From fan to star: This Lola’s boots are charmed
UPDATE: Congratulations to Chris Ortiz-Belcher, our “Kinky Boots” prize-package winner. In his entry, he wrote: ” ‘Kinky Boot’s is one of my favorite shows and I would pass out if I got to see it in person!” (No word on whether Chris lost consciousness this morning when he heard the news.)
ORIGINAL POST: Join with me for a few moments, if you will, to revel in the story of Jos N. Banks and his unlikely “Kinky Boots” journey. He went from “world’s biggest fan” of the actor playing Lola on Broadway to nabbing the role himself in the national tour of the show.
A bit of background is in order:
Banks, who studied musical theater in college, had long been an admirer of Billy Porter. The veteran Broadway actor originated the role of Lola, the empowered drag queen who winds up in a crazy scheme to save a failing English shoe factory by making thigh-high “kinky boots” for men. (Porter won a 2013 Tony Award for best actor in a musical for the show.)
Win a pair of tickets to opening night of “Kinky Boots” plus dinner at Cosmopolitan Tavern and free parking. See details at the end of this post.
Banks — gregarious and chatty when he answered my call while on tour with the show in Colorado — was also a fan of “Kinky Boots” the show itself. A resident of Chicago, Banks had seen a rehearsal for the musical, which features a powerhouse book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, in its pre-Broadway tryout in that city.
Later, on a trip to New York, Banks got a ticket to see the Broadway production.
“It was pretty phenomenal,” he says. “I saw it right after Billy won his Tony. It was a Wednesday matinee, and I wasn’t really expecting him to be there. But then Lola ran out in her first scene, and sure enough: It was Billy.”
Banks waited at the stage door after the show and got to meet Porter.
“He talked to me and my boyfriend about my career and my passion for theater,” he says. “He was very profound in his words on the industry.”
At this point, of course, Banks had no idea that in a few years he’d be playing Lola in theaters across the country.
In fact, he’d never even dressed in drag before. But more on that in a moment.
First let’s move ahead a little. Porter released his third album, “Billy’s Back on Broadway,” in 2014, and was slated to be featured on a PBS “Live at Lincoln Center” special. To promote the album and the show, Porter’s publicist concocted a contest: a nationwide search for Billy Porter’s biggest fan. The prize: a trip to New York to see the special.
It was the type of lighthearted promotion in which the winner was selected by how many online votes a participant received. Banks went all in. He wrote a glowing entry talking about his respect and admiration for Porter’s craft.
Should we say the rest was fate?
Obviously, there was no connection between the biggest fan contest and Banks eventually landing the role of Lola. But it makes a great story.
What did make a difference was persistence and hard work. Banks auditioned for Lola every time the role came up, including for the first national tour, and came achingly close each time.
The current national tour was the charm. Banks has been touring the country for about four months.
In “Kinky Boots,” we first meet Lola in a scene in which she is accosted by two drunks. An entitled young man named Charlie (played in the national tour by Lance Bordelon), heir to a struggling shoe factory, tries to help but gets knocked out in the process. Charlie regains consciousness in a seedy drag club where Lola is the headliner.
In the process of getting to know Lola, Charlie stumbles across an obscure fact: Drag queens have to teeter around on unsafe stiletto boots because no one manufactures any styles designed to bear the weight of a grown man. He gets an idea: How about making boots for this niche market?
And thus, an unlikely partnership (and friendship) between Charlie and Lola is born.
In the meantime, we also learn a lot more about Lola, including her own backstory — and a revelation about her athletic prowess that comes as a surprise.
For Banks, the biggest challenge for playing a believable Lola was mastering the right posture and standing “like a lady.”
And mastering those famous boots. “I’m used to them now,” he says. “The hardest thing is that they don’t bend at the knee.”
He also had to learn a lot about makeup. Unlike the Lola on Broadway, the one on this tour does her own makeup. Banks has learned to turn his pre-show makeup session into an inspirational warm-up.
“I created a playlist on Spotify that I listen to every day, with very strong African-American women like Gloria Gaynor and Beyonce,” he says.
With its feel-good comedy and inspirational message of tolerance and inclusion, “Kinky Boots” is a natural crowd-pleaser, and Lauper’s buoyant music can turn the show into a love fest of sorts. In smaller cities across the U.S., that message is resonating on the current tour, even when “out of nowhere comes this 6-foot-1-inch African-American man in drag,” Banks says.
“The biggest thing I hope people get from the show in general is love and acceptance — really the understanding that we are all on this Earth trying to get by. We need to realize that we are all human. We’re all trying to survive, trying to live a happy life.”
And, yes, that life is pretty happy at the moment for Banks, even with a marathon of a role that includes a 16-second costume change.
Banks’ last role before the tour began was a production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in the Chicago area. Porter came to see the show, and he checked in with his “biggest fan” afterward. They compared notes.
A few weeks after that, Banks had his first callback for a certain national tour.
Who knew that he’d be filling the boots of Billy Porter?
I’m offering a special prize package to a lucky reader of The Munro Review: a pair of tickets to the opening night performance of “Kinky Boots” (7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 31); dinner for two at the Cosmopolitan Tavern (conveniently located in the convention center parking lot); and free theater parking. (Thanks again to Cosmopolitan and Broadway in Fresno for their generosity.)
To enter, leave a comment on this post answering these questions: What’s the most outrageous (or outrageously painful) pair of shoes you’ve ever worn? (If you’re too shy to share, just tell me why you’d like to see the show.)
Deadline to enter is 10 p.m. Monday, Jan. 29. Winner selected at random. I’ll be notifying the winner on Tuesday morning so be sure to check your email. Please don’t enter if you won’t be able to attend.
“Kinky Boots,” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 31, and Thursday, Feb. 1, Saroyan Theatre. Tickets are $29-$69.
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