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Netflix Lets Manti Te’o’s Catfishing Abuser Off The Hook Because He’s Transgender

Netflix "Untold" trailer: transwoman sits down for interview in dimmed room
Image CreditNetflix/YouTube

By letting Manti Te’o’s abuser go unchallenged, producers do the public a disservice and fail to warn audiences how dangerous catfish can be.

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It’s no secret that the entertainment industry is completely in the tank for the transgender movement, but a recent episode of the Netflix documentary series “Untold” titled, “The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist” takes it to the extreme.

The episode purports to tell the story of how Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o was victimized by a Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Tuiasosopo is a “catfish,” someone who creates a fake online persona to lure victims into personal relationships. Around 2007 or 2008 Tuiasosopo created a fake Facebook account posing as a young woman named Lennay Kekua. Tuiasosopo roped a number of men into online relationships before befriending Te’o in 2009.

For the next three years, Tuiasosopo conned Te’o into believing that Kekua was his deeply devoted girlfriend. When the hoax blew up in 2013, it blew up not in Tuiasosopo’s face but Te’o’s.

Yet the documentary fails to tell the story properly because it does not portray Tuiasosopo as the monster he is. If anything, it enables him in his delusions. The reason is that Tuiasosopo is now a trans woman named Naya.

The documentary signals at the beginning that it is going to treat Tuiasosopo as a member of a protected class with the following disclaimer: “At the time of this filming, subjects were not aware that Ronaiah identified as a transgender woman.” Te’o was the victim of a vicious hoax, but what really matters is that he didn’t use the correct pronouns when referring to Tuiasosopo.

Here’s just a few ways Tuiasosopo deceived Te’o:

  • Tuiasosopo impersonated a female voice to near perfection, convincing Te’o he was actually talking to a woman during their phone conversations.
  • Naturally, Te’o eventually wanted to meet Tuiasosopo’s female alter-ego, Kekua, in person. To put him off, Tuiasosopo posed as Kekua’s cousin and called Te’o to inform him that Kekua had been in a near-fatal car crash.
  • Tuiasosopo also pretended that Kekua was in a hospital bed and held up his phone so Te’o could talk to her. He then simulated a loud breathing sound to trick Te’o into thinking Kekua was on a ventilator.
  • Te’o called every day as Tuiasosopo had persuaded him that the phone calls were helping Kekua improve. As Kekua recovered, Te’o would again want an in-person meeting. Tuiasosopo solved that by posing as Kekua again and telling Te’o that she had been diagnosed with leukemia while in the hospital.
  • On September 12, 2012, Tuiasosopo pretended to be Kekua’s brother and called Te’o to inform him that Kekua had passed away. This was on the same day that Te’o’s grandmother actually did die.
  • About two weeks before Te’o and Norte Dame played Alabama in the College Football National Championship game, Tuiasosopo again called Te’o. He initially posed as Kekua’s sister, but then claimed he was really Kekua; thus, Kekua was still alive. This threw Te’o into immense emotional turmoil, affecting his play during the championship game. Alabama walloped Notre Dame, 42-14.

To call such behavior manipulative is an understatement. Yet nowhere in the documentary is Tuiasosopo described as a manipulator. During a 2013 episode of his eponymous television show, Dr. Phil did call Tuiasosopo manipulative. Dr. Phil appears in the “Untold” documentary, but only to comment on Tuiasosopo’s talent at mimicking a female voice. Did the producers forget to ask Dr. Phil his opinion on Tuiasosopo’s behavior? One wonders what ended up on the cutting room floor.

Nor does anyone speculate on whether Tuiasosopo is a narcissist or perhaps even a sociopath. That’s remarkable since there is plenty of material to work with.

Tuiasosopo constantly evades responsibility, saying that he could not control what he was doing. It “became, literally, a black hole that consumed my life,” he says of his online persona. “I see now why God never saved me,” he laments.

But he’s happy to take credit for some of Te’o’s football success claiming that his counsel improved the player’s focus. Tuiasosopo, who played high school football himself, supposedly gave crucial advice to Te’o about an upcoming Notre Dame game. “In that game, I was pointing out exactly what happened, where we ended up winning because of a defensive effort.” [Italics added.]

While preparing for his appearance on the “Dr. Phil” show, Tuiasosopo decides not to tell the full truth, but only because he was concerned with Te’o’s welfare. “A part of me felt like I still needed to protect him,” he says. During the Dr. Phil episode, Tuiasosopo stated, “I did all I could to help this person become a better person.”

It’s almost impossible to believe that the producers would let Tuiasosopo get away with this if he didn’t identify as a trans woman. Indeed, the producers may be doing Tuiassopo a disservice by not getting him to confront what are almost certainly various mental illnesses. That would include the possibility of body dysmorphic disorder. If treatment could help Tuiasosopo, the documentary gives him no incentive to seek it. By indulging Tuiasosopo, the producers are enabling his delusions.

But if the producers had raised any of these issues, they would have incurred the wrath of transgender activists. Activists would smear the documentary as reinforcing the “prejudice” that trans men and women are mentally ill. They would accuse the producers of portraying all transgender people as narcissists and sociopaths. Charges of transphobia would fly fast and furious.

Better to avoid that and instead focus on Tuiasosopo’s amazing journey. Maclain Way, one of the creators of “Untold,” told CNN, “We reached out to Naya and just had a fascinating conversation with her … she ran us through just a remarkable journey that she’s been on, a journey of self-discovery and self-identity and how she identifies as a trans woman.”

In effect, the producers give Tuiasosopo a chance to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the public, and he takes full advantage. He comes off as friendly and sympathetic. He blames his upbringing for forcing him to be what he didn’t want to be. That, he claims, led him to seek ways to escape such as creating a fake online profile.

By letting Tuiasosopo go unchallenged, the producers do the public a disservice. Since they want to portray Tuiasosopo as a confused individual, they can’t give warnings about how dangerous catfish can be. They give no examples of catfish who scam their victims out of money and, in some instances, even murder them. The documentary lists no resources on how to know if you are being catfished or on support groups for victims.

When the press discovered the hoax, it questioned how Te’o, who was only 18 when Tuiasosopo began catfishing him, could be so naïve. The media speculated that Te’o had created the phony girlfriend and her death to boost his chances of winning the Heisman Trophy. (Johnny Manziel ended up winning it that year.)

“Saturday Night Live” mocked Te’o as an idiot. Te’o was sure to be picked in the first round of the NFL draft, but the controversy caused him to slip into the second round. The average four-year contract for a 2013 first-round pick was $11.1 million. For a second-round pick, it was $4.3 million. Manti spent the first three years of his NFL career suffering from severe anxiety.

The conclusion of the documentary shows Tuiasosopo, who is Polynesian, getting in touch with his cultural roots. He dons a headdress and a grass skirt and performs a hula dance. So Tuiasosopo is not only a trans woman, he is a multicultural trans woman. His rehabilitation is complete.


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