Skip to main content
Original Issue

Ugly and Lurking

Catfishing has entered the sports lexicon, and Entertainment Weekly writer Chris Nashawaty explains

In the 2010 documentary Catfish, a 24-year-old New York photographer named Yaniv (Nev) Schulman chronicled his blossoming long-distance romance with a woman he met on Facebook. Her name was Megan. She was 19, beautiful in a Bohemian sort of way, and a warm, sympathetic listener. Yet there was something suspicious about the way she kept putting off his pleas to meet face-to-face. She almost seemed too good to be true. Which is exactly what turned out to be the case. In fact, there was no Megan at all. She was the whole-cloth creation of a lonely, middle-aged Michigan housewife named Angela who spent her days looking after two severely handicapped stepsons. Schulman had been Catfished.

Sound familiar?

Last week's social-media scandal involving Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o has thrust a new word into the sports lexicon. The term Catfishing might be a relatively new one, but its meaning will be familiar to anyone who's ever spun a few white lies on their Internet dating profile or received spam from a member of the Nigerian royal family bearing good news of a unique investment opportunity.

So what does a poor, bewhiskered bottom-feeder have to do with it? Toward the end of Schulman's documentary, when he finally shows up in rural Ishpeming, Mich., to confront the woman pretending to be the love of his life, he ends up having a heart-to-heart talk with her husband. The man, who previously knew nothing of the fraud, explains that when fishermen began shipping live cod from Alaska to China, the fish would arrive weak and tasteless, the result of inactivity during transit. So they started putting catfish in with the cod to keep them agile. "There are those people who are catfish in life, and they keep you on your toes," he says. "They keep you guessing. They keep you thinking. They keep you fresh. And I thank God for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have somebody nipping at our fin."

Catfish struck such a familiar chord with so many people that last year it spawned an MTV reality series. Catfish: The TV Show is hosted by Schulman, who helps online daters meet the objects of their affection in the flesh. But the series' sensationalistic premise hadn't translated into much mainstream buzz until the Lennay Kekua hoax was revealed on Jan. 16. Schulman has since stated publicly that he believes Te'o's version of events and is launching his own investigation into the tabloid-friendly affair.

The thing is, watching the Catfish movie and TV show, it's easy to come away with the impression that only lonely, regular workaday folks fall victim to these kinds of scams—that the rich and famous are above such deceptions. But that's not the case. In the early '80s, long before Catfishing became a catchphrase, a long roll of A-list celebrities were seduced by a mysterious woman named Miranda.

The story, which was revealed in a 1999 Vanity Fair article by Bryan Burrough, described how Miranda would call stars such as Warren Beatty, Robert De Niro and Billy Joel at all hours of the day and night just to talk. Remarkably, it worked. Many celebrities developed long-term, long-distance relationships with the woman on the other end of the line, sharing intimate secrets between servings of Tinseltown gossip. Miranda told the stars she was a rich and well-connected model and college student; they were happy to believe, and were hurt when she eventually stopped calling. (Miranda, it turned out, was a thirtysomething social worker from Baton Rouge.) They'd been Catfished before there was a name for it.

As with Megan and Miranda, it turns out that there was no Lennay Kekua. But if we're to take Manti Te'o at his word, he was just like a lot of other people out there, scanning their Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, looking for a connection, for someone to trust. It could be that Te'o trusted the wrong person. If so, he's one of the bigger fish to be caught in a familiar scam.