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Thursday, June 20, 2024
The Observer

'The Girlfriend That Didn't Exist': The story behind the legend

If you’re like me, you remember the 2013 BCS National Championship Game between Notre Dame and Alabama as the cementation of the SEC’s dominance over college football since the turn of the millennium. That season was the last time Notre Dame competed for a national title and the last time the team featured a Heisman Trophy finalist. Central to the mythos of the Fighting Irish’s undefeated campaign was the perseverance of said finalist, Manti Te’o, following the death of his grandmother and girlfriend on the same day in the middle of the season. In the aftermath of the title defeat, a bizarre truth emerged which grasped the sports world by storm: Te’o’s girlfriend was not a real person. Netflix’s two-part documentary released in August, “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist,” narrates the story of the highest-profile catfishing scheme of all time.

The documentary appeals to Fighting Irish die-hard fans and those uninclined to athletics alike. Get ready to travel back in time to early 2010s social media, when Facebook, Myspace and Xanga were still in vogue. Enjoy news anchors, congresswomen and Notre Dame leadership sounding like fools. Watch Te’o yawn as he walks out of O’Neill Hall, possibly on his way to SDH for some coffee. See the Hawaiian flag in his dorm room. Listen to the birds calling out down by Saint Mary’s Lake as you flash to Carroll Hall’s game day banner. Shiver at the sound of “Notre Dame, Our Mother'' as light flickers back at you off a snowy Golden Dome. Sit back and enjoy a millennial’s “Rudy.” Observer a colorful “Knute Rockne, All American.”

The two-hour saga is as good as the final word we’re ever going to get on the Te’o incident. Any suspicions concerning the possibility of an active role by Te’o in the hoax are carefully dispelled in interviews with Te’o’s friends, family and the linebacker himself. The film reveals that the catfisher who masqueraded as Lennay Kekua, the fictional girlfriend, has since come out as a transgender woman, Naya Tuiasosopo.

Though it does not completely dispel the suspicion that Te’o knew at some level that he was interacting with a non-existent human being, the film does an excellent job of showing how Te’o might have fallen for the con. Several voicemails from Kekua to Te’o are played back and the voice sounds assuredly female. Tuiasosopo built an elaborate network around the Kekua Facebook account consisting of sham family members and friends, so potential male crushes would trust she was truly a person. Still, it is quite questionable that Te’o never grew suspicious when Kekua spurned all requests to meet in person or over FaceTime. I suppose one could get away with technological excuses such as claiming to have a cracked screen or poor connection in 2012, but that does not change the fact that Te’o told the entire world he had a girlfriend having never once looked upon her live, moving face.

The best parts of the film reveal the numerous character similarities between Te’o and Tuiasosopo. Both hailed from large Polynesian families who valued football. Tuiasosopo played quarterback in high school and her father was a signal-caller at USC. Both Te’o and Tuiasosopo belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their daily conversations revolved around religion and worship. Behind the veil of the fake Facebook profile, this was a real relationship. No doubt Te’o would have been devastated after hearing of Kekua’s death only a few short hours after being informed of his grandmother’s death. It was genuine emotion driving Te’o on the field during the 2012 football season. Tuiasosopo played an undisputed, behind-the-scenes part in leading the Fighting Irish to their last National Championship. As Notre Dame football begins a new era under head coach Marcus Freeman, perhaps the team will write a new mythical chapter in the history of Notre Dame football. Will it involve the faked death of the fabricated girlfriend of the team’s premier player? Probably not.

Title: “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist”

Directors: Tony Vainuku and Ryan Duffy

Starring: Manti Te’o

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5