Orange is the New Black is loosely based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, and while there is no Alex Vause in her account, there is a real life inspiration for the fan favorite character played by Laura Prepon. In the memoir she’s called Nora, but the real woman is 51-year-old Catherine Cleary Wolters, who spoke with Vanity Fair in April about being represented on the popular Netflix show. Even though the show has been a smash sensation, this was the first time a reporter reached out to her.
The major thing she wanted to make clear was that when she and the real Piper were in the same facility for a period of about 5 weeks, they did not have sex. They did, however, share a bit of intimacy when they were reunited. “Praying is about the most intimate thing two people can do in some places, not sex,” Wolters told Vanity Fair. “We made some mean dinners together, though, out of cans of cheese, corn chips, and chili, and Piper learned how to communicate effectively through a toilet—a little something you’ll never pick up at Smith.” They did not have a Hollywood-style affair like what was depicted on the show, though. She says the truth of what happened between them was “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 Piper on the show is a bit of a green risk-taker who gets wrapped up in the excitement of her attraction to Alex, and from there gets caught up in an international drug ring. In reality, Wolters says she was not Piper’s first female companion, and did not seduce her. She also says that they did not become romantically involved until after they got involved in a Nigerian drug trafficking operation. “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.” But even then, they were never “girlfriends,” according to Wolters, they were just friends with benefits.
There is an entire bit of plot in the first season centered on Piper finding out whether or not Alex snitched on her to the feds, but Wolters says that was a non issue because they all named each other out of fear of being found by the Nigerian drug lord. She says that their lives in danger, so snitching on everyone felt like saving each others lives.
When it came to describing what it was like to be a prisoner, she got a bit poetic. “We were ghosts of the humans we had once been, milling about amongst hundreds of other human ghosts, shackled and chained, prodded through transport centers at gunpoint, moved through holding facilities,” she explained.
Although she and Piper didn’t get it on in prison, she says she had lots of sex and even had two prison “wives” while locked away. One looked like Jennifer Lawrence. She also says that there was constant sex in prison, and that the ladies would get it on whenever and wherever they possible could.
As for the show itself, she watches it, but it seems to trigger something like PTSD in her. “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.”
Now Wolters is about to get her PhD in information technology, assurance, and security, and she’s working on her own version of what happened between her and Piper in a memoir to be title Out of Orange.
Piper was contacted by VF and responded to many of the things Wolters said. She confirms that she was an out lesbian when they met, and feels that they were indeed in a relationship. “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,” Piper said.
“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,” she continued. “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.”