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."
Problem was, JT LeRoy didn't exist.
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.
"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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Celebrities Who Loved LeRoy, Were Tricked
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.
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
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.
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 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.