During my true crime content binges, it’s not unusual for me to go into rabbit holes. For weeks at a time, I would be obsessed with a particular offshoot. It could be crypto fraud, art world cons, or catfishes. Just before this Netflix documentary dropped, I was consumed by YouTube compilations of MTV Catfish. No shame. I couldn’t get enough of it.
What I noticed was that, more often than not, catfishing incidents are regarded with humor—if not humiliation. They’re considered bizarre and outrageous, and rightfully so. It seems that content made about them are, first and foremost, meant to intrigue and entertain. One might suppose there’s no need to go deeper than that. No need to humanize the characters involved. Being catfished, after all, is so ridiculous and so impossible. Well, that is until it happens to you.
Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist is a two-part Netflix documentary directed by Ryan Duffy and Tony Vainuku that revisits the 2012 high-profile catfishing case of native Hawaiian footballer Manti Te’o. The story of the promising linebacker who was tricked into a fake relationship, the shocking details of which unraveled in mainstream media, sent shockwaves through the world of sports and beyond.
You may have heard of Te’o’s story back then, but for the uninitiated, here’s some background. At the time, Te’o was a rising football star. He played linebacker for Notre Dame and was set for a professional NFL career. All was going well for the young athlete until tragedy struck on September 11, when both his grandmother, Annette Santiago, and girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, tragically passed away. Driven by his grief, Te’o went on to lead his team to victory. It was, after all, what his late girlfriend would have wanted: for him to keep playing and to honor her that way. This inspirational story, unsurprisingly, captured the attention of the media and fans of the sport.
But not long after, this poignant narrative took a very strange turn. In an exposé article on Deadspin, reporters Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey wrote that Te’o and Kekua’s love story was a hoax. Their investigation led them to believe that Kekua did not exist, and that it was most likely a person Te’o knew who was behind the elaborate scheme—Naya Tuiasosopo (the name she goes by now as a transgender woman).
As you can imagine, the whole matter snowballed into international prominence. As more and more details emerged—like how Te’o and Kekua never met in person, how Kekua’s supposed pictures were stolen from an unsuspecting woman, how Tuiasosopo had to fake a car accident and leukemia to end the sham relationship—Te’o’s life was turned upside down. His once bright future in football turned blurry. Worse, he became a laughing stock and a target of memes and parodies. Some even suggested he was in on it and wanted the publicity. To spectators, the whole affair seemed unreal. But Te’o’s heartbreak and humiliation were anything but.
In contrast to 2012, Untold’s retelling employs a more compassionate approach. It lends an empathetic lens with which to view the events, something that was lacking back when the story first broke. Both Te’o and Tuiasosopo are interviewed in the documentary, and it’s honestly heartwarming to see Te’o have the platform to speak his truth without fear of ridicule. You can tell he has matured much after a decade. He is confident and his storytelling is heartfelt, as if he had been waiting for this moment to be heard. In the end, he has nothing but kind words to speak, even to the persons who doubted and maligned him. It’s a testament to the fine man he has become despite his traumatic ordeal.
As for Tuiasosopo, we hear her admission and we can see the stark difference between her past and present selves: young and naive and feeling trapped versus free and living an authentic life. Overall, I think the documentary treats her with much compassion, although this might be a point of contention for viewers who would want to see more accountability from her. I myself wanted to know more about the technicalities of this case. I wanted to know what she did to atone for her mistakes. Were there any repercussions at all for her actions? Or at least, I hoped the documentary would give insight into the psychology of catfishing. Granted, it’s a huge topic to tackle, but it would have added more substance to the discussion and, in a way, further vindicate Te’o after all these years.
Lastly, I think the documentary, like many other documentaries that revisit scandals and crimes, illustrates a familiar cycle: how vicious the media and online community can be, how they can break someone down with their carelessness, and how, by the time they’re ready to open their minds about the issue, it is way too late and irreparable damage has been done.