Former Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o has heard all of the jokes, seen all of the memes, and (likely) cried all of the tears he could over being the first (and most famous) celebrity victim of catfishing. More than nine years after Deadspin exposed the truth about Te’o dating a woman who didn’t exist, the embattled and embarrassed former football prodigy is finally telling his side of the story in the new Netflix doc Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.
A scandal doesn’t captivate mainstream media for more than a news segment unless it involves someone of near-mythic levels of fame, which Te’o possessed between 2009-2012. The Netflix doc drives home the accomplishments— 2012 Heisman Award finalist, a five-star recruit, and the beloved son of Hawaii— and unwavering altruism that would ultimately lead to his downfall. By the time he entered the 2013 NFL Draft, he already had an online relationship with his fake girlfriend Lennay Kekua, told the world she had died (after finding out she had faked that too) and had every news outlet and comedian roasting him into oblivion. His sexuality was questioned after it was revealed the person behind the Lennay character was Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, and he lost out on millions of dollars in potential NFL salary after being drafted by the San Diego Charges in the second round following his first-round projections.
The hoax is both a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of blindly dating and a look into how internet culture has evolved into social norms. In the doc, Te’o explains his gullibility was partly because “in 2009, nobody knew anything about catfishing.” He contends he never heard the phrase burned into our collective online dating lexicon until Christmas 2012. That was when his uncle told him he might be getting catfished after Te’o told his family he received a phone call from his purportedly dead girlfriend. While Catfish, a documentary about a young engaging in a fraudulent online relationship, hit theaters in September 2010, it wasn’t until MTV’s reality TV show Catfish: The TV Show debuted in November 2012 that the phrase was ingrained in popular culture.
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Enough disparaging headlines and Saturday Night Live sketches convinced you that you know all there is to know about the fake girlfriend hoax that changed Te’o’s life. You might’ve even made a few invisible girlfriend memes yourself. But, this Netflix doc will show how Te’o’s predicament went deeper than Facebook messages.
How was Manti Te’o catfished?
From Te’o’s perspective in the doc, he first interacted with who he believed to be Lennay Kekua after receiving a random Facebook friend request during his freshman year. The connection started innocuously with Te’o sending her a simple “Hi, I’m Manti” message. But, what wasn’t reported when the hoax was first revealed that’s cleared up in the doc is he did what any sane person would do if a hot stranger hopped in their messages: Checked around for references. After Kekua told him she knew his cousin Shiloah, the star linebacker’s cousin confirmed he had exchanged random text messages and calls with the mysterious young woman. For the next two years, Te’o says their conversations were sporadic, debunking the belief he had a three-year relationship with someone he had never met.
One central point the doc makes saliently clear that wasn’t widely reported was how Te’o’s stardom precluded any chance at having a normal college life. To make matters even worse, the island boy from Hawaii struggled to feel at home in the frigid Midwest, where he went from a “very strong Church of Jesus Christ community to probably the most predominant Catholic institution in the world.” Te’o also shares in the doc that he was somewhat pathologically altruistic and fed off of feeling like he was helping Kekua after she informed him her dad wasn’t feeling well in 2011. Te’o’s connection deepened with Kekua after discovering she shared his Polynesian background and religious upbringing. While in Notre Dame, Kekua was one of the only people Te’o related to, a fact that made him primed for manipulation.
After the conversations became more passionate and frequent, Kekua used every catfish trick in the book to conceal their identity. First, Tuiasosopo, posing as Kekua, preyed on Te’o’s desire to help by posing as Kekua’s cousin and texting the college superstar his girlfriend was on life support after a car accident. Te’o remembers the con reaching cinematic levels when he would call her in the hospital and hear someone breathing through a mask as if they were really fighting for their life. Then, after Kekua told Te’o she miraculously recovered thanks to his daily talks while she was supposedly on life support, Te’o began pulling away from her because she insisted on not meeting until she felt comfortable. Then, the catfishing took a turn for the sinister.
On September 12, 2012, Te’o says he found out his grandmother passed at 6 A.M. that day, and hours later, learned Kekua had passed from Tuiasosopo acting as her brother. Tuiasosopo even called Te’o’s parents as Kekua’s brother to inform them of the grave news. The documentary doesn’t mention if Te’o did a cursory Google search of Kekua’s obituary or asked any of her purported family members he was connected with where his girlfriend would be buried. What is clear is that Te’o wasn’t catfished solely because of impressionability or stupidity (although there were a few teaspoons of each in this recipe for manipulation).
He was catfished because his magnanimity blinded him to duplicity, his struggles to adapt to living in a foreign culture made him thirst for someone who felt like home, and Tuiasosopo went to extreme lengths to create a fantasy that exploited all of that.
Is Lennay Kekua A Real Person?
Kekua does not exist outside of Tuiasosopo. One of the most enlightening parts of the doc is finding out that Tuiasosopo, a naturally born male, felt they wouldn’t be happy unless they lived as a female. Unfortunately, Tuiasosopo says they didn’t dare to act publicly on these feelings, and Kekua was simply a digital vessel for them to live out their true self free of shame and ridicule. The photos that Tuiasosopo used to trick Te’o and other unsuspecting men originated from one of their friends, Diane O’Meara, who was mortified once she learned the web of deception Tuiasosopo weaved thanks to her photos.
After Tuiasosopo became gossip fodder following their secret being revealed to the world, they embraced the woman they always wanted to be in public. Tuiasosopo is now a transgender woman referred to as Naya, and they appear in the documentary with feminine features and a softer voice. Through this ordeal, Tuiasosopo moved back to American Samoa and immersed themselves in the fa’afafine, a community that embraces people to identify and dress however they choose.
What happened to Manti Te’o?
Once the Deadspin article placed Te’o in an ignominious light, every NFL team passed on drafting him in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft. The doc shows how the conversation around Te’o at the time had little to do about his on-field prowess and more to do with sports analysts and scouts being concerned about his leadership skills now that everyone knows he was susceptible to being catfished. The San Diego Chargers drafted him late in the second round, but the aftereffects of his fake girlfriend hoax were far from over.
His first three years as a Charger were unremarkable. He racked up 204 total tackles in those three years, a far cry from the 374 tackles he accumulated in his last three years in college. In a moment of revelatory clarity featured in the doc, Te’o makes it clear he played his first three years in the NFL with his entire body feeling numb. He had no explanation for the debilitating sensation until he went to a therapist who made him realize he never forgave himself for his mistake.
One of the final insights Te’o gives us into his mental ordeal with the girlfriend hoax is his realization that his self-doubt on the football field stemmed from the self-confidence that powered his success being shattered by his scandal. Te’o was last signed with the Chicago Bears in January 2021 and did not play a game in the 2021-2022 season. Te’o is still searching for a team to play for, but after this doc, it’s clear he’s no longer seeking answers or acceptance now that his truth is out.
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