Know who got publicly played by a made-up internet girlfriend long before Manti Te'o? Nev Schulman, 28, who aired his stranger-than-fiction experience in the 2010 documentary Catfish. After the film, he received tens of thousands of emails, Facebook messages, and Tweets from people in similar situations asking for his help. The result is MTV's hit Catfish: The TV Show, now kicking off its second season, where he discerns fact from fiction and arranges first meetings between online couples that are rarely what they seem.
Marie Claire: What are the red flags that you're being catfish-ed?
Nev Schulman: The biggest one is if they can't meet up. In some cases, where the people live very far away from each other, there are real financial obstacles. But if they've been talking for awhile, I have a hard time imagining they can't save up for one bus ticket. Watch out for people who have a frequent series of dramatic events, illness, and accidents. We see cancer used often to ensnare and manipulate. If they find excuse after excuse why they can't meet you, especially if they also have reasons why they can't videochat so you can at least see them, it can be a good indication they're hiding something.
MC: Why do attractive people who could certainly get a real-life significant other still get sucked into online love?
NS: It's the element of mystery and wanting what you can't have. For myself, I was a single guy in New York City, surrounded by smart, funny, beautiful women, but I knew them. I had gone out with New York girls. I was looking for an escape, a fantasy, and so meeting a woman online in another state felt unknown and mysterious.
MC: The Millennials on the show feel that their relationships are 100 percent real, even though they haven't met their boyfriend or girlfriend in person.
NS: The simple truth is we all want someone who likes us for us. In real life, physicality often complicates or gets in the way of forming a genuine connection. It's a traditional romantic courtship type of communication, like pen pals or love letters, which makes you feel something different, more special, than just meeting someone at the bar and make out. It's about being known. There's more romance, and it's exciting. It feels more real, not less.
MC: How do you stay optimistic about love when you've been burned by fraud and you basically see it happen to someone else every week?
NS: I approach each relationship with the same attitude: the feelings are real, whether or not they're talking to someone who's using a different name, job, photo, or even sex. You're still sharing who you are with someone else, and if it helps you get through your day, it's valuable. They all have the expectation that in the end, they're going to end up with this person they've been talking with. But regardless of how it turns out, it's an opportunity to explore your identity. I want them to get closure and answers, whether they're moving toward a relationship or away from one. Though I'd love for each episode to end in wedding bells, there's not always the happy ending, but it's an ending that helps them process their experience.
MC: Knowing what you know, would you be willing to meet a girl online again?
NS: With the exception of a few poor decisions, there's not much I wouldn't do again. The internet is an amazing forum for meeting people, and I wouldn't be closed to that possibility.