I RECENTLY READ ABOUT a former Playboy model who, while at the gym, took a photo of a nude seventy-one-year-old woman and posted it on Snapchat with the caption, ‘If I can’t unsee this then you can’t either.’
Criminal charges of invasion of privacy were brought.
What she did haunted me. The idea that a woman possesses a body that should be hidden, that is an affront to be witnessed for whatever reason – and that another woman did not hesitate to hold her up to public contempt – it all chilled me to my core.
She apologised in the media, after there was outrage, saying, ‘Body shaming is wrong and that’s not what I’m about, that’s not the type of person I am.’
Now we have the term body shaming for what she did, but still her argument haunts me, that claim we hear so often,
‘THAT’S NOT ME.’
I started becoming overweight as young child, after a family friend had molested me in a most insidious way. It wasn’t just body shame that became embedded, it was a splitting of identity, a taking leave of my body, as he masturbated me and then punished me by spanking me, often at the same time, merging the intensity of both in a horrible tangling of synapses which I have never been able to undo.
‘THIS IS NOT ME.’ Words that felt like my credo, my epitaph.
If I were a boy, this would not be happening, the thought logically followed. He said he did these things because I was a bad dirty girl. And when I gained weight, he was not pleased. I put on more weight. That was a way of keeping a safe me THAT WAS NOT ME.
My grandparents escaped from a Europe that had been a constant struggle for basic survival. My internal DNA is hardwired to survive on little food.
But the women in my family seem genetically engineered to equate nurturing with nourishing plus noshing.
‘Eat bubulah, eat!’ I too was encouraged, more food heaped on my plate. But as my body grew, I was no healthy Russian babushka. I was a fat American kid. ‘What use is a fat girl!’ I also was told. Clothes for overweight girls were not readily found. The section my mother took me to when buying clothes was called Husky – like the dog.
My last name is Albert. There was a popular TV show in the U.S. at the time, created by Bill Cosby, the main character being a morbidly obese African American boy. The title song had him singing, ‘Hey Hey Hey, It’s Fat Albert.’ That was the taunt which followed me throughout grade school.
In grade school, other little girls wore things that created an image; there was a blonde German girl who wore delicate dirndl dresses, creating the aura of Heidi of the Swiss Alps. All the girls wanted to dress like her. There was a craze of white overalls with light blue stripes, the ones a train engineer might wear: every girl in third grade had a pair of OshKosh B’Gosh overalls. Except me. They did not make overalls for Huskies. I was stuck in hideous stretch pants in primary colours. I wore what fit me, even though the early Seventies was ground zero for jeans, and I longed for them. When I was in fourth grade, the department store Sears started making Husky-sized Toughskins, and when I wore my first pair of jeans, even though they were plaid, I wept.
At night in my head I watched stories of boys, lithe boys, Oliver Twist and Artful Dodger boys, one look at them, and you’d understand their story. They could tell stories of abuse, they were allowed, they were not dirty fat ugly little girls. They were the allowed stories; the culture gave permission for mischievous boys like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.
What I wore hid the scars. Disclosed nothing. Invited no further interest or imagination. It was obvious that whoever was creating the clothes I had to wear had no interest in putting any creativity into it. The message was clear, your being is not worth anything. Your body must be covered so we don’t have to see it. My clothes were not designed, they were cut, sewn together and sold.
My Barbie dolls became my theater. My mother had taught me to sew; I became a fashion designer of story and played out my truth, the dolls enduring sexual and physical abuse, abandonment. The young girl Skipper dolls were dressed as boys, the boy dolls dressed as girls.
I knew this was some sick shit. I knew something was very wrong with me, but in the safety of my bedroom, I would let it rip.
My Barbies got the extra forbidden treat of using their outfits to dress according to their storyline, and however twisted it was, that did not stop me.
When I got into punk at age fourteen in 1979, I was already a truant and had dropped out of school. Finally there was music that expressed all my rage and disgust with the hypocrisy of pretty much fucking everything around me.
Combat boots, ripped clothes, leather jackets – they were the story of survival.
But I wanted to wear what the boys wore, not the girls – who even in this new Blade Runner frontier were regulated mostly to the role of arm candy, girlfriend, in short skirts and fishnets. I wanted to wear the fast lines of the rude boys, the early skins before they were synonymous with National Front and racism. To my story-hungry self, the outfits looked like safety, like empowerment, to be protected within the clean lines of Sta-Prest Levi jeans, oxblood Doc Martens, Fred Perry polos, ready to fight and to run.
I would reach a weight for maybe a day when I could fit into jeans, only to have what I now understand as addiction take over. It was my default setting, anything that brought up complex feelings, sexuality, would retrigger my buried trauma, and the only thing I could allow myself to focus on was my weight, overeating, and with it, the endless cycle of shame – always leading to the same result, knowing my body was wrong, was shameful, was something to hide.
I witnessed girls who were fat and did not hide their bodies, they displayed their meaty legs in short skirts, wobbled in high heels, squeezed themselves into tight tops – and while I silently cheered them on, marvelling at their braveness, I saw them mocked, spat on, taunted. The big girls who dared to don bulky leather jackets, fit themselves into jeans and boots, had bottles thrown at them, ‘bull dyke’ shouted at them. Delicate women would roll their eyes, huff with disgust if having to share a bus seat with any person of size.
People were proud to be the self-appointed judges – don’t tell me who you are! – informing these woman that they had no right to attract attention or tell any story other than embarrassment.
I studied how others used their body to tell stories, to create images – usually very different from who they were.
Fashion is a very potent way to not be who you are, to be hidden in plain sight. There were girls who dressed provocatively but were virginal, guys whose clothing resembled devil worshippers,’ but were in fact sweet yeshiva boys.
THAT’S NOT ME became that could be me, that might be me. I’m going to play with making you think THAT’S ME.
I’m going to play with making me think THAT’S ME.
My inner life of boys with stories of trauma was brimming over within me, but without the physical capacity or outlet to manifest themselves, they spilled their stories onto hotlines to anyone who would listen, and finally onto the page, creating vivid imagery of who they were, how they dressed, what they looked like. They demanded to be seen.
It was something that was always there. I would stare at photos of guys, Road Warrior/Artful Dodger types and think, THAT IS A ME. I’m one of them.
The stories came first, the fiction books, where the boys that were inside me described their world. I wrote stories the only way I could, using an avatar. JT LeRoy became my asbestos gloves to handle material I otherwise could not touch. He wrote stories that became novels and were published as fiction books which were received with acclaim.
The emotional truths of the landscape I described in Sarah, felt authenticity, resonated. Magazines wanted to photograph the architect of this magical world, they wanted to show who this being was. They wanted to see him.
Even more importantly, he wanted his own body, he wanted to be seen.
No matter how fat I got, I could not contain him.
Like the archetypal myth of Athena emerging from Zeus’s head – or more like the creature bursting out of its host’s stomach in Alien – my creation would no longer be content to exist within me, it wanted escape. He wanted escape.
I found different host bodies until he finally settled into one, like locating that rare impossible blood-donor match. I finally had a human Barbie doll to connect the story in varying dimensions. My sister-in-law was an ideal host. She was starting to explore the parameters of gender expressionism for herself. What I was doing in language, she had the capacity and willingness to embody. We achieved the impossible, and JT LeRoy became a real human boy.
I picked out clothes that I craved to wear, at a shoot for a German magazine showing JT with a shaved head, a Fred Perry shirt, baggy rude boy pants, on a skateboard, dark shades to hide the eyes.
As the demand for more photos increased, the options did as well. I incorporated wigs and sunglasses, a nod to Andy Warhol – he had sent out avatars wearing his signature wig and sunglasses, to give his paid speeches.
I picked JT’s clothes the way I longed to dress myself. My sister-in-law bound her breasts to disguise her femaleness, something I had tried to do as a teen but because of my fat, the bind made bulges that made it obvious I was wearing a wrap, it only humiliated me.
Then the JT LeRoy work started to have a life of its own. One of the first photo shoots we did with JT was for The Face – revealingly titled ‘What It Feels Like For A Boy.’ Shot by Kate Garner, it showed JT wearing a domino mask, dressed on top like Angus Young, in a white collared shirt, with a schoolboy tie, but on the bottom, a tartan mini-skirt and chain, black stockings. He’s in a wig, like Warhol. I stood behind the scenes, out of camera range, in a muu-muu type dress, picking out everything that I would never dare wear. Shirley Manson, the singer from the rock group Garbage, said the photo of JT LeRoy caught her eye and she bought a copy of Sarah and loved it, and passed the book to Bono of U2, who read also the work and then raved about it in Rolling Stone.
People started passing the book to one another, Sarah was what people would carry around on the train as a signifier, communicating to others that the norm did not apply to them. Sarah explored all my themes of abuse, abandonment, gender identity – longing to be the other, becoming the other, even re-creating truth with Barbie dolls – it is all there and it resonated.
As I watched JT fully inhabit his being and realise his authentic self, my own body began to change. I had weight loss surgery, and shed one hundred and seventy pounds, ‘You’ve lost an entire person!’ people will often comment when they hear how much I once weighed. But I didn’t lose him, he got free of me, and I got free of him.
For the first time in my life, I was able to play with dressing my body the way I wanted to, but I still was not at home in my skin. I took on another avatar, Speedie, who allowed me to be an advocate for JT and for myself. She was fearless and confident, and she didn’t seem to give a shit what anyone thought. Speedie was my Dumbo’s feather, being inside her enabled me to show up for situations where I otherwise would never have dared appear.
As Speedie I would go with JT to fashion designers, and it was always very clear that nothing they had would fit me. But not long after my surgery, having dropped a significant amount of weight, I was wearing wrap dresses that I’d tie in tight.
We were in Italy with the actress Asia Argento, when Ennio Capasa, the designer for Costume National, invited us to his headquarters in Milan.
I knew how this would play out, he would go through his gorgeous designs and we would select clothes for JT.
But something different happened. Ennio took out clothes for me, which were not plus size – they were ‘normal.’
We were going to meet Madonna in London, but we had no winter coats, coming from California. ‘Well, that’s like meeting the Queen,’ he laughed. ‘You want to be dressed for it!’
‘Well, JT… but me?’
‘Why not? I have just the thing.’
I stood there, in amazement, as he produced a coat with woven peacock plumes in its design.
‘This is you,’ he told me. But he would have to ship it to us in London, he said, as that very coat would be worn by a model on the runway.
‘Wait, this is model size?!’ I gasped.
‘You don’t know your size?’ Ennio marvelled.
I explained to him about the weight loss, and he went to work, pulling out items that not only would fit me, but which I also wanted to wear.
Ennio optioned part of Sarah and used it to open his show, reprinting it in the DVD book and crediting Sarah as inspiration.
Other designers did as well, Richie Rich from Heatherette and Gary Graham brought the Oliver Twist, gender play, West Virginian truck stop subculture, a world I had created, to the runways, and truck stop garb became a fashion staple.
JT LeRoy – big blonde wig and oversized sunglasses in a gender-ambiguous outfit – became a Halloween costume.
This was not a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes. It was really, The Emperor Knew Clothes.
Clothing was described with the same care and love as food in my nov- els. ‘All Glad’s pavement princesses dress so comely in the most delicate silks from China, fine lace from France, and degenerate leather from Germany.’
Near the end, when The New York Times was tugging pretty hard at the curtain surrounding JT LeRoy, the artist Robert Wilson came to San Francisco to photograph him. By then he understood JT LeRoy to be an avatar, he understood the felt authenticity of the creation of JT LeRoy – the fiction books, the playing with fashion, with gender, with identity, all of it. And he knew that JT LeRoy would last beyond the controversy of the revelation that this world was my creation.
I currently spend my days working on my memoir, my life story, and the repeated theme for me is learning to find a home in my body. How to dress my body to uncover who I am and WHAT WAS NOT ME.
When I stood in front of a mirror, my weight at three hundred and twenty pounds, all I could say was, ‘THAT’S NOT ME.’
And this, even though that me had taken over my life by then. I would buy clothes to cover me up; how they looked, well, that was not really much of an option to consider. It was hard for me to tie my shoes, to wipe myself on the toilet, to turn around; everyday actions were all getting tougher. In the shower I had to lift my stomach to clean it. In public people seemed scared of me, white thin women especially, as if they might catch it from me. ‘That is what being out of control looks like,’ I heard one whisper to another behind my back.
If I had turned to them and said, ‘THAT’S NOT ME,’ would they have understood? I didn’t fully understand it myself. But I knew that wasn’t me.
Gustave Flaubert is said to have pointed out how different he was from the title character of his novel Madame Bovary, yet the legends of literary history recall him declaring, ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi!’ Legend has prevailed in our memory because it’s hard to believe that Flaubert would have failed to recognise the dynamic described so eloquently by the great Flaubert enthusiast Oscar Wilde: ‘All art being to a certain degree a mode of acting, an attempt to realise one’s own personality on some imaginative plane out of reach of the trammeling accidents and limitations of real life.’
Among the limitations that real life imposes upon personality, the body tops the list. That’s why the art of fashion was born – and why it never stops changing and why it never goes backwards (no matter what earlier flourishes it may revive). Because each generation needs its own shroud within which the body can die and be born anew, reinvented and redefined. Anything else and we start to become unintelligible to ourselves. For a society to function, you have to be able to recognise yourself and say, ‘THAT’S ME.’
Laura Albert has published three books as Jeremiah ‘Terminator’ (or JT) Leroy: Sarah, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and Harold’s End. In 2001, she chose Savannah Knoop, her sister-in-law, to play the role of JT in public – typically decked out in a blond wig and oversized sunglasses – and Laura herself began to appear as JT’s friend Speedie/Emily Fraser. In the mid-2000s, JT was revealed to be a fictional creation in a series of magazine articles published in the Houston Press, New York magazine, The New York Times and Vanity Fair.
This article was originally published in Vestoj: On Authenticity, available for purchase here.