JT LeRoy, also known as Jeremiah, or Terminator, became a literary sensation upon the release of his semi-autobiographical book Sarah in 1999.
The teenager turned to writing after a horrendously abusive childhood, in which he was sold for sex in parking lots in West Virginia by his sex worker mother, Sarah, and took inspiration from his past, his diagnosis of being HIV positive and his addiction to heroin for his work.
Following the publication of his short stories collection The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, JT was one of the hottest authors and pop culture figures on the scene, making friends with stars like Courtney Love, Billy Corgan, Asia Argento and Winona Ryder and having Garbage write a song, Cherry Lips, in dedication to him and his work.
There was just one problem. JT LeRoy wasn’t real.
JT was the creation of Laura Albert, a 40-year-old former punk rocker and phone sex operator who had a habit of calling up teen suicide helplines in her 20s and pretending to be a teenager. The critically acclaimed books were all the work of Albert. And the mysterious boy in the blond wig, hat and dark sunglasses that appeared on magazine covers, hung out with rock stars and dated Asia Argento? That was the sister of Albert’s husband Geoffrey, Savannah Knoop.
Savannah’s unlikely stint as one of the world’s hottest writers is portrayed in the new film JT LeRoy, directed by Justin Kelly and based on Knoop’s book Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy in which they [Savannah identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns] are played by Kristen Stewart.
‘My friends kept saying it was like watching me as a young person,’ Savannah told Metro.co.uk. ‘Then a cameo would happen and they’d be startled out of it. My mom had similar feelings, like “wow, she really understood you”.
‘I loved [Kristen’s] use of body language and the complexity of her acting. Watching Kristen play JT, you really feel there’s somebody else under the surface. I think that’s a very hard thing to do.’
In JT LeRoy, we see Savannah arriving to San Francisco to live with their brother (played by Jim Sturgess) and meeting Laura (wonderfully portrayed by Laura Dern) for the first time, before being dragged into the bizarre JT ruse. However, in real life, Savannah had met Albert on numerous occasions, with the intro to the film cutting out the prelude to establish the ‘emotional trajectory’ of Savannah/JT’s story. How Laura came to create Jeremiah – talking with psychologist Dr Terrence Owens, creating a cousin named JoAnn to send pay cheques to – is left out of the movie to focus on how Savannah played a part.
‘My story is a completely other story to Laura’s story and I thought it was important to show it from my very specific viewpoint, because that’s what I know. But there’s so many other people that were involved in this story. if you were there, you have a voice.’ They added that it was key that other voices were ‘not erased’ from the narrative.
In 2001, Savannah agreed to ‘play’ JT after Laura begged them to pose for a picture for a magazine profile, wearing a cheap platinum wig, sunglasses and a raccoon penis bone around their neck. This led to a magazine shoot starring JT, which led to public appearances, which led to JT becoming a staple of the New York scene. But before the real flesh and blood JT began appearing in public, Laura had been pretending to be him on the phone with psychologists, editors, journalists and stars – as well as acting as JT’s agent Speedie, with a British accent akin to Dick Van Dyke’s in Mary Poppins – and forming friendships. While Savannah was the friend to Courtney Love and co in person, they hadn’t actually made the connections the celebrities believed they had formed with JT.
‘A lot of the people that spoke to Laura or had deep relationships, there were feelings of betrayal. But I never was on the phone, I didn’t have those connections,’ Savannah said.
So what was the strangest moment while being JT?
‘Kind of all of them!’ Savannah laughed. ‘It was all pretty strange.
‘I remember one time, it was the only time I brought my boyfriend into that world. We were at a hotel, and Courtney Love was reading his poem. It was sort of like, bringing someone into a completely different life and a completely different world, someone who knew me so well and could see the distinction.’
Courtney was one of the stars who formed a deep bond with JT via Laura’s phone conversations, so it would be entirely understandable if she felt betrayed after discovering that JT wasn’t who everyone said he was. However, there doesn’t seem to be any bad blood, with Courtney even appearing in JT LeRoy as Sasha, a sort of fictionalised version of her actual role in the JT story.
‘The Courtney part is kind of beautiful because it’s such a full circle moment. I met her a few times over the years, and Laura talked to her a lot on the phone, they had hours of communication. There was so much, there was no way to know what had passed between them, even when it’s been summarised for you.’
Despite the obvious difficulties in playing a person whose history had been built up by somebody else, the JT stunt went on for a remarkably long time. Sure, there were questions about JT’s gender, who they were under that obviously fake wig, and whether all was what it seemed, but nobody seemed to care. Laura continued writing as JT, and Savannah continued living as JT, even sparking a romantic relationship with Asia Argento (whose role in the saga is deferred to the character of Eva in the film, played by Diane Kruger). And how long it went on for owes itself to the culture of the early noughties – when the cult of celebrity was at its height, but social media was only at its birth.
Savannah said: ‘I think it’s of its time. I don’t think the way things are now, it could have happened. People didn’t even have cameras on their phones then, and social media had just started. It was very pre-social media, an analogue version of what we exist in now.’
But an end had to come. In 2005, the jig was up when New York Magazine published a piece by Stephen Beachy in 2005 called ‘Who Is The Real JT LeRoy?’, pointing out all of the inconsistencies in JT’s story – and in January 2006, New York Times reporter Warren St John outed Savannah as the public face of JT.
While Courtney seems to have come to terms with being friends with someone who didn’t exist, not everybody has, and Savannah admits there is still bad blood with some of JT’s inner circle.
They said: ‘There are some people who have come into my life and we’ve spoken about our experiences. Before the film came out, there were some people who had felt hurt by [the situation] or felt betrayed by it, and I let them know that it was coming out.’
After the hoax was uncovered, Albert was sued for fraud for signing contracts with JT’s name and in 2007, was found guilty in Federal District Court. She settled out of court after initially being ordered to pay $116,500 (£89,000) to a film company who signed an option contract with ‘LeRoy’ to make a film out of his novel Sarah.
But it hasn’t ended her career. Now 53, Laura – who described JT as her ‘avatar’ – still flogs JT merch on her official website, still writes, and told her story in the 2016 documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story.
After being linked with Laura for so long, is she still in Savannah’s life?
‘We haven’t really spoke. It was a collaborative break-up, but it feels like a break-up,’ Savannah told us. ‘You have to give each other room. Overall, it’s like “wish you well”, and we’re kind of connected but we live separate lives now. I wish her the best, but also, there is distance that I think is necessary.’
And while JT is long gone, the performance aspect still lives on with Savannah. Now an artist and filmmaker in New York, they have performed and shown at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney, and they have just finished their fifth annual show of Tripod Sweep, an installation involving ‘sculpture and wrestling’.
But while JT played a big part in their life, this art is solely Savannah’s.
‘The things I’m interested in today are the things I was interested in throughout my time as JT and before then. It has informed and solidified my interest, but I don’t owe it to JT.’
JT LeRoy is in cinemas now.
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