Two decades ago, a transgender sex worker-turned-novelist became a sensation – but he didn’t exist. As a new film about the con is released, Kaleem Aftab meets the person behind it.

From pseudonyms to fanciful memoirs, the literary world has always been full of deceptions. But the most brazen, bewildering and bombastic hoodwinking of them all is surely that of JT LeRoy, the transgender HIV-positive teen who, at the turn of the millennium, became a worldwide sensation with his apparently semi-autobiographical novels dealing with childhood abuse, broken families, and sex work. 

As emerged in late 2005, LeRoy’s books were in fact the work of a middle-aged US author named Laura Albert - who was not HIV positive, transgender, or a sex worker. In turn, she had asked her then sister-in-law Savannah Knoop (pronounced Ka-noop) to don a peroxide wig, fedora hat and dark sunglasses to pose as the author in public and for media appearances, including on the cover of several renowned magazines.

More like this:

-       Ten books to read this April

-       Is it time to rewrite fairy tales?

-       Ten films to watch this April

To make matters more convoluted, Albert would accompany LeRoy on public appearances as his British assistant Speedie. Everywhere, that is, except the UK, where, likely worried that her English accent wouldn’t cut it, she instead appeared by LeRoy’s side as his childhood friend Emily Frasier.

LeRoy was regularly photographed out with Hollywood’s great and good, travelled the world on book tours, and graced the Cannes red carpet for a film adaptation of his novel The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things in 2004.

A bizarre interview

Looking back, it seems preposterous that they could pull this hoax off so publicly. Yet I was one of the very people they duped up close – in fact, in April 2005, I conducted one of the last ever interviews with LeRoy / Knoop before the hoax was unmasked by New York Magazine, when he arrived in London for the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival presentation of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. Being granted face-to-face time with the celebrated author seemed like a major coup, but I should have guessed that something was seriously amiss, as it was such a bizarre and chaotic interview.  

As catch-ups go, it is, inevitably, a surreal experience. Shed of the LeRoy persona, Knoop is now possessed of a swaggering confidence and authority.

In the hour before we sat down, it was cancelled, back on, then cancelled again, before finally I was told I would get just 15 minutes with him. There were several people in the room and a hostile LeRoy clearly didn’t want to be there; his leg was shaking violently throughout, and his answers were evasive in the extreme. As I was leaving, his “friend” Frasier asked to meet me – and bizarrely quizzed me on whether I’d read the books and enjoyed them. 

“But that was the character, right? That anxious anger,” says Knoop, beaming mischievously, when reminded of our encounter, 14 years on. We are meeting again in London as Knoop is in town promoting a new Hollywood film, Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, about the whole affair, which is closing the capital’s BFI Flare Film Festival. It stars Kristen Stewart as Knoop and Laura Dern as Albert.

As catch-ups go, it is, inevitably, a surreal experience. Shed of the LeRoy persona, Knoop is now possessed of a swaggering confidence and authority. However one interesting point of similarity between Knoop as LeRoy and Knoop now, aside from an eclectic taste in fashion, is that Knoop has gravitated towards LeRoy’s gender fluidity – stopping using the pronoun ‘she’ and now going by the gender neutral ‘they’. “They is a made-up word, and I like how confusing and uncomfortable it is,” says Knoop. “I went to grad school and there were all these young kids who in some way were post-gender and they all go by ‘they’.”

No regrets

The new film begins with Knoop being persuaded by Albert to dress up as the author. In her late thirties at the time, Albert needed an avatar she could trust who was young enough and androgynous enough to pass as a transgender man. “It was a great bit of casting,” says Knoop, who in turn is thrilled by Stewart playing them on screen, pronouncing her “the James Dean of today”.

Knoop seems to have no remorse about the episode and has rather embraced the notoriety: the new film is adapted from her book Girl Meets Boy: How I Became JT LeRoy.

Performance is very adrenalising. When you take on a role, you really kind of fall into it, you blend in with it.

At the same time, they have become a successful performance artist, with pieces at the Whitney and MoMa galleries in New York, among others. Which does beg the question: was impersonating LeRoy in fact a deeply canny artistic career move?

Knoop says not: they claim to be naive about what they were doing. “At the time I don’t know if I understood it as being performance art,” they say, though they admits that “performance is very adrenalising and it becomes a thing where you go out and look for that feeling. It does happen when you take on a role, especially one for a long time, like you hear about actors embodying a role, you really kind of fall into it, you blend in with it.”

As for whether they see what they did as a 'scam'? Knoop leans towards it being more of an artistic experiment. “I think it’s very complicated about the ethics of it. I think [with] those experiences of being LeRoy at the beginning, it was almost dismantling the way you thought things work or could work,” they say, cryptically. “It was about engaging with the ethics of it, but kind of being confused!”

The allure of victimhood

If there is any blame to be apportioned in a situation like this, then Knoop is also keen to pass the buck to the media and readers who embraced LeRoy so readily. “People were consuming his victimhood, that was part of the narrative.” 

Indeed, part of the reason Albert got Knoop to dress up as LeRoy in public, rather than just keep her persona invisible, was that she realised that the appeal of JT Leroy rested upon the authenticity of her character’s ‘outsider’ identity. So when it was revealed that LeRoy was a fabrication, people were angrier than was the case when, say, the crime writer Robert Galbraith was revealed as none other than JK Rowling. Readers were not invested in Galbraith and his presumed boring middle-aged male persona in the same way they were with LeRoy’s 'transgender sex worker-turned-novelist' one. 

The whole issue of what is ‘authentic’ art – and whether authenticity matters – has been fraught since time immemorial. In the 18th Century, for example, Samuel Johnson slammed the Scottish writer-cum-hoaxer James MacPherson for penning The Works of Ossian, which he claimed to be the work of a long-lost 3rd Century-bard, and published to great success. As a young man, Michelangelo sculpted a sleeping cupid and then buried it in acidic earth in order to sell it as an antiquity.

We’re in a point now where you have to stay in your lane. You can only speak from exactly your own experience.

However the whole issue has become even more fraught in the 21st Century, thanks to both the rise identity politics and the fakery of social media.

Is authenticity important?

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given Knoop’s part in the ruse, they think authenticity is overrated as an attribute of storytelling and that the idea of identity as a 'qualification' for writing something is troublesome: “We’re in a point now where you have to stay in your lane. You can only speak from exactly your own experience.”

Knoop cites the recent protest against the Dana Schutz painting Open Casket being displayed at the Whitney Biennial. In it, the white artist portrays the 1955 murder of black 14-year-old Emmett Till; many critics deemed it an offensive example of cultural appropriation.

What was mystifying to me was that suddenly these JT LeRoy books didn’t exist. That seems so strange!

Knoop relates their and Albert’s treatment to this. “It brings up the question of is it okay to imagine someone else’s position or not. What is the role of art, really?”

It has to be said that, for Knoop, the LeRoy episode evidently did her very well, though there were some negative repercussions. Knoop’s relationship with Albert has been strained for some time. Albert complained about Knoop writing about being LeRoy. In making the film, Knoop let the producers handle the negotiations with Albert. “We’ve been in touch a bit but it’s kind of mutual respect and distance,” they say.

The film shows how Knoop had started rebelling against Albert before the hoax was exposed: they refused to be a puppet and fought with Albert over LeRoy’s public image. But nevertheless,  where Knoop does have a tinge of regret, it concerns Albert – and the way their work has been discredited.  “What was mystifying to me was that suddenly these JT LeRoy books didn’t exist. That seems so strange!”

The lyricism and poetry of the books that was praised by critics was swiftly forgotten when Albert was outed. She went into hiding, only resurfacing in 2016 when she appeared in the documentary Author: The JT Leroy Story.

That same year, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things was finally reissued with Albert’s photo on the author page and the bio reading: “JT LeRoy is a literary persona created by Laura Albert.” Nonetheless, the now 53-year-old author has never been able to cast off the shadow of being a hoaxer and unlike Knoop takes zero kudos for pulling off the greatest literary hoax of the millennium. 

The fact that Knoop is able to capitalise on the whole affair via their tell-all personal story while novelist Albert is now a forgotten ‘fake’ says something, perhaps, about what we value in today’s culture. “You can only speak from exactly your own experience,” says Knoop. “And if you diverge from it, it’s clapped out. Yeah, you’re punished.”

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.