It's the story that has us all talking and the most high-profile Catfishing yet. The once-tragic tale of Manti Te'o's late girlfriend has been replaced with a twisting-and-turning mystery that has us wondering who is telling the truth.
It all started with the heartwarming and seemingly inspirational story of Notre Dame linebacker Te'o, a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, who played his heart out for his team in the midst of a personal crisis, dealing with the sudden deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend. Much media attention was paid to the loss of his loved ones, particularly his ailing girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, whom Te'o said made him promise to play with his team no matter what might happen to her.
All those heartfelt and sympathetic sentiments for the potential NFL draft pick went out the window when it was discovered that Kekua never existed. The hoax is a highly elaborate Catfishing — which is saying a lot, given the complex and incredible stories explored on MTV's "Catfish: The TV show" since its November premiere.
T'eo himself denied being complicit in the hoax in an audio interview with ESPN late on Friday. "When (people) hear the facts, they'll know," he said. "They'll know that there is no way that I could be part of this." He did, however, admit that he had "tailored" his story so that people would believe he had actually met Kekua.
MTV News recently caught up with former Catfish Chelsea Browning, whose story was featured on the very first episode, to better understand how the Te'o hoax might have come to pass. Browning has a unique perspective to offer on the subject, because she once posed as a male model and engaged in an online romance with an unsuspecting and trusting young woman named Sunny; in Te'o's case, the alleged Catfish was a man purporting to be a 22-year-old woman.
"I think it's one of the craziest Catfish stories I've heard in my entire life by far," Browning said. "I really don't know how I feel about it."
Because of Browning's experience maintaining a false online identity, she, more than anyone, might know what motivates someone to take on a false persona to begin with and how difficult that identity is to maintain.
"I created my fake profile because I was bullied and I wanted revenge," she admitted. "Everyone does certain things for their own personal reasons, including myself."
No matter the motivation, maintaining a false identity requires a lot of work and careful attention to detail. In other words, there is a lot of pre-meditation involved.
"First of all, you really have to know what you're doing; you have to remember everyone you talk to, what you say to that person, the way you act toward that person," she explained. "Definitely I would, for sure, say that it's very hard to maintain. You have to really remember everything that happens in your story."
Luckily for Browning, her experience on "Catfish" was a positive one — she's even become an anti-bullying advocate since her time on the show — and she encourages any current or recovering Catfish out there to find the courage to come clean about their true identities.
"My situation came out to be very positive. I came clean with Sunny, and that completely changed my life," she said. "For the people who don't know who they're talking to online, I feel like it will make them aware of what's going on in the world and that this happens all the time. For the people who know that they are Catfishing someone else, honestly, in my opinion, I don't think they will stop. This is ... a kind of validation."
Browning said whenever she receives email from people who are actively deceiving others, she urges them to tell the truth, no matter what.
"They might take it hard, but it's different for everyone. We all react differently," she said. "But I absolutely tell them it's better to come clean."