On Wednesday (January 16), sports site Deadspin set the Internet ablaze (and turned the sports world on its ear) when it published a report that debunked the story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's former girlfriend, whose supposed death — and the performance it inspired from the all-everything athlete — made national headlines earlier this year.
As it turns out, Te'o's girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never existed, despite the fact that the two exchanged countless messages over the Internet, reportedly spoke for hours on the telephone (a Sports Illustrated story recounts how T'eo would stay on the line with her for hours as she slept in a California hospital bed, where she was undergoing treatments to combat leukemia) and supposedly even met. The Deadspin report surmises that Kekua's entire persona — including a Twitter account and several online images — were actually created by a man who several sources identified as being close with Te'o, leaving some to wonder if the two were somehow using the supposed relationship to cook up publicity for the Notre Dame star's burgeoning Heisman campaign.
Since the report first broke, T'eo has released a statement claiming he was "the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke," and Notre Dame has been in contact with "the proper authorities" to investigate "a very cruel deception."
As the story develops, it's difficult to ignore a growing chorus of online commenters (and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick) who surmised, simply, that Te'o got "Catfished." So MTV News spoke to Nev Schulman, the star of MTV's "Catfish" series, which premiered in November, to get his take on the situation. Though some might wonder just how a star athlete could end up being duped to this degree, well, Schulman will be the first to tell you that it's a lot easier than you'd imagine.
"My reaction is, quite frankly, no different from my reaction on the show. It doesn't really change anything for me that this victim is a high-profile football player. I think it can and obviously does happen to anyone," Schulman said. "When you make a connection with someone online, oftentimes it feels a little limited, but also safe. And people, strangely, are more comfortable sharing information about themselves sometimes with strangers online, simply because it's someone who is outside of their normal circle of friends, much in the same way you share things with a therapist. People get very close with these online friends.
"I very much got sucked into a relationship — it wasn't my intention, but it happened to me — and it happens slowly over time," he continued. "And, of course, when you read an article all at once where it reveals all these stories and all these details, it seems crazy, but in the process of it, as it happens very slowly, things don't seem so crazy. And then, of course, when you look at it all in one snapshot, it does sort of seem kind of unbelievable."
In fact, Schulman's own story has many similarities to Te'o's: He spoke several times with the woman who tricked him in the original "Catfish" documentary, Angela — who was masquerading as a musician named Megan — and found himself sharing intimate details with the woman he thought he was falling in love with ("Talking on the phone, people can get very open and intimate," he said. "It creates an incredible sense of intimacy to have shared time with somebody"). And, as he's shown on several episodes of "Catfish," sometimes the hoax can even be perpetrated by someone very close to the victim.
"We've seen in a couple cases [on the MTV show] that it's been someone close — in the Joe and Rose episode and the Jasmine and Mhissy episode — but oftentimes, these relationships start unintentionally," he said. "Someone is trying to explore the idea of being somebody else, or maybe playing with the idea of exploring their sexuality via profiles of the opposite sex, and they might show up on someone's friend suggestions or maybe see someone's profile that they think is beautiful and add them as friends, and the intention is to start a conversation, but you can't anticipate the reaction of the other person."
In the Deadspin article, reporters Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey write that a woman named Donna Tei reached out to Schulman after she discovered someone involved with Kekua was using her pictures, a fact Schulman confirmed to MTV News.
"Someone tweeted at me, because she was trying to get ahold of me to help her with something related to her image being used in some kind of 'Catfish' hoax," he said. And, having just heard of the story, I went into my 'Catfish' email account, and I have an email from this said person from December that I had not seen, where she does ask for help in regards to someone who was using her picture to create a fake profile. So there's definitely a connection, and this person obviously knows of me and the show and was making an effort to somehow get to the bottom of this."
While he wouldn't make any judgments about Te'o's hoax claims, Schulman did say that the athlete's statement — in which he said he was hurt and embarrassed by the situation — hit close to home. And he said that he hopes all the attention the story was getting would help inspire conversation about what is quickly becoming a commonplace (if not slightly troubling) phenomenon.
"It's very embarrassing, of course. No one likes to admit that they got scammed or duped, especially when you retell the story in an abbreviated version. It generally sounds sort of ridiculous that you fell for it," Shulman said. "It's hard to understand what people go through unless you're there with them, much like my story. So I imagine he's embarrassed, I imagine he's still going over the events that took place over the course of his relationship and sort of putting the pieces of the puzzle together [and realizing] that all of this wasn't true, and he's probably feeling even more and more embarrassed because of that.
"I guess I hope that, since this is a national story, it will hopefully shed some more light and really spark a lot more conversations about what clearly me and ['Catfish' co-star] Max [Joseph] already know is a very real, very serious phenomenon that's taking place," he concluded, "Because, clearly we can see from this example that this is just the beginning."
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