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.”
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).
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.”
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].
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.”
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.“