Dyllón Burnside sounds dismayed but not discouraged discussing the nation’s turbulent spring. “There is a lot happening in our world, in our country, in our life right now,” says the actor, singer, and activist, best known for his endearing performance as voguer Ricky, formerly of the House of Evangelista, on the Emmy-winning queer ballroom drama Pose.
“I feel a bit overwhelmed, quite honestly,” he says during a phone call from Atlanta on the second day that protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd gripped cities from coast to coast. “It’s been a rough couple of weeks.”
But, Burnside adds, in searching for “things to be grateful for and trying to find joy in the simplest things,” he has seen signs of hope. “I feel like people are actually having honest conversations about race in this country, in a way that I feel like most of the conversations before this moment have been so shrouded with denial and have invalidated the experience of so many black and brown folks. So, it’s a shame that we have to see this kind of senseless murder time and time again. It’s a shame that it takes murder, and that it takes blatant acts of white supremacy for the experience of black folks to be validated, but I am encouraged by the conversations that are happening nonetheless.”
Since premiering in 2018, Pose has helped shape a related cultural conversation, aimed at validating the experiences of queer and trans black and brown folks. The ’80s/’90s-set show, created by Steven Canals, Brad Falchuk, and Ryan Murphy, revels in the creativity and glamour of vogue balls, while also holding up a mirror to reflect the horror of violence towards trans women, and eloquently address the AIDS crisis.
In season two, Burnside’s character tested positive for HIV, and later, to the surprise of viewers and even cast-members, entered into a romance with the series’ acerbic elder statesman of the ballroom scene, Pray Tell, also HIV-positive and played by Emmy and Tony-winner Billy Porter. Burnside says he “was really grateful for Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Janet Mock, Steven Canals, and the writers room for giving me the opportunity to tell that story.”
As host of the new, LGBTQ-themed PBS special and digital series PRIDELAND, the Pensacola, Florida native helps real people share their stories of living LGBTQ in the South. Directed by veteran lesbian filmmaker Katherine Linton (Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig), the series follows Burnside throughout the Deep South, from the Florida panhandle to Mississippi to Texas, shining a light on the courage it takes to reside in regions where intolerance often is codified in law, if not ingrained in the culture.
Linton — who previously made her mark on PBS as a host of the long-running LGBTQ newsmagazine In the Life — recalls that she and the PRIDELAND producers considered a list of potential hosts but soon recognized the qualities Burnside could bring to the series. “It had less to do with his celebrity on Pose than it did his incredible knowledge of, curiosity for, and passion for the LGBTQ experience,” she says. And then one day, over lunch before shooting began, they learned just how well their host’s own life story might have prepared him to serve as on-screen guide to PRIDELAND.
Read Dyllón Burnside’s full interview in the latest issue of Metro Weekly!
Born and raised in Pensacola, Burnside formed the R&B boy band 3D as a teen, before taking his talents from the world of pop music to the Christian ministry. He dedicated himself to the mission of spreading the gospel through his work as a megachurch music minister — until coming out as gay jeopardized his position in the church. Stung by rejection, he left the South and headed to New York City, where he continued to pursue his dreams of performing, ultimately landing a role in the Broadway musical Holler If Ya Hear Me, and then, of course, on Pose.
“Because he comes from a place of being Southern,” says Linton, “he brings his life experience to the interviews and genuinely connects with people.” That connection fosters some fascinating storytelling on the show, with profiles, among others, of trans activist Carmarion D. Anderson, statewide director for HRC’s office in Alabama, and with devoutly religious mom Mary Jane Kennedy in Mississippi, who describes her difficult path towards learning to accept her gay sons.
In her moving interview with Burnside, Mary Jane speaks what might be PRIDELAND‘s prevailing theme, insisting that, “No one should live in the closet.” Certainly, Burnside’s continued success is testament to the power of respecting your roots, while still living your life openly and authentically.
METRO WEEKLY: This interview will come out during what would have been Pride week in D.C. I know exactly what I would have been doing for Pride, and I won’t be doing that now. What would you have been up to, and what are you planning to do instead?
BURNSIDE: Well, honestly, Pride month for the past two years has been sort of synonymous with Pose for me. Our season usually premieres in June, and so this coming month probably would have been all about a lot of press and promo around season three, and it would have been premiering so I would have been celebrating that with friends and family. And I also would have still been working. I think we were slated to originally be wrapping up at the end of June.
It’s always been hard for me to make hard and fast plans during Pride month for the past few years because it’s so work-intensive. But I definitely would have been spending time with friends and family. My mom is always excited to come to New York for the premiere of the new season and we get dressed up and have a good time, so that would have been a part of the way we would have. And the Pose season premiere is usually like a sort of Pride celebration in a way.
MW: I can imagine.
BURNSIDE: The black and brown queer folks, queer folks of all races and colors come out and we all celebrate together and it’s a great time. That definitely would have been a part of Pride and that’s something that I was really looking forward to, and I know my mom was looking forward to. I think the thing in this moment right now that I’m keenly aware of is just the ways in which I miss my friends, and not being able to see them during this time is really hard for me.
MW: Where are you?
BURNSIDE: I’m currently in Georgia, just outside of Atlanta at my mom’s place. I’ve been living in New York for the past eight years, and when the pandemic started I came to Georgia to be here with my mom, to get out of the city and have more space and all that stuff.
MW: In terms of production, how far had you gotten into season three of Pose?
BURNSIDE: We hadn’t gotten very far and there’s very little that I can say about what is going on or what was going on. But what I will say is we have a wonderful season three planned for you all and I’m looking forward to getting back to finishing it.
MW: With season two, were you as taken aback as some of the fans were by Ricky and Pray Tell getting together?
BURNSIDE: Ooh, child, I was shocked! I did not see that coming. I think there were some hints starting back to episode four in season two that I can think of off the top of my head, but I was really shocked and I was really excited at the opportunity to unpack the layers of that and the complexity of that relationship. It was exciting to get to work with Billy on exploring that relationship dynamic and getting to speak to HIV and one of the ways in which two HIV-positive people can navigate their status together.
MW: I also think it’s really cool to see a relationship of two positive characters, especially two black male positive characters, on a huge TV show. Was it at all awkward as actors moving your on-screen relationship from some sort of a mentor/mentee place to a romantic and sexual thing.
BURNSIDE: Well, at the end of the day, we’re actors. We aren’t really having sex. Billy and I are both professionals and so that was never really a concern about whether or not the sex scene in particular was going to be a moment where I would feel unsafe or where he would feel unsafe.
But to your point, about us having a mentor/mentee relationship, I have been very vocal about the ways in which I look up to Billy Porter, just as an actor who’s come up through Broadway and musical theater and studied him. I was actually just listening to a Billy Porter song from back in the day before I got on this call. When we first started this journey together, one of the first things I told him was how much I looked up to him and how impactful it was to get to work on the show with him. He was in the audience on the opening night of my Broadway debut, and how important that was to me and all those things. So yes, I literally called him “Father” for the entire first season of Pose. And he jokingly said to me after we read the episode where the courtship between Ricky and Pray Tell began, “You’re going to have to stop calling me Father. You’re going to have to start calling me Daddy.” That sort of broke the ice, and we talked about what it meant for there to be this intergenerational relationship, and how special it was for us to get to do that together.
That being said, neither one of us had done a sex scene before, and so there was just natural nerves and awkwardness attached to that. But I’m grateful to have done it with a man that I respect and love and admire. He’s still Father. But we got to share a really special moment in history together as colleagues as well, and I really am grateful for that.
MW: I’m curious, because I’ve seen a situation like that, where two good friends, platonic friends for 20 years, all of a sudden got married, and it just blew people’s minds. Have you ever been a part of anything like that or experienced it in any way?
BURNSIDE: What, like being friends with somebody and then it turns romantic?
MW: Or even witnessing it, because I think it can be strange even to witness it.
BURNSIDE: I haven’t experienced it, personally. I know couples who were friends before and then a romance was born out of that friendship. But I think for me, anybody that I’ve ever dated, I knew I was going to date them. It has happened the opposite way for me in the past, which is maybe myself and another person go into something with romantic interest or romantic intentions and then we discover, “Oh, actually, we’re just meant to be friends.” That happens more often than not for me.
MW: That begs the question, are you a believer in love at first sight?
BURNSIDE: You know, I am a bit of a hopeless romantic, and so I don’t know that I would say that I believe in love at first sight but I have had experiences where I can have a conversation with someone one time and then just know that this person is going to be my partner. I definitely have experienced that feeling before. So yeah, maybe I guess I would say that I believe in love at first sight, but I think it’s more so less about the sight part of it, the actual visual part of it, and more about talking to someone and connecting with them. I can know right away, “Oh, this has the potential to be something really special.”
MW: Now to PRIDELAND. I talked to your director Katherine Linton, and she had nothing but really kind and warm things to say about you. She basically was saying that you naturally made a good host, a good listener. How did you approach sharing so much of your story on the show, as well as being a host?
BURNSIDE: With trepidation, honestly. As an actor, I have been trained to tell other people’s stories and so there’s a certain amount of comfort in that, in getting up and learning how to be vulnerable in front of people, but people not really knowing the origins of that vulnerability. And what I mean is that when you see actors and whatever emotions that you think they’re experiencing through the story that they’re telling, you don’t know what part of their personal life they may be pulling from. And so you get to experience things that maybe they’ve been through in their lives without knowing what those things are. You just know the story that they’re telling with the character that they’re portraying. So your personal life is removed from the audience in a certain way and there’s a level of comfort to that and having to sort of be vulnerable in the way that PRIDELAND asked me to be vulnerable was new for me, and it required me to open up old wounds in a very vulnerable way that was very uncomfortable and I was terrified.
Katherine and I and Jon Reynaga — who is an executive producer on the project with Tiny Horse, the production company — we had lots of conversations about what that would look like. When Jon approached me about this project initially, we talked about going into the South and exploring other people’s lives. And then in one of our first meetings, just me hearing about some of the people that they were pitching that they thought might be good for me to meet, and me saying, “Oh yeah, this person sounds like a good idea, I like this idea, I like this….” In that, I saw these connections to my life and things that I had been through and that’s when they came back to me and said, “Hey, we really think it might be interesting if we approach this as a homecoming for you and what it means for you to go home having had all of these experiences that are so similar to these folks that you’re going to be talking to, and how do we weave that into the narrative of the doc.” I’m like, okay. That’s not necessarily what I thought I was signing up for. I thought I was going to talk to people about their experiences.
I thought about it, I prayed about it, and I thought this is a really great opportunity to maybe encourage folks through some of my lived experiences and the lived experiences of the folks that I’m going to talk to. And we were able to find a good balance of what felt appropriate to share and how we could share it in a way that was both respectful to the people that we interviewed, and respectful to the people and organizations in my life prior to now who are not necessarily a part of the doc but who had a big part in my life. It was really challenging, but also rewarding, and it was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life to go back to the South, specifically to go back to Pensacola, Florida, my hometown, and sort of retrace my steps and revisit the parts of my life that I had buried away.
MW: I think a really great story in the show is Mary Jane. I had preconceived notions about Mississippi, based on how I felt about the place the only time I’d been there. But I really empathized with her and appreciated the stories she shared. I thought it was interesting that she keeps her hate mail and read some of it to you.
BURNSIDE: Yes! Mary Jane is a gem, a true gem, and she and anyone that I met in Mississippi really changed my perception about what Mississippi is, and what I thought Mississippi is versus the people I met there. So, shout out to Mississippi, first of all, and the wonderful, beautiful people that I’ve met there. Every state has its challenges but I met some really wonderful people, including Ms. Mary Jane Kennedy and I also couldn’t believe that woman was keeping her hate mail. When she pulled it out and said I kept some of that. I said, “You did what? You kept it?” It really baffled me the things that people said to her — some of the things that she showed me in that envelope. But I think maybe for her it’s important to be reminded of that and she seemed to be fortified by and in that. I really applaud her on her strength and her courage for the way that she has been so outspoken and in a community that has not been pleased with her speaking out.
MW: I imagine that the Pose cast gets a lot of love. But how do you handle whatever hate comes your way?
BURNSIDE: Honestly, I haven’t received a lot of hate. The only sort of troll that ever shows up, that I ever get even on social media is my biological father who I don’t really have a relationship to. He’s started trolling me in recent years on the internet, because apparently he doesn’t agree with my “lifestyle.” But I don’t really know the man anyway.
MW: Wow. I’m sorry to hear that he’s so public about that point of view.
BURNSIDE: It’s really disturbing and unfortunate, but people have to deal with their own biases and their demons in whatever way that they feel they need to deal with it. And so I understand that.
Aside from that, my journey with Pose has been overall really positive. Then, PRIDELAND comes about and that’s when I started getting hate responses. We had a conservative religious radical group that denounced the show and my involvement with PBS, and that’s the first time that I’ve experienced that. I thought that if I was ever going to receive some backlash it would be during this time, because PBS is sort of so rooted in the fabric of American conservative family values. They do a lot of great work that is not political and that is not affiliated with any liberal or conservative agenda, but that’s just honest facts. “This is our country. This is history. These are the facts.” And so I think a lot of the public broadcasting station as a public property that comes into homes as family content. I sort of assume that this may be the moment where I receive some [hate] and it’s okay. I’m okay with that. I am strong enough to withstand it, and I think that’s why I’ve been put in this position.
I also stand firm on the fact that I’m illuminating truth. This is my ministry. I am telling the stories of people whose stories need to be told, introducing Americans to their neighbors that they don’t know. Whatever backlash I may receive from that is just a part of the gig. I’m here for it.
MW: That’s a good attitude. One thing I did not know until I saw it on the digital series was that you were in a boyband, 3D.
BURNSIDE: Oh, yeah.
MW: I just found “Wearing My Love” on YouTube today.
BURNSIDE: Oh, my god.
MW: It’s not bad. Do you still make music, either solo or with a group?
BURNSIDE: I do. 3D was the beginning of my professional career as an artist and I learned a lot with that journey. I left the music industry as a teenager because I felt like the music industry is just really hard to navigate as an adult, but even more so as a teenager who’s trying to self-actualize and really coming into an understanding of who they are.
We get all these messages from the world about who we’re supposed to be and that’s especially true in the music industry and I needed to figure out who I wanted to be without that outside influence. I knew I wanted to be an actor and so I focused my energy on acting after I worked with the church. The church was sort of my time after leaving 3D and a part of me finding myself and then I moved to New York to study theater.
But, over the past six years, I have slowly started to dip my foot back in the ocean of the music industry. And within the last two years, I started working on an EP as a solo artist and I’m so, so excited about it. This is the first time where I have gone into the studio and allowed myself to be completely honest and vulnerable about what I’m feeling and what I’m going through and relationships and the people that I’m dating or that I want to date. I don’t feel the pressure to conform to anybody’s ideas about who I need to be and what my music needs to sound like. I’m so excited about it. That will be coming very, very soon so please be on the lookout for my EP.
MW: Will do. Does being around not just the actual production, but the energy of what Pose represents — the different families, different genders, people being themselves — has being part of that energy helped you feel more liberated?
BURNSIDE: Absolutely. Absolutely. Pose has not only enriched my career and helped take me to the next place professionally, but it’s enriched my life. The people that I have gotten to meet and work with, the stories that I have gotten to discover. They have all emboldened me and enriched my understanding of where I come from, my history. It has encouraged me to continue to be an outspoken advocate. Prior to working on Pose I held a certain amount of fear about being transparent about my identity and certain pieces of my identity, particularly related to sexuality, because as an actor you just don’t know prior to a show like Pose.
And I think this is not just the case for me as an actor who is a part of this groundbreaking show, but I think for the industry as a whole. Pose marks a shift for black and brown folks to see themselves represented in the media in a really authentic way and in a show that’s massively successful. So it’s a signal to not only the actors, but to the industry that you can hire black and brown queer people to play on a primetime television cable show and have it be successful. So we can actually create work for these people. It’s opening up a space for folks to have more work, which is ultimately the reason why one would be afraid of being outspoken because you don’t want to cut yourself off from more work. Pose definitely has encouraged me and given me the confidence that I need to go out into the world and be more outspoken for queer and trans and black and brown issues unapologetically.
MW: And the final question: How was your voguing before you were cast on Pose?
BURNSIDE: Whew. My voguing before the show was at a negative 10. I had no experience with vogue at all. I know when I had to send in my audition tape for Pose and they asked me to dance that the show would involve voguing. I was looking up some of that stuff and I reached out to some of my friends who knew a little bit about voguing. I was like, oh my gosh, I don’t know if I’m right for this show.
MW: How would you rate it now?
BURNSIDE: Now, I think I would say that I give myself a four. [My character] Ricky gets all the 10s in Pose, but if Dyllón actually had to go out into the world and vogue at these balls, he would not be getting 10s. Jamal Milan, one of our choreographers and dance coaches on Pose, he encourages me a lot. He’s an icon in the ballroom world and he seems to think that I would get 10s, but I’m just like, I don’t actually have the confidence to walk the balls in the vogue category. But when I get a chance to practice and work through the choreography — I can get my 10. And Ricky gets his 10s on the show. So I’m grateful for that rehearsal time.
PRIDELAND one-hour special premieres Friday, June 12, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS. Visit www.pbs.org.
Stream the short-form PRIDELAND digital series on www.youtube.com/PBSvoices.
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!