The Face, August 2001

The real J.T. LeRoy

Savannah Knoop on six years of being J.T. LeRoy, the literary world’s cult sensation.

Savan­nah Knoop has been in The Face before, but you might not recog­nise them. That’s because in the noughties, they became infa­mous for play­ing some­one else. In bad blond wigs and dark sun­glass­es, Knoop act­ed the role of J.T. LeRoy, the Amer­i­can teenage hus­tler turned lit­er­ary prodi­gy, when­ev­er they appeared in pub­lic. Anoth­er per­son, Lau­ra Albert, wrote the sto­ries that turned LeRoy into a cult sen­sa­tion. Togeth­er, they per­formed the wack­i­est lit­er­ary scam of recent times. For LeRoy did not exist. Yet every­one – from edi­tors, authors to celebri­ties and the media (sor­ry about that) – fell for it.

LeRoy was Albert’s cre­ation. She wrote his semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal fic­tion about an androg­y­nous boy pimped out at West Vir­ginia truck stops by his drug addict­ed pros­ti­tute moth­er. It was Albert, a late 30s punk musi­cian, phone sex work­er and moth­er of one, who con­coct­ed an equal­ly com­pelling back­sto­ry for LeRoy, saved from all of that by his tal­ent and a cast of kind­ly San Fran­cis­co folk. The fic­tion estab­lished, Knoop, the half sis­ter of Albert’s hus­band, Geof­frey, and a 21-year-old wait­ress with a boy­ish frame, would turn up at read­ings, red car­pets and mag­a­zine shoots pre­tend­ing to be that guy. I was the body,” Knoop explains. Lau­ra made this fic­tion­al char­ac­ter and I embod­ied that per­son in pub­lic. Lau­ra was the chore­o­g­ra­ph­er and I was the dancer. And I want­ed to get it right for her. So I danced the hell out of it.”

The Face, August 2001

That dance last­ed a good six years, in which time LeRoy gath­ered a fol­low­ing that turned the author into a sen­sa­tion. Author Den­nis Coop­er was an ear­ly cham­pi­on. Film­mak­er Gus Van Sant asked him to write an ear­ly script for his film, Ele­phant. Garbage’s Shirley Man­son wrote a song about him. Knoop has long since put LeRoy back in the dress­ing up box but now they have returned to him for a new film, JT LeRoy, based on their mem­oir about that time, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy.

We meet at the BFI in Lon­don in late March, ahead of the British pre­miere at the LGBTQ film fes­ti­val, Flare, and today, Knoop, 38, has come as them­selves: no wig, just cropped brown hair with one lengthy plait, elfin fea­tures and that mis­chie­vous grin that – when worn by LeRoy all those years ago – sug­gest­ed some­one hav­ing the time of their lives par­ty­ing with fans like Winona Ryder (who, inex­plic­a­bly, claimed to know LeRoy when he was still a street kid).

I was the body. Lau­ra made this fic­tion­al char­ac­ter and I embod­ied that per­son in pub­lic. Lau­ra was the chore­o­g­ra­ph­er and I was the dancer. And I want­ed to get it right for her. So I danced the hell out of it.”

Writ­ten with direc­tor Justin Kel­ly, JT LeRoy is the sto­ry of a young, impres­sion­able per­son cast into a free­wheel­ing fan­dan­go that took them to Hol­ly­wood par­ties, the Cannes red car­pet and hang­ing out with Court­ney Love (who plays a fic­tion­alised ver­sion of her­self). The biopic also explores what play­ing these roles meant for the peo­ple involved. Knoop used the oppor­tu­ni­ty of play­ing some­one else to dis­cov­er them­selves, and in a meta twist their char­ac­ter is played by Kris­ten Stew­art, an actress who dur­ing her Twi­light years, engaged with sim­i­lar issues of queer iden­ti­ty, pub­lic per­sona and rela­tion­ship to fame. It’s so meta, meta, meta,” laughs Knoop. It was so sur­re­al and so weird for every­one on set.”

As the LeRoy body dou­ble, Knoop would bound their breasts and put on boy’s clothes, the wig and sun­glass­es. In the film, they declare them­selves sex­u­al­ly flu­id. In real life, Knoop iden­ti­fies as queer. And in between pre­tend­ing to be this androg­y­nous lit­er­ary ingénue, they were able to explore the space between gen­ders. It’s not like I knew I was queer because of JT,” explains Knoop, I had been queer as a child but it was an access space, a short­cut. You get to be gay as some­one else.”

It’s not like I knew I was queer because of JT, I had been queer as a child but it was an access space, a short­cut. You get to be gay as some­one else”

Knoop wasn’t the only one raid­ing cos­tume shops. In one of sev­er­al auda­cious moves, Albert cast her­self in the role of Speed­ie, LeRoy’s man­ag­er. Speed­ie would man­i­fest at pub­lic events beside Knoop-as-LeRoy and, in a ludi­crous British accent and laugh­ably sil­ly wig, would speak and make demands on their behalf. The Ital­ian actress Asia Argen­to, who made the film ver­sion of LeRoy’s sec­ond book, The Heart is Deceit­ful Above All Things, mem­o­rably described the pair as the Mari­ah Carey of inde­pen­dent movies”.

I had to hook them up to get a Fen­di bag, I kid you not,” she told The Guardian.

The film plays this as the rick­ety farce it clear­ly was, while also mak­ing clear Albert’s manip­u­la­tive streak that made all of it pos­si­ble. Lau­ra Dern – bril­liant­ly cast — plays Albert equal parts pre­pos­ter­ous and pathos. In the begin­ning of the ruse, she tells an impres­sion­able Knoop, I felt JT leave my body and enter yours!’ The deal clinched, she turns pup­peteer, get­ting the younger per­son to do as she wants. It was Laura’s project,“ Knoop explains, so she for­got that I was not an avatar, this was not online. That I am a per­son, not an ani­mat­ed char­ac­ter that you move around.” As the lie deep­ens, Knoop’s char­ac­ter asserts them­selves and cuts loose. They speak unprompt­ed at events, form friend­ships as LeRoy and spark a roman­tic rela­tion­ship with Argento’s char­ac­ter [played here by Diane Kruger].

Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, 2018

In ear­ly 2006, after a num­ber of media reports, Albert’s hus­band, Geof­frey Knoop, came clean about the true iden­ti­ty of JT LeRoy. In the fall­out, report­ing cen­tred on the celebri­ties duped like Argen­to, who’d had a sex­u­al rela­tion­ship with Knoop-as-LeRoy, obliv­i­ous that the boy was a girl (Albert had mud­died the waters by insert­ing a trans­gen­der aspect to the LeRoy nar­ra­tive late in the game).

After­wards, Argen­to told The Guardian, it was the most shock­ing thing that’s hap­pened in my life”. Knoop’s film, in empha­siz­ing the out­landish nature of the LeRoy enter­prise, rais­es a dif­fer­ent ques­tion: what if all the peo­ple involved, con­scious­ly or not, played along for their own pur­pos­es? What­ev­er tru­ly went down, Knoop has not spo­ken to Argen­to since and doesn’t get into specifics. It’s still pret­ty con­fus­ing to me,” they note, and I don’t have any real answers.”

It’s still pret­ty con­fus­ing to me and I don’t have any real answers.”

When the myth of LeRoy died, it was eas­i­er for Knoop to escape than Albert, who was suc­cess­ful­ly sued for fraud by the film com­pa­ny that had optioned her oth­er book, Sarah. Knoop left San Fran­cis­co for New York. They set up a green fash­ion com­pa­ny, Tinc, com­plet­ed their MFA in Sculp­ture and Extend­ed Media and have since shown at the Whit­ney and MoMA. Their art explores the ter­rain of per­mis­sion, iden­ti­ty and authen­tic­i­ty, issues at the heart of their film too.

Albert has always main­tained the sto­ry is hers to tell; she, after all, cre­at­ed JT LeRoy. But Knoop has exer­cised their right to tell the sto­ry too. So is it the truth? I do feel like it makes sense the char­ac­ters’ emo­tion­al truths, their tra­jec­to­ries, their sto­ries and how they would feel inside of them,” they say of the film. This is how we remem­ber it but also this is how it hap­pened and it took a hun­dred peo­ple to make it.“ They smile and grin, like JT LeRoy used to. It sounds com­pli­cat­ed but it’s also real­ly simple.“

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