Two sporting scandals dominated the American news cycle at the start of 2013: the disgrace of Lance Armstrong and the humiliation of college footballer Manti Te’o. But if Armstrong’s belated confession that he doped to win all seven of his Tour de France titles told a story about the rotten heart of American success that felt, four decades after Watergate, somehow traditional, the Te’o affair seemed to offer a warning about the dangers of the internet at a time when techno-optimism was still all the rage – before bot accounts, misinformation, and online harassment became features of everyday life. According to a new two-part documentary about Te’o’s ordeal, however, premiering this Tuesday on Netflix, the scandal needs to be understood as more than the simple tale of catfishing as which it’s often presented. As it’s framed in The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, the romantic hoax at the heart of Te’o’s national humiliation was about much deeper and more interesting questions of identity, faith and belonging – for minorities in particular – in early 21st century America.
Almost a decade after the story became meme-fodder, the basic outline of the Te’o scandal is still fairly common knowledge: Te’o, a star Samoan-Hawaiian linebacker at Notre Dame, claimed that his grandmother and girlfriend had died on the same day in December 2012. An outpouring of national sympathy fired Te’o to new heights of excellence on the field, Notre Dame finished the regular season undefeated, and Te’o seemed destined to become a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. There was only one problem, though, and in January 2013 that problem became international news: Te’o’s girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, was not real. In fact, Kekua, who purported to be a student at Stanford and with whom Te’o had pursued a purely online relationship, was the Facebook creation of a young man – also, like Te’o, of Samoan ancestry – from Seattle.
For Te’o, the transformation was both swift and brutal. Literally overnight, he went from an athletic pin-up who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, to a global joke.
As the story reverberated across the internet, Teo’o was painted as both a fool (Saturday Night Live showed Te’o telling a newscaster about the moment he found out Lennay was dead: “A couple of months ago she called me up and said, ‘Hey I have some bad news – I’m dead,’ and I said, ‘Oh no, do you need a ride to the funeral?’”), and, potentially, a liar: many pundits speculated that Te’o may have been complicit in the scheme all along as a way to gain national attention. A grubby undertow of homophobia accompanied the salaciousness with which Te’o’s trauma was covered, dissected, and gawked at (sportswriter Mike Florio told MSNBC’s The Ed Show, “Teams want to know whether or not Manti Te’o is gay. They just want to know.”), while one news report added some racism for good measure, describing the whole affair as a “weird Polynesian plot to embarrass” Te’o.
The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist combs through this history while showing Te’o, today, to be what he probably always was: a fundamentally decent, hard-working young man of deep Mormon faith who was perhaps a little too naive for the age of internet weaponization. One scene shows Te’o explaining how he turned to a lawyer uncle for guidance after the purportedly dead Lennay called him in late December 2012 to announce that she was in fact still alive. “My uncle immediately said, ‘I think you’re getting catfished.’ 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.”
The hoaxer, Naya Tuiasosopo, who has since come out as a trans woman and uses she/her pronouns, invented Lennay and gave her a Facebook profile with photos stolen from a former high school classmate and a whole constellation of extended family members and friends. It was through this Facebook account that contact with Te’o was first made; it was only thanks to Tuiasosopo’s genius for impersonating the female voice that the relationship sustained through months of texting and phone calls.
A note appended to the start of each episode of The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, which features extensive fresh interview footage with both Te’o and Tuiasosopo, states that “at the time of filming, subjects were not aware that [Tuiasosopo] identifies as a transgender woman.” The result is that most participants in the documentary unintentionally dead-name Tuiasosopo; this seems especially unfortunate since what makes the series most interesting is the insight it offers into Tuiasosopo’s state of mind as the perpetrator of the hoax. What emerges from that portrait is the deep confusion that Tuiasosopo felt about her own identity at the time she created Lennay.
“The Lennay profile was not necessarily a way out but a way to something else,” she says. “At that time, I knew for sure there was something inside of me that just wanted to scream out and be like, ‘Why am I different?’ There were a couple of encounters online where it was like, ‘This guy’s cute. Let’s see where this goes.’ I knew what was right and wrong, but I was too far in love with being looked at in this way. It was completely selfish, but it was what made me happy. It was what I wanted to be a reality.”
The glue that kept Te’o and Lennay/Naya together was not the internet as such – a mere tool in the story – as their shared background. Even though Lennay was fake, Tuaisosopo imbued the character with her own personality – her own interests, her own tastes in music, and most tellingly, her own ethnicity. Both Te’o and Tuiasosopo were young people of Samoan background and similar age – they’re now in their early 30s – trying to navigate the commitments of family and faith, two particularly important components of Samoan identity, with the sometimes-conflicting energies of life in America.
For many Samoan-Americans, football is often the connector to the larger culture around them. Tuiasosopo came from a distinguished footballing family – her dad played at USC, her uncle played for the Rams, and her cousin played for the Raiders – and she threw herself into football as a child in an effort to live up to that legacy.
“But I hate football,” she says in The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist. “I just wanted to play football out of obedience, and I wanted to make my dad happy. But I totally felt this heaviness of fear. I didn’t have that courage to just be like, you know what, this is who I am. I truly believed in my heart, being natural-born male, I could never be who I wanted. That was when I had decided that I would be able to have that experience in the life of a female, even if it were fake.”
Te’o experienced things differently: the love of football came naturally, and as a high school player it was obvious he was destined for great things. As their online relationship developed, Lennay even counseled Te’o on his defensive work, sending him text messages saying things like, “I encourage you babe to manage the pace and the flow of your defense babe.” Tuiasosopo explains: “Because we were able to have those types of conversations, Lennay became a rock for him.”
But it’s their shared background and shared quest that makes the story of Te’o and Tuiasosopo, however unfortunate its eventual unfolding, so absorbing: whether they did it in rebellion against the sport or in concert with it, football became for both of them the canvas on which they projected their schemes to fit in, as ethnic-minority children, in white-dominated America.
Tuiasosopo moved back to American Samoa after the scandal broke and found support among the local LGBTQ population, which includes a large and well-established community of people who identify as fa’afafine, meaning third gender or non-binary.
“I just had to start living my life,” she says. “And I wanted to be able to live my life as trans. I still feel horrible [about the hoax], 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.”
For Te’o, the years since the hoax became public have been perhaps less kind: he enjoyed three moderately successful seasons at the San Diego Chargers as a second-round 2013 draft pick, but his last NFL game came in 2019. In the minutes before his first pre-season game for the Chargers, in 2013, he felt his whole body go numb.
“The first three years at the Chargers were like that. And it was such a huge contrast to that kid at Notre Dame. The football field, that was my domain, you know. Like, when I’m on the football field, I feel like nobody can beat me. And I played free, and I played fast, and I played physical. And that was what made me great,” he says. “Now I go to the NFL, and I’m questioning everything. Every day was just trying to figure out how to get rid of this anxiety, this numbness, this tingling. I’m trying to figure out all these ways to reprogram myself.” Eventually he went to see a therapist who told him to forgive himself for the hoax: “What happened to you is not your fault,” the therapist told him.
Despite that breakthrough, the documentary makes clear that for Te’o, the experience remains a deep source of trauma: “I’ll take all this crap,” he says. “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.” Hopefully, by ventilating their pain so publicly, both Te’o and Tuiasosopo will find some measure of peace in their quest to restart their still-young lives – and finally find a place of their own in the vicious turbulence of 2020s America.