Orange Is the New Black: The Real Alex Vause Separates Fact from Fiction
"If prison life were really like they depicted," says Cleary Wolters, "there would be a line to get in."
Orange Is the New Black takes its premise from prison reality – but spins it for successful, if unrealistic, entertainment, says the real-life inspiration for the character of Alex Vause in the hit Netflix series.
“If prison life were really like they depicted in the show, there would be a line to get in,” says Cleary Wolters, the ex-lover and partner in crime of Piper Kerman, whose prison memoir of the same name inspired the show that premieres its third season next month.
“Lesbian sex everywhere you go? Parties in the cafeteria?” Not true, says Wolters, 52, who tells her version in her own memoir, Out of Orange, which recounts her redemption after an unwitting start in the heroin-smuggling ring in which Kerman came along.
Along the way, Wolters separates the show’s fiction from fact.
Let’s start with the obvious: “The way you have sex in prison is you hide,” she says. “You don’t have the luxury of lying down naked in bed with your lover and luxuriating for hours. Whenever and wherever you’re doing it, you have to be doing it in a flash. In less time than it takes a guard to realize what they’re looking at, you have to be fully dressed and have absolutely no appearance of passion.” To get caught even holding hands, she says, could mean solitary confinement.
The show also downplays the harshness of the prison experience, says Wolters, who served five years and 10 months in California.
“You become invisible,” she says. “You are an object. You are not a human being. People won’t even look you in the eye – it’s these very subtle things that degrade you slowly and completely. Everything that makes you ‘you’ is taken from you.”
And while the fictional Alex Vause and Piper Chapman have been locked up together for two seasons so far, the real-life Wolters and Kerman actually overlapped for just five or six weeks in a Chicago facility, where both were brought to testify against a co-defendant.
Although the two women were acquaintances who briefly became lovers before the smuggling ring was busted in 1994, they never, ever had sex in jail, says Wolters – who nonetheless does, happily, embrace one element of the series’ fantasy: “I love seeing myself as, like, a tall, gorgeous seductress.”
“She’s very pretty,” she says of Kerman, “so it shouldn’t be surprising that I developed a crush on her. It should be surprising that she responded. I am no Alex.”
For more about Wolters and her story, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday