th anniversary in 2015-16, its internal programs stretch across the health care spectrum — researching practical ways to make the system less error-prone, more efficient, less expensive and always venturing first into areas others feared to go. Karen Wolk Feinstein modeled the JHF on her vision of social utopia — a vision born of a summer in Israel in 1965 — and in doing so made it the template for other foundations around the nation as well as a leader in setting national policy.
“She creates her own gravity,” says her son, Jeremy.
“I have been rewarded for being difficult,” says Feinstein, now 70, during a conversation in her office on the 24th floor of City Tower, downtown. The corner-office view is sweeping, the lighting bright and the rules notable for their, let us say, aspirational quality.
A germ-transferring handshake is discouraged. The sign in the waiting room advises a jolly fist bump. Soda and sweets were long ago banned from the office.
“Her intellectual feelers are always on the alert, looking for ways to repair a broken health care system,” says JHF staff consultant Susan Elster. That includes “encouraging people — beginning with her own staff — to live healthier lives,” Elster says.
Late for one meeting and en route to the next, Feinstein strides into the room, skips the fist-bump to shake a visitor’s hand, and the race is on. It’s going to be a busy day, she says. It’s always a busy day. It better be.
Her husband, Steve, captures it this way: “Karen says her definition of a bad day is a day in which she can get done everything she needs to get done.”
If a fatherless beginning in the Midwest and an impulse for building playtime worlds in Pittsburgh shaped the young Karen, it was 20 years in the heady orbit of Boston in the ’60s and ’70s that created the finished warrior. She attended Brown University in Providence, R.I., and began dating Steven Feinstein, a Harvard Law student she’d met in Pittsburgh a few years earlier. By day, she would study history at Brown’s Pembroke College, then travel down the hill into the community where Providence was, like many other cities of the time, a roiling caldron of social change: workplaces and schools were integrating; women were demanding equality; social experiments were starting at every level.
In the summer of 1965, Leonard Wolk sent his then-20-year-old daughter to Israel to study archaeology and, with any luck, get a little religion in the bargain. She was not spiritual. She was a utopian. The artifacts she was digging up on Mount Scopus were far less important to her than the breathing villages and kibbutzim below. “Here I am in Israel: the ultimate social experiment,” she says of that time. “For me, being Jewish was being a dreamer.” She came home, married Steven and started living that dream in her own promised land: Boston.
She enrolled in graduate school at Boston College, which offered one of the first majors in social planning. She found her first job as a community organizer in Worcester, Mass., the blue-collar birthplace of Abbie Hoffman as well as companies that built weapons for the Vietnam War. The Harrington & Richardson Arms factory turned out rifles, and Wyman-Gordon Co. churned out parts for fighter jets. The revolution in Worcester was social planning, and Feinstein was in the shoebox town of her dreams.
“The women in my life spent their time raising kids, making life comfortable for their husbands and being part of a women’s social circle,” she recalls. “How do you put that up against the War on Poverty, model cities and the women’s movement?”
Feinstein set to work reshaping Worcester, backed by a Great Society program that unleashed billions on the idea of transforming American society. “You couldn’t write a grant that didn’t get funded,” she remembers. “Can you believe we put a family-planning clinic in a public-housing community?” She did that in Worcester, Mass., where a trio of Irish Catholic brothers were mayor, police chief and a priest.
Her master’s degree in hand, Feinstain pushed on — having three babies and plotting world change while picking up a Ph.D. at Brandeis University, then teaching urban planning at BC. “I wanted to be Emma Goldman,” she says. “I did not want to be a country-club matron.”
When Steve Feinstein’s uncle died in 1982, he had a choice: stay in Boston and let a family business in Pittsburgh die as well, or fulfill his uncle’s wish that he take it over. “I sort of came along kicking and screaming,” Feinstein says. Boston was booming in the gleam of technology. Pittsburgh seemed to be imploding in a cloud of rust. Steve concurs. “I think she had a pretty good idea of what she could expect in Boston, and she didn’t know she could have as satisfying a career here.”
Karen Feinstein came home with three children in tow and a career to rebuild. In short order, she landed a teaching post at Carnegie Mellon University. Within a year, she came to the attention of Ralph Dickerson, then the CEO of the United Way. The United Way wanted an “environmental scan” — a study of Pittsburgh’s direction post-steel. Civic leaders were surprised at her optimism. “I envisioned a new Pittsburgh,” she says. They wasted little time in appointing her senior vice president of the United Way.
That would have been the end of the story, save a call from a group of people with a problem: they had just sold Montefiore Hospital to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for $145 million; $75 million of that sum was going to start a foundation dedicated to Jewish health care. Would she come and run this foundation? She held them off for a year.
“I thought they were all crazy and would kill each other,” Feinstein says. “Nobody had any idea what they were going to do with this endowment. Nobody even knew what ‘Jewish health care’ is.”
Sholom Comay, head of the American Jewish Committee and a Montefiore board member, took her to lunch. “He said, ‘You’re crazy. This is an incredible opportunity to start something from scratch. Stop being ‘Gal Friday.’ Go run something.’”
Feinstein turned the Jewish Healthcare Foundation into a think tank, with original research and social activism that sometimes startled her board. “People thought I was going to sit in an office and say ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ to grant proposals,” she says. Jewish hospitals around the country were being absorbed into larger, non-religious health care systems. Pittsburgh’s JHF would become the model for what came to be called the Hospital Conversion Movement. What she did had a good chance of being copied, so she needed to sell it hard and get it right. She chose to reinvent how people thought of health care.
“I think the whole approach she took was you could apply the principles of business to health care,” says Alan Guttman, a JHF board member and former board chair. “She was adamant that you could bring the best of business practices to work in hospitals and achieve that.”
As the JHF kicked off, the AIDS epidemic was decimating the gay population. Today, it is easy to forget that the disease took years to acquire so much as a name. Families turned their backs on dying sons. Some doctors donned moon suits to enter a patient’s room, if they entered at all. Feinstein raised eyebrows by awarding a grant to the Persad Center so it could hire a fundraiser to keep it afloat. “She understood the issue,” says Jim Huggins, a psychologist who, along with the late Randy Forrester, created Persad in 1972 as an outreach to the region’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“She was beyond impressive in terms of the way she wouldn’t stand for prejudice or discrimination. She stepped forward as an advocate.” In its 25 years, the JHF has disbursed $101 million to programs focused on causes from AIDS to traditional cures to internal research, studies and patient advocacy.
For a mid-sized foundation tucked away in downtown Pittsburgh, the JHF under Feinstein has played an outsize role in national policy. A signature effort has been its battle to eliminate all hospital-borne infections, which at times has put Feinstein and her allies at loggerheads with hospital hierarchies. Today, that track record is evident in the Affordable Care Act, the single, largest shift in health care policy since Medicaid passed in the mid-1960s.
Feinstein and the JHF long had long been committed to some form of health care expansion, but she saw the organization’s primary focus as improving health care outcomes. Its input on the Affordable Care Act centered on how to include policies aimed at improving health care delivery. The politics of passing a health care bill sometimes paled to the intricate diplomacy of convincing hospitals to sign on to the idea of a zero rate on patient infections.
Once the ACA passed, Feinstein and her staff believed health care nonprofits faced a pivotal moment: health care access was about to be broadened exponentially, and nonprofit organizations in the field needed to understand the full impact of this change.
Feinstein and JHF called a seminar in July of 2010 at one of her alma maters, Brandeis University. They expected a handful to show.
“‘Who would want to come in the middle of July? Maybe some foundations weren’t willing to turn on a dime,” said Nancy Zionts, the JHF’s chief operating officer. “But we realized that this was a moment in time and you couldn’t let that moment in time go by.”
Led by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, another 70 nonprofit organizations turned up to seek guidance on how to play a role in the new, national policy. Since then, the nonprofit community has looked to JHF for what Zionts calls its “convening expertise” in pulling players together on how best to help the uninsured enroll in Obamacare.
Feinstein counts another of her crowning achievements to be her ouster from a state association. In 2000, acting through the JHF’s operating arm, The Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiative, Feinstein announced that henceforth it would list hospital infections as medical errors — data that would be reported to employers, insurers and potentially to the public. For years it had been blithely assumed that people who go to hospitals unavoidably contract infections. Feinstein and then-PRHI co-chair Paul O’Neill stunned the Hospital Association of Pennsylvania with this announcement.
“They threw me off the board,” she says. “They said Paul O’Neill and I were the most dangerous things in health care. We were raising expectations. Can you imagine the beauty of the moment?”
An administrative aide slips into the office. Feinstein is late for a meeting. She’s expected in a conference room upstairs. “They’re going to want to kill me,” she grins, gathering up her stuff and heading for an elevator.
With any luck, the builder of utopias will fulfill her dream of not getting everything done today. Utopias are, by their nature, unfinished business.
Mt. Lebanon-based freelance journalist Dennis B. Roddy is a former staff writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and has written for regional and national publications. He wrote “Oh, the Humanities!” for the September 2015 edition of Pittsburgh Magazine.
KAREN WOLK FEINSTEIN
5 things we should know about you?
- ‘I am wildly enthusiastic about my three (wonderful) children, the excellent people they married and my six spectacular grandchildren. I also love the family in which I grew up.’
- ‘I value friendship. I am still in regular contact with many friends of 50 years — or more.’
- ‘I value candor. I seldom leave an occasion and say to myself, I wish I were brave enough to say what I think.’
- ‘I love mountains and lakes and any sport you can do there: bike, hike, ski, swim, paddleboard, canoe, windsurf.’
- ‘I am thankful in full for a wonderful life that has been gratifying beyond my highest expectations.’
5 things you’d like to see in Pittsburgh’s future?
- ‘Every child should receive an HPV vaccination before age 13 so that we would see almost no cervical, head or neck cancers (from HPV) in the future. Pediatricians need to get busy.’
- ‘People should own their own health. They would take responsibility for their diet, exercise, sleep, substance use, driving and risky behaviors and not rely on some magic pill or surgery to fix them from their bad habits.’
- ‘People should choose their doctors, medications and medical interventions wisely and avoid the expensive treatments for which there is no evidence of value. We would lower what we spend on health care and invest in our parks, trails, education system, early-childhood care and safe, locally grown foods.’
- ‘We would have the safest hospitals in the country. Let’s get the job done and protect our patients.’
- ‘We would teach ethics, values and social responsibility in our schools from the youngest ages through professional education. We would regard respect for others’ feelings, safety, and wellbeing as a core component of good citizenship and as worthy of learning and practice as math and English.’
A Personal Investment in the Future
By christine h. o’toole
photography by Becky thurner braddock
Morgan O’Brien never forgets where he came from, and that has helped Pittsburgh to head in new directions.
As president and CEO of Peoples Natural Gas, he leads a rapidly expanding utility in a sector that was barely a blip on local radar a decade ago. He’s been instrumental in helping to create the region’s strategy to take full advantage of the local gas windfall — thinking ahead on how to leverage those reserves to create sustainable growth and jobs for the next generation of Pittsburghers. But his real talent is putting the region first, rolling up his sleeves to tackle tough projects with long-range payoffs.
As the immediate past president of the powerful Allegheny Conference on Community Development, you might expect O’Brien to spend his days closeted in hushed negotiations with government and corporate honchos. You might not expect to find him backing a door-knocking program to help Braddock’s poorest residents afford winter heat or laying the groundwork for world-class energy research at local universities.
O’Brien, 55, has done that and more. This affable Pittsburgher, born and bred in Baldwin Borough, is an energetic and effective change agent. Working with the Allegheny Conference, he forges alliances with international corporations such as General Electric and tough-minded community leaders such as Braddock mayor John Fetterman. He sees Pittsburgh as a leading energy center that is building a healthy and diverse economic base on innovation and technology. Now, that vision is going viral, in large part due to his personal commitment to make that happen.
“Morgan’s all about making this a better place to live overall,” says Richard Harshman. The chairman, CEO and president of ATI, a Pittsburgh-based manufacturer of specialty materials, succeeds O’Brien as chair of the Allegheny Conference this year and also has worked with him as a fellow alumnus and trustee at Robert Morris University. “He is a consensus builder without being arrogant or confrontational. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like him. He treats people with respect. So, he’s hard to say no to. That makes him successful.”
O’Brien earned his accounting degree at RMU’s downtown campus while working part-time as coordinator of the school’s intramural program. He’s been a go-to team player ever since.
After a meteoric career at Duquesne Light, O’Brien became its CEO at age 41. “For a Pittsburgh kid from a blue-collar, first-generation family, to become head of a public utility right here — that’s the American dream, right?” he says with a laugh.
One of O’Brien’s first assignments there was to oversee the sale of the utility’s power plants, co-owned with Ohio’s FirstEnergy. Adroitly structuring a deal that harvested the most valuable assets, he offered regulators an ingenious plan.
“I convinced them that money [from the sale] would go against what our ratepayers would have to pay. We ended up with $1.3 billion — almost twice what people expected we would sell for,” he recalls. By the early 2000s, Duquesne Light was able to reduce rates by 25 percent.
The solution was vintage O’Brien. “It was good for investors and good for customers — who didn’t like that?” he asks. “We married the strategy of helping the region grow and making the company more valuable. That resonated. The board got behind it.” He honed the firm’s focus on economic development with new industrial customers and real estate developers.
“My perspective was, when the region does well, the company does well.”
In 2006, the University of Pittsburgh named O’Brien a trustee. “I engaged with Pitt because it was important for the region and company,” he says. “I worked with the chancellor [then Mark Nordenberg] on funding challenges with the state legislature and helping the university grow. Pitt was an important customer for Duquesne Light. But it was also a driver of the region’s economic rebirth, through eds and meds. Being engaged with that was important.”
O’Brien recognized that advanced research would bolster new energy-related businesses attracted by the Marcellus and Utica shale gas plays. He supported Pitt’s creation of the Center for Energy at the Swanson School of Engineering in 2008 and chairs its advisory council of CEOs from the region. The cross-disciplinary think tank examines power generation, renewable solutions, smart grids and energy storage.
“He was huge in helping us,” recalls Brian Gleeson, the center’s founding director and now chair of the mechanical engineering and materials science department at Swanson. “He convinced others to join him on the advisory board and formulated a plan on how it could contribute. As we recruited top academics from other institutions, they met personally with Morgan as well. He was instrumental.”
Today, the Center for Energy lists 100 affiliated faculty, boasts $22 million in research grants and has enrolled 1,500 students in its certificate programs. Those highly educated grads comprise a critical supply chain for the growing energy sector.
During O’Brien’s tenure with the Allegheny Conference, both the local and national economy gained steam. The organization began to see the payoffs of a strategic goal: a strong regional workforce. The conference already had built its “Imagine Pittsburgh” job-search site, now listing more than 20,000 positions. It had backed agile training programs for new jobs in the energy industry. Those programs helped the region to pass an economic milestone this year: southwestern Pennsylvania now boasts the highest employment numbers in its history. At the same time, the city’s median age of 32.8 is its youngest since 1980.
“We’ve got more jobs, more people working and we’re younger. That’s all good,” says O’Brien. “The challenge is that 100,000 jobs don’t get filled” as local boomers retire.
With four grown children living and working in the city (he and his wife Kathy live downtown), O’Brien has a personal stake in keeping Pittsburgh’s youthful talent around.
He also acknowledges that embracing diversity and welcoming immigrants must be a regional priority.
“Our workforce is naturally shrinking. Without people coming here, we can’t thrive,” he says bluntly. “We want our kids to stay and have jobs. We want to take care of our own. But we haven’t been engaged in getting other people to come here.”
O’Brien, the son of Irish immigrants, thinks our history provides the answer. “Think of how Pittsburgh was formed — all kinds of different people came here because they could afford to raise their families here and have good jobs,” he says. “My father came a quarter of the way around the world to find work and always taught us we shouldn’t take it for granted. He came to Pittsburgh to work as a truck driver, with an eighth-grade education and a G.E.D.”
He knows that his family’s work ethic is shared by thousands of families in the region and beyond. “Our challenge is to go back to our roots and embrace people from all over the world,” he says.
Since joining Peoples in 2010, O’Brien has made other contributions to the health of the workforce. He brought 300 customer-service jobs back to Pittsburgh from North Carolina and led the acquisition of two other natural gas suppliers, Butler-based Phillips and Equitable Gas. With 700,000 customers, Peoples now is the largest natural gas-distribution company in Pennsylvania and serves parts of West Virginia and Kentucky for the first time. As such, the firm confronts major environmental issues.
“There’s a changing tolerance on environmental issues — no longer is coal acceptable to the public,” he says. “Our region wants a cleaner environment and also wants to take advantage of this incredible fuel source. We help people play both sides of that fence. We want to be a role model for the rest of country from an environmental perspective.”
Throughout the company’s rapid expansion, O’Brien has embodied community service as a core value. As 2012 chair and current board member of United Way of Allegheny County, he demonstrated his personal commitment. He led the committee that put into place its free 2-1-1 Southwest Helpline, which connects people in need with community, health and disaster assistance in 11 counties, and he remains an enthusiastic evangelizer of the services it provides. He urges Peoples employees to support charitable causes of their choice, and he says the company’s mission is for every employee to come to work each day with the intent to improve customers’ lives.
“We’ve energized the folks working here. We’re going to take care of this region. We’re going to be engaged. We’re going to be a company that does anything the region needs us to do, to make the best place possible.”
In November, Peoples unveiled improvements to an outreach program that gives low-income families assistance in paying utility bills. While the LIHEAP program has been available through local utilities for decades, it struggled to enroll all of those who are eligible.
Working with Braddock’s Free Store and other nonprofit organizations last winter, Peoples invested another $100,000 to spread the word. An active door-knocking campaign helped residents to apply for help — and was so successful that it will be replicated in more local communities next year. Now O’Brien wants Peoples to apply that lesson to other social services.
“If you can’t pay their utility bill, guess what? You’re probably having trouble feeding your family. You’re probably having trouble paying your rent. We can partner with food banks or with the United Way to help people more broadly. That feels like a natural evolution” in the firm’s community service commitment.
The rush to drill wells across western Pennsylvania is only the first stage in reaping the rewards of natural gas. Typically, O’Brien has thought ahead to the next strategic move: developing the region as a center for advanced manufacturing. In November 2014, General Electric announced that it would invest $32 million in a new advanced manufacturing facility in Findlay Township to develop and implement 3-D printing, as well as other innovative technologies. Its doors will open by the end of the first quarter, according to GE.
In explaining GE’s vote for Pittsburgh, Barbara Negroe, leader of the conglomerate’s additive manufacturing team, explained the factors that landed the region a huge competitive asset.
“We chose Pittsburgh because of the robust [research and development] in the area, proximity to industry and high-skill machinists, access to many of the top universities working in additives today, and accessibility to many of our GE businesses, with our location being so close to the airport,” she said during an April news conference.
Morgan O’Brien credits retired PNC chairman Jim Rohr, a board member at GE, for sparking the firm’s interest in the region and ensuring its concerns were addressed. But O’Brien’s patient spadework at the Allegheny Conference also was key.
By tirelessly supporting university research as well as local firms, championing a highly skilled workforce and urging public officials to improve transportation and transit, he arguably created the conditions for one of the region’s biggest economic wins to date — one that will pay dividends for decades to come.
Christine H. O’Toole is a frequent PM contributor as well as an active travel writer who covers stories about Pittsburgh, the region and the world. She wrote our 2014 Pittsburgher of the Year story on the Fred Rogers Company.
5 things we should know about you?
- ‘I’m a son of an Irish Immigrant.’
- ‘I’m a huge fan of Pittsburgh and love to brag about the city.’
- ‘I believes the best days for this region are ahead of us.’
- ‘I’m a big sports fan … particularly of Pittsburgh teams.’
- ‘I’m professionally very focused and determined on accomplishing goals.’
5 things you’d like to see in Pittsburgh’s future?
- ‘Better public transportation.’
- ‘Better air service to more cities.’
- ‘Better integration of our education and training systems with employers.’
- ‘State government that helped to move the region forward.’
- ‘A holistic energy plan for our region that integrates our innovation, technology and natural resources to build the best economic and environmental energy plan that could become a model for the rest of the country.’
By Cristina Rouvalis
Photography by Matthew Murphy
Billy Porter could tell he was home.
When he danced onto the stage at the Benedum Center in the sparkly red, thigh-high, stiletto-heeled boots that made him famous as the sensational drag queen Lola in the Broadway mega-hit “Kinky Boots,” the crowd roared its approval.
When he crooned his solo, “Hold Me in Your Heart,” in the middle of the second act, he literally stopped the show. For five minutes, nearly 3,000 of his fellow Pittsburghers, friends and family delivered a thunderous standing ovation.
Porter was all smiles as he let the adulation wash over him. People in the audience were moved to tears. It was a spontaneous act of pure, unadulterated love flowing between a city and its electric prodigal son.
It was August 2015. He had joined the touring company of the musical for just one week so he could perform his Tony Award-winning role in his hometown during a short break from the Broadway show.
Playing Lola had made him one of Broadway’s biggest stars. Morphing into her character, however, was a long and hard process that Porter says he accomplished by channeling the anguish of the childhood he endured in a very different — and not so loving — Pittsburgh.
For Porter, it was a full-circle journey of forgiveness and love, of finally being at home in his hometown. As the city itself has undergone a transformation as well, Porter, 46, has embraced the place where his journey to the Tony Awards began.
Born in 1969, Porter grew up a black gay Christian outcast in East Liberty. He was the sissy boy who was told he would go to Hell. He was the kid who got schoolyard beatings and taunts of “faggot.” He was the son who was estranged from both his biological father and stepfather.
Porter says his struggle to become his own person started in the ‘70s. “I grew up in the Pentecostal Church. Gay is wrong. Period,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what age you are. I wasn’t masculine. From the minute I could comprehend thoughts, the thoughts were, ‘Something is wrong with you, and you need to fix it.’”
When he was 5, his mother, Cloerinda Ford, took him to a psychologist every Wednesday in an effort to change him. The doomed experiment lasted a year. Clorinda now says she was tormented by the conflict she perceived between her son’s effeminate ways and her religious beliefs that homosexuality was wrong. “I thought he shouldn’t be like that,” she says. “I thought I had raised him wrong.”
In elementary school, the boy who didn’t play sports became a target of bullies. One day, after a bad beating, Porter asked his mother if she could release him from the promise he had made to her to never hit a girl. Boys and girls had beat him, and, in fact, a few of the girls were the worst tormentors. “I released him from it,” she says. “He hit them back.”
Porter’s salvation was his voice, a glorious, soaring musical instrument. He says he didn’t know it was possible for a black person to earn a living singing in the theater until he was 13, when he watched the 1982 Tony Awards and saw Jennifer Holliday win for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her role in “Dreamgirls.”
“I am going to win a Tony someday,” he told his mother.
Yeah, right, she thought to herself.
Porter’s precocious Broadway dream propelled him to the Civic Light Opera Mini-Stars program and then to high school at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts 6-12. It was there that he met other members of his tribe. “It was an amazing bunch of weirdos,” he said. “I could go to a place for a half-day where I didn’t have apologize for being alive.”
He arrived at CAPA as a great singer and dancer but an inexperienced actor. “A lot of people are slick and well-trained actors and actresses, but they are missing something. Billy just has sincerity and honesty, and you connect with his character,” said Mindy Rossi-Stabler, the school’s theater coordinator and his drama teacher during his senior year. “That is something you can’t teach. He always had it.”
Porter says he always knew his sexuality was different from that of other boys he knew, but at age 15 he finally had a word to describe it: Gay. But there were no online support groups in the mid-1980s to use as a lifeline. And his church’s answer — pray-the-gay-away — wasn’t getting him anywhere.
As the AIDS epidemic arose and spread during that decade, hostility toward gay people grew. “I am on the other side watching my friends die, but every time I step foot into church, a place that is supposed to be about love, people are saying, ‘There is a plague because you gay people are living in sin. That is why you are dying.’”
Porter says he believed he had to leave Pittsburgh to become a working actor, and in his senior year made plans to go directly to New York City after graduation. His CAPA teachers caught wind of that idea and urged him to go instead to a conservatory college program for formal acting training.
He stayed in Pittsburgh and enrolled in Carnegie Mellon University’s famed School of Drama, where he flourished despite his relative lack of experience compared to many other students. He threw himself into his craft, taking advantage of his talent and ferocious work ethic.
In his final year at Carnegie Mellon, he played the crucial role of The Chorus in the Greek drama “Antigone.” “He was incredible in a really difficult production,” says Barbara MacKenzie-Wood, a CMU professor of acting. “It showed how far he had come — this young Pittsburgh lad, struggling with what acting was about, conquering the Greeks his senior year.”
In 1991, Porter left Carnegie Mellon before he graduated for New York City and an ensemble role in the original run of “Miss Saigon.” As a winner on “Star Search,” he secured a recording deal. On Broadway, he landed parts in “Five Guys Named Moe,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and off-Broadway plays. Those early successes were heady.
Akin to his experience in his childhood church, though, he found some factions of the entertainment world didn’t like him the way he was and wanted to “fix” him.
His recording studio convinced him to sing love songs to women and pretend he was a macho guy. In a music video for the song “Show Me,” a buff, bare-chested Porter woos the beautiful woman and drives off into the sunset with her in a white convertible. He listened to what the music people told him — act straight, or no one will listen.
The acting business wasn’t much better for him then. There were relatively few meaty roles for black actors in the 1990s, especially for performers who didn’t look and sound as macho as James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington. As Porter now says with a laugh, “It’s not like there were any roles for black, gay action heroes.”
The turning point for Porter came in 1994, when he played Teen Angel in a Broadway revival of “Grease.” He wore an outlandish mane of 14-inch orange rubber hair and sang the song “Beauty School Dropout.” One night during the show’s run he walked around the corner and saw playwright Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking “Angels in America.”
Billy Porter and Pittsburgh CLO Executive Producer Van Kaplan. Pittsburgh CLO's opening night of KINKY BOOTS. Photo Matt Polk
He was mesmerized by the story of two couples, one straight and one gay, and their struggles with AIDS. He stared at the actor on stage playing Belize, an ex-drag queen, and he thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ Porter looked in the mirror at his role in “Grease” and cringed.
“I am a clown who steps in the middle of your boring second act to lift it up, with 14-inch orange rubber hair, screaming my lungs out like Little Richard … I am not part of the story.”
Porter made a pledge to himself. You need to hear my story or I am not doing it anymore. I am no longer a joke. From then on he said no to roles he would have gladly taken a year earlier, acting jobs with a fat paycheck that paid the rent.
“I will go to the grave with the truth of who I am, instead of lying so I can be rich and famous,” he says.
Gradually, the casting calls stopped coming. “He would sleep on people’s couches or sublet their places,” says his sister, MaryMartha Ford-Dieng of New York City. Things hit bottom when Porter filed for bankruptcy.
Finding no acting work in New York, he turned to writing his own material. He graduated from The Professional Program in Screenwriting at UCLA and wrote the autobiographical plays, “Ghetto Superstar” and “While I Yet Live.” “I’m a black Broadway bitch from the ghetto,” he proclaimed proudly in the opening act of “Ghetto Superstar” in 2005 in New York City.
In those plays, Porter talks about his real-life reconciliation with his mother Cloerinda. About 10 years ago, she accepted her son completely. “The Lord spoke to me,” she says. “I didn’t want to turn my back on my son. I loved him. You get into trouble when you listen to other people instead of the Lord.”
Porter says he was deeply touched by his mother’s transformation — and still is. “She is a lovely person. Her journey is so lovely, truly Christian, and she had the courage to dive in and understand something that is not her world.”
In 2010 came a big break — his casting as Belize in the revival of “Angels in America.” “I am so grateful. Tony Kushner is like a demi-God to me,” he says. Then came Lola, a part he wanted desperately because the character’s experience spoke to his own struggle.
Pittsburgh CLO invested in “Kinky Boots” to support new work and bring the show eventually to Pittsburgh. That helped to convince its producers to bring Porter to his hometown. “He literally brought the audience to tears,” says Van Kaplan, CLO’s executive producer. After the opening performance of “Kinky Boots” in Pittsburgh, Porter warmly shook the hands of people from his old neighborhood, including some who once had shunned him.
Although he says he was pleasantly surprised by the ecstatic reaction, he says he had long since forgiven relatives and church members who hurt him in years past. “I let that go long ago,” Porter says. “I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if I hung on to that.
“It’s proof positive that people can change. But for people to change, people like me have to speak the truth.”
In his return to Pittsburgh as a superstar, he would find a city that was much different than the place of his youth. His old neighborhood, East Liberty, has been transformed into a cultural center, and arts now flourish in the Cultural District, the South Side and other city neighborhoods.
He helps to enrich that artistic scene by teaching a workshop at the CMU drama school about once a year. He also visits CAPA and speaks to students about his journey.
“Billy tells his truth. He was one of them years ago, and his sincerity resonates in these students,” says Rossi-Stabler of CAPA.
Looking back on his anguished time as a gay teen in Pittsburgh, Porter says he now believes his experience then “would have been the same in any city. AIDS was all around the world. I loved Pittsburgh, but I knew I had to get out of Pittsburgh to get on with my life.”
Playing Lola also helped him to work out longstanding personal demons. In life, Porter never reconciled with his father and stepfather before they died. Night after night on stage, as Lola, he forgave the character’s wheelchair-bound father for his hostility. “I got to forgive my father with her words on stage every night for three years. I got to release the pain.”
Porter is not going to be Lola anymore; he ended his grueling three-year run with “Kinky Boots” on Nov. 20. “My body’s tired,” he says with a throaty laugh.
He’s moving on to new opportunities — already putting in long rehearsals for the Broadway revival of “Shuffle Along” with Audra McDonald, guest appearances in the Netflix series “The Get Down,” and new recordings. As he says often, “I walk through the door that’s open.” His mind swirls with post-Lola projects — writing a memoir, trying to sell TV scripts he wrote, penning a gospel musical.
But it’s been bittersweet shedding Lola — and not just because playing her turbocharged his career. She’s a special character. He says he had to start mourning the loss of her in the summer so he would be prepared to say goodbye to the character he was born to play. As he puts it, “Lola represents everything in the journey I have been on my entire life.”
Frequent contributor Cristina Rouvalis profiled Pittsburgh Pirates announcer Greg Brown for Pittsburgh Magazine in August 2015. Her work also has appeared in Hemispheres, PARADE, Esquire.com and other national publications.
5 things we should know about you?
- ‘I’m an introvert.’
- ‘I’m a closet chef.’
- ‘I love fashion.’
- ‘My mother is my hero.’
- ‘I have major Virgo tendencies.’
3 things you’d like to see in Pittsburgh’s future?
- ‘I would love for the focus on the arts to remain a priority’
- ‘Focus on rebuilding the inner-city areas’
- ‘Quality education for ALL people’