I Was Friends with J.T. Leroy: From Fame to Hoax

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Laura Albert as “Speedie” and Savannah Knoop as “J.T.” with Asia Argento in 2002

J.T. Leroy was one of the greatest literary hoaxes of the internet era. It’s also proof that reality is much more outrageous than fiction. Up until the New York Times’ Warren St. John uncovered the hoax in January 2006. Up until then, J.T. Leroy blazed the literary scene and was pretty much a rockstar with the celebrity friends (Bono, Madonna, Shirley Manson, Courtney Love, Michael Pitt, Gus Van Sant, and Asia Argento just to name a few). Shirley Manson even went so far as to write not one, but TWO songs inspired by J.T., Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!) and Bleed Like Me. But J.T. Leroy wasn’t really who he claimed to be, the son of a truckstop whore in West Virginia and former junkie and prostitute himself. He wrote about his childhood in West Virginia in the book The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things and Sarah. Both books were published as fiction, and yet in interviews, he suggested that they were based on fact.

But up until 1999, no one had ever seen Leroy. In fact, Leroy never did book signings or readings. It wasn’t until sometime in 2000 that Leroy began to do public appearances, and he was always disguised by a wig and sunglasses.

In 2006, we found out exactly why he was always in disguise because J.T. Leroy never existed. Rather he was an “avatar” for writer Laura Albert who hired her sister-in-law at the time, Savannah Knoop to portray J.T. in public.

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Winona Ryder with Savannah Knoop as “J.T.”

How to best describe the moral outrage that many felt when they found out they had been “duped” by the duo were best said by Warren St. John when he stated, “The books are fiction but the marketing device to get us to read them was a lie, pure and simple.”

Recently, a film was made based on Savannah Knoop’s memoir, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became J.T. Leroy, where androgynous It-Girl Kristen Stewart brought to life both Knoop and the enigmatic Leroy, while a wildly unrecognizable Laura Dern played Laura Albert as well as Leroy’s so-called “manager,” the cockney-accented Speedie.

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Laura Dern playing Laura Albert as “Speedie” and Kristen Stewart playing Savannah Knoop as “J.T. Leroy”

In the film, Asia Argento was played by Diane Kruger (although they changed her name to Eva, probably to avoid any legal issues). Although the film excelled with these actress’ performance, the film lacked to explore how writing was therapeutic for Laura Albert and how that propelled her to hide behind J.T. Leroy. It also failed to address the fact that maybe J.T. wouldn’t have had so many people willing to be helpful towards him had he not been a young, white male. One of the most poignant moments in the movie was towards the end, when after the hoax was exposed and Savannah reveals to Laura Albert that she’s planning to write a book about her experience portraying J.T., Albert replies with, “Remember, just because you played a writer, doesn’t make you a writer.” A little too tongue in cheek.

For years, I’ve avoided writing about J.T. because for me he wasn’t just an author that I admired (he was so young and had already accumulated so many accolades and for someone like me who was an aspiring writer at the time, he was such a great inspiration), but he was also a friend. You see, back in the early 2000s there used to exist Yahoo mail groups, and somehow I found myself being in the one dedicated to J.T. Leroy, which was run by the actual author. At some point sometime in late 2001, he and I began to correspond. And our correspondence lasted up until The New York Times unveiled the hoax in 2006. He and I would talk about books, movies, cartoons (we were both obsessed with Spongebob Squarepants) and chocolates. In fact, on several occasions, I sent him Italian chocolates.

Watching the movie J.T. Leroy was kinda triggering in the sense that it reminded me of so many J.T. things that I had forgotten over the years. It also left me sad, because although he didn’t exist, in some ways he did and his memory remains alive in those that had a chance to be friends with him. Even after all these years, when I visited San Francisco in 2016, I found myself going to places that he had suggested I visit so many years ago (Ghirardelli Square being one of them), and also Polk Street (only because it was predominately featured in Leroy’s final book, Harold’s End.

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Pictured at Polk Street in San Francisco with my cousin in August of 2016

In today’s age of social media, Laura Albert wouldn’t have been capable to pull off the hoax for very long. But for me, the fact that she not only managed to pull it off, but to market J.T. in such a way that had him picking up awesome gigs left and right (he wrote for Vogue, got to interview Billy Corgan’s short-lived band Swan for The Rolling Stone, and wrote the screenplay for Gus Van Sant’s Elephant). In other words, Laura Albert was a master class in marketing and promoting, and I think any author would benefit from being more like her in that regard.

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Laura Albert the writer using “J.T. Leroy” as her avatar

I know some people in the literary world still shun Laura Albert today, but no one can take away the fact that the novels she wrote provided solace to many of those that had succumbed to the child abuse she depicted in them. Maybe, the hoax went on for so long because we all wanted J.T. to be real, and in believing it, he ultimately became real.

I miss you, J.T. There’s a part of me that still wishes that someday you’ll find your voice again and we’ll get another book.

Here’s hoping, but I’m not holding my breath.

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Savannah Knoop as “J.T.” with Bono sometime in 2003

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Asia Argento: “Jimmy Bennett raped me.”

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Asia Argento and former child star Jimmy Bennett

The saga between Asia Argento and Jimmy Bennett seems to be one of those train wrecks that we can’t bring ourselves to look away from. One of the reasons is because every day new allegations and discoveries are made that the truth is slowly getting muddied up in drama.

To recap, Jimmy Bennett claims that Asia Argento sexually assaulted him when he was seventeen and for several months had been extorting her for money (which the late Anthony Bourdain gave in hopes of keeping him quiet and from disclosing a very incriminating photo).

The photo was recently disclosed which depicted Argento in bed with Bennett, both of them looking blissful, basking in the afterglow of their recent romp.

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This photo discredited Argento’s claim that she hadn’t had sex with Bennett at all (which even if consensual could still be seen as statutory rape because he was 17 at the time, and she was 37, and the age of consent in California is 18).

To also discredit Argento’s claim was non-binary model Rain Dove’s leak of their texts where Dove asked Argento if she had sex with the minor and she replied with, “Yes, it felt weird. I didn’t know he was a minor till the shakedown letter.” This was enough proof for Italy’s X-Factor to fire Argento from her judge role and for CNN to pull any episodes of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown where the actress appears.

Rose McGowan, who is dating Dove, has distanced herself from her former friend and urged her to tell the truth and act the way she wished disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein should’ve acted. Argento and McGowan are no longer on speaking terms.

In retaliation, Argento called Dove a “monster” for selling her private texts to TMZ, and McGowan a “liar.”

Now, Argento’s attorney is claiming that the actress was actually the one to be sexually assaulted by Bennett (which is something she DID say to Dove in the leaked texts where she wrote, “The horny kid jumped me,”). Although when Dove questioned to clarify in the texts if Argento had been raped she wrote back, “It wasn’t rape but I was frozen. He was on top of me. After, he told me that I had been his sexual fantasy since (he) was 12.”

A note written to Argento by Bennett using the hotel’s stationery from the day of the infamous encounter reads: Asia, I love you with all my heart. So glad we met again and I’m so glad your in my life. – Jimmy (ending with a smiley)

The saga gets even more intricate when recent discoveries have been made where Bennett’s ex-girlfriend had issued a restraining order against him in July 2015 due to stalking. His ex-girlfriend hadn’t gone to the police just for the stalking, but also because she wanted to press charges against Bennett for having sex with a minor (she was 17, and he 18) and child pornography. She explained that Bennett had talked her into having sex with him and that he had manipulated her into sending nude photos of herself in which she stated, “Caused me emotional harm by leaking them via Snapchat.” The ex also confirmed that she feared for her safety when she got back with her ex-boyfriend because Bennett threatened to “get back at her,” if she did.

Bennett who blames Argento for his lack of employment due to the trauma that she caused him by having sex with him, probably doesn’t want to acknowledge the simple truth that as a child actor transitioning into adulthood, like many others before him, he probably just didn’t make the cut.

So what can we learn from said train wreck of a saga? That Argento most likely did get raped by Weinstein. That Bourdain did pay Bennett to keep him quiet because he didn’t want a scandal to erupt. That Argento and Bennett did have sex. That Argento denied having sex. That most likely said sex was consensual between the two parties, but Argento being the adult in the situation shouldn’t have partaken in any sexual activities with a minor no matter how much he may have seemed consensual at the time. That Bennett was facing harsh economic issues due to his parents having spent most of his child acting money and now blames Argento for his lack of adulthood success.

Maybe if both parties would begin to say the truth then perhaps this mess could actually get resolved. But as it stands, this scandal is going to keep on piling on nuances worthy of the best soap opera.

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Asia Argento: When The Victim becomes the Perpetrator

asia5An obliterating bomb exploded last Sunday when The New York Times published a piece about Asia Argento claiming that the Italian actress reportedly paid $380K to former child star and co-star Jimmy Bennett for an incident that occurred at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Marina Del Rey, CA in May 2013. The young actor was 17 at the time of the alleged sexual assault by Argento, who was then 37.

The two first met when Argento cast Bennett as the young version of Jeremiah for her movie adaptation of JT Leroy’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. Throughout the years the two had remained close and would be seen interacting with one another on Twitter and Instagram.

On May 9, of 2013, the two agreed to meet up in Marina Del Rey, CA, their meeting was captured by a series of photos that the actress posted on Instagram where the two looked visibly happy to be in the company of one another.

However, Bennett claims that Argento had him drink alcohol for then to have her perform oral sex on him, which later lead to sex. Bennett at the time this incident was 17. The age of consent in California is 18. Long after this encounter, the two were seen interacting on social media, similarly to how she remained still in contact with her own abuser, Harvey Weinstein.

 

So what does this all mean in light of the #MeToo movement? I don’t think the actions of one individual should be used as a way to discredit the work that many of the other survivors have been doing in the past few months. It also doesn’t change the fact that Argento herself was a victim of rape, however, it also doesn’t give her a free pass to essentially assault minors. And that’s where the problem lies, because whether or not Bennett at the time of the incident had either consented or not (he hasn’t
come out with a statement in regards to these accusations), he was still a minor at the time of the incident and that in itself is legally a crime.

The #MeToo movement was initially started to help women of color who had been sexually assaulted and turned into a worldwide movement when actresses Rose McGowan, Rosanna Arquette, and Argento herself became the most prominent voices behind the movement in light of the Harvey Weinstein rape scandal.

Now, many are distancing themselves from Argento, whilst her friends McGowan and Arquette are showing their support. But this double standard can be harmful to the movement, making people erroneously believe that such a movement is riddled with hypocrisy. But that can only cause harm to victims if we’re going to discredit a movement simply because one individual’s actions were appalling.

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A photo of Bennette that Argento took on May 9, 2013, the day of the alleged assault at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina Del Rey, CA

The bottom line is: adults should never use their position of power to coerce or persuade a minor into sex, no matter what their history or relationship with that person may be.

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*At the point of publication of this post, Argento was said to have told freelance journalist Yashar Ali that she had “Never had any sexual relationship with Bennett,” and was “deeply shocked and hurt by having read news that is absolutely false.”

The actress also went to point out that Bennett was “undergoing severe economic problems,” and that he knew that her boyfriend, TV chef Anthony Bourdain, “was of great perceived wealth.”

The New York Times story was based on documents that they received from an unidentified source via encrypted email.

What does this all mean? That clearly this case is going to have more twists and turns so keep your seatbelts on.

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Asia Argento: From Victim to Whore

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Despite the fact that the majority of people are appalled over the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Asia Argento seems to be getting the short stick of solidarity in her own home country, Italy. After Ronan Farrow’s lengthy article about the movie mogul for The New Yorker went viral, most people reached out in support of the victims. The opposite effect happened to Asia Argento in Italy. Not only was she victim blamed and ridiculed, but major Italian newspapers ran articles with titles such as, “First they gave it away, and twenty years later they whine,” (referring to all the actresses that had been sexually harassed and/or raped). If that alone doesn’t make your skin crawl with anger, you must not have a heart or conscience.

The Italian public has always seemed to have an unspoken dislike for actress Asia Argento since the very beginning of her career. I don’t know if it has to do with bearing an important last name (her father is the famed master of horror, director Dario Argento) that has led to the hate, but it’s always been there. For years people questioned her talent, stating that she was only getting roles because of her famous dad (despite the fact that she’s won TWO Davide di Donatello awards, the Italian equivalent of an Academy Award). There’s always been a certain jealousy surrounding her because her father wasn’t just famous in Italy, but worked with many actors in America and was considered a huge influence on the horror genre worldwide.

Another reason the Italian public has always had issues with her is because she’s always been open about her sexuality (and somehow in a patriarchal society, that is frightening). And I don’t think her public image ever truly recovered from the time actor Sergio Rubini pursued her whilst still married to Italy’s beloved actress Margherita Buy.

Are all these reasons valid to drag Asia Argento into the mud for actually speaking up on a harrowing incident? NO. And yet, the likes of Selvaggia Lucarelli (famous Italian journalist) and Vladimir Luxuria (famous transgender member of the Communist Refoundation Party and LGBT activist) have ruthlessly attacked, bullied, and ridiculed the actress for speaking up, ultimately trying to pass her off as an attention whore, or just plain whore.

Both Selvaggia Lucarelli and Vladimir Luxuria should be ashamed for shaming a rape victim. The violent backlash that Asia has had is sickening and proves time and time again exactly WHY women often don’t report rape or sexual harassment.

Rape is rape.

And Asia Argento is a victim of rape and as such should be applauded for her courage, not demeaned.

By: Azzurra Nox

(Please don’t let me be) Misunderstood: Movie Review

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Incompresa debuted at Cannes in 2014 and it’s Asia Argento’s third directorial effort. The movie is loosely based on Argento’s own childhood, particularly the time frame when her parents, actress Daria Nicolodi and master of horror director, Dario Argento, split up after ten years of being together. In the movie, the protagonist Aria (Argento’s real name) played by a remarkable Giulia Salerno, gets shuffled between her concert pianist mother (played by a moody Charlotte Gainsbourg and styled to resemble Nicolodi) and international movie star father (played by Italy’s heartthrob Gabriel Garko).

The movie opens with an instrumental by Brian Molko as Aria writes in her diary. Fun fact: for those of us who have read Asia Argento’s book I Love You Kirk (published back in 1999 and out of print now), will readily recognize the opening sequence is an excerpt from Argento’s very own childhood diary.

One of the first scenes in the movie depicts Aria getting hit hard by her mother to the point of spilling blood. Moments later though, her mother washes her bloodied lip and tells her, “Don’t play the victim card.” The following morning, after a violent fight with her spouse, Aria’s mother is washing the blood from her hair and tells her, “Look at what your father did to me. He’s a monster,” just as Aria touches her bruised lip, reminding her of her mother’s violent act.

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The fact that Aria comes from an affluent family, would usually make the audience unsympathetic towards her. But since she’s so clearly invisible in her family, just as she is in school, the protagonist becomes very relatable and likable. Nothing in Aria’s life ever goes right. At school she is taunted, her crush doesn’t like her, her mother seems bothered by her presence readily shipping her off to her dad, while her dad is just as neglectful and ordering her to go back to her mother whenever she upsets him or his daughter Lucrezia, and the only person who seems to care about her is her best friend Angelica (who later betrays her too).

The movie is bittersweet and dark, but the colour palette used in the scenes is vibrant and hopeful. The soundtrack is superb, as are the outlandish outfits worn by Aria throughout the movie. Every scene pulls at your heartstrings, bringing the audience closer to the grand finale. And like any tragic movie, for any moment of happiness, there are four scenes of sorrow. My favourite scene in the movie is the epic party scene that soon shifts from exciting and fun, to shame and disaster. After the ultimate betrayal (that’s almost reminiscent of Carrie’s Prom scene, sans the pig’s blood, but with the same amount of embarrassment and hurt), the audience doesn’t even bat an eye when Aria ultimately does the most horrific of gestures. Because we’re kind of expecting things to go <I>that</I> bad. We can understand her motives. We actually feel sorry that a nine-year-old girl has to feel so unloved. This movie is almost a cautionary tale for parents to be more attentive to their kids before it’s too late. Because the end result could be tragic, as it was in the movie, or they could just grow up to become moody artists who’ll capture your wrongdoings in a movie for the whole world to see.

But like Aria says at the end, “I didn’t tell you this so that you could feel sorry for me. I shared this with you, so that maybe if you meet me, you’ll be nicer.” This certainly has left me wanting to give Asia a hug albeit that may be a bit too sappy so maybe just a punk salute will do, “Revolution, baby!”

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This movie is raw, intense, and just overall beautiful. It’s the spawn of Charles Baudelaire and Sylvia Plath in images. Don’t miss it. Because once you watch it, you’ll be left enthralled and disarmed.

Incompresa (Misunderstood) is currently available on Netflix, Amazon, Itunes, and Youtube.

By: Azzurra Nox