A new Netflix documentary is once again shining a light on one of the most infamous hoaxes in recent American football history – the story of star player Manti Te’o and the catfish girlfriend.
Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist delves into the story of the Hawaiian-born Samoan college football star who started an online relationship with a young woman named Lennay Kekua – or so he thought.
In reality, Kekua was a fictional character and Facebook profile created by a person named Ronaiah Naya Tuiasosopo who, in 2009, sent a friend request to Te’o.
Tuiasosopo – who now identifies as a fa’afafine (transgender woman) – was struggling with her identity at the time and started the profile using the photos of an old classmate to chat to young men.
Over the next three or so years, Te’o communicated with who he thought was Kekua exclusively via Facebook messages, texts and phone calls – during which Tuiasosopo would speak in a woman’s voice.
Whenever they tried to video call each other, Tuiasosopo’s camera would remain turned off and she would make up an excuse about the internet connection or cellphone issues.
Excuses were also made whenever there were plans to meet in person.
The story only started to unravel dramatically in 2012 when Te’o, now a superstar Notre Dame linebacker, shared heartbreaking news that his girlfriend Lennay had died after a battle with leukaemia – just hours after the real death of his grandmother.
A few months later, however, sports blog website Deadspin broke the story that Lennay Kekua was a fake Facebook profile created by a young man – a fact Te’o would find out at the same time the world did.
In the documentary, released this week, Te’o talks about the mix of emotions that ensued as the story turned into a beast of its own.
Te’o was faced with questions about the validity of the story, how he could not have known he was talking to a male, his sexuality and whether he had been in on the hoax for attention and sympathy.
Speaking to the CBS Mornings show, Te’o said: “You find out a lot about yourself when the narrative is now negative – you really find out: ‘How much do I really weigh people’s opinions of me’?
“I didn’t realise how much I really cared about people’s opinions because prior to that, it was all positive.
“But then it turns negative and then you’re like: ‘Okay, who am I’?”
Te’o’s fall from grace was significant at the time; with the saga ultimately affecting his career when he missed out being a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
He slipped into the second round instead, but also lost millions of dollars as a result.
He told the show that it would be years later when he realised he needed to share the full story in order to fully heal from what had happened.
And it was at a Jay-Z concert where he was suddenly inspired.
‘In order for me to heal, I need to reveal it’ – Te’o
“At that concert, Jay-Z opens up with saying these words: ‘You cannot heal what you don’t reveal’. It may have been some random words for everybody, but for me at that time, it hit me like a tonne of bricks.
“In order for me to kind of heal from this, I need to reveal it.
“So I challenged myself at that time. If somebody asked about or had questions about it, I’d be open. I would have those hard conversations – and I started to feel the strength that I would get from talking about it.”
In 2020, US-based Tongan director Tony Vainuku met with Te’o and they started talking about his story.
Te’o said during those conversations, it was at one point when Vainuku said to him: “Bro – you’re ready. You’re ready to tell it. You need to tell it.”
The documentary has been met with a lot of praise and support for Te’o; particularly with the Pasifika and Samoan communities around the world and in New Zealand sharing their thoughts on social media.
Understanding the Pacific context within the story
Members of those communities have pointed out common themes that were most likely overlooked or undervalued by the public and mass media when the story broke almost a decade ago – and when the term catfish was not widely known.
Those themes include the fact both parties involved were born and raised in Samoan and Polynesian families; and who grew up in a culture that is big on faith and family, as well as expectation.
Both Te’o and Tuiasosopo speak about that family expectation and wanting to protect their respective families from criticism and embarrassment.
There were also issues Tuiasosopo was dealing with at the time – such as identity -which she openly speaks about in the documentary.
Today she lives in American Samoa and is well-known for her involvement as a makeup artist and traditional costume designer for beauty pageants in the Pasefika region. She also has a passion for siva (dance).
Te’o is a proud husband and father to a little girl, with another child on the way. He often shares about his faith with his fans online.
He told CBS that mental health had been a “huge thing” during that hard time and had a message of encouragement for others.
“If anybody is having those [battles], there’s somebody to talk to. If you don’t have anybody to talk to – I’m a faith-based guy – get on your knees and the Man is always listening to you.”
This content was originally published here.