The next queer artist that FF2 is celebrating this Pride Month is sculptor, writer, and filmmaker Savannah Knoop, best known for portraying the public persona of JT LeRoy, a literary hoax.
Savannah was born in San Francisco in 1981 to a family of artists, their mother being both an artist and acupuncturist and their father working as a documentary filmmaker. Savannah attended boarding school in Connecticut before enrolling at the City College of San Francisco for two years.
In 1999, Laura Albert, a writer at that time dating Savannah’s brother, approached Savannah to ask if they would play JT LeRoy, Laura’s own literary persona. Laura had already published the story “Baby Doll” under the pen name, and had decided to portray the stories which “LeRoy” wrote, about living as a young gay man in Appalachia, as autobiographical. Laura needed someone to personify LeRoy for the press, so, donning a blonde wig, large black sunglasses, and an ensemble of 90s high-grunge outfits, Savannah became JT LeRoy for the next six years.
Over that time, Laura wrote and published three books as JT LeRoy: Sarah, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, and Harold’s End. The instant success of Laura’s novels launched the LeRoy name further into the spotlight, and soon Savannah found themself mingling with a plethora of celebrity fans and doing photoshoots for Vanity Fair.
In 2005, the New York Times published an article disclosing the scandal, and the JT LeRoy saga came to an end, with Laura discarding the pen name altogether. In 2007, Savannah published their memoir, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy. Then, together with director Justin Kelly, Savannah successfully adapted the novel into the film JT LeRoy. The film, released in 2019, stars Kristen Stewart as Savannah as well as Laura Dern playing the part of Laura Albert.
“JT LeRoy is a raw, queer story which feels no need to define identity, but rather embraces life between the lines.”
In her review of the film, FF2 collaborator Julia Lasker writes, “JT LeRoy presents queerness in a way that I haven’t seen it done before.” Savannah’s queer identity as a gender non-conforming individual is portrayed with nuance and understanding, even as it is juxtaposed with the “lie” of JT LeRoy. Laura’s role as the creator of JT, and as JT herself to a certain extent, is also handled with delicacy. As Julia writes, “To Laura, the story she tells as JT is truth, regardless of whether or not she is JT. Art is a medium for truth that transcends identities and facts.”
Perhaps the biggest take away from JT LeRoy (the film and persona) is art’s ability to go past reality in order to find truth. Savannah has not portrayed JT since the 2005 Times exposé, but there is still a question of to what degree they were performing. The JT LeRoy story probes the performance of gender, identity, and even selfhood that all people—queer or not—undertake in the first place. JT LeRoy is a raw, queer story which feels no need to define identity, but rather embraces life between the lines.
Savannah obtained their Bachelor of Arts from CUNY Baccalaureate in 2013 before going on to receive their Master of Fine Arts from Virginia Commonwealth University for their work in sculpture and extended media. From 2009 to 2016, Savannah co hosted WOAHMONE, a monthly queer audio-visual party in New York City.
Savannah’s work has been shown at MoMA, the Whitney, ICA Philadelphia, the Leslie Lohman Museum, Nicelle Beauchene, Nina Johnson Gallery, and the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University. Their essays have been published in the LA Review of Books, Cultured Magazine, Dazed, 032C, and Critical Correspondence. Savannah continues to write and create genre-bending art in New York City.
Savannah Knoop’s story—one which focuses so heavily on gender and identity politics—feels even more relevant in today’s age than it did twenty years ago. In light of the systematic attack on the rights of transgender individuals in the United States brought about this year, it is especially important this Pride Month to take time to reflect on the experiences of gender non-conforming individuals within the community and to make room for transgender stories. Savannah has long since separated themself from JT, and now makes art authentically their own—though, of course, continues to blur lines and push boundaries all the same.
© Reese Alexander (6/23/23) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read Julia Lasker’s review of JT LeRoy here.
Visit Savannah Knoop’s website here.
Visit Savannah Knoop’s Wikipedia page here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: “Savannah Knoop” by Ataylorg is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.