Football Player Manti Te’o’s Catfishing Scandal Revolved Around This Woman

Photo credit: Sean M. Haffey - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sean M. Haffey - Getty Images


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Back in 2012, a very bizarre story emerged in the sports world about the mysterious girlfriend of Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o.

Right before playing and winning the national championship game that year, Manti had publicly announced that his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, had died of leukemia six hours after his grandmother passed away, per Sports Illustrated. But details eventually surfaced that Lennay never actually existed.

Manti later admitted he had never met Lennay in person and investigative reporters determined he was the victim of a catfishing scheme (a.k.a. luring someone into a romantic relationship using a fake online persona). One of the people who posed as Lennay was a person named Naya Tuiasosopo.

And this whole strange story is now the topic of a new Netflix documentary called The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.

But who is Naya Tuiasosopo and where is she now? Here’s what you need to know.

Who is Naya Tuiasosopo?

Naya Tuiasosopo is a transgender woman who says she fell in love with Manti. She was also a Christian singer at one point, according to ABC News.

“I created this fictional character, Lennay,” she says in the documentary. “I didn’t have the courage to say, ‘This is who I really am.’”

Who is Lennay Kekua?

Lennay Kekua is a fictional woman that Naya and others created to catfish Manti.

“He said that they met through his cousin nearly four years ago and started ‘dating’ on Oct. 15, 2011,” Sports Illustrated senior writer Pete Thamel said in a story about the scandal.

Manti was led to believe that Lennay had graduated from Stanford, lived in Carson, California, had family roots in Hawaii, and had been taking over part of her dad's job in construction. The fictional woman told Manti that she was hit by a drunk driver on April 28, 2012, and while she was recovering, doctors discovered that she had leukemia.

Manti was also told by "Lennay" that she started receiving cancer treatment at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, CA.

“He never specified that he'd met her in person, and I didn't ask,” Thamel said. “Why would you ask someone if he'd actually met his girlfriend who recently died?”

Apparently, "Lennay" was present enough in Manti's life to also make an impression on his friends.

"She was a very supportive, loving passionate individual," Dalton Hilliard, a football player at UCLA who was friends with Manti, told Sports Illustrated during an interview before the scandal broke. "She was all about God and prayer and being able to have faith. Me and her never met in person. But I felt like this was a testament to who she was. She would still text and tweet me before my games."

He added, "It was a pleasure for me to know her. The fact she made my best friend such a happy man, it's something that made me a happy man as well."

How did Naya catfish Manti Te'o?

Naya and others created the fictional woman Lennay using photos of one of Naya's high school classmates, per ESPN. Naya was the voice of "Lennay" when the two would talk on the phone.

And they talked and texted quite a lot. Manti even told Sports Illustrated that he would fall asleep talking to her on the phone so that they could always be in touch.

Why did she catfish him?

Naya later told Dr. Phil, per the Daily Mail, that she was the victim of abuse and that she created Lennay as a way to live in an alternate reality. (Naya had not transitioned at this point).

She also said that she was in love with Manti.

"I pretty much had this escape of Lennay and this was where my heart had pretty much invested, not just time, but all of my energy went into this," Tuiasosopo said on the show, per ESPN.

She later confessed the catfish to Te'o after killing "Lennay" off. And on Dr. Phil's show, she called it "shameful" and "painful" to talk about.

Photo credit: Lorenzo Bevilaqua - Getty Images
Photo credit: Lorenzo Bevilaqua - Getty Images

Why did Naya ‘kill off’ Lennay?

Naya told Dr. Phil that she decided to “kill” Lennay to end the fake relationship. “After everything that I had gone through, I just wanted to move on with my life,” she said. “I had to start just living and let this go.”

What is the punishment for catfishing?

It's not illegal to pretend to be someone else online. However, if you catfish someone in order to commit fraud, that can get you in legal trouble. You can also face legal repercussions if you're stealing someone's intellectual property, defaming someone else, trying to engage sexually with a minor, or creating a scheme to get money or goods from someone else, per one law firm's definition.

Did Manti Te’o get married?

It seems like Manti recovered from the whole fake girlfriend and her fake death because he shared on Instagram in 2020 that he married his girlfriend, Jovi Nicole Engbino.

"I couldn’t give you the world but I think I did better … I gave you my last name and it looks good on you Mrs. Te’o," he wrote.

Where is Naya now?

While Naya spoke to producers of the documentary, it’s not clear where she is now or what she is doing.

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