Ronaiah Tuiasosopo fell in love with Manti Te’o and said all his energy went into pretending to be the woman the Notre Dame linebacker came to know as Lennay Kekua.
Tuiasosopo, the 22-year-old mastermind of the elaborate hoax that embarrassed Te’o and left him looking gullible, spoke publicly for the first time in an interview with Dr. Phil McGraw for the “Dr. Phil Show,” the first part of which aired Thursday.
Tuiasosopo said Te’o knew nothing of the scam, and doesn’t believe he ever suspected Kekua was fake.
“He had no involvement,” Tuiasosopo said. “He did not know anything.”
Tuiasosopo said he built the online persona of Kekua, a nonexistent woman who Te’o said he fell in love with despite never meeting in person. Tuiasosopo then killed off the character last September.
“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.
He said he felt Kekua was a part of him, and grew feelings and emotions for Te’o that he could not control. He acknowledged that the hoax was cruel, but said it was never intended as a joke and that he got no financial gain from it.
“As twisted and confusing as it may be, yeah, I cared for this person,” he said, referring to Te’o. “I did all that I could to help this person become a better person, even though I wasn’t getting nothing out of it.”
When the ruse was reported by Deadspin.com on Jan. 16, the report raised the questions about whether Te’o was in on it. The story of how Te’o played through pain after learning about the deaths of his girlfriend and grandmother on the same day led to an outpouring of support from Notre Dame fans. It became the backdrop to the Fighting Irish’s undefeated regular season and run to the BCS championship, where they lost to Alabama.
Te’o won seven national awards for his play and was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. He has denied any involvement from the beginning, and Notre Dame said an investigation of the player’s claims backed up his story. When asked by Katie Couric in an interview broadcast last week, Te’o said he is not gay.
Tuiasosopo said he felt Te’o became a better person as a result of the relationship.
“If you really look at all his interviews, he felt that,” he said. “When he was under the understanding that he lost her, he realized all the good that Lennay had done for him.”
Through a spokesman, the Te’o family declined comment.
Tuisasosopo said he decided to confess to Te’o earlier this month as the hoax was unraveling because he felt he could not go any further with his own life until the truth was out.
“You’ve heard of recovering drug addicts? It takes a lot of courage to stand and say that,” he said “To recover from homosexuality and this type of thing. Not only that, coming back to your real life, as hard as a task as that is I’m going to do all that I can to live right.”
McGraw said that statement bothered him.
“I hope it’s a pressure you don’t put on yourself,” he said.
Tuiasosopo said he killed the Kekua character on the day Te’o learned his grandmother died, following an argument with the football star.
Te’o had told Kekua he didn’t need her, Tuiasosopo said.
“It hurt me,” he said. “It hit me like a brick wall. I was like, ‘Whoa, I’ve given so much into this.’ And I realized right then in that moment, that I poured so much into Lennay, that I myself was getting nothing, and look what I was left with.”
Tuiasosopo originally created Kekua using photos he copied from a high school classmate’s profile. Te’o has said he first became online friends with Kekua during the winter of 2009-10, his freshman year at Notre Dame.
Te’o also has said he first learned that something was amiss when Keuka called him on Dec. 6, and told him she had faked her death.
He told his parents about what had happened while home for Christmas break and called Notre Dame coaches on Dec. 26 to let them know. Notre Dame officials said that they interviewed Te’o and retained Stroz Friedberg, a New York computer forensics firm, to investigate the case. They learned on Jan. 3 that there were no records indicating Lennay Kekua existed.
Tuiasosopo said he was the voice of Kekua but initially refused to recreate it when pressed by McGraw. He eventually agreed to do the voice behind a privacy screen, something McGraw promised to show during part two of the interview on Friday.