Living Without LeRoy

With her new memoir, literary co-hoaxer Savannah Knoop steps out of JT LeRoy's shadow. But can she step out of Laura Albert's?

So perhaps that phone call she got from Albert one day not long thereafter was inevitable. "'I need you to do me a favor,' she said. 'I need you to be him.' A part of me had been hoping that it would come to this. 'Who?' I asked innocently. 'JT. Just once. Okay?'"

By then Knoop, having bailed on UC Santa Barbara, dabbled in the City College of San Francisco, and taken a weekly lunch-shift bus-girl gig at a Thai restaurant near her mother's house, didn't figure she had much to lose. Compensation for this new opportunity would be negotiated.

Knoop's "first JT trick," as she calls it, was a photo shoot in the spacious SOMA loft her parents had rented since the late '60s. For the occasion, she made up an excuse to get rid of her roommates, swiped some of their clothes, wrapped herself in an Ace bandage to conceal her breasts, and tried to let Albert — evidently already enjoying her role as JT's handler and prompter — do most of the talking.

JT and Laura Albert (far right) hanging out with Courtney Love.
Matthew Peyton
JT and Laura Albert (far right) hanging out with Courtney Love.
A scene from Knoop’s recent fashion show in the city.
Rebekah Cantor
A scene from Knoop’s recent fashion show in the city.

As she would many times while playing this role, Knoop felt awkward and was afraid of getting found out. But when the photographer noticed and commented on her small feet, "I wondered why I was worrying," she writes. "Laura was only paying me what I would have made in one shift at the Thai restaurant. Plus, she'd offered to get me a bikini and chin and upper lip wax. It was quintessential Laura to hone [sic] in on one's soft spots. The truth was I did want that wax."

Later that evening, as Knoop unwound from the shoot, Albert called and sprung it on her that another JT meeting had been set up for a few weeks later. This one was important. It was with movie director Gus Van Sant. "I could have quit," she writes, "but I was also intrigued. Pretending to be JT was like starting a love affair. I felt energized even during the most mundane parts of my day."

And so it went. With each appearance, it seemed, more famous people fell into JT's orbit: Lou Reed, Carrie Fisher, Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, Billy Corgan, and many others. They read his stories in public; he wrote their blurbs and liner notes. Everyone basked in the aura of self-propagating fame.

"Laura wanted to connect with artists she admired," Knoop said over breakfast at the diner. "She was meeting the people that inspired her. I don't think it was my list, necessarily." But when Calvin Klein made clothes for JT, Knoop's attention was piqued. And when the Italian actress Asia Argento directed and starred in an appropriately repulsive film adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, Knoop was smitten and the two began a bizarre sexual affair.

Girl Boy Girl begins with the two of them getting some much-anticipated time alone together in Argento's hotel room at the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton. The atmosphere is variously charged.

"There really was no experience — even this most intimate one — that guaranteed authenticity," Knoop writes. "If Asia knew deep down that there was no JT, she would tire of me quickly and move on to someone who wouldn't be once removed, who wouldn't be fake. If she didn't realize what was going on — if she believed surgery had gotten this good — if she still thought I was a boy who became a girl, still pretending to be a boy — then I wasn't registering at all with her. But that was what I had told her. Either way, I felt trapped."

It should come as no surprise that the affair was not sustainable. What may be surprising, though, is how Argento exacerbated tensions between Knoop and Albert.

"As soon as they met, Asia dismissed Laura as the hang-on, the hired help," Knoop writes. "Laura was acting like she was trying to convince Asia who the real talent around here was. ... There was also a glint in her eye that implied that she hated how I left her out. And it was true. I would remain silently ambivalent when publishers implied that Laura should buy her own ticket to travel with JT. ... It was easy enough to take their cue and resent her. I was definitely starting to resent that I was pretending to be someone who had nothing to do with me, representing something I hadn't created."

What emerged, also unsustainable, was a strangely possessive tug of war over JT, with Albert apparently willing to risk exposure of the whole charade in order to get her due recognition, and Knoop acting proprietary in response: She began keeping a journal, to feel and look more like the writer she was pretending to be. And the raw material she gathered there became a certification of sorts for the writer she now is. Albert had driven her to it.

Through a steady push from local publishing — McSweeney's, Zoetrope, 7x7, Last Gasp Books — into national best-sellerdom, and buzz from celebrity scenesters, the mystique of JT LeRoy swelled up like the dot-com bubble. It was a time when boundaries were being redrawn at the frontiers of literary and journalistic veracity. San Francisco literary mainstay Armistead Maupin's 2000 novel, The Night Listener, fictionalized his own relationship with the author of the harrowing and in fact fabricated memoir A Rock and a Hard Place, an allegedly AIDS-afflicted teenage writer named Anthony Godby Johnson who turned out to be the woman who'd claimed to be his adoptive mother. By 2003, while JT LeRoy was the star of Dave Eggers' second annual Best American Nonrequired Reading anthology, James Frey was bringing out his fictive rehab memoir A Million Little Pieces.

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