Manti Te’o reveals how he feels about the catfishing scandal in new Netflix doc
‘Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist’ is a 2-part documentary that revisits the Manti Te’o catfishing saga
“Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist” is a new documentary that revisits the Manti Te’o catfishing saga through the eyes of Te’o and the perpetrator.
Te’o, a Heisman Trophy candidate and star linebacker for Notre Dame, became the center of a media firestorm in 2013 when it was revealed that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua — who had purportedly died of leukemia — did not really exist and was actually the social media creation of Naya Tuiasosopo, who has since come out as a trans woman.
Nearly a decade after the bizarre incident that upended Te’o’s career, Te’o opens up about it all in the intimate two-part Netflix documentary.
What is ‘Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist’ about?
In “Untold,” Te’o walks viewers through his online relationship with Kekua, sharing how it started and evolved over time. He states that he was relatively unaware of the dangers of the internet at the time — although he does indicate that other friends and family confirmed Kekua’s existence to him through their own online interactions.
But Te’o’s suspicions finally arose in December 2012 — a few months after Kekua had supposedly died — when he received a call from Kekua/Naya, who for months had impersonated a female voice, claiming to still be alive. That’s when Te’o turned to a family member, who was a lawyer, for some guidance.
“My uncle immediately said, ‘I think you’re getting catfished,’” Te’o recalls in the documentary. “And that was the first time that somebody ever brought up the term ‘catfish.’ I didn’t know what catfishing was. Even when he explained what it was, I still couldn’t understand what that even entailed.”
In January 2013, Deadspin reporters Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey — who are also featured in the documentary — broke the news of the catfishing scandal, and Te’o, who had been built up by the media as a quintessential inspirational story, quickly became ripped apart in the public eye.
Ironically, Burke and Dickey state in “Untold” that their main objective in breaking the news was to reveal how major publications like Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and ESPN had all fallen for the hoax.
“The opportunity to make ESPN look stupid?” Dickey says. “That’s what we were there for!”
Who is the Manti Te’o catfisher?
“Untold” gives as much space to Tuiasosopo, sharing how she, like Te’o, had a strong background in faith, football and family but was struggling with her identity. Tuiasosopo reveals her mindset at the time of the scandal, and how she had come to develop strong feelings for Te’o, ultimately leading her to make the call to the football star informing him that Kekua was, in fact, still alive.
“I missed the relationship. I missed the conversations. I missed shooting that text and getting something back,” she said in the documentary. “Ultimately, a huge part of me just didn’t want to let go.”
While Tuiasosopo shares her regrets, she says the incident was a formative time in her life.
“I still feel horrible, and sometimes I wish that everything had been undone. But then also another part of me was like, I learned so much about who I am today and who I want to become because of the lessons I learned through the life of Lennay.”
How does Manti Te’o feel about the catfishing scandal today?
Near the end of “Untold,” Te’o reveals how his transition to the NFL in the aftermath of the catfishing scandal was riddled with anxiety. During his first preseason game with the San Diego Chargers, he said his entire body felt numb.
It would be like that for three seasons with the Chargers.
Every day he tried to get rid of the anxiety. He listened to motivational talks, watched old footage of his Notre Dame football days and tried to remember who he was before it all. But eventually, he ended up going to therapy, where he finally had his major breakthrough.
During one session, his therapist asked Te’o if he had forgiven Tuiasosopo. Te’o didn’t even hesitate in responding. He had been quick to forgive his perpetrator.
And then his therapist asked him a follow-up question: Had he forgiven himself?
“For you to go through what you went through, deep down inside you’re questioning yourself,’” Te’o recalled his therapist saying. “You have to forgive that kid. What happened to you is not your fault. It’s OK. Forgive that kid.”
Te’o and Tuiasosopo have not communicated since the catfishing scandal, but Te’o said he wishes Tuiasosopo well and has come to peace with it all. He said he chooses to remember the people who support him rather than focus on the ones who make fun of him, and he never wants to treat anyone the way he was treated.
“You’re gonna have hundreds and thousands and millions of people that tell you, ‘You ain’t worth nothing, man,’” he says near the end of the documentary. “But there’s gonna be the one that’s gonna say, ‘You’re worth the world to me,’ and I play for that person.
“I’ll take all the jokes, I’ll take all the memes, so I can be an inspiration to the one who needs me to be.”
What day and time does ‘Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist’ hit Netflix?
You can expect to find the two-part documentary on Netflix starting Aug. 16 at 1 a.m. MDT, according to Netflix Life. “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist” is rated MA for language.