Wednesday 25 April 2018

The literary hoax that hoodwinked Hollywood

As production begins on a star-studded biopic of JT LeRoy, Hilary A White looks back at the story of the faux author who exposed the gushing suggestibility of celebrity

From left, Courtney Love, JT Leroy, and singer Speedie (Laura Albert) attend the after-party for the reading of JT Leroy's book 'The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things' during the New York Mercedes Benz Fashion Week
From left, Courtney Love, JT Leroy, and singer Speedie (Laura Albert) attend the after-party for the reading of JT Leroy's book 'The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things' during the New York Mercedes Benz Fashion Week

Production has recently begun on an eponymous biopic of the transgender author JT LeRoy. Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern and James Franco have all reportedly signed up for the project, which will depict the life of one of the most fascinating characters to emerge in recent times in US publishing.

LeRoy's enigma status was founded upon arrival of his 2000 debut Sarah, a thinly veiled telling of a 12-year-old child of a truck-stop prostitute. Rave reviews came in its wake but the West Virginia author, who had seemingly taken much from his own broken youth and teen years as a street hustler, refused to do readings or public interviews. Naturally, this only served to fuel the mystique.

Barely in his twenties, LeRoy was being lauded as a literary sensation and the natural heir to Southern Gothic heavyweights such as Truman Capote and Flannery O'Connor by the cultural elite. At the same time, members of the noughties cool set such as Courtney Love, Billy Corgan, Calvin Klein, Garbage's Shirley Manson (their 2001 hit 'Cherry Lips' was inspired by Sarah's gender-fluid protagonist) and Winona Ryder were rushing to introduce themselves and lasso his edgy cred to their entourages.

A rock-star author. A cult hero. A bold new voice in modern literature. Courtney Love's bestie. Quite an achievement for a former homeless teenager who lived with HIV.

Especially when he didn't even exist.

After six years of bestselling novels, celebrity chumming, film adaptations and all sorts of spin-offs, a 2005 New York Magazine article put its head above the parapet and called out the emperor's clothes with the headline: "Is JT LeRoy A Hoax?"

The net gradually closed around him. The jig was up: JT LeRoy was the alter ego of Laura Albert, a shy and body-conscious mother and former punk living in San Francisco. The "LeRoy" part was plucked from a client from her days as a sex-line operator while "JT" brought together two previous male personalities - "Jeremiah" and "Terminator" - she'd fabricated during helpline therapy sessions.

When a public face was needed to deal with the huge public interest in LeRoy, Albert's sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, donned an absurd wig and shades and masqueraded as the embodiment of this literary construct.

Albert, meanwhile, assumed the guise of Speedie, JT's equally fictional British handler. Her husband, Geoff Knoop, would become friend and musician Astor. To make matters even more knotted, Albert later elaborated Speedie's identity to entail "Emily Frasier", Speedie's stage name in a short-lived music career with Astor that looked to capitalise on JT's fame.

Put simply, if early casting reports are to be believed, that upcoming biopic will see Kristen Stewart depicting Savannah Knoop depicting Laura Albert depicting JT LeRoy.

Still with me? Such multiple-personality jiggery-pokery is a lot to untangle but a 2016 definitive feature documentary maps out the incredible, couldn't-make-it-up saga in three intriguing acts while giving Albert herself the chance to tell her side of the story.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story is the work of documentary film-maker Jeff Feuerzeig who made a name for himself with 2005 Sundance-winner The Devil and Daniel Johnston (a portrait of another West Virginian caught between inspiration and identity dysfunction). Yards and yards of column inches as well as a tell-all by Savannah Knoop have since given every angle of the bizarre story, but this was the first time Albert - "the wizard behind the curtain", as Feuerzeig calls her - had her say in an extended format.

At the very heart of this elaborate hall of mirrors, according to Albert, is her troubled upbringing following her parents' divorce. She claims to have been abused by certain "sleazebags" her violent and unhinged mother brought home. Distorted ideas about sexuality, gender and self-worth bedded in during these formative years.

Gradually, she began calling suicide helplines, "not knowing who would bubble up on the phone" once she started speaking. It turned out to be the character of a boy and immediately she got hooked on the sensation of being taken seriously for a change.

The role-play evolved into the character of Terminator, a 13-year-old child prostitute who lived on the street. Albert's therapist encouraged her to write as a way of externalising her strife. A stage now existed for Albert to flesh-out her fantasising. The climax of Sarah sees the protagonist being persecuted for not being upfront about who and what they are. Albert swears to this day that when she wrote that ending, she knew she was foretelling future events, even though JT had not yet been dreamt up ("I knew there was nothing I could do to change it," she said in one interview). If she is telling the truth, it's yet another outlandish emulsification of art and life that this tale throws down on the table.

Not everyone is happy about Feuerzeig's film and its use of personal phone conversations recorded surreptitiously by Albert over the years. Italian actress Asia Argento, who had a relationship with LeRoy/Knoop, called their use "downright evil and disturbing". Many celebrities "respectfully declined" to participate in Albert's telling of the events, according to Feuerzeig, but fellow author Dennis Cooper branded the reality "far uglier and more damaging than [Feuerzeig's] film lets on".

Albert herself implies that what started out as a way to vocalise complex inner sensations and remain secluded merely got out of hand. She has voiced shame over the fiasco but insists that any hoax was accidental. When the bubble burst, it did so acrimoniously, with many accusing the writer of putting their professional credibility on the line and, more seriously, ascribing HIV to LeRoy to win sympathy and garner sales. She outright denies both claims.

Mind you, it didn't prevent her being successfully sued to the tune of $350,000 in 2007 for signing a film contract for Sarah under a false name. Interestingly, the Authors Guild in the US defended her right to use the pseudonym which does buttress her core defence - that the word "fiction" is clearly shown on the jackets of JT LeRoy novels. While certainly not a case of Albert having the last laugh, the ruse did inadvertently expose the gushing suggestibility of celebrity with Brass Eye-like bite. There were bound to be scorned egos after the curtain was eventually lifted.

Laura Albert will attend a screening of Author: The JT LeRoy Story at Dublin's IFI on August 24, followed by a Q&A

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