Saturday, October 1

A football player’s fake dead girlfriend offers a cautionary tale for online relationships

YoIn 2009, when college football star Manti Te’o accepted a Facebook friend request from an attractive young woman apparently named Lennay Kekua, the term “catfishing” had not yet been coined. It wasn’t until 2010, after the release of indie documentary cat fish, that the practice of using a fake social media profile to lure an unsuspecting subject into an online relationship was given a name. By the time Te’o first heard the phrase, in January 2013, it was too late. He was already the most infamous catfishing victim in America.

Te’o’s tumultuous, heart-wrenching tale is the subject of The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, the first installation of the second season of the Netflix documentary series Untold. The athlete originally shot to nationwide fame in America as a superstar linebacker for college team Notre Dame, in part thanks to his emotional backstory: on 11 September 2012, in the run-up to some of his team’s most crucial fixtures, both his grandmother and girlfriend died on the same day. The following January, sports website deadspin reported that in fact the girlfriend had never existed. In an instant, Te’o was transformed from a sporting hero to a figure of widespread ridicule. In truth, as The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist makes plain, the young athlete had only ever acted compassionately, if naively, and had done nothing to deserve such mockery.

In extensive interviews with directors Ryan Duffy and Tony Vainuku, Te’o recounts his upbringing in Hawaii and the promising life he built for himself around the three tenets of family, football and his Mormon faith. After winning a prestigious football scholarship, he experiences the culture shock of moving from an island paradise to the chilly winters of South Bend, Indiana. Soon he becomes the star player for a resurgent Notre Dame team. As a British viewer, it’s always astounding to be reminded quite how seriously Americans take college football: 80,000 fans turn out to see Te’o make his debut. It’s only a little surprising to his team-mates when Te’o, away from his home and laser-focused on his athletic career, starts up a long-distance relationship with a Polynesian girl who connected with him via Facebook.

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Unbeknownst to Te’o, the girl wasn’t real. Lennay Kekua was a fiction, created by a person Te’o had never met. Naya Tuiasosopo made Lennay seem real using photographs of a casual acquaintance, a string of related Facebook profiles and a talent for performing multiple voices over the phone. In the years since Lennay was exposed as a hoax, Tuiasosopo has come out as transgender, and in her own interviews with Duffy and Vainuku says that it was her struggles with identity, rather than anything more nefarious, that inspired the creation of the Lennay Kekua account.

Many have mocked Te’o for his apparent gullibility in falling for Tuiasosopo’s ruse, and for becoming so emotionally invested in a person he’d never physically met. In truth, he’s far from the only one to have believed an online relationship was more than it really was. original cat fish documentary was spun off into an MTV television series now in its eighth season, with no apparent shortage of stories to fill its episodes. There have been other high-profile cases too. In 2012, the English theoretical physicist Paul Frampton was arrested at the airport in Buenos Aires after checking in a bag with two kilograms of cocaine hidden in the lining. It turned out he’d been lured to the country by online scammers using photographs of a bikini model. Even esteemed professors of physics can fall for a catfish.

One major difference between Te’o’s case and Frampton’s is that Frampton’s scammers set out to deliberately and purposefully take advantage of him for their own financial benefit. Ace The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist shows, Tuiasosopo had no such end in mind. She started talking to Te’o because she was looking for a friend, and she found a genuine one in the sweet and sensitive football player. It remains, however, a darkly cautionary tale. Regardless of either of their intentions, when the truth came out it detonated Te’o’s life from him and upended his prospects from him. Prior to the revelations, Te’o had seemed to be destined to become a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. After the story broke and immersed him in scandal, he ended up in the less prestigious, less well-paid second-round. While he went on to spend seven years in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears, Te’o never quite reached the heights that had once been predicted for him.

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When the bomb that ripped through his reality went off, Te’o was still only 21. At the conclusion of The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, the warm and humble athlete says he’s forgiven Tuiasosopo, and that he’s learned to forgive himself too. It’s an inspiring sentiment, and provides further evidence that after the dust settled Manti Te’o remained what he’d first appeared to be: an all-American hero.

‘Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist’ is streaming on Netflix now

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