The two-part opener of Season 2 of Netflix’s Untold sports scandal documentary series, The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, unspools the story of Manti Te’o, an extremely talented Notre Dame football player whose budding NFL career was thrown for a loop when news broke that he had been embroiled in a catfishing scandal.
Te’o had an online relationship with a girl he’d never met in person, but who identified herself as a Stanford student named Lennay Kekua. One day in 2012, Te’o got a call telling him that Kekua had died after a battle with Leukemia. His grandmother had died earlier that day. Overcome with grief, Te’o told reporters covering that night’s football game about the deaths, sparking a national story about the Notre Dame football player who had lost both his girlfriend and his grandmother on the same day.
The only problem was that, unbeknownst to Te’o, Kekua wasn’t dead — and she wasn’t who she said she was.
The person claiming to be Lennay Kekua was really Naya Tuiasosopo, a fellow Hawaii native who grew up not far from Te’o in Laie on the island of Oahu, and who has since come out as a transgender woman. Tuiasosopo admitted to catfishing Te’o all throughout their multi-year cyber relationship, even pretending to be other family members when she faked Lennay’s death.
Shortly before the 2013 NFL draft, an anonymous tip was sent by email to the sports blog Deadspin claiming that Te’o was a fraud and that he and Tuiasosopo were in on the hoax together. (Te’o explained in Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist that he had not known he was being catfished at the time, and that he truly believed Kekua was dead when he told the story to reporters).
After watching The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, there’s still at least one burning question left: who sent the fateful email to Deadspin that lead to the story that broke the scandal?
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MovieMaker asked Untold creators Chapman and Maclain Way, who produced The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, who the person was behind that email. Although they said weren’t able to definitively identify the person, they did share their theory with us as to who it could be.
“We had a lot of theories in-office when we were working. Everyone was coming up with their own theory of who could have sent it, but it is a very interesting question. We did try to look into it — we weren’t ever able to fully confirm who sent that tip, so it is still a mystery,” Chapman Way said. “I think it’s an interesting piece of the puzzle.”
The producers are pretty sure it wasn’t Naya — “she didn’t mention it in our interview, and I don’t believe so,” Chapman said — but rather, they think the tipster was someone from the Laie community.
“Obviously, that town in Hawaii that Manti came from is a very close-knit community, and there were connections to the Tuiasosopo family, which, that’s Naya’s family. And it’s a little hard to exactly know who knew what, when, and where — but there did seem to be an element of this being somewhat of a little bit of a closed, but still open, rumor, that Naya was Lennay Kekua, that some people on the island knew that,” Maclain Way said.
“I don’t know how they knew that, but it seems to be a group of people did know that. And so the general operating theory is that the tip came from that community, based on what the tip said: ‘I’m from Hawaii, I’m a Laie boy.’ [That] kind of identified some things about who the tipster was. So that’s a little bit of the operating theory that we know of,” he added.
Having not only Manti, but also Naya, to give a comprehensive interview about what happened added a lot of context to the two-part episode’s story, the Way brothers said — especially Naya’s willingness to talk about her transition into a transgender woman. She explained in the episode that having to suppress her gender identity as a teen was a big motivator behind why she created the fictional persona behind Lennay.
“The benefit that both Manti and Naya have had is a benefit that anyone would have, which is this happened when they were 19, 20 years old. They were kids, pretty much, you know? And now they’ve had almost 10 years of hindsight, and they’ve matured, and they’ve grown in different ways,” Maclain Way said. “For Naya, really, the powerful story that she started telling us is that this was really a step one of a larger search for identity that she has done in her life, and she now identifies as a transgender woman, and that this online space and online profile was essentially a first step of a long journey that she’s been on and is continuing to go on. And so for us, that just added a tremendous amount of context to the story. ”
Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist is now streaming on Netflix.
Main Image: Manti Te’o in Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist courtesy of Netflix