OITNB's Real-Life Alex Says She and Piper 'Weren't Girlfriends'

Illustration for article titled OITNB's Real-Life Alex Says She and Piper 'Weren't Girlfriends'

For Orange Is the New Black fans, the romance between Piper Chapman and Alex Vause is the crux of the show. But the real Alex Vause, named Catherine Cleary Wolters, says she and Piper Kerman weren’t even in a relationship.


Cleary Wolters spoke to Vanity Fair about her side of the hit Netflix series based on her and Kerman's lives. It turns out, among other things, that the two were only imprisoned at the same Chicago detention center for five weeks to testify against a co-conspirator and during that time they never had sex. Kerman wouldn’t even speak to her during their shackled Con Air flight together.

“We did not have sex in prison,” the 51-year-old ex-felon says of her relationship with Piper Kerman, on whose book the show is based. “Not even a little bit.”

More over, in Cleary Wolters eyes, Kerman wasn’t the good girl gone bad as actress Taylor Schilling plays her on the hit series nor was she Kerman’s first lesbian relationship. Also, Cleary Wolters points out that her mother isn’t dead, which in OITNB becomes the catalyst for her move into drug trafficking after meeting her bum rocker father and realizing she has no place else to turn.

Cleary Wolters went into drug trafficking with both eyes open and met Kerman in 1991 while hanging out in the “lesbian social circle” of Northampton, Massachusetts. When she’d make a drug run, Kerman would watch her cats and be a friendly ear upon her return. They didn’t hook up until Kerman joined the import-export ring and the pair began to travel together.

“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. … “When we were traveling together I started developing a crush on her. And eventually that turned into a crazy mad love affair, but that was after she had already done the deed that made her complicit.”

She clarifies that they “weren’t girlfriends” but rather “friends with benefits.” She admits that she wasn’t the “older sexy, glamorous lesbian who snatched her from her pristine Smith College cradle,” as actress Laura Prepon plays her. Instead she had a couple of wives behind bars, including one who looked like Jennifer Lawrence, with which she kept a healthy sex life.

“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.”


However, Kerman did break up with her — end their homieloverfriendship? — and become engaged to a dude named Larry, in keeping with OITNB. Then the feds arrested her for charges in connection to cash smuggling and she did strike a deal that dealt her 13 months in Danbury, Connecticut’s minimum security prison in 2004.

As for Cleary Wolters, she was charged with conspiracy to import heroin and spent six years in a Dublin, California prison, earning parole in 2008. She admits that she gave up Kerman, but says Kerman also gave her up to the feds. In fact, everyone in their drug ring was trying to be as accommodating as possible to escape from their fearsome boss who the authorities were really after.

“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.”


Overall Cleary Wolters is rebuilding her life and on the verge of getting her Phd in information technology, assurance, and security. She says she’s watched and enjoyed OITNB, but what is entertainment for us is a look back to hell on earth for her. Still, she says, “who doesn’t want to see Donna from That ’70s Show have lesbian sex?”

In keeping with journalistic responsibility and dramatic flair, Vanity Fair requested a response from Kerman, who said that it was “startling news” to learn that she and Cleary Wolter were never in a relationship. Romance is complicated but she was an out lesbian when she met Cleary Wolter and Larry was her only boyfriend. She admitted that she gave up Cleary Wolter to the feds and the two didn’t have sex behind bars. But as an OITNB creator, she jazzed up their relationship for the screen. Cleary Wolters didn’t force her into drug trafficking, she said she did it because she was 22 and wanted to. Now, she wishes Cleary Wolters the best, and Cleary Wolters wishes her the same.


Ps. People who have been in prison, jail or worked in the system, what does this statement mean? Help me understand: “Piper learned how to communicate effectively through a toilet—a little something you’ll never pick up at Smith,” Wolters says.

Image via OITNB Facebook.


I haven't read the VF article yet but I'm unclear - is Cleary Wolters responding to OITNB the show or the book? Obviously the show is going to take liberties with the characterization and the narrative, so if she's mad about that, I'm not super-impressed.

If she's disputing the book, then maybe there's a conversation there.