Raised to be polite and empathetic toward others, Diane O’Meara said Wednesday that she thought she was simply doing a favor for a former high school classmate when she unknowingly became part of a fake girlfriend hoax involving Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o.
O’Meara, 23, claims to have had photos from her Facebook account taken by alleged hoax perpetrator Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, 22, which were used to represent Te'o's girlfriend Lennay Kekua, who supposedly died of leukemia in September but turned out to be a fake who never existed. O’Meara’s pictures appeared on Kekua’s fake Twitter account and were used in news reports at the time of her alleged death, but O’Meara said she had never heard of Te’o until the reporters from Deadspin.com who broke the story contacted her last week.
O’Meara told Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Wednesday that Tuiasosopo, her former classmate at Paraclete High School in Lancaster, Calif., reached out to her on Facebook and described in great detail how he and his cousin had been in a traumatic car accident earlier in 2012. She claims that Tuiasasopo told her that he wanted to do a photo slideshow for his cousin for his birthday, and hoped O’Meara could supply a staged picture of herself holding up a sign that read “MSMK.’’
The photo later appeared on Kekua’s fake Twitter account, raising the question of why O’Meara would send a photo to someone she claims to have barely spoken with in high school and had not heard from in five years.
“I could see how people would think that, but we’re raised to be polite, we’re raised to have a kind heart,’’ O’Meara said. “He repeatedly reached out to me on Facebook, and I almost felt guilty about not submitting a photo with this sign for this photo slideshow. He went as far as sending me a photo with his cousin with head trauma, bandages, in the hospital with him, and out of the kindness of my heart, I thought I was just comforting somebody.’’
Te’o told ESPN that he was a victim of an elaborate hoax and was not involved in any way. He claims to have never met Kekua face to face, saying he only spoke to her online and over the phone. However, he admitted in a taped interview with ABC’s Katie Couric on Tuesday that he lied to the media and public that Kekua was real even after he knew it was all a hoax. He said he received a phone call on Dec. 6 from someone alleging to be Kekua, who supposedly had died on Sept. 12, yet still stuck to the story about Kekua in interviews leading up to the BCS championship game against Alabama on Jan. 6.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around this entire confusing situation myself,’’ O’Meara said. “If Manti is really innocent in this entire situation, I empathize with him because I assume we would have the same emotions – frustration, anger, confusion.’’
O’Meara, a marketing executive in Los Angeles, also didn’t appreciate having her picture splashed out there as Te’o’s alleged girlfriend because she is currently in a long-term relationship.
“It’s difficult and it’s definitely very shocking,’’ she said. “I have my own boyfriend of five years, a serious committed relationship, and to hear that you’re the face of a separate relationship, it’s hard to see.’’
She has hired an attorney, but said she is not pursuing any legal action at this time. Tuiasosopo has not returned numerous calls from NBC News seeking comment. O'Meara told NBC's Miguel Almaguer on Tuesday that Tuiasasopo had called her, admitting to the hoax and apologizing.
“The lesson learned is that social media and the way that it’s growing, there’s definitely a lack of protection and privacy laws,’’ O’Meara said.
The sports world has been having a field day with the story since it broke. The meme known as "Te'oing" was born, with people posting photos of themselves with their arm around no one to signify having a fake girlfriend. The San Jose Giants, a minor league baseball team in the San Francisco Giants organization, announced they are holding "Lennay Kekua Night'' on April 12. The game will feature catfish on the menu in an allusion to the MTV show "Catfish" about people duping others with fake identities online.
The NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers created a "Manti Te'o Kiss Cam" showing a person sitting next to an empty seat. The NHL's Dallas Stars showed an empty seat on the Jumbotron while welcoming "Manti Te'o's girlfriend" to the game.