As you well know, Orange is the New Black is based on a book written by Piper Kerman. What not everyone knows is that the person that the character Alex Vause was based on also wrote a book telling her version of her story. I’m going to use an interview from the time of the Cleary Wolters memoir release in this article. I’ve tried talking to her through social media a few times, but I think she doesn’t really like talking about Alex Vause these days. Anyway, if one day this post gets to her, I’d like her to know that I will have the greatest honor of interviewing her. Now let’s get to the facts. On the one hand Alex Vause is a drug dealer, corrupt and sometimes with dubious morals. We also need to say that she is probably the most iconic character within a show full of iconic characters. I never tire of saying how much Orange is the New Black taught me in various social aspects. So the way I see it, after probation has passed, Cleary should be proud. But this is me, sitting on my couch writing a post. It means that whoever carries this story must have other reasons that we should evaluate.
OITNB: THE REAL STORY OF ALEX VAUSE
(Correio Braziliense) Cleary Wolters got a shock when he first saw Orange is the new black. Alex Vause’s character, theoretically, would be herself. The first season of the series was running and Cleary had already left prison, but was still on probation. She worked, but no one in the workplace knew of her past as a drug dealer and girlfriend of Piper, the protagonist of the memoir that inspired the Netflix series. First, she was desperate. Vause isn’t exactly an angel. In the series, she is able to rat on her girlfriend and put her in very difficult situations. Cleary was afraid that some vindictive spirit would turn on her. And more: to associate Vause’s character with hers. When the show started, I was still on probation, which is basically an intense struggle not to see your past portrayed in a New York Times bestseller or being adapted into fiction into a TV series, Cleary recalls. I couldn’t give a peep about my connection to the show to most people, nor did the people in my work know I had such a colorful story. It was a very bizarre time in my life.
(by Evil Jenji) She released OUT OF PRISON 3 years after the series began after her parole ended. For those who don’t know, she wrote 3 books during her time in prison, it served as therapy. I was thinking it would have been interesting for this to be in the series, but I also understand that the narrative was Piper’s, not Alex’s character.
As we are going to talk about the same story, I think it is pertinent to compare them, even if superficially. I read both books, and I had different feelings about each of them. I think the opportunity that both writers gave us is sensational, revealing their side of the story.
In Orange is the New Black, Piper takes an extremely social view of facts, she contextualizes it almost like a scientist, or rather a sociologist. It’s amazing, I identify a lot with it, and somehow this way of looking at events is in the show too. Piper writes in a way that puts us in prison with her. This is so strong, I could read the book in one sitting, because it’s fluid.
In fact, Out of Orange focuses mainly on when she and Piper Kerman met and when they traveled the world. So books historically complement each other. Both are very interesting in this regard. Cleary’s way of writing seems less fluid to me, but who cares. We are not talking about literature, but the historical side. I honestly don’t understand why so many Alex Vause fans have never read this book. Maybe because they just love the fictional character, which in my opinion is a mistake. During the reading I spent all the time putting the character Alex Vause in those situations, and my friend, the montage I made in my head was really cool!
Now let’s go to the interview with Cleary Wolters at the time of the book’s release? I’m sure you will like it.
OITNB: INTERVIEW WITH REAL ALEX VAUSE
(Huffpost) “The story I have is that I’m not a bad person,” Wolters told The Huffington Post. “I’m not an evil drug lord or kingpin. I’m like so many other people.” Wolters recounted to us the first time she saw a commercial for “OITNB” — which Netflix has still never consulted or informed her about — what she hopes her story will reveal to readers and how Kerman’s book and the series helped her face many of the difficult experiences she’d blocked from her memory.
What was your experience like the first time you heard about the show?
Very bizarre. I think the most bizarre incident was seeing a commercial for it, that was really weird. That was the point at which I slipped into some weird parallel universe. In seeing Laura Prepon wearing my glasses and listening to the narration and knowing they’re talking about her lover, that that’s me.
Most people get hooked binge-watching a fictional series, but this is an adaptation of your life. What was it like watching it?
Right. The stuff [the show] did in prison was just really disturbing. I think I realized at that point I genuinely have a little PTSD from it. I knew I had it, but the surreality of it just made it more pronounced because who in the world gets so bothered by just images of women in prison? […] At first I didn’t know if I would actually like the show, but I had a morbid curiosity. Probably the same morbid curiosity that got me in trouble in the first place. So I kept watching.
Did you continue to watch through Season 2?
Oh, yeah. I watched the first season the minute it came out and the second the minute it came out.
Did it get harder to watch?
It got easier because it got further and further away from reality. The plot diverges so completely, especially in terms of my character. Then it just was entertainment.
Were you grateful that it diverged so much?
Yeah. I didn’t want to see a perfect adaptation of my actual life unfold in front of me. I don’t play front and center in [Piper’s] book at all, there’s barely a mention of me. So when Alex’s character does play front and center so much in the first season I was like, “Wow, okay. This is weird.” They’re creating this whole fictitious person based on me.
And the whole romance plot between Alex and Piper wasn’t real, right?
Right. No, Piper and I were done. We were friends.
Have you and Piper spoken recently?
I’ve spoken with Piper. We had breakfast together. She’s read my book. We’re on good terms. I don’t know what she thinks about the book yet, though.
At what point did you decide to write your memoir?
After the [Vanity Fair] article came out, I was approached by a literary agent. Somebody wanted to do my memoir, but they were unaware of the fact that I was actually a writer, so I said, “Well, I would love to do my memoir myself.”
You mention in it that you’d previously written a novel that’s a fictionalized account of your experiences.
I actually wrote three novels, a trilogy, in prison. Some of them I actually wrote on rolls of toilet paper. I have little sheets of toilet papers with chapters on them. I managed to write three 600-page novels.
Do you think you’d have written this had it not been for Piper’s book or the show?
No, I would not. I was not a non-fiction writer and I don’t think I was ready to look at my own story as closely as you have to do. One of the things that was really hard was being honest with myself and reliving some of those experiences. A lot of it I just blocked out of my mind. The only way I can actually convey to the reader the — I want you to be there, to feel it. I want you to know what that is like so you never go there and so you have more empathy for the people who do go there. We’ve got 800 percent more women in prison than we did in 1987, it’s all because of the drug wars. These women have kids and these kids are growing up without parents and these kids are going to end up in the system too. We can’t just put everyone in jail.
With regard to the show, did Netflix ever consult you?
No. I would be happy to, but I doubt that they will if they haven’t already. It almost feels like it’s an inconvenience that I’m an actual human being. Because they haven’t reached out. It surprises me that people in that production company are not sensitive to the fact that when you do use real-life characters, that even though it’s fiction, if you are a hit show that you are going to impact those real-life character’s lives. A head’s up would’ve been nice. But they must have had reasons not to, and I can’t imagine that those reasons are very altruistic. I would never have gotten in the way of their production, but then again I was so stubbornly under my rock [then] I might have thrown a fit. And really in the end, it was the greatest thing anyone’s done for me, to shove me out of that closet and get rid of my secrets.
What are you hoping for now that the book is out?
I would love it if I could be a writer and a technologist. That would make everything in my life suddenly make perfect sense, why I had to go through all of that. But to be a writer and to get to publish a book and have the opportunity to reach so many people is the coolest thing since Wonder Bread.
This interview had been edited and condensed.
MORE ABOUT ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK
- What Actress Danielle Brooks Think About Taystee On OITNB?
- I Got Addicted to Orange is the New Black in Season Five
- Orange is the New Black Season 1 Trivia. Did you Know This?
- After All, When Are We Going to See OITNB Together Again?
- How are the Orange is the New Black Actresses in Real Life?
OITNB: EXCELLENT CONTENT ABOUT REAL ALEX VAUSE
Vanity Fair did a great interview with Cleary in 2014. I’ll reproduce some excerpts here. You can read the entire article on this link.
Yet, according to Wolters, she and Kerman were only ever in the same prison facility for just five weeks—mostly during a brief stretch in a Chicago detention center in 2005. They were both in town to testify against a co-conspirator in their case, and their environs and mental conditions were not well suited to rekindling lost love. Shackled together on the Con Air flight there, Wolters says Kerman refused to even speak to her.
Wolters is clear on: the two women most certainly did not consummate a will-they-or-won’t-they narrative arc in a burst of prison-chapel passion, as the show has it. On the whole, Wolters says that the true story would be “so wretched and stinky, it would quite possibly result in a collapsed universe. So I guess it’s a good thing Piper and Jenji stick with the fun little tidbits.”
The tale of the real-life Kerman and Wolters begins in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1991. The pair became friends around the time the Boston-raised Kerman graduated from Smith College, but stuck around town. Both women ran in what Wolters calls “the same little Noho lesbian social circle.”
“I was not Piper’s first, and I certainly did not seduce her,” Wolters says, contrary to the show’s first episode meet-cute, which gives way to the fictional Piper’s dalliance as a cash mule.
Wolters and Kerman drank and went clubbing together. Kerman took care of Wolters’s cats when she traveled and shared in her tales of adventure, or served as a shoulder to cry on, when she returned. In her version, she and Kerman did not become romantically involved until after they had trafficked either heroin or money, for a network run by the alleged Nigerian drug kingpin Buruji Kashamu.
“When we were traveling together I started developing a crush on her. And eventually that turned into a crazy mad love affair,” Wolters says. “But that was after she had already done the deed that made her complicit.”
“We weren’t girlfriends,” Wolters adds for good measure. “We were friends with benefits . . . I was not the older sexy, glamorous lesbian who snatched her from her pristine Smith College cradle.”
Eventually, Kerman parted with Wolters, met a man named Larry, and got engaged. When the feds came knocking years later with charges related to her past cash smuggling, Kerman struck a plea. She spent 13 months in a Danbury, Connecticut, minimum-security prison beginning in 2004, an experience that formed the basis for Orange Is the New Black. Wolters, meanwhile, was charged with conspiracy to import heroin and served almost six years in a Dublin, California, prison before being paroled in 2008. She is working on a memoir of her own, titled Out of Orange. Wolters has also written three novels.
One of the first season’s major plot points concerns whether or not Vause snitched on Chapman. The state of the pair’s romance often hinges on whether Chapman thinks Vause was the informant who “named” her. In reality, Wolters says, everyone involved in the case talked.
“They had picked the first round of us up two years prior to Piper’s somewhat congenial visit from the feds,” Wolters says of the ring’s undoing. “So, yes, I named her, she named me, and we all named each other. Fact was, we all thought we were doing the right thing, confessing, getting protection, and saving ourselves from certain death at the hands of a Nigerian drug lord who we knew would soon find we had all been arrested.”
All told, Wolters says she’s done almost 20 years either in prison or on parole for her involvement in the ring. In fact, she only finished her last stint of supervised release on April 10, 2014. Whereas Kerman has blanketed the news promoting first her book, published in 2010, and now the show, Wolters has been on the sideline. She’s watched on as events inspired by her own life have become the subject of marathon binge-watches the world over.
When I reach her by way of some Googling and a Chicago Tribune update on the case, she says that I’m the first reporter she’s spoken to. Today, Wolters is thrilled to be free and dreams of life away from the confines of Ohio, where she has been on supervised release for five years, staying with her mother. (That her mother is still alive at all is another departure from the show’s narrative.) Wolters is a software test engineer by profession, and wonders if she may soon be walking the beaches of Provincetown, Massachusetts, or riding her car down Lombard Street in San Francisco. Most importantly, somewhere out there, she’s hoping to find love again. Perhaps she’ll seek out one of the “two wives” she had in prison.
“They were sexy,” she says. “One looked just like Jennifer Lawrence.”
Though she and Kerman may not have hooked up in prison, Wolters was by no means celibate.
“Usually what you would do was have sex in your jail rooms,” she explains. “You’d have sex anywhere you could: the tennis court, the outdoor squash court, or the rake pile. Anyplace! When the guards aren’t around all bets are off. Everyone goes to it!”
“They romanticize sex on the TV show,” she adds.
When I ask if she’s a fan of the show at all, Wolters offers a truly conflicted response. She says she and Kerman eventually made peace during their Chicago layover, and she sounds genuinely proud of Kerman’s decision to put her own story out there. “That takes balls the size of Oklahoma,” she says. But it is strange for her to see her own life, as she puts it, interpreted and abstracted by actors.
“This story isn’t about a fun ride through some old familiar haunt, giving me little glimpses and peeks of some fond old stomping ground,” she says. “Christ, it’s my nightmare, the one that wakes you gasping on your rubber legs that won’t run. . . . This stress is real, it is unrelenting. I’ve had a heart attack, a five-way bypass, been judged, humbled, and hobbled, but I made it.”
“I can’t help it. It’s a great show. The actors are incredible, the story line is interesting, and come on, who doesn’t want to see Donna from That ’70s Show have lesbian sex?”
In response, Piper Kerman says the following:
I’m glad Cleary is getting the chance to tell her story, because she is a charismatic and funny person. It should come as no surprise that we may have different points of view about the time we spent together. I think anyone would understand that my relationship with her was, and is, complicated. What I wrote about us in my book is true. If Cleary believes we were never girlfriends, that is startling news to me, though it’s certainly not the first time she has surprised me.
I was an out lesbian when I met Cleary, and dated many women before and after her (Larry Smith is the only guy I’ve ever considered a “boyfriend”). After my indictment for criminal conspiracy, I plead guilty to a lesser money-laundering charge and served 13 months of a 15-month sentence. Before pleading guilty, I received a copy of Cleary’s “proffer,” her official statement to the U.S. Attorney about her crimes—and in her proffer she implicated me for the crime I committed. When I plead guilty I was required to provide my own proffer—I could not possibly have described my crime without mentioning Cleary.
Although I did plead guilty and tried hard to take responsibility for my actions, there is no doubt that I held on to blame for Cleary. As I describe in my book, I did not speak to her on the flight from Oklahoma to Chicago, though we were seated together (not shackled together). We certainly did not have sex in prison, and that should be quite clear in my book. The relationship between the characters in the Netflix series, Piper Chapman and Alex Vause, is fictional. I did have the opportunity to make peace with Cleary in Chicago, to relinquish any sense of blame for her, and to work through my ideas and emotions about forgiveness and responsibility. Cleary did not force me to do anything, but rather made me seductive offers that I found very compelling back when I was 22 years old. I am exceptionally grateful that our odd chance meeting in Chicago happened, and I wish Cleary a very happy life moving forward.”
(Evil Jenji) I never get tired of saying that OUT OF ORANGE would be an excellent show too. It would serve very well as a spinoff for Orange is the New Black. My suggestion: Read on and think about this like me. Maybe Lionsgate and the Orange team will fill the orders.
Just remembering that my goal here is to facilitate reading and contextualization citing several reports. The stories are brilliantly written and will always have rights to this editorial content.
Unfortunately I am not always able to do my own interviews. Not everyone wants to keep talking about OITNB, and when they do, they prefer to talk to important and wide-ranging media companies, because their message will be read by more people.
But I’m sure that little by little, I’ll also do it. till next week!