He wrote bestselling books, made numerous public appearances, became a Hollywood “it” boy and befriended a slew of A-list celebrities, but author JT Leroy never actually existed.
In 2006, Laura Albert shocked the the literary world and Hollywood alike when she revealed that she was the person behind the beloved and celebrated young author – supposedly a HIV-positive transgender ex-prostitute who chronicled his troubled upbringing in the novel Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things: Stories.
Now 10 years after the scandal broke and Albert was labeled the mastermind of one of the entertainment’s most elaborate hoaxes (a word she adamantly refutes), the Brooklyn native is telling her side of the story in the new documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story.
“I understand people feeling hurt and they feel I took their time, but this was never a joke for me,” she tells PEOPLE. “All I can is when JT felt pain and felt suicidal, that was real for me. That was real
Albert, now 50, explains that first began disguising herself as JT when she would call hotlines to talk about the sexual abuse she says she experienced as a child. Albert says that at the time, there was so much stigma around discussion of women’s sexuality and abuse that the only way she felt she could be heard was to present herself as a boy named Terminator.
“If I was going to have a voice and express anything, I needed to be a blonde haired, blue-eyed little boy,” she says. “I had no words to express how I felt sexually because I had so much shame, but as JT I could tell someone and I could get help.”
“JT was created the way an oyster creates pearls. He started as Terminator and then transformed into JT LeRoy,” she says.
When a doctor encouraged Albert to put her thoughts on paper, JT was truly born.
“[My doctor] said, ‘Why don’t you write a story about what it’s like to be a kid on the street. I thought I was going to write almost an instruction manual for social workers, but when JT started writing it was completely different.”
Albert’s first story as JT was Balloons, a short story about heroin.
As her writing became increasingly popular and after she published her first novel as JT, Albert enlisted the help of her sister-in-law to disguise herself and go out in public as JT.
JT skyrocketed to fame and was labeled an “it boy” among Hollywood’s elite, befriending the likes of Courtney Love, Winona Ryder and more. Albert’s sister-in-law would meet celebrities at Hollywood events, and Albert would step in when JT talked to them on the phone.
“I didn’t want to do a documentary for so many years because everyone was focused on the celebrity part of JT, but what they didn’t realize was that JT was me,” Albert says of her decision to finally speak out. “This is the first time I felt my story could be communicated in the right way.”
The mesmerizing saga of JT LeRoy’s rise to fame and ultimate downfall when Albert was eventually exposed is chronicled in Author: The JT LeRoy Story, in select theaters now.