Meet the Real-Life Alex Vause of 'Orange Is the New Black'

Cleary Wolters wants viewers of the Netflix series to know: The character is her, but she's not the villain in Piper's life

Photo: Courtesy Cleary Wolters

Watching her alter ego come to life on the small screen was a shock for Cleary Wolters.

But there's little doubt it's her: In both the book and the hit show Orange Is the New Black, the central character, Piper, blames just one person for dragging her into a heroin-smuggling ring that caused both to wind up behind bars.

In Piper Kerman's prison memoir, she calls the character Nora Jansen; in the series, that same villain goes by the name Alex Vause.

Now Wolters, 52, is telling her own side of the story. Her memoir, Out of Orange, explains how she unwittingly became a drug mule and then grew too scared to get out.

It's also an intentional retort to Kerman's version. "I wanted," Wolters tells PEOPLE, "to correct the concept that I was singularly responsible for Piper's downfall."

Wolters was 29, broke and aimless, when she accepted a free trip through Paris (and $6,000 cash) in 1993 from her sister's exporter boyfriend, who she thought needed help sneaking diamonds into the U.S.

"I wouldn't say I had a sturdy moral compass," she says. "It did not sound very criminal to me. It sounded James Bond-y."

After she discovered the truth, Wolters says, she was already in over her head and went along with it. But back home, she confessed her role and anxiety to Kerman, who would later join Wolters as a travel companion, then as a cash courier.

"That was all her decision," Wolters says. "If she had never met me, she would probably have never gone to jail, and I feel bad for that. But I met a lot of people in that period of time that had nothing to do with what I was doing. I was very open about what I was doing. The people who ended up being involved with me were people who wanted to be or asked to be."

Says Kerman, in an email to PEOPLE: "It should come as no surprise that Cleary and I may have different points of view about the time we spent together; I'd guess that would be true of most exes."

Sentenced to separate terms and locations after the smuggling ring was busted in 1994, she and Kerman made peace with each other when their paths crossed briefly in prison, Wolters says, and left as friends.

Now, Wolters is a fan of the show that Kerman's book inspired.

But while the true-life Wolters and the fictional Vause (played by Laura Prepon) share a storyline, don't expect a physical resemblance.

"The only similarity between myself and that character," Wolters says, "is my black glasses."

For more about Wolters and her story, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

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