Manti Te’o’s Catfishing Story Revisited in New Netflix Documentary
Deadspin blew the lid off the story, writing that Te’o was the victim of catfishing – using a social media account designed to lure someone into a relationship using a fake identity. The girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, was the social media creation of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who has since come out as a trans woman and goes by Naya Tuiasosopo.
Now, in a two-part Netflix documentary called “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist” that debuted on Tuesday, Te’o and Tuiasosopo explain how a story that started out so sweet took such a bizarre turn, making Te’o the butt of jokes and messy mainstream media such as Sports Illustrated, ESPN and The New York Times.
Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey broke the story on Deadspin, with a headline calling the story a hoax. “The opportunity to make ESPN look stupid?” Dickey said in the documentary. “That’s what we were here for.
Te’o went on to have a seven-year NFL career with the San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears despite domestic anxiety and jokes. To deal with this anxiety, he consulted a therapist, who advised him to forgive himself. In the documentary, Te’o said his therapist told him, “You have to forgive that kid. What happened to you is not your fault. Its good. Forgive this kid.
Te’o, now a 31-year-old NFL free agent, said he was happy with the support he had received.
“You’re going to have hundreds and thousands and millions of people saying to you, ‘You’re worth nothing, man,'” he said, “but there will be one who says, ‘You’re worth the world. for me,” and I’m playing for that person. I’ll take all the jokes, I’ll take all the memes, so I can be an inspiration to whoever needs me.
In September 2012, Te’o was a talented young player from a Honolulu family that emphasized faith and football. His breakout season at Notre Dame made him a national star with an inspiring story of how, in the space of six hours, he learned of the death of his grandmother and then Kekua.
Te’o led the Fighting Irish to a 20-3 loss to Michigan State that week. He appeared on ESPN’s “College GameDay” to talk about the letters he received from Kekua, and the South Bend Tribune described how the pair met after an away football game in Palo Alto, where Kekua attended Stanford.
Sports Illustrated described how the relationship escalated, with Te’o saying he met Kekua’s values. When she was supposedly hospitalized with leukemia, Te’o said she would answer his voice on the phone and he would stay on the line with her all night.
They mainly exchanged texts, calls and messages. But there was no record, according to Te’o’s family and friends in the documentary, that Kekua existed, let alone attended Stanford, and the story fell apart. They had met on social media, with Tuiasosopo using a photo of a woman from Facebook and sending a friend request to Te’o. Te’o said in the documentary that he verified it through mutual acquaintances and that catfishing wasn’t as well known back then.
Te’o’s explanation at the time was that he was in a modern relationship. “It’s incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over a long period of time I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online,” he said in a statement. “We maintained what I thought was a genuine relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I learned to care deeply about her.”
Tuiasosopo explains in the documentary that she created Kekua in part because she was “in pain” and struggling with her identity. “It was a black hole that consumed my life,” Tuiasosopo said. “I didn’t care who I hurt.”
Now Tuiasosopo still feels ‘awful’ and wishes ‘everything was undone. But also another part of me was like, I learned so much about who I am today and who I want to become from the lessons I learned throughout Lennay’s life.