Unraveling one of the biggest scandals in publishing, the jaw-dropping film has cameos from Courtney Love, Winona Ryder and other 90s icons
“It's probably what a sane person would do in a sane situation,” says questionably sane author Laura Albert in the third act of the documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story. Albert is describing how she dismissed the idea of outing herself as trans prostitute-cum-author JT LeRoy, nearly seven years after she got herself into this mess. Albert was in too deep, having fabricated a living, breathing character. An ‘avatar’ – JT LeRoy – who had become internationally famous.
Laura Albert wrote and published three consecutive novels under the pen name Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy at the urge of a hotline therapist. It resulted in fictional semi-autobiographical stories about a 13-year-old truck stop prostitute who dabbles in heroin. LeRoy’s three books became bestsellers. In the wake of that success, LeRoy racked up a morphing coterie of 90s pals – Dennis Cooper, Courtney Love, Shirley Manson – who all connected to her work. LeRoy was at one point or another romantically linked to both Michael Pitt and Asia Argento. After the better part of a decade duping the public and her A-list bezzies, it all came crashing down when she was exposed by New York magazine and The New York Times.
Author: The JT LeRoy Story was the best documentary to come out this year. Not only does it justify the crazed thought processes behind the publishing world’s greatest hijinx, but it’s a near unfathomable story that builds to a life-altering climax. Your head will spin right off while watching. Albert recorded many, if not all, of her telephone conversations which serve as guideposts in this labyrinthine tale. So where other documentaries rely on talking heads to piece together a coherent narrative, here we can listen to the real thing as it happened. (At one point, when JT LeRoy calls up Courtney Love for a chat, Love interrupts herself to snort a line of coke while LeRoy listens in). It’s like a video vault of the heady 90s.
The saga begins with Laura Albert, who is on the verge of suicide. She dials up a crisis hotline, connecting with therapist Dr. Owens, who prescribes her to write down all of her feelings. Easy enough, but Albert discovers she has a gift. A former phone sex operator, Albert’s wild imagination coupled with real-life experience is channeled into some edgy prose about a trans character she calls JT LeRoy. Once she felt she had something worth presenting, she rang up author Dennis Cooper as LeRoy – a timid boy with a whispery West Virginia accent – and begged him to read a draft of her book. As Cooper tells it in the doc, she faxed over pages and pages of her work. He didn’t think he’d get past the first sentence but found himself hooked. Cooper connected LeRoy with an agent and she scored a book deal.
For a time, Albert cultivated a mystery around the non-existent LeRoy, refusing to appear in public at readings (for obvious reasons) and conducting interviews with press only by telephone. Only when you think the gig is up, when LeRoy finally has to make a public appearance, does the documentary outwit you. Albert’s sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, visits town. Her short hair and nonchalance make her the ideal candidate to personify JT LeRoy. She agrees to do it and they hatch up a scheme.
Albert renames herself “Speedie”, adopts an unreliable British accent, and becomes LeRoy’s manager. In public, LeRoy appears with a Warholian wig and large sunglasses to disguise her appearance. One of the most exciting excerpts we’re treated to comes courtesy of a public reading in Italy. Knoop as LeRoy experiences crippling anxiety before going onstage. Albert suggests she duck under a table with the microphone so the audience can only hear her, a strategy which doubles as both fuelling the arcane persona of LeRoy and allowing Knoop to stay calm. At the end of the reading, Knoop is jolted by thousands of screaming fans upon realising she just read aloud to an entire stadium.
Knoop, now clearly enjoying the major return on investment for donning a wig, has no qualms about keeping up the charade. However, it begins to eat away at Albert, a serial liar who complains about having to take advice from Bono’s manager as LeRoy gets a one-on-one with Bono himself.
For those of us too young to clearly recall this scandal playing out in the media in the early 00s, it’s a whistle-stop tour of 90s cultural icons. It opens with Winona Ryder touting her dear friend LeRoy as an inspiration and ends with a fallout between Albert and Asia Argento. We also learn that Albert had an affair with Smashing Pumpkins’ lead singer, Billy Corgan; he becomes her first confidante to whom she reveals the truth about LeRoy.
There are some flaws in both the story and how it’s told, such as how nobody – Brits chiefly among them – disputed Albert’s bogus accent as Speedie. Also, a setback shared with Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning Amy, the film is interjected with animated curly-cue fonts and illustrations, all of which are distracting. It most definitely lacks any hardline questioning from director Jeff Feuerzeig about Albert’s motives behind these bankrupt decisions, and the idea of Albert being schizophrenic is entertained for less than a minute.
Still, story trumps aesthetics in Author: The JT LeRoy Story’s case. It’s enduringly fascinating to watch her self-destruct and witness the world of celebrity implode upon itself, in turn dragging Albert over the hot coals. It’s vicious and delicious. It makes you want to read what author JT LeRoy wrote in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.
JT LeRoy continues to attract big name talent. Kristen Stewart and James Franco are set to star in an adaptation of this hoax, clunkily called Girl Boy It: How I Became JT LeRoy. While it’s difficult to parse how a fictional interpretation can do a better job of mainlining these raw and real events, it merely proves that this story is literally that insane. It’s a barnstorming exposé that puts all other documentaries released this year to shame.