Why Is This Documentary Making So Many Celebrities Angry?

Everything you need to know about the biggest hoax in pop-culture history.

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The Backstory

It was the year 2003, and Winona Ryder stood on a stage before a crowd of New York writers, actors, musicians, and artists who had all gathered to celebrate a novel by 23-year-old JT LeRoy that had just been published to explosive acclaim. Ryder was dewy-eyed as she spoke: "I'm just so full of joy tonight to see all these people celebrating his words and his beautiful voice. I thank JT from the bottom of my heart."

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Problem was, JT LeRoy didn't exist.

Winona Ryder, worshipping at the JT LeRoy altar. Photograph courtesy Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
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At least, LeRoy didn't exist in the way Ryder or Courtney Love or Bono all thought he did. He was the invention of writer Laura Albert, who, struggling to write as herself, invented the persona Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy. This "avatar" (Albert's word) was originally from West Virginia, was the son of a truck-stop prostitute, and had even turned tricks himself.

The new documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story traces the creation of the LeRoy character, the lengths to which Albert went to disguise her own identity from the public, what happened when LeRoy's fame reached cult status, and, finally, the fallout when the hoax was finally cracked open.

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"So suddenly JT is the go-to person for the fashion world. And to have JT being an icon for fashion sensibility was very, very surreal."

"Jon Stewart did this whole thing like, 'What, fiction writers writing fiction?'" — Laura Albert

The Hoax's Key Players

Laura Albert

A troubled writer who suffered abuse as a child. As an adult she called crisis hotlines, often speaking as characters she'd created to help distance herself from the embarrassment she felt about her own experiences. LeRoy was one of her characters, and the doctor Albert spoke to regularly on the phone encouraged his patient to start writing about his life.

Geoffrey Knoop

Albert's now ex-husband, who helped her orchestrate the JT LeRoy ruse, assuming the role of a musician named Astor. In 2006, when a New York Times reporter started poking around, trying to sniff out the truth about LeRoy, Knoop caved and tried to take credit for much of LeRoy's success.

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Speedie/Emily Frasier

Speedie was another character that Albert invented and played herself. She adopted a British accent and presented Speedie to the public as LeRoy's manager and handler. Albert had been obese most of her adult life, and after undergoing surgery and losing weight, she allowed Speedie to go by her "real" name, Emily Frasier.

Honorable Mention: Billy Corgan

The front man of the Smashing Pumpkins was the first non-family member to whom Albert confessed the truth about LeRoy. He was actually super-cool about it.

Actor Michael Pitt, Savannah as JT LeRoy, and director Gus Van Sant. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios/Magnolia Pictures.
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Biggest How'd-They-Pull-That-Off Moment

While in Milan to promote the film based on LeRoy's second book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, Savannah had to do a reading as LeRoy. She was terrified, threw up, and didn't want to go on stage in front of the huge crowd. Albert asked, "What would Warhol do?" She had Savannah take the mic and sit under a table, hiding herself from view. After the reading, Savannah ran off stage, knocking over the mic stand. The audience went nuts.

Asia Argento poses with JT LeRoy while promoting the film adapted from LeRoy's second book. Photograph courtesy Tiziana Fabi/Getty Images

Celebrities Who Loved LeRoy, Were Tricked

Courtney Love

Love was pretty flip about LeRoy having been a hoax. "I'll take you on Oprah, and you'll cry. America loves redemption," she's heard saying on an answering machine in the documentary.

Michael Pitt

Definitely made out with Savannah Knoop while she was dressed up as JT LeRoy.

"While I'm there with Billy [Corgan], physically with him, JT in my body spoke to him." —Laura Albert

Asia Argento

The Italian actor became obsessed with LeRoy, especially with Savannah dressed as LeRoy, and adapted LeRoy's second book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, into a film. The film got pretty terrible reviews. Argento and Savannah-as-LeRoy may have had an intimate relationship.

The two national best-sellers written by Laura Albert as JT LeRoy: Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. Photograph courtesy of Michael Kovac/Getty Images

Tom Waits

From a message left on Albert's answering machine, for JT LeRoy: "I read Sarah [LeRoy's first novel], and then I read the new one. You seem so present in your stories. It almost seems as though you're writing them as they're happening to you."

Bono

Bono pulled Savannah dressed as LeRoy aside at a U2 concert and gave her industry advice. Thanks, Bono.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story comes to theaters September 16. For more on the story, visit jtleroystory.com.

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