Manti Te’o and ‘Catfish’: What’s the Connection to the Fake Girlfriend Scandal?

Getting "punk'd" is so 2003.

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Nev Schulman (left) cracks Catfish hoaxes in MTV docu-series Catfish

In 2003, you had to worry about getting “punk’d” by Ashton Kutcher. In 2013, you have to worry about getting “catfished.”

In their Deadspin article reporting that “Lennay Kekua”, the girlfriend of Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o, doesn’t seem to exist, journalists Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey wrote that a woman named Donna Tei reached out on Twitter to Yaniv “Nev” Schulman, executive producer of MTV’s Catfish, because her photos were being used by someone associated with Kekua. It seems that the Fighting Irish’s star linebacker may have been the victim of a “catfish” hoax.

(MORE: Manti Te’o: 6 Questions About The Fake Girlfriend That Has Football Reeling)

A “Catfish” refers to people who pretend to be someone they are not on social media, usually in pursuit of romance — so someone who has been “Catfished” is a victim of such a hoax. The term derives from the 2010 documentary Catfish, which tracked Schulman’s online romance with a woman named Megan, an “artist” and “dancer” and the sister of an 8-year-old aspiring artist named Abby who had reached out to Schulman online. Here’s the trailer for the film:

For months, Nev and Megan talked on Facebook and sent each other flirtatious text messages, but every time Nev tried to see Megan in person, she always backed out. At the end of documentary, directed by Henry Joost and Nev’s brother Ariel, Nev finds out that Abby and Megan are fictional characters conceived by a Michigan housewife named Angela Wesselman. Wesselman revealed to ABC’s 20/20 in an Oct. 8, 2010 interview that she is a diagnosed schizophrenic who created Abby because she got better feedback on her artwork when she posed as a highly talented 8-year-old than when she posed as herself. She created Megan so that Nev could fall for someone more “age-appropriate.”

When Catfish came out, people who had been similarly duped started writing Schulman and sharing their stories, he told the Associated Press. He decided to turn the stories into a docu-series, which premiered on MTV in November and has been renewed for a second season. In the show, Schulman talks to guests about their Internet sweethearts and then he goes and tries to find out if their fairytale romances are… well…just that. More often than not, he finds his guests have been “Catfished.”

(MORE: Four Years in the Life of Manti Te’o’s ‘Fake’ Relationship)

Why are there so many “Catfish” in the sea? It’s all about the thrill of the chase, Schulman told MTV in a Jul. 5 article:

“To think about the definition of ‘Catfish,’ it’s really anybody that is willing to take a risk, push the envelope, leave their comfort zone. The people who reach out to me are in many ways Catfish because they’re looking to take a chance, take a risk, and then there’s always a chance the other person we haven’t met could also be doing the same thing. [They] might not be being totally honest: We don’t know until we get there and we find out.”

And celebrities like Manti Te’o may find it comforting to talk to an outsider like Kekua, Schulman told MTV yesterday:

“It doesn’t really change anything for me that this victim is a high-profile football player. I think it can and obviously does happen to anyone…people, strangely, are more comfortable sharing information about themselves sometimes with strangers online, simply because it’s someone who is outside of their normal circle of friends, much in the same way you share things with a therapist…And, of course, 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.”

On Thursday, Schulman tweeted some reassurance to the Notre Dame football player:

MORE: A Hoax Discovered: ‘This Is Incredibly Embarrassing’

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