Whilst the Tinder Swindler offered unparalleled insight into the extent scammers will go to deceive their victims, Netflix’s latest documentary demonstrates the fallout for those whose lives are turned upside down and catfished by fraudsters. ‘Untold: the girlfriend who didn’t exist’ tells the story of Manti Te’o, a former NFL player, who was catfished long before the smash hit TV series aired and before the term catfish had entered the mainstream media. Targeted online, his world – and career – were turned upside down in this elaborate hoax.
Young, and focused on American football, Manti wasn’t looking for love when he was befriended on Facebook by “Lennay Kekua”. Sadly, the same is true for countless other people from across the world who fall victim to both friendship scams and romance scams, when the friendship develops into something more. Demonstrating how the scam unfolded, as well as the emotional, financial and career repercussions for Manti, the latest Netflix documentary offers an empathetic look at Manti, and indeed all scam victims, who do nothing to warrant and certainly don’t deserve the devastation caused by catfishes.
So who is Manti Te’o?
Manti Malietau Louis Te’o, aged 31, is an American footballer. The Samoan-Hawaiian linebacker enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame when he played college football for Notre Dame. He was known as a star on the field and a devout Mormon, a good student and an excellent role model even off the field. Tragically, in 2012, he received the devastating news that both his grandmother and his girlfriend had died within days of each other. Heartbroken, he continued to play vital matches for Notre Dame, gaining an outpouring of public sympathy and winning the affection of sports fans nationwide. Finishing the season undefeated, Manti was a candidate for the prestigious Heisman trophy, which recognises a player “whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity”. A rising star, the much-loved athlete seemed destined for greatness, until the news broke that his deceased girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, didn’t actually exist.
How was he catfished?
Manti Te’o was contacted by “Lennay Kekua” on Facebook. This was an online relationship and they had never actually met in person. They built up a rapport that was founded on their shared culture and faith. Far from home, this resonated with Manti as both formed a key part of his Samoan identity. As a hard-working and focused athlete, he had no reason to distrust the person who had befriended him online. However, it turned out that he’d actually been corresponding with Ronaiah “Naya” Tuiasosopo, who had created the fake profile to form relationships under another identity. The relationship ended when Naya, unable to keep up with the hoax, told Manti, via supposed family members, that “Lennay” had died.
How was the Manti Te’o catfish scandal uncovered?
Sports website, Deadspin, broke the news that “Lennay Kekua” had never actually existed. Incredulous, that a well-known footballer could fall for a romance scam, sports pundits speculated that Manti was in on the hoax as a means to gain national attention. An alternative view, laced with homophobia, saw sports writers speculate about his sexuality, with one commenting on national TV, “Teams want to know whether or not Manti Te’o is gay. They just want to know.” Other news and sports reports were skewed with racism, describing the events as a “weird Polynesian plot to embarrass” Manti. Through no fault of his own, he became a global joke, with multiple memes doing the rounds. Forbes magazine even named him ‘The Most Disliked Athlete of 2013’, alongside Lance Armstrong who had recently been charged with doping by the USADA.
What effect did it have on his career?
Manti’s world was turned upside down. He went from gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated to being ridiculed on Saturday Night Live. Previously, a dead cert for a first draft pick, clubs reportedly wanted to distance themselves from the drama, a decision which likely cost him millions of pounds in salary and sponsorships. He was eventually picked by the San Diego Chargers, in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft, and played in the NFL until 2021. However, the public humiliation had a profound effect on him, including his sporting performance, which is documented in the show. He’s since gone on to play for several other NFL teams including the New Orleans Saints and the Chicago Bears but is currently a free agent.
What is Manti Te’o doing now?
Manti leads a quiet life, away from the limelight, with his family. Having recovered from the public catfishing, he went on to marry Jovi Nicole Engbino. Together, they have a daughter and a son on the way. Workwise, he recently joined Transcend, a telehealth provider that works with athletes. His net worth is believed to be around $3.5 million, according to Celebrity Net Worth.
What is Ronaiah Tuiasosopo doing now?
Ronaiah Tuiasosopo came out as transgender and is now called Naya. Given the media attention that the hoax received, and the subsequent documentary that she contributed to, Naya keeps a low profile. She lives in Carson, California, where she also works. Participating in the Netflix show, she discusses inventing “Lennay” at a time of deep confusion about her own identity. In the show she expresses remorse for her actions and the impact it had on Manti who concludes the documentary by expressing forgiveness.
Commenting on the show, Paul Hampson, an owner and director at CEL Solicitors which specialises in fraud and scam claims, said: “Manti Te’o had the world at his feet when he was targeted by a catfish in a scandal that shook the sporting world. Like many victims of romance scams, he expressed trauma and shame at having been duped, but unlike most, he had to go through this publicly. Incredulous at how a sports star could fall for a scam, Manti was accused of being complicit, victim-blamed and bullied by both the media and the public. Like many scams, this took both a psychological and financial toll, which he’s laid bare in this hard-hitting documentary. I applaud Manti for sharing his story, which shows scams really can and do, happen to anyone. He’s shown tremendous courage, which will hopefully give hope to others who’ve gone through the same thing. He is proof there is light at the end of the tunnel.”