Laura Albert sold millions of books under the pseudonym JT Leroy, a character she created when, depressed and suicidal, she reached out to User author Bruce Benderson. Posing as Jeremy Terminator, a former child prostitute assigned female at birth and transitioning into a man, Albert sent Benderson her first manuscripts, and emerged as a new sensation.
JT Leroy penned two hugely successful novels, Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (which was adapted into a movie by Asia Argento, in 2004), and was soon heralded as the freshest literary voice of its generation. The writer's famous fans included director Gus Van Sant, Courtney Love, and Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, but most didn't know the real author of the books was a 40-something woman from Brooklyn, who went by Speedie, officially JT's manager, and talked in a British twang while her sister-in-law, Savannah, played JT's avatar in a blond wig and oversized sunglasses.
The dizzying developments are told in Author: The JT Leroy Story, the first documentary dedicated to the JT Leroy/Laura Albert mystery. In the movie, director Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston) unfolds a masterplan Albert herself didn't anticipate when JT's success got out of her control. What does the JT Leroy scandal mean today, when pop stars such as Lana Del Rey, née Lizzy Grant, can achieve global fame pretending to be someone else (in Del Rey's case a "trailer park darling")? Here, Albert answers our most burning questions.
Out: My first memory of JT is a short essay you wrote for Blackbook magazine about hunting wild flowers in Africa...
Laura Albert: What’s funny about it is that they all gave the ok for that. Of course, it wasn’t true. It was so wildly over the top. The surrealism that’s in Sarah was also in these pieces. I did something about tornadoes… I mean.
Why do you think JT was so demonized?
The thing is, I didn’t apologize. I made it difficult for people because I didn’t play my role—the American role—which is "I’m sorry, I’m going to rehab." My feeling was, if you bought a book, if you’re mad that I’m a woman and I’m 15 years older, what can I say? I wish I could have done it differently, I really do, but for me, JT was absolutely real. When Terminator called and was suicidal, that was true for me, that wasn’t a joke. It helped me go through another day.
Why did you choose to impersonate a boy?
If I could have been a boy, I would have. I always wanted to be a boy, and when I was mistaken for a boy I was happy. My body changed. When I was 11, I went to England for the summer and everyone there called me "lad." I was so happy. I was very empowering for me. Back then, we didn’t have the language "gender fluid." We were held behind a very strict gender binary. Back in the ‘70s, being gay was considered wrong. It wasn’t that long ago when it was illegal. You’d be arrested just for being gay.
So you never considered going through transition?
I could look exactly the way I look now, gender-conforming, and say I want to use a male pronoun, and nobody would bat an eye. I could walk around and say 'call me He,' and no one would freak out. Before, you needed to not just pass, but look like a guy. I didn’t have male features. My first girlfriend, Geraldine, looks like a beautiful boy. She had a woman’s body, but she was very masculine, a gender-nonconforming woman. That’s what I was very much attracted to.
Was creating JT a way for you to explore that?
Completely. He wanted his own body. Even before JT, there were others. Ever since I could remember, I started playing Barbie dolls… You can explore other beings. I had other avatars and charming creatures. As my home situation got more violent and more unstable, I told stories and my reality fondled out. My pain had to go somewhere. I didn’t become a killer, I didn’t become an agent, I became a writer. I really wanted to be a gay boy. I saw that as the ultimate power: a man with his twink.
We all want to be somebody else…
And we all want to be loved and protected. It’s me, my identity, and my sexuality is fluid. I don’t even really know what my sexuality is, because it was taken from me as a very small child. I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t invent JT: He was bestowed upon me, he came through me. I had so much shame about my own life and what happened to me that I couldn’t talk about it. Now I feel liberated, so I can.
Pictured, clockwise: Albert (right) and Savannah as JT Leroy; Albert's books; Still from Author: The JT Leroy Story.
The trauma you experienced is very different from what you described in your books, why explore this gritty, 'white trash' theme?
This whole "white trash" thing is a misnomer, that’s not real. That’s something the press has written about. JT was very educated. His mother takes him to the back alleys, but if you read The Heart is Deceitful, they’re an educated family. They weren’t "white trash." There are people that he encounters [who are], which is true. My mother brought in a lot of boyfriends who were very sexually inappropriate with me. Writing my memoirs, I see the correlations.
Where did you find the inspiration to write about an underage sex worker, then?
I was in foster care, and I was institutionalized with a lot of people in a group home. I was the designated writer there. They noticed I had a gift for writing, and writing was the way to invite the people to care. Those stories, they’re not made up. Lot lizards, that’s not made up. So many of the stories I tell were real stories that I absorbed.
I spent time on the streets of NYC, those were all the stories that I heard and people I cared and loved. You get PTSD from your whole life, and also from the trauma of the people all around you. Those stories were born the way an oyster creates a pearl, out of suffering. So when people say "Thank God it didn’t happen," I say "Oh yes, it did." It’s an amalgam. It’s almost like Harry Potter: it resonates as true, and that’s why people are searching for Hogwarts. He carries the authenticity and the emotion of the story.
There are rumors that a JT Leroy movie is in the works, with James Franco and Kristen Stewart supposedly attached to the project...
I don’t know anything about that.
Would you be opposed to it?
At the end of the day, to paraphrase Warhol, everyone will have their 15 minutes of being JT. After I was outed, people were wearing JT as Halloween costumes. I would be very excited to see that again. I’m writing my memoirs right now, and there’s a way I can tell the story a way that nobody else can. God bless to anyone who wants to tries. Good luck!
Do you still talk to JT’s celebrity friends?
It’s been 10 years, and you have to remember that at the time, people were told he was a hoax, a joke, a culprit, a perpetrator. You had people were calling up and talking about the New York Times article (that outed Albert as the real author) and that I violated the Patriot Act. So people were upset, but a lot of people came back and talked to me. David Milch (creator of HBO show Deadwood, on which Albert worked as a screenwriter) said "The work will inform how people react." I connected the dots, and explained where it was coming from. They understood.
Was there anything left unsaid in the documentary?
A lot! Oh my God, it would be mini-series. I said it’s impossible to make it a two-hour documentary, because it’s such a rich story.
Where did you pick up that British accent?
When I was a kid watching TV. I have a good ear, so my accent would always change. So I just made Speedie (the name Albert used as JT's manager) from all over the place… Suddenly I started shifting in more of an Australian accent, then I would say I went to Israel just to funk it up.
What have you been up to since the last book you wrote as JT?
I wrote a script with a friend of mine, Trixie Marx. I’m working on my memoir. I’ve done journalism. Interestingly enough, France, Brazil, and Japan were the countries that didn’t have a problem with what I did. I wrote for Vogue, L’Equipe, InStyle, Les Inrocks.
Whatever happened to Savannah?
She’s going to school, studying sculpture. She’s more masculine. It’s like he entered her and her body changed. When JT was in her, my son would automatically say “JT,” not Savannah. He understood fluid avatars.
Do you feel liberated now?
I have so many days where I don’t know how I’m going to make it through, where I’m like a raving nut. It helps me talking to other survivors. I don’t like the word survivors, but other people who have gone through similar abuse…I don’t have a word for it yet.
You have to invent it...
Here’s my word: A tout à l’heure! My son went to a French school. I also know à priori, Which means, when someone has already made their mind about something.
Author: The JT Leroy Story is out in theaters and available on demand now. Click here to watch the trailer. Laura Albert's novels Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things are published by Harper Collins.