Miscellaneous

Being JT LeRoy

Nathaniel Rich

What follows is an excerpt from a Q&A with Laura Albert, the woman who was JT LeRoy:


 

INTERVIEWER

 

You invented Jeremy, but you say he took you over—as if he existed independently of you.

 

ALBERT

 

It really felt like he was another human being. I’m talking about him in the past tense because I feel that his energy is not the primary force inside me, as it was then.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

How did you decide to introduce JT to a broader world, beyond the confines of your therapy?

 

ALBERT

 

Dr. Owens asked me to write my stories down. He was teaching a class at the University of San Francisco for people who wanted to be social workers, and he knew how much I hated social workers, so he said, You can teach them the real deal. I liked that because I felt I could be of service. And, I realize now, it was a way to trick myself into writing. When I wrote the first piece I felt the voice click. It was a story called “Balloons,” about using heroin. I would write the stories by hand because I didn’t know how to type. Then I’d fax them to him, and sometimes I would ride my bike over to the school and deliver a story directly. I was very driven and hungry for feedback.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

You’d show up in person, as Laura?

 

ALBERT

 

No, I’d show up as Jeremy’s friend Speedie. That’s who I was in public—a woman, later known as Emily, whose street name was Speedie. She spoke with this annoying, singsong Cockney accent, so you wanted to slap her, but she was from all over, because her father was in the military. She came from a hard life, and she left home early and settled in San Francisco. I also said that she was in the sex world, because there were people who might have recognized me. I met Terry—Dr. Owens—as Speedie a couple of times.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

When you were writing, did you feel JT take over in the same way as when you were talking? Did you feel that JT was writing?

 

ALBERT

 

No, when I wrote I felt more like it was me trying to craft a story. He’d tell the story and I was the secretary who would take it down and say, OK, thank you, now I’m going to try to turn it into craft. But while I wouldn’t sit there and think of myself as JT, as long as I was writing I didn’t have to be Laura either.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

What did Dr. Owens, or his students, make of the stories?

 

ALBERT

 

They talked about the pieces on a therapeutic basis. But I really wanted to know what they thought about the writing. So Dr. Owens put me in touch with a neighbor of his, an editor named Eric Wilinski, who gave me feedback. A phone-sex client had turned me on to the poetry of Sharon Olds, and I really admired her. When I mentioned this to Eric, he said that he had studied with her and suggested that I write her directly. I said, Nah, you don’t do that. He said, Yeah, I spoke to her, she wants you to write to her. And she wrote me back. She read “Balloons” and her response was just really gracious.

At the same time I reached out to a gay fiction writer whom I was just in awe of. There were a lot of disturbing things in his books, transgressive sexual stuff, and the way he captured a teen’s loneliness and need really resonated with me. I called him using the name Terminator, and I spoke as Jeremy. He was someone I revered, but when I read my work to him on the phone, I understood that, as much as he liked my writing, he was also turned on sexually by the perversity and the abuse in the stories. So he started to turn our relationship into a sexual relationship. It was like with my mother’s boyfriends—I wanted to keep them around, so I would go into service mode. He thought he was talking to a thirteen-year-old boy, and he was always inviting me to his house. I thought, Sexual attention is better than no attention. I had learned on the street from outreach workers that if you get into a dangerous sexual situation, you just tell the man you have AIDS—that was the last-resort survival strategy. So I finally put the brakes on and said I had AIDS and sores all over my body. It didn’t faze him at all. There are people who like to play along the edge. I was scared, but I was also relieved. If he could have compassion for someone who isn’t beautiful, who is in fact disfigured, that means he could have compassion for me—Laura.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

But he didn’t know Laura existed. Did he actually help you as JT in any way?

 

ALBERT

 

He sent me a novel by another gay writer, whom I got in contact with. This guy would also invite me to come stay with him, but he passed my work along to a writer at The Village Voice named Laurie Stone, who ended up putting one of my stories, “Baby Doll,” into an anthology called Close to the Bone. That book got a lot of reviews, and many of the reviews singled out my story, saying how raw and intense it was. The next thing I knew, I had an agent, Henry Dunow, and Crown wanted to publish a collection of my stories. There was talk of publishing them as a nonfiction memoir. This was the time of the memoir craze. Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss was out, and Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, and there were also these exploitative child-abuse books popping up left and right. But I didn’t want to publish the stories if they couldn’t stand on their own as fiction. I’d begun corresponding with the writer Mary Gaitskill, and she gave me immense positive feedback, but she was also the first person to be critical about my writing. She was directing me to all this great literature—Vladimir Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor—and I realized how much I had to learn.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Did she ever ask to meet JT?

 

ALBERT

 

Yes. No one had ever met him in person, and there were starting to be rumors that he was not real, so I knew I needed to supply a body. I made a date to meet Mary, and I decided to hire someone to play JT. But I didn’t know anybody who matched my physical description of JT. So Geoff and I got in the car and started driving up and down Polk Street, and I saw a boy I’d never seen before. He was nineteen and he was slight, blond, blue-eyed—perfect. I said to him, You want to make fifty bucks, no sex? He said, Sure. I just told him not to talk, just say hello to a woman named Mary, get freaked out, and leave. I took him to the café. Mary Gaitskill was sitting there. The kid walked up to her, said, Hi, I’m Terminator, and he handed her some vinegar and chocolate—things I brought to give her as gifts. She said, Hi, glad to meet you, and when the kid ran off, I sat down. I was there as Speedie, and we talked.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

What did Geoff think of what you were doing?

 

ALBERT

 

For the longest time, he didn’t know what was going on. JT was a dirty thing for me, something I did on the side, to stay alive. He stayed out of it because he just really didn’t want to know.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

How did you finally tell him?

 

ALBERT

 

I didn’t really tell him. He slowly became aware of it. We never had a conversation about why it was what it was.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Sarah was published in 2000. Was the story that JT was still living on the street at that point?

 

ALBERT

 

No, Jeremy was living with me by then. On the phone he would say, I’m living with my friend Speedie and her boyfriend Astor. That was my name for Geoff—Astor. And when I got pregnant, JT would also say, Speedie’s having a baby, she’s settling down. And JT would rebel and say, Speedie’s such a bitch. As JT, I could talk such shit about myself.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Did having a child affect the way you wrote as JT?

 

ALBERT

 

JT kept going at his own speed. I started writing Sarah right after I gave birth to my son.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

There was an author photo of JT on that book. Who was that?

 

ALBERT

 

My publisher paid to use a photograph of a teenage boy who looked a lot like JT and got permission to run it as the author photo. When Sarah was published and it got fabulous reviews, magazines wanted to run articles about JT with their own photos. They didn’t want to use the author photo. So again I realized I had to produce a body.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

A body that looked exactly like that photo?

 

ALBERT

 

Or close enough. I love Andy Warhol, and I had read that he sent out impersonators of himself. So when his magazine, Interview, wanted a picture of JT, I asked this girl I saw on Valencia Street, this cute dyke probably in her twenties, if I could take a picture of her for fifteen bucks. I put sunglasses on her and had her photographed as JT, and they ran that. But more magazines were getting interested. I needed more photographs. Geoff’s younger half sister, Savannah, knew about JT, and it had occurred to me that I could always use her as a model if I couldn’t find someone else. She had this amazing spark, a star quality, and she agreed to let me take some pictures of her. When I saw them I said, Oh my God, you look just like JT’s author photo.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Why were you having girls play JT?

 

ALBERT

 

Well, first I tried to find a guy. I would even have JT say to people, I need to find a stunt double, like Andy Warhol. But ultimately I realized that gender didn’t matter—it was more about finding a specific look and an emotional resonance. Savannah just happened to be female.

But even after she started appearing as JT, I was always looking for someone else, because I knew it was not easy for Savannah to dress up as him. It required a whole physical transformation beyond the blond wig and black hat and big sunglasses.

INTERVIEWER

 

Did you let her speak to reporters or just pose for pictures?

 

ALBERT

 

Originally, I told her not to talk. She’s got a great ear, though, and after listening to me speak as JT on the phone, she was able to pick up the Southern accent, the slowness of speech, and some basic phrases like, Hi there, I’m JT. As she began to do more interviews, she would speak more. But it took Savannah a long time to commit to being JT, and early on she’d occasionally fuck up. Once she said she was from North Virginia—and people were like, Oh, JT just likes to mess with people. Another time, we went to a screening and there was a sound guy who had worked with Savannah’s father. She pulled me into the bathroom and told me, and my heart stopped. I thought, Well, we had a good run. Luckily, he didn’t recognize her. That kept happening. When Savannah signed autographs, she would see people she knew and they didn’t recognize her.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

How were you able to travel with Savannah when she was passing as JT? Did you make fake IDs?

 

ALBERT

 

Yes, but she had her own passport. Only the customs people would see it, though, and we were careful. When the books were sold abroad, we were brought to Japan, Brazil, and all over Europe, and we had a ritual. When we landed, we’d rip all the name tags off the bags.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

So you lived in some fear of being exposed?

 

ALBERT

 

We’d talk about it sometimes, but we knew our intent was not malicious, so we didn’t feel ashamed. We asked ourselves, Are we making anyone do something they don’t want to do? Are we being of service? Are we making people feel good and spreading love? We felt that we were. People responded with great love and great happiness to JT, and to his writing. It wasn’t like we were spreading some dark thing. And there were people who entered our circle who became very close to us. Sex was had with people.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Wasn’t there a point when you had to explain to them what was going on?

 

ALBERT

 

When I got close with someone, I would always tell them. I would say, I’m JT LeRoy. I write the books. People laughed: Yeah right. That was usually the response I got. Then people would call JT on the phone the next day and say, You know, you’ve got to watch out for this Speedie. She’s maniacal, and she’s trying to take all the credit for your work.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

How would you respond?

 

ALBERT

 

I’d say, OK, I will. Or, Speedie means well.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Didn’t anybody notice the difference between Savannah in person and you on the phone?

 

ALBERT

 

No, because when she started becoming JT, I matched her voice. I matched the rhythm. In my punk days, I would speak with a British accent because it was cooler to be British. I was going out with my skinhead boyfriend for four months before I told him that I wasn’t British. What I noticed is that after a while, people start listening to what you say and not the voice itself. So you can relax the accent and people tend not to notice. But if I sensed I was talking to someone who was skeptical, I’d keep on top of it, and as Speedie’s role became more important, I’d have to talk as her and JT on the phone, sometimes both during the same phone call. I’d go back and forth: Hold on, let me get JT, and then JT would start speaking.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Did anyone believe you when you told them you were JT?

 

ALBERT

 

Yes, sure. In general I think a lot more people—people involved with the publication of the book, people who got close to me and Savannah—knew that I was JT than are willing to admit it. It’s easier to claim ignorance and blame me than to admit knowing. On the other hand, there were some people I actually felt I had to tell who had no problem with it. One of them was Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins. When I met him three years ago, it was a big deal, because his music meant so much to me. He read my work, and said that knowing me was meaningful to him, too. He had a phone relationship with JT, but when I met him in person, I told him that JT was me—Laura. He understood this on an intuitive level and was very supportive.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Are you saying that you would talk to him as JT when you were actually together with him in a room?

 

ALBERT

 

Yeah. It was like, JT is still here, and he likes his relationship with you, and he still has things to discuss with you. And JT would say things to Billy that I, as Laura, wouldn’t dare say to Billy.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Were your relations with music and film celebrities generally different from those with writers?

 

ALBERT

 

Yes, but for the most part, those star types were approaching me. Or they would mention my work in a magazine article, and then I would write to thank them. I found out that Sheryl Crow had talked about my book on her Web site, and I was floored. Someone told me that Winona Ryder was into my work, and Drew Barrymore was too, and I was put in touch with them. Lou Reed read the books and he was really supportive. Shirley Manson read about JT in The Face magazine early on, and we saw her play in LA, and we all had a big pajama party. Shirley was as welcoming to Speedie as she was to JT, which was rare. She wrote a song called “Cherry Lips” based on the character of Cherry Vanilla, from Sarah. We did a huge photo shoot for the icon issue of Pop magazine. I remember Courtney Love told me, You’re an iconoclast, JT.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

You mean she said that to Savannah?

 

ALBERT

 

No, she said it to me on the phone. And I was like, Wow. I’d pick up the newspaper and things would be referred to as in the “JT LeRoy mode.” It was surreal. Musicians started to ask me to write stories about them to go with press releases for their new albums. I wrote one for Billy Corgan, one for Bryan Adams, Nancy Sinatra, Bright Eyes. JT was the person to go to if you wanted to be cool or to reach the young people. Shirley Manson passed my writing on to Bono, and in an interview with Rolling Stone, Bono talked about how The Heart Is Deceitful was blowing his mind. We met him, and he was wonderful to all of us. The director Allison Anders read Sarah and passed it on to Madonna, and she told me that Madonna was reading it.

I was in Florida, swimming in the pool at my grandma’s house, and I was thinking, My God, Madonna’s in my world. It was an incredible feeling. I knew that if I met her, I would not register on her screen at all. So to know that she was in my world—it shouldn’t have given me this feeling of elation, but it did. I just remember I was swimming back and forth in the pool. It was like running over a joyful spot that gave me energy. She’s in my world, she’s in my world, she’s in my world.

But Madonna and I never had much to say to each other—it was more a vanity thing. She once sent me a bunch of kabbalah books. I kept one and I sold the others. I needed the money more than I needed the kabbalah.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

How would you feel when you watched Savannah out in the public as JT?

 

ALBERT

 

I wasn’t watching Savannah, I was watching JT. It was a great relief because JT would leave me and enter her. I felt amazement, elation, pride. People would line up all day to see him—he’d get the rock-star treatment. They had to get us security guards because all these people just wanted to touch him. I remember once we went to Sweden to do a reading, and people were bowing down and kneeling before JT. It happened spontaneously, and it was beautiful. And I was there standing on the side, asking people what brought them. They would always talk about the books. I could get what I wanted—connecting with others—without having to be the focus of attention.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Did you worry about how all this was affecting Savannah?

 

ALBERT

 

Yes, a lot. In the fall of 2003 production began on the film of The Heart Is Deceitful, which Asia Argento directed. There was an alarming amount of drug use on the set, and many people wanted to get close to JT, so they’d offer Savannah drugs and alcohol. I would get furious. Here they know that JT has substance abuse issues and they’re giving him drugs! And of course, I also had this fear that she might say or do something that would give the whole thing away. It’s no secret that she and Asia became lovers.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

So Asia knew JT was a girl?

 

ALBERT

 

Yeah, of course.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

And other people must have noticed too. How did you explain JT’s feminine appearance?

 

ALBERT

 

Savannah was really beginning to embrace JT by this point. Even her body had changed. It became very masculine, her period stopped, her breasts got smaller. At the same time, JT was transforming himself into a woman—it was his truth. He started talking about getting hormonal treatments and having a sex-change operation.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

As your son grew up, was he aware of the JT phenomenon?

 

ALBERT

 

When he was about six, I explained it to him, and he got it right away. He would look at Savannah and know when she was male and know when she wasn’t. He was born into this world, so it was more natural to him. I didn’t have to coach him. Pronouns were used very loosely. And when he went out with us, we wouldn’t call him by his real name—he went by Thor.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

What did you foresee happening to JT? Did you expect him to grow up and continue writing?

 

ALBERT

 

I always felt like JT was a mutation, a shared lung, and for me to become normal I’d have to breathe on my own. Originally I felt that he might die of AIDS, but that’s not in any of the books. I didn’t deny the rumors, but I never made any statement intended to further JT’s popularity by claiming he had AIDS. I remember one day ten years ago I thought, he will die this weekend. I went into deep mourning. I was physically sick. But JT didn’t want to die, and I couldn’t let him die. I felt that if he died, I would die.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

When The New York Times told you they were going to expose you as the author of the JT LeRoy books, did you deny it?

 

ALBERT

 

I said, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I wasn’t ready to admit anything. I published everything as fiction. JT was protection. He was a veil upon a veil—a filter. I never saw it as a hoax. It was bizarre, when the articles came out, to read these interpretations of what we were doing. I was holding on for dear life. One public-relations guy yelled at me over the phone, You’re a fake! You’re a phony, fuck you! The therapist in my son’s school said to me the other day, You know, from what I can see, they’re accusing you of being a great writer. But you wouldn’t know it. You’d think it was drugs, or a sex ring.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Did you—or do you—feel any shame about misleading people who believed in JT?

 

ALBERT

 

I bleed, but it’s a different kind of shame. I’m sad I was so injured. Many people were inspired that someone so young could write what I was writing. JT is fifteen years younger than me. All I can say is I am sorry if people are disappointed or offended. If knowing that I’m fifteen years older than Jeremy devalues the work, then I’m sorry they feel that way. 

Everything you need to know about me is in my books, in ways that I don’t even understand. I think some people take it for granted to be acknowledged and not overlooked. My experience was to be completely ignored and disregarded and disdained. That’s what I write about. One thing people often comment to me about the characters in JT LeRoy’s books is that they strive for goodness, even in a world where all their experience contradicts this. I feel that this desire is essential to my story as well. When I would reach a point where I wanted to commit suicide, something gave me hope. This hope is in the books too—and of course the ultimate hope is that I can reveal myself and you won’t go away.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

You now do some writing work for the HBO series Deadwood as Laura Albert. How does it feel not to be JT anymore?

 

ALBERT

 

It’s amazing to me for the first time in my life to be out in the world as Laura Albert, the successful writer. And I am moving toward writing fiction under my own name. You’re told to pray for your enemies. Ultimately, what they gave me was a gift, and I owe them gratitude.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Are you still in therapy with Dr. Owens?

 

ALBERT

 

Yes. It’s a sacred relationship. When the whole story broke, he said that I was ready to go to the next step, which was being me. It’s like how welders will get metal splinters embedded in their body, but they don’t know they’re there until they have an MRI and the magnet starts pulling them out. That’s how it is with me. I feel that, in my work with Terry, I’m just beginning to lift out the splinters.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

So who are you when you talk to Dr. Owens now? Are you still JT? 

 

ALBERT

 

No. I’m Laura.

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