How could anyone possibly be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t exist? And—perhaps even more unfathomable—how could anyone possibly pretend to be someone else in order to fool said person into a relationship with a person who doesn’t exist? And why?
Those are the questions that are bound to run through the minds of many onlookers later today, when the interview is finally broadcast in which Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o speaks to Katie Couric about the fake-dead-girlfriend scandal that has captured media imagination this month. Te’o was involved in an online relationship with Lennay Kekua, a woman who he told the public had died of leukemia but who, Deadspin discovered, never really existed. At this point we still don’t know for sure what Te’o knew and when—Te’o has said that he was the victim of a hoax, which he says was masterminded by a man named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, and that he only lied to save face—but one thing is clear: no matter how outlandish the story sounds, Te’o’s not the only person who has been involved in such a relationship and “Lennay Kekua” is not the only fake girlfriend out there.
There’s even a word for fake girls like Lennay: “catfish.” The term comes from a parable in which catfish were mixed in with cod to force the fish to swim around during shipping, to keep the latter from getting mushy; people who are catfish keep others from getting complacent. (According to Slate, the parable is unlikely to have ever been based on true seafood-market practices.)
Perhaps the best known case, prior to Te’o’s, was the situation that made that nomenclature famous. It was documented in the 2010 movie Catfish, a film that followed a young photographer, Nev Schulman, as he discovered the true identity of an online love interest whom he had never met in person. (No spoilers here…but you can probably guess.) The movie struck a chord and the filmmakers were able to find subjects for a whole season’s worth of MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show with the same premise: a person who has never met his or her significant other finally meets the person behind the screenname…if that person exists. The first season is currently airing; a second season has been picked up. Given the proliferation of online dating, it’s not too hard to imagine why the show would have scored with cable-TV viewers aged 12-34, among whom Catfish has several times been the top-rated Monday series. “Catfish: The TV Show has truly captured the zeitgeist of the digital dating age,” Dave Sirulnick, MTV’s multiplatform executive VP, said in a statement.
Schulman has told MTV that he could understand what might have happened on Te’o’s end. The speed at which something moves in real life, for example, makes it easier to trust someone who embodies a false identity over a long period of time: “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,” he said. Schulman confirmed that, as mentioned in the Deadspin exposé, a woman who was involved in the Te’o hoax—someone was using her real pictures to make a fake profile—did contact him about Catfish, but he didn’t see the email until after the Te’o story broke. Schulman also told Forbes that, in the week after the news made headlines, he got more than 2,000 emails from people wondering if their online boyfriends or girlfriends were real or not.
But compared to understanding why someone would fall for a fake profile, it can be more difficult to understand why somebody would make one. We can’t know what was going through the mind of “Lennay Kekua”—and none of the Catfish hoaxees were in the public spotlight like Te’o, which would certainly make another type of incentive possible—but we combed through every episode of Catfish: The TV Show that has aired so far, and here are a few clues as to why someone would mislead another into a long-distance romance with a fantasy. Warning: spoilers for the TV show ahead.
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