The Bizarre Story Of Manti Te'o's Fake Girlfriend Explained

"Catfishing" made its way into the Merriam Webster Dictionary in 2014, but the term held little mainstream value in 2009 — just ask NFL linebacker Manti Te'o. The former Notre Dame star found himself caught up in relationship hoax that began as he started his football career with the Fighting Irish, all the way until 2013, when the entire world learned that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never actually existed. Although it's a story that captivated headlines nearly a decade ago, it's found its way back to the forefront of our minds with the release of "Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist," a 2022 American Netflix original documentary film spotlighting the Manti Te'o catfishing scandal. 

The public went along with Te'o for the ride of a lifetime, which innocently started off as a long distance romance that quickly became entrenched with drama. When Te'o learned that the woman he believed to be dating died, it set the stage for his life and career to spiral. Here are all the bizarre, yet true, details of how Lennay Kekua came to be, and the impact the fictitious woman had on Te'o's life.

Lennay Kekua was a fictional woman created by Naya Tuiasosopo

Manti Te'o never actually met or video chatted with his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, and for good reason — who Te'o thought his girlfriend to be didn't match who she actually was. Naya Tuiasosopo, who now identifies as a transgender woman, created a fake online persona before her transition as a means to cope with her gender identity struggles. Tuiasosopo used photos of a classmate from high school, Diane O'Meara, to pull off the hoax. "I truly believed in my heart, being a 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," Tuiasosopo said in the Netflix documentary. O'Meara had no idea her face was at the center of the controversy.

Tuiasosopo created Kekua to be a Stanford University student. It was so legit that she even had multiple family members linked to her Facebook page and kept up with Kekua's Twitter account. "Yes, it was completely selfish, but it was what made me happy. It was what I wanted to be a reality," Tuiasosopo explained. 

Manti Te'o started talking with Lennay Kekua via Facebook

A single Facebook friend request served as the catalyst of one of sports' biggest scandals. Once Naya Tuiasosopo assumed the identity of Lennay Kekua, she added Manti Te'o on Facebook in 2009. The then-Notre Dame freshman did what any naive young person would do if they got a friend request from a bombshell and introduced himself. "Hi, I'm Manti" was the innocent message that started their back and forth. Te'o even tried to do the work to confirm that Kekua was a legit person, most notably speaking with a cousin of his who vouched that Kekua was real (per Men's Health). At first, they only had a friendship and exchanged sporadic messages, but, in 2011, the relationship progressed to something more.

Te'o was not the first person Kekua exchanged messages with, nor the first online relationship Tuiasosopo started on Facebook, according to ABC News. In 2008, Kekua had a brief online romance with a California man in which she presented herself as a model. However, whenever the catfishing victim wanted to meet up with her, it was Tuiasosopo who was lurking around instead. 

Their relationship grew despite never meeting

Manti Te'o struggled to acclimate to his new home right outside of South Bend, Indiana, as it was a stark contrast to his hometown of Laie, Hawaii. He also had to deal with that fact that the University of Notre Dame is a private Catholic school, which was a fair bit different from Te'o's affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Lennay Kekua therefore served as a refuge for him, as they shared similar values in terms of faith and being Samoan. Their relationship grew after Kekua mentioned her father died. "She told me her dad passed away, and I was there," Te'o said in an ESPN interview. "I was just being that shoulder to cry on. And I kind of just naturally cared for the person. And so our relationship kind of took another level. But not the kind of exclusive level yet."

Naya Tuiasosopo played football during high school and she had several professional football players in her family, which also made football an important shared value between Kekua and Te'o. "Because we were able to have those types of conversations [regarding football], Lennay became a rock for him," Tuiasosopo explained in the Netflix special. Their relationship continued to grow, with Te'o virtually meeting some of the people closest to Kekua — even if those people were fake, too. "You bring in whatever characters to maintain the validity of this whole person. I even made myself Lennay's cousin," Tuiasosopo explained.

Lennay Kekua was hospitalized after a supposed car crash

In late April 2012, Manti Te'o received a phone call from Lennay Kekua's brother, Kainoa, informing him that Kekua was in a major car accident along with two other relatives. Kekua was reportedly on life support, and Te'o heard what appeared to be someone breathing through a mask when he would phone Kekua's relatives to check in on her progress. Te'o took it upon himself to have daily talks with Kekua while she was in the hospital, even if they were one-sided, in the hope that she would pull through. Even though Kekua eventually made a "miraculous" recovery and woke up from her coma, she wasn't out of the clear yet. In Naya Tuiasosopo's fake world, doctors diagnosed her with leukemia (per The New York Times), and Te'o was made to believe she underwent a bone marrow transplant, the South Bend Tribune reported. 

From this point on, the pair's relationship became much more serious. "Every day. I slept on the phone with her every night," Te'o said during an ESPN interview. It turns out that Naya Tuiasosopo actually was in a car accident, along with a couple of her relatives in March 2012 (per ABC News), however her injuries were not life threatening. 

Manti Te'o received a phone call about Lennay Kekua dying

On the morning of September 12, 2012, Manti Te'o heard the news of his grandmother's passing. Te'o told ESPN that Lennay Kekua tried to comfort him, but they ended up having an argument. "She was saying, 'You know, I'm trying to be here for you.' I didn't want to be bothered. I wanted to be left alone. I just wanted to be by myself," he explained. However, as if that wasn't enough to stomach, Naya Tuiasosopo again posed as Kekua's brother to deliver the news to Te'o that she had lost her battle with cancer on the same day his grandmother died (per The Daily Beast). To really drive home the lie, Tuiasosopo called Te'o's parents and relayed the news of Kekua's death. 

"I cried, I yelled. I never felt that way before," Te'o told ESPN (via CNN). "This is six hours after I just found out my grandma passed away and you take the love of my life."

The footballer dedicated his season to his late grandmother and girlfriend

Despite the major losses he endured, Manti Te'o decided to play in a game three days after he learned of Lennay Kekua and his grandmother's deaths. His performance didn't take a hit, and he helped lead the Fighting Irish to an upset over Michigan State by racking up 12 tackles (per ABC News). During a post-game interview, Te'o publicly spoke about his loss. The story took off across the media, and the public largely applauded Te'o for his inspiration and bravery. 

"That has to be the hardest thing that I've had to do so far; to be able to operate, and to be able to try to continue with my daily routine, but knowing that I just lost two women that I truly loved," Te'o said during a press conference (via CNN). Te'o explained that he did not attend Kekua's funeral because Kekua made him promise to stay and play football should anything happen to her. He recalled her saying, "'If anything happens to me, you'll stay over there and you'll play. You'll honor me through the way you play. I'd rather have you there,'" Te'o told the Irish Illustrated (via CNN). Not long after news of Kekua's death broke, Te'o was nominated for a Heisman trophy, in which he was runner-up

Naya Tuiasosopo brought Lennay Kekua back from the dead

Three months after her "death," Manti Te'o oddly received a phone call from Lennay Kekua's number. Te'o initially believed he was talking to U'ilani Kekua, Lennay's fictional sister, but the voice revealed themselves to be Lennay. Apparently, Te'o's girlfriend had never died. She said she needed to go into hiding to escape from drug dealers, hence why she faked her death (per the Honolulu Star-Advertiser). 

During his Netflix interview, Te'o dove into the aftermath of the phone call and how he went about requesting proof that Lennay was indeed alive. Te'o requested that she send him a picture of her face with a certain sequence of letters and dated to prove she was serious. Naya Tuiasosopo delivered on the picture he asked for, but not without attempting to do some serious damage control. Tuiasosopo requested the photo she eventually sent to Te'o from Diane O'Meara, the woman whose pictures she had stolen. O'Meara was under the impression that Tuiasosopo requested the picture for their sick cousin as a show of support for their surgery (per ESPN). 

The media caught wind of Manti Te'o's fake girlfriend

Back in the early 2010s, Deadspin didn't have a booming presence in the online media landscape, but all eyes were on them when they released an article in 2013 titled "Manti Te'o's Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax." The story wouldn't have come to fruition without an anonymous tip Deadspin received via email, alleging that Naya Tuiasosopo and Manti Te'o were in on the hoax of faking a relationship together. The reporters who broke the story, Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey, appeared in the Netflix special to clarify that they published the article in hopes of exposing major sports networks for not fact checking their reporting when it came to stories about Lennay Kekua's death.

The article pieced together a timeline of Te'o and Kekua's alleged relationship based on the reporting from major outlets like ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and CBS. To this day, the person who sent in the anonymous tip has not been revealed.

The footballer addresses the controversy

Manti Te'o appeared alongside his parents to publicly talk about the hoax in a one-hour special on "Katie" with Katie Couric. Both Te'o and his parents insisted that he had no part in the scandal, denying claims that he was in on the hoax for personal gain. "I've known him 21 years of his life," his father told Couric. "He's not a liar. He's a kid." However, Te'o did admit to sticking "to the script" that his girlfriend was dead days after receiving a phone call from Lennay Kekua. 

"Katie, put yourself in my situation. I, my whole world told me that she died on September 12. Everybody knew that. This girl, who I committed myself to, died on September 12," Te'o explained. "Now I get a phone call on December 6, saying that she's alive and then I'm going be put on national TV two days later. And to ask me about the same question. You know, what would you do?" In an effort to defend himself and to showcase the believability of the catfish, Te'o showcased some of the voicemails he received from Kekua. 

Naya Tuiasosopo appeared on Dr. Phil

At the start of 2013, Naya Tuiasosopo appeared on "Dr. Phil" to offer up her explanation on why she catfished Manti Te'o, and why she went so far as to kill off Lennay Kekua. Tuiasosopo confirmed that she and Te'o had an argument on the day that his grandmother died, where Tuiasosopo learned that Te'o had been talking to other girls. Te'o also reportedly told Kekua that he never needed her (per USA Today). This drove Tuiasosopo to find a way to end their relationship. "The truth of it is that it happened, I grew feelings, I grew emotions that sooner or later I couldn't control anymore," Tuiasosopo explained to Dr. Phil. As the interview took place prior to Tuiasosopo's transition, the two also discussed Tuiasosopo's sexuality. "Honestly, I'm so confused, I'm so lost and just finding me," she said at the time. 

In an even more shocking part of the interview, Tuiasosopo recreated the voice that she used to speak to Te'o on the phone. 

The unflattering news coverage cost Manti Te'o big time

Prior to the media frenzy amidst the catfishing scandal, Manti Te'o was projected to be a first round NFL Draft pick. After all, he was a runner-up for the Heisman trophy, so it was a no brainer that among the 32 NFL teams, he would quickly be picked up. Te'o opted to stay home with family in Hawaii while the NFL Draft played out in Radio City Music Hall in New York City, which was likely for the best, as Te'o wasn't selected during the first round. 

"If an NFL team picked Te'o at No. 5, he would have received a contract in the vicinity of four years and $20 million, with roughly half of that guaranteed. The millions from a rookie contract likely would have been matched by off-field endorsements," CNBC reported after the first round picks were announced. During the second round of the draft, Te'o was selected 38th overall by the then-San Diego Chargers, which came at a net loss of millions of potential endorsement dollars. 

Both parties have moved on

Although Manti Te'o made it clear in the Netflix documentary that he has forgiven Naya Tuiasosopo, he still recalls the pain she caused. "It was a very dark time for me," he told ESPN. "I had a lot of trouble and difficulty processing it. ... I look back on that kid, and I shed tears." As of this writing, Te'o is a free agent after a four season stint with the San Diego Chargers (now the Los Angeles Chargers), and three seasons with the New Orleans Saints. Above all, love was still in the cards for Te'o. He wed fitness influencer, Jovi Nicole Engbino, in 2020. In 2021, Engbino gave birth to their first child and they have another on the way. "I'll take all this crap," he said in his closing statement for the "Untold" documentary. "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." 

Tuiasosopo, for her part, has kept a rather low profile. According to the documentary, she made her way back to American Samoa post-scandal. She found a home within the fa'afafine, a third gender or non-binary community on the island. Tuiasosopo also revealed they had trouble securing employment after the hoax. "People would see my name on applications and automatically be like ... 'Yeah, no, we don't want to hire them,'" she said in her "Untold" interview. However, it appeared she finally found some security, as "Untold" showed her working in a hardware store.