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Status: Yes, he's a hoaxJ.T. LeRoy is either a) an extremely shy young man who, at the age of 13, while living a life of abuse and prostitution on the streets, met a psychologist who encouraged him to write down his experiences, which he did, thereby propelling him to literary stardom (now in his mid-twenties, LeRoy has three books, one of which has been made into a movie); or b) a woman in her late-thirties called Laura Albert who, for the past eleven years, has crafted an elaborate hoax to make people believe that LeRoy is a real person.
Stephen Beachy believes that option B is correct, and he lays out the reasons why in an article appearing in the current issue of New York Magazine. His basic argument goes like this: Laura Albert (aka Emily Frasier) is the woman who supposedly took LeRoy in when he was a young teenager. Beachy thinks she didn't take him in. She invented him. For years no one ever saw LeRoy. Blaming shyness, he would only talk on the phone or via email. Beachy suggests that Albert was the one doing the talking. When LeRoy finally did start to make public appearances (in 2001), he would conceal his features with a wig and sunglasses and avoid talking to people. Beachy believes the LeRoy seen in public is an actor hired by Albert. Then there's the odd fact that all of LeRoy's royalty payments go to Albert, or members of her family.
Beachy offers up plenty of other suspicious pieces of evidence, and I'm inclined to think he might be right. The biggest point in favor of LeRoy's reality is simply that it would be pretty outrageous for anyone to devise such an elaborate, and long-lasting, hoax. But then, outrageous is something hoaxers do well.
I suppose with time we'll discover the truth behind this story. My guess is that if LeRoy is a hoax, Albert will try to "kill him off" at some point when it becomes too difficult to continue the deception.
Update, January 4, 2006: Laura Barton has managed to interview JT LeRoy in person, and reports about her experience in the Guardian. She's not at all convinced that the person she interviewed really was LeRoy. She writes:
What strikes me most is the inarticulacy of LeRoy's speech. The delivery is stilted, the distinctive LeRoy vocabulary neutered. And while there is no reason for authors to be verbally articulate, I cannot find the pulse here, nor an intensity that in any way relates to the work of JT LeRoy. He seems distant, not only from our conversation, but from the work and his own argument. Much of what he says is identical to the phrases used by Albert in our telephone conversation, and it is hard to decipher whether this is LeRoy speaking Albert's words, or whether Albert was simply recycling LeRoy's. Whoever this is, sitting so sweetly beside me in the back of the car, I'm not wholly convinced it is the person who wrote the books. I would say two things with some certainty: I think it's a woman, and I think she's a real cutie pie. But whoever she is, our conversation seems cursory, a mahogany finish sprayed onto the solid wood beneath.
Update, January 9, 2006: The New York Times has revealed that the person appearing in public as LeRoy seems to be Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of Geoffrey Knoop (the guy who supposedly helped rescue the teenage LeRoy). I've posted an entry about this new evidence here.
Update, February 6, 2006: Geoffrey Knoop, the partner of Laura Albert, has admitted that Albert wrote all of JT Leroy's books. He also concedes that the face of JT Leroy, whenever Leroy made any public appearances, was his half-sister Savannah Knoop. The New York Times has quoted Geoffrey Knoop as saying: "The jig is up... I do want to apologize to people who were hurt. It got to a level I didn't expect." Knoop also says that he doubts Laura Albert will ever admit to being JT Leroy: ""For her, it's very personal. It's not a hoax. It's a part of her."