Kate FitzGerald ’26
Catfishing: a person who assumes a false identity or personality on the internet, especially on social media websites, as to deceive, manipulate, or swindle. The new installment of the Untold documentary series on Netflix delves into the 2012 catfishing scandal involving young football star Manti Te’o, and it delves into how the Heisman Trophy finalist’s life came crashing down.
Te’o was born in Laie, Hawai’i, to a Samoan family. He shined on the football field and was heavily recruited to play at the collegiate level his senior year of high school. Te’o chose to continue his academic and football career at the University of Notre Dame, but he struggled with adjusting to the cultural and religious differences of living in South Bend, Indiana.
I knew nothing about Te’o before watching the documentary, but, not far into the documentary, you could see how hard Te’o worked to be the best he could be on the football field. He was genuinely adored by his family, friends, coaches, and teammates.
A Facebook friend request from Lennay Kekua turned Manti’s world upside down. What began as casual messages every once in a while, turned into daily texts and calls. Te’o was intrigued by her Polynesian look, while living in a place where no one looked like him. The more they talked, the more they found similarities in how they grew up, particularly related to their Samoan upbringings and the importance of faith in their lives. The catch about their relationship is that they never actually met in person, they had never even FaceTimed. The reason for this was that Lennay wasn’t actually a real person.
Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who now identifies as a transgender woman named Naya, was struggling with his gender identity and sexuality, and. to cope, they created the online persona “Lennay Kekua.”
Before watching the documentary, I thought that it would be hard to be catfished, but what was so interesting was to see how elaborate Tuiasosopo’s methods were in order to have Te’o believe “Lennay” was real. He used photos of a high school classmate for “Lennay’s” profile picture and would send Te’o voicemails where he would alter his voice to sound like a woman.
You can see that, as their relationship grew, Tuiasosopo developed feelings for Te’o but knew that he had to end things. In an attempt to end their relationship, Tuiasosopo, who posed as Kekua’s cousin, called Te’o to say that “Lennay” was in a car accident and was not doing well. Just a few months later, Te’o’s grandmother tragically died and, later that day, he also learned that “Lennay” lost her battle to leukemia.
The story got even crazier; Te’o received a call from “Lennay’s” supposed sister a few months after “Lennay’s” death, and the person on the other end of the phone said “It’s me, Lennay.” Te’o had no idea what to believe, his girlfriend who he thought was dead wasn’t actually dead. Te’o came to the conclusion that something was off, although, at that point, he didn’t know what to believe. But in early 2013, Deadspin published an article revealing the catfishing scandal and how Tuiasosopo manipulated Te’o into thinking he was “Lennay Kekua.”
It was hard to watch how the media dealt with the story. They ripped Te’o apart. People were questioning whether Te’o had a role in the hoax, how he could be so stupid to fall for it, some even questioning Te’o’s sexuality since the person he was in a relationship with was actually a man.
What Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist did best was showing both sides of the scandal. How sophisticated Tuiasosopo’s methods were and how “Lennay’s” profile made Te’o believe that she was a real person. It also showed Te’o’s perspective for why he was drawn to “Lennay” and that he really did believe he was in love with her. What I found most touching about Te’o’s perspective, looking back 10 years later, is that he forgives Naya for what she did. Despite all of the media scrutiny, the self-doubt, and anxiety, Te’o wishes Naya and her family all the best.
I would recommend Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist to any sports lovers, especially college football fans. The documentary also appeals to anyone who likes a good story, one with twists and turns. Even if you’re not a football fan, after watching this documentary you will definitely be a Manti Te’o fan.