New Film ‘JT LeRoy’ Explores Bizarre Details of Early-2000s Literary Scam
It is a truth universally acknowledged that everyone loves a good scam. From Elizabeth Holmes to Fyre Fest to ersatz German heiress Anna Delvey, grifters have had us all in their thrall. Yet in our zeal to find a new, juicy con-artist tale, we often forget about the scammers who paved the way, those who successfully lied and cheated their way to the top, so that morally compromised and ambitious members of future generations could follow suit. I am speaking, of course, of JT LeRoy, the enigmatic former teenage hustler who won over the literary world and whose rise and fall are documented in the film JT LeRoy, out today.
JT LeRoy’s ostensible origin story was a publicist’s dream: a survivor of childhood physical and sexual abuse, he claimed to have been raised by a sex-worker mother among the “lot lizards” (slang for truck stop sex workers) of West Virginia before becoming a teenage street hustler. (At various points in his career, JT identified as transgender, but used the pronouns “he” and “him.”) Encouraged to write by a supportive social worker, LeRoy began sending semi-autobiographical Southern Gothic accounts of his life of poverty, drug addiction, and sexual abuse to influential figures in the literary world, which eventually led to the publication of two books, Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. LeRoy was applauded as a literary star on the rise, with celebrities like Courtney Love and Winona Ryder feting his talents and hosting readings of his work; the fact that he claimed to be a reclusive figure, appearing in public only in a ratty blond wig, fedora and dark sunglasses, only fueled media interest.
A 2006 New York Times article eventually revealed the truth: there was no JT LeRoy. Rather, JT LeRoy was a combination of two people: Laura Albert (played in the new film by Laura Dern), a 40-year-old former punk rocker and phone sex operator who wrote all of LeRoy’s books and interacted with his admirers on the phone; and Savannah Knoop (portrayed by Kristen Stewart), the half-sibling of Albert’s (now former) husband, who appeared as JT in public. Albert and Knoop worked together to convincingly play the character, with Albert pretending to be JT’s overbearing British handler, “Speedie,” as a way to fend off pesky questions from the media — and for nearly six years, they pulled it off.
Directed by Justin Kelly and co-written by Knoop, JT LeRoy is based on Knoop’s 2007 memoir Girl Boy Girl, though Knoop says it isn’t wholly autobiographical: “There is a separation between the film and me and my experiences and my life,” Knoop, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” tells Rolling Stone. Nonetheless, the film hews closely to the real-life timeline of the JT LeRoy saga, recounting the efforts to which the two women went to pull off one of the biggest literary scams of the 21st century — and, in so doing, it explores questions of identity, authenticity and what, exactly, it means to be a “real” artist in the image-obsessed age of social media. Rolling Stone spoke with Knoop in advance of the film’s release to discuss the most mind-boggling moments from the film, and the bizarre real-world drama unfolding the myth of JT LeRoy that continues to this day.
The character of JT LeRoy was inspired by Laura Albert calling suicide hotlines.
According to the film, Albert’s adoption of the JT LeRoy persona wasn’t motivated by the typical scammer desires for wealth or notoriety. Albert had a troubled past marked by abuse and stays in group homes, and in the film, the character recounts how she coped with the trauma of her youth by sneaking out at night and calling suicide hotlines. “I’d never be me. I’d create characters, usually boys,” Dern’s Albert recollects in the film. “Some of them didn’t make it, but JT kept calling.” This was a recurring theme in the real-life Albert’s interactions with celebrities like novelist Dennis Cooper, who told Vanity Fair that he regularly received desperate phone calls from “JT” in the middle of the night, threatening suicide or claiming that he had overdosed on pills and was at the hospital to have his stomach pumped.
JT LeRoy duped celebrities like Winona Ryder, Tom Waits and Courtney Love (who appears in a cameo role in the film).
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the JT LeRoy grift was how adept Albert was at cultivating celebrity admirers, such Winona Ryder, Lou Reed and Billy Corgan. One famous fan was Courtney Love, who appears in JT LeRoy not as herself, but as a producer hosting JT and Speedie at her Hollywood home. Knoop says that they, personally, had little interaction with any of the celebrities they met as “JT,” as Albert most often spoke with them on the phone; after “JT LeRoy” was exposed, many of them felt incredibly hurt and betrayed by the deception. When Knoop approached Love to appear in the film, however, she was immediately on board: when they met on set, Knoop said, “her reaction was sort of like, ‘I know you!'” Knoop says Love was a good sport about having been implicated in the ruse: “To have Courtney in the film is a beautiful, full-circle moment of the kind of strangeness of the whole experience and how many different parts of the saga there is,” Knoop says.
As “JT LeRoy,” Knoop had a romantic relationship with Asia Argento, who directed a film adaptation of LeRoy’s work.
Among JT LeRoy’s higher-profile celebrity acolytes was Italian actor and director Asia Argento, who starred in and helmed an (extremely poorly reviewed) adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. In the film JT LeRoy, Argento is fictionalized as Eva (Diane Kruger), a glamorous foreign actress who wants to acquire the rights to LeRoy’s work. (When asked why the Argento character is fictionalized, Knoop said: “The film does not want to speak on Asia’s behalf on the experiences she had with JT LeRoy.”)
In the film, Eva and Knoop (under the guise of “JT”) develop a flirtation, and eventually have sex; while Knoop develops genuine feelings for Eva, it is implied that Eva is seducing Knoop to acquire the rights to JT’s story, and that Knoop, to some degree, is using Eva to gain creative control over the development process for the film. In real life, Knoop and Argento did indeed have a sexual relationship while Knoop was pretending to be JT LeRoy. (In another complicated — and disturbing — twist, last year it was reported that Argento, a major leader in the #MeToo movement, had settled a sexual assault allegation made against her by Jimmy Bennett, the actor who played the young JT LeRoy in her film, who claimed the two had a sexual encounter when he was 17.) Argento was reportedly extremely angry after JT was revealed to be a hoax, and Knoop says the two do not speak. “I felt a connection to Asia. It was a real interaction. And that’s part of why it’s sort of a pivotal point of intimacy in the story: it did feel like a real friendship and a real connection. At that point it’s like: ‘I’m playing someone else. Do you see me as me or are you projecting something onto me or are we connecting as two humans?,'” Knoop says.
Laura Albert is not a fan of the film.
Although the film depicts Knoop and Albert as close early on, Albert eventually becomes jealous of the attention Knoop gets as “JT,” objecting in particular to JT’s relationship with Eva. The film’s epilogue suggests that following LeRoy’s “unveiling” in the New York Times, the relationship between the two had cooled. It appears that Albert harbors animosity toward Knoop in real life as well: in a vitriolic Twitter thread last week, Albert railed against Knoop and the film, writing, ”Just because you play a writer, doesn’t mean you are a writer!” When asked why Albert would be so upset about the film, Knoop declined to comment, saying, “You’ve read the Twitter just as I have.” It’s possible, however, that Albert would take issue with the fact that JT LeRoy at times portrays her as a slick fraudster who manipulated Knoop into playing JT. To be fair, Knoop rejects this characterization, saying it would be inaccurate to say that she was a totally unwitting pawn in Albert’s con. “I think that Laura found someone who was sort of had enough interest in the experience as a casual thing, like, ‘Do you wanna do this once?’ And then as you see in the film, it gets more and more complicated and tricky and uncomfortable,” they say.
While not everyone bought the scam, it’s unlikely it would’ve been received the same way if it happened today.
What’s most surprising about JT LeRoy is how many characters question the legitimacy of the ruse throughout the film — from producers to photographers to journalists — yet despite the fact that there were obvious holes in their story, Knoop and Albert kept it going for at least six years. When the two were finally exposed, many of JT’s former supporters reacted with vitriol, and Albert was sued for fraud after signing contracts under JT LeRoy’s name. (The suits were settled out of court.) Knoop says there’s “no way” that the JT LeRoy narrative would’ve been received the same way now. “We’re not in the same cultural context that we were in back then,” they say. “Because of the internet and social media, there’s in some ways a lot of room for people to have a kind of multifaceted existence and be different people in different ways.” The idea of crafting one’s own narrative, of pretending to be an entirely different person, “seems like something that we are all familiar with at this point.” And that’s ultimately the most intriguing question that Knoop’s story — and JT LeRoy itself — asks: in a world where pretty much everyone is pretending to be someone else at any given point, who, really, is scamming who?
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