Meet Catherine Wolters, The Real-Life Alex Vause From “Orange Is The New Black”

If you read Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange Is The New Black or binge-watched the Netflix adaptation (and who hasn’t done that?), chances are you have wondered about the real-life woman behind Nora (in the book) and Alex Vause (the character in the show). For the first time ever, 51-year-old novelist and PhD student Catherine Cleary Wolters has spoken to Vanity Fair about her relationship with Kerman, their mutually-assured-destruction as cash smugglers for an African drug lord, and her side of their love story.

In both the book and on the Netflix series, Nora/Alex Vause is Kerman’s former girlfriend, whom she met in Northampton, Massachusetts, after graduating from Smith College. Nora/Alex Vause is already involved in a cash smuggling ring for a scary Nigerian drug trafficker and Piper eventually gets involved as well, lured by the money but also out of boredom. Eventually the couple breaks up (and Piper ends up with a journalist named Larry); Piper and Nora/Alex Vause only see each other again many years later when they both get busted by the feds for their involvement in the drug ring. In a shitty twist of fate, they end up in prison together.

In the book, Piper’s relationship with Nora is angry and fractured; the TV show soaps up the relationship, portraying Piper and Alex Vause  as on-again/off-again lovers who are constantly hooking up with each other in prison when they can steal away a few moments away, unsupervised by guards.

But to hear Wolters’ side of the story, neither portrayal is accurate. In real life, Wolters told Vanity Fair, she and Piper “weren’t girlfriends … we were friends with benefits” and that she actually had two “wives” in prison, but Piper wasn’t one of them. She also admits to ratting out Piper to the feds, but claims Piper ratted her out, too. She also said they only spent five weeks together in prison and their time there was more “wretched and stinky” than romantic.

All that being said, Vanity Fair’s profile of Wolters is worded very carefully; it’s clear that the journalist doesn’t entirely believe everything that Wolters told her. A long-form comment from Piper Kerman tacked at the end of the piece casts further doubt on some of what Wolters has said — namely,  that they were girlfriends and only Wolters ratted her out, not vice versa. Wrote Piper, “What I wrote about us in my book is true. If [she] believes we were never girlfriends, that is startling news to me, though it’s certainly not the first time she has surprised me.”

In any case, Wolters is happy for her ex-girlfriend/lover/whatever’s success and thinks “OITNB” is “a great show.” However, she is penning her own memoir, Out Of Orange, about her experiences in prison, so stay tuned for what might be Orange Is The New Black 2.0.

[Vanity Fair]

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[Photo credit: Claudia Susana for Vanity Fair.]