“Doing Pose, it makes me realise that all of the things that I went through and all of the things that transpired were for a necessary cause,” says Hailie Sahar. “Now I’m an artist, an actress and a creator, and I am telling stories to give voice to the voiceless.” The American actress, who’s best known for her critically-acclaimed performance as Lulu Abundance on Pose, is chatting with GAY TIMES over Zoom (of course), just minutes after returning from a “mini-vacation” with her boyfriend. She’s in the passenger seat of a car – looking as effortlessly glam as you could possibly imagine – discussing the impact of the beloved drama, which focuses on the queer African-American and Latino communities of the ballroom scene in 1980s New York City. “People are starting to believe that they can be so much more than what the world has told them they can be, so much more than a world that says, ‘We’re going to discard you. You’re good for nothing. Go crawl in the corner,’” continues Hailie. “Pose has really enlightened people to say, ‘I can be smart, I can be beautiful, I can own my truth. I can own who I am and I can be happy.’ It’s given people hope.”
Although the series has been lauded for its authentic portrayal of the trans experience, and for making history with the largest amount of trans actors in regular roles of any scripted television series, the only recognised star in this year’s Emmy nominations was Billy Porter. While his performance as Pray Tell has continued to receive widespread praise from fans and critics, and indisputably deserves all the accolades, the Academy were blasted for failing to nominate any of the trans talent from the trailblazing series. “I would have liked to see all of us nominated,” explains Hailie. “It’s like having a show about women, but the men are the only ones being acknowledged. Not to take away from Billy, and I would like to make that very clear, but I want to see room for all of us. The trans experience is a totally different experience to the gay experience and we need more representation.”
Sadly, production on Pose has been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, which means we’ll have to wait just a little bit longer to see Lulu – who Hailie says has a more substantial role in the highly-anticipated third season – on our screens. But don’t think for a second that Hailie has been using her break from filming as downtime. Yes, she’s been putting all of our lockdown experiences to shame with her newfound career as a farm-girl (visit here to understand that last sentence), however, she’s been utilising this time to “hone in” on her craft and to “set a tone for the trans community” with her work ethic. Here, we speak with Hailie about her time in quarantine, the lack of appreciation for Pose on the awards circuit, and how she’s using her experiences as a trans woman of colour to bring authenticity to one of the most groundbreaking series’ of our generation.
Hailie, I’m so here for this look. Where are you heading?
Oh, thank you! I’m actually getting back from a little mini-vacation. My boyfriend and I just went up to the water for the weekend as it was our anniversary. I’m actually just getting back into town.
Congratulations! How long have you two been together now?
It’s been a year now!
I’m constantly working. I want the work ethic to speak to and set a tone for the trans community.
How have you been throughout lockdown?
I’ve actually been pretty good. I have the kind of mentality where I always look at the glass half-full rather than half-empty. So, I’ve really taken this time – I mean of course it was scary in the beginning – to really hone in on my craft and do more writing, take more of the producer’s seat and create as a creator. I used this time and it hasn’t been idle time for me, so it’s been pretty good for me so far.
I was really jealous of your time on the farm…
[Laughs] Do you know what? We’re actually looking at some property right now. My boyfriend’s family has a ranch, so that’s theirs. Sometimes we go up there because I love animals and I love the wildlife. That’s what that was! But, we’re looking into buying some land over there.
Alright, I’ll wait for my invitation in the mail!
Yes, of course! Listen, when it comes to animals… Give me food, give me animals and I’m good to go!
I was catching up on my shows during lockdown, and I was so happy to see you pop up in the final season of Eastsiders.
Yeah, that was such a fun project to do. I’m glad you said this because one of the things that’s most important to me is that I want people to – especially people of the trans experience – really see the work ethic, behind the examples I’m showing. I was filming in the break of Pose, I think we just had wrapped one of the seasons actually, and I was also in between filming Good Trouble as well, so I found some time to do Eastsiders. I’m constantly working! I want the work ethic to speak to and set a tone for the trans community. I never sleep and I’m always working in between jobs.
I recently found out that you sing too?
Yeah, I’ve been singing all my life, pretty much. I’m a preacher’s kid so I grew up in the church and started in the choir. I was the youth choir director growing up, and I started taking my music career a bit more seriously in the past 11 years.
Okay, so… when are you dropping the album?
[Laughs] Okay, so I want to give you the album. Let me tell you, so I was set to release my single on a particular date. We had a whole promotional tour that were going to do, but COVID-19 happened. Going back to the first thing you said to me, I’ve had to be more creative in the way that I release my music now. It kind of slowed things down, but it’s still in the works! I just have to take some different curves to where I’m going. But, it’s coming. I’m going to release my single first and hopefully an album after that.
What can we expect from the sound?
I would say this song is 80s inspired. Actually, Pose inspired this for me. Filming the first season of Pose and being transformed into the 80s, as well as Lulu, the whole era of creativity served as inspiration. I really dug deep into the music, and I think in the 80s, people were just free with expression and queer in the way that they dressed. It was all about being innovative and not necessarily what was trendy. So, this song is about being a creative and also about enlightening that creativity in other people. I want people to feel good about themselves and to know that they can do anything. I don’t want to curse, but…
You can curse!
To know they’re the shit! People are the shit. I think that people live in this space of being subdued because they don’t want to go out of this box that they’ve created for themselves. I think people live in fear a lot of the time and I’m a vessel that wants to break that fear. You are phenomenal and life is so short. The song is trendy and has a very chilled vibe, but the lyrics are so empowering and so cocky. It’s for everyone to feel good about themselves. I’m really excited! The concept is also a little futuristic.
It sounds like we need a song like this now more than ever. Drop it Hailie!
[Laughs] Okay, okay! I will. I wanted to put a video to it, I think that’s what it is. Maybe I’ll drop the song and the video will follow…
We’ll discuss your music in a follow-up interview. So, it’s August and usually Pose would be airing on our screens right about now. How does it feel to not be with your cast members at this time?
It’s heartbreaking. We were actually in the process of filming the third season when we heard about COVID-19 and it was devastating. Of course in the beginning, I didn’t know it was going to be this serious, so I thought, ‘Oh, three weeks and we’ll be right back to work.’ When that didn’t happen… Thank god we’ve kept in contact. We all do a great job that, even though everyone has their own business endeavours and separate projects. But, we do keep in contact and I know everyone’s healthy and okay. I can’t wait to get back to work. There’s nothing like being on the set of Pose. It’s so fun!
How have you and your co-stars kept connected?
You know, it’s just random things. MJ and I are really close, and if I see something funny on social media or think of something funny, we’ll leave little messages on each other’s voicemails and we do these voices sometimes, like these characters. Sometimes I’ll just think of something and I’ll be like, [unintelligible], I’ll just start talking on her phone and she’ll be laughing and send something back. It’s just little things like that. Just random stuff, I’m a goofy person!
I wish I could hear these…
There’s one in particular that I do that’s only for her ears because it’s extremely… It’s just such a different tone from my voice. It’s for her ears, like an inside little joke. That’s how we keep in contact. Sometimes, you know, we’ll get random messages, ‘How are you doing?’ or ‘How are you holding up?’ Little things like that. It really is like a family away from Pose.
We’re going to have to do a joint interview with you both, aren’t I?
Oh yes, get me an MJ because that is the only way I’m going to be able to do that voice for you!
Obviously, the third season of Pose has been put on hold due to COVID-19, but I wanted to ask: how would you like to see Lulu’s character develop in the future?
With Lulu, I’m going to say this, as much as I can say. In season one, we kind of got a little glimpse of Lulu, and season two her character started to come out a lot more. I will say in season three… expect to see a lot more of Lulu, the way you’ve seen the progression in each season. That’s as much as I can say, without giving away too much with Lulu! But hopefully that helps.
I’m so excited! How similar would you say the narrative of Pose is to your own personal experience?
It’s very similar. I come from ballroom, so a lot of the things we’ve seen in Pose, I have experienced first-hand. I remember when I was a teenager, it was common when no one had any money and I was told, ‘Hey, go into that store and get some stuff.’ I was the lookout person though, I didn’t really do that. I remember being in those moments and kind of just making the best of what we had, making a family away from our families. A lot of those experiences are good for me. A lot of the dark stuff we see in Pose is also real for me. It’s not stuff that I’ve publicly spoken about, but it is definitely real for me because I’ve lived those things. Doing Pose, it makes me realise that all of the things that I went through and all of the things that transpired were for a necessary cause. Now I’m an artist, an actress and I am a creator, and I am telling stories to give voice to the voiceless. I’m using my real life experiences to bring authenticity to my roles. It’s helpful for the character development as well.
How similar would you say you are to Lulu?
I’m similar to Lulu in the sense… I think Lulu is a lot meaner than me sometimes! But, Lulu is misunderstood, and I think that I’m a very misunderstood person too. I let my work speak for itself. You’re not going to see me on social media speaking about different things… I’m going to speak through it during my work. I’m going to let that show through my artistry or writing a book or something in that way. Also, because I am a multi-racial person, a lot of people don’t know where to categorise me. I am of all things. I’m mixed with so many different things and so I relate to so many different ethnic backgrounds and just things of that nature. People don’t really know who Lulu is and they want to know who Lulu is, and so I think that’s some of our similarities. Lulu is also a person that won’t give you all of herself in one setting, you have to get to know her. You have to earn her respect. That’s who I am as well. I’m not going to just tell you my whole life story because I don’t know you – not you personally! I’m a little guarded in that way. I’m also a very deep person when you do get to talk to me, you can’t get me to be quiet, so I think it’s a lot of misconception with both of us I think. Sorry, that was a long answer!
Although the Emmy Awards nominated a record amount of people of colour this year, sadly, all of the trans talent on Pose were snubbed, which is ironic because it’s a show about the trans experience. What was your initial response to this?
I tread lightly with this subject because I don’t want it to be misconstrued. I love Billy Porter. Billy and I have a phenomenal relationship, just as two individuals. I think he’s deserved everything he’s getting. However, I would have liked to see all of us nominated. It’s like having a show about women, but the men are the only ones being acknowledged. Not to take away from Billy, and I would like to make that very clear, but I want to see room for all of us. The trans experience is a totally different experience to the gay experience and we need more representation. One of the things that was lacking heavily for me growing up was that there was no trans representation. There was nothing, and what I’ve had to go through, to get to this point, has been hell and back for me. Other people that are growing up need to see us in positions of power and winning, so they know that they can win too. Not to take away from Billy, but I would like Pose and the trans talent to be acknowledged. I love the Emmys, I love the Golden Globes, I love everything surrounding Hollywood and I’ve only ever dreamed of being in this position, so it would be great to be acknowledged for our work. It hurts. I don’t know how else to say that. It does hurt. I feel like the trans community is always hurt, so that’s the irony of it. When do we get a break, you know? I’ve struggled to get here and it’s hard. I don’t know how to answer that completely.
The Emmys are willing to recognise Pose and its cultural relevance, but like you said, it’s not willing to recognise the trans talent. What is the disconnect there? Where is the logic?
Do you know what the fascinating thing is? Even if I wasn’t on Pose, it’s still really fascinating to see people of the trans experience who have gone through a whole transformation of life and to make it to this point of calling, where there’s no blueprint to be successful at it. To me, that is mind-blowing. Even if I wasn’t on Pose, that would be incredible to me. I would want to honour that. That is so hard to do, have all of these intersections and still manage to be successful at it and to give people hope. That is tremendously difficult. We live in a world where a lot of the time, it feels like we’re in a classroom and I’m ahead of the class, and the world represents that class. People like me are ahead of the class, and we just have to wait for everyone else to catch-up, to understand what really happens in the world; the lesson of what really matters. It’s difficult but all I can continue to do is be positive and represent trans excellence in my demeanour and the way that I do things, that’s all I can do.
Pose is the first show that has portrayed trans individuals, especially trans women of colour, in this light. In the few years you’ve been on the show, what kind of impact do you think it’s had on trans women of colour? What have you seen personally?
Oh, wow. I’ve gotten millions and millions of emails, messages, DMs, comments. People are – going back to what I said – starting to believe that they can be so much more than what the world has told them they can be, so much more than a world that says, ‘We’re going to discard you. You’re good for nothing. Go crawl in the corner.’ Pose has really enlightened people to say, ‘I can be smart, I can be beautiful, I can own my truth. I can own who I am and I can be happy.’ It’s given people hope. I can’t describe the feeling in words… See? I get so emotional! I’m such a cry baby it’s horrible.
If I had representation, I would have been happier. I would have known that it was possible, that there’s some hope at the end of that tunnel.
Don’t ruin your makeup!
[Laughs] Just knowing that my existence helps those like me exist, and me being authentically myself is helping someone’s life? It goes so much further than my own personal wants and needs or being in the industry. I’m doing something that, when I leave this planet, I’ll be happy about. So the impact has been phenomenal for people of the trans experience. The beautiful thing about our experience is it doesn’t just stop with trans people, it goes all across the globe. Just whoever you are, accept who you are, accept those around you – that is the message. At least that’s my message.
What would it have meant to you to have a show like this on the air when you were younger?
Listen honey, I would have been a lot more happy. I don’t remember a time where I was ever happy growing up, because everything was a struggle. Everything was a struggle. My existence was a struggle, some of my family accepting me was a struggle, me being a preacher’s kid was a struggle, me even breaking into the industry was completely unheard of. I went through a lot of different experiences, with producers wanting to go to bed with me and just a lot of different things. There was no one there to protect me, so it was horrible. So if I had representation, I would have been happier. I would have known that it was possible, that there’s some hope at the end of that tunnel. What I had to rely on was my faith, and that’s what kept me going and I’m thankful for that. But, I think about a lot of people that don’t have that strong faith like I do, and so I’m glad we have at least this representation now.
You’re not just an actor or a singer, you are an activist as well. Do you think the days are now gone of celebrities not being activists? Do you think everyone with a platform has the responsibility to stand up?
I think to whom much is given, much is also required. I think that we shouldn’t only rely on the celebrities for activism, I think all of us need to be activists, even if we’re not in the limelight, because we all make the world go around. So if we wait on people that are in entertainment to be activists… I don’t think it’s what we only need to rely on. But I do think that when we have a position of power, there is some level of responsibility to use your voice because your voice has an impact, more than a person who’s not necessarily in the industry. It’s a bit 50/50, in a way for me. To put that much responsibility on a person who’s there to be an entertainer is also not fair, but I do think you should use your position of power to help. At least me. I can only speak for myself.
What advice would you have for trans women who are trying to get into the industry?
I give the same advice all the time and it is to know your craft. Because if you don’t know your craft, and opportunity comes, that opportunity will pass you. My mother has always told me an opportunity is only an opportunity if you can take it. I’d first say learn your craft and own it. I would say that for trans men as well, because I think that trans men get left out of the equation a lot and we don’t really speak about trans men, but I’m an advocate for them as well. I would say, whoever you are, know your craft and get a team behind you. Build your resume, take head shots, get a great manager and agent. Before I had a manager and agent, I was my own manager and agent. It was difficult to get someone to back me up because of my trans experience as well. It’s a little different for people of trans experience. Know your craft. Be so great that no one can tell you you’re not great. Be so great, that no one can deny you.
The first two seasons of Pose are now available to stream on Netflix.