The documentary Catfish, released in 2010, followed Nev Schulman along the journey of finding out that his new love and her entire network of extended family and friends were not who they claimed to be. Apparently, Nev—or his humiliation—tapped into something, because two years later MTV launched its television version of Catfish, which has regularly garnered top ratings in the network’s most coveted demographic. (The fourth season premieres tonight.) Now Schulman has a new book out, one that positions him to be—well, if not the voice of his generation, at least a voice of one sliver of his generation, the sliver that is so consumed by social media that its greatest humiliations happen with people they have never met in person.
When I insisted on meeting Schulman, he insisted that we meet in Lincoln Center. Waiting for him, I found myself nervously ruminating on why he chose this spot. Less than 50 feet away, there was a swarm of kids from nearby middle schools and high schools, gathering for post-graduation photos. MTV’s core demographic was crowding around me; watching them, my anxiety grew. Would we even have a chance to talk, or would he be swarmed? But then the concern faded. Schulman’s face, I realized, could be blown up on a billboard overlooking Lincoln Center, with his Semitic dark olive skin and ever-present, ever-full five o’clock shadow, and they still wouldn’t notice him. They couldn’t see each other for real, so busy were they with the glass on their phones, the screens on their cameras.
That conflation of real life with screen life, that inability to tell the difference, could be a metaphor for what got Schulman here in the first place.
When the original Catfish incident occurred, Schulman was on the brink of turning his life around. He’d been a bit of a jerk, to put it mildly, in the recent past. During his sophomore year in college, at Sarah Lawrence, Schulman and his brother were invited by the Neistat brothers, the noted documentary filmmakers, to work on their crew for a film about a 93-year-old tap-dancing grandmother. Collaborating with them was Mark, a close childhood friend of both brothers. After a long drive to Connecticut, they stopped at a Radio Shack for equipment. Mark was likely trying to lighten the mood when, adopting Nev’s role as prankster, he grabbed a megaphone from the Radio Shack countertop and blasted a loud noise directly into Nev’s ear. They traded a few light slaps before Schulman delivered a hard slug directly to Mark’s face. With blood everywhere, they drove directly to the hospital. In the hospital waiting room Ariel said, “I will always be your brother and I will always love you”—then added, “but I do not like you right now. I don’t want to be friends with you in your current state.” A bit later in college, Schulman was kicked out, which crushed his mother, an alumna and trustee.
Being kicked out likely wasn’t such a big deal to Nev, who’d developed a reputation at school. He was known for pulling pranks: One involved him defecating in the dorm cafeteria’s cereal dispenser. Event photography, as it happens, was what got him kicked out. The field experienced a boom in the early aughts. Over the summer, Schulman had started a business taking such pictures, and when he returned to Sarah Lawrence he found a perfect opportunity to integrate his new profession into campus life at the school’s annual Smut Ball. At the party, students were encouraged to dress in their most revealing and provocative outfits. It didn’t take long before the partner of one of his subjects objected to his photographing. The way he remembers it, the body came out of nowhere, tackling him to the ground and pinning his camera to the floor so that the strap cut off his oxygen as he tried to wriggle free. When he finally got his footing he swung, hitting the stocky, nearly bald figure that had just been on top of him, directly in the face. He says that it wasn’t until after the punch that he realized that he had just punched a woman. Soon after, he was politely encouraged to leave Sarah Lawrence.
After being kicked out, he was taking pictures and reconnecting with ballet. Yes, ballet dancing, which had been a passion of his in middle school. Now that Schulman had time on his hands, his father, who also loved ballet, encouraged him to reclaim his lost passion, and soon the two of them became, as Schulman describes “ballet groupies,” cheering for their favorite dancers and showering them with flowers after performances. Soon Schulman got a job filming a ballet workshop taught by Benjamin Millepied (Black Swan choreographer, Natalie Portman husband). To make ends meet he took work as a bar mitzvah videographer, too. Now he needed a workspace, although still “just a bar mitzvah videographer,” as he told me.
However, he’d had one recent coup: A photo he’d taken of a ballet performance was published in the New York Sun. The moment came and went. Then, in the strangest possible way, it came again. One day Schulman received an email from an 8-year-old girl named Abby, from Ishpemig, Michigan. This email would set into motion the chain of events that made him famous, the one that gave birth to Catfish.
The first email Abby sent was a quick introduction, containing some compliments on Nev’s photographs and a request for a critique on some of her paintings. Schulman obliged, looking at some of her watercolors and drawings pictured in her MySpace profile listed as “AbbyLovesBallet.” Her work was impressive for an 8-year-old, and he told her so. Then he received an email from Abby’s mother, checking to make sure that her daughter wasn’t “bothering him” and apologizing if that was the case. Soon after, he received another message from Abby asking permission to paint the photograph that had been published in the newspaper.
Soon Schulman was regularly chatting online with Abby and her mother, Angela. Not long after he’d given Abby permission to paint his photo, a large package arrived. It was Abby’s painting, a beautiful watercolor representation of a dancer in mid-flight. Her skill for an 8-year-old was incredible, and he took to Facebook to tell her so. Before long, Schulman was also chatting with numerous members of Abby’s immediate family and friends. It was all rather innocent, until he met Megan, Abby’s beautiful 19-year-old sister. She called him one night, when she was, she said, babysitting Abby. Before long they were exchanging hypersexual instant messages and photographs. One photograph from the exchange featured Schulman completely nude with only a deer head covering his crotch. The photo is included in Nev’s forthcoming book In Real Life, released this past fall, the occasion for our meeting.
Not only had Schulman become pen pals with an 8-year-old girl that he met online, but he’d developed a romantic relationship with her older sister, without having met either of them. Schulman and his brother, Ariel, had begun shooting a movie about this odd relationship.
One night, while staying in the hotel in Vail, Colorado, Schulman began messaging Megan. She claimed to be recording music at the time and asked whether he had any requests for cover songs. Schulman asked for a rendition of the folk classic “Tennessee Stud,” and before long he received an audio file of a throaty and sultry cover of the song. She also sent along another recording—an acoustic cover of a song by the pop-punk band A New Found Glory titled “Downhill.” Schulman and his brother listened to the song in awe. They were so enamored with “Downhill” that they did an Internet search and found another video of a young woman covering the song—only it was the same, exactly the same. Sitting in the hotel room, fraught with confusion and anxiety, Schulman and Ariel decided in that moment to go to Michigan and confront the family face to face, cameras rolling.
When the team arrived at Angela’s house, she wasn’t the woman in the pictures but a homely middle-aged woman with two severely handicapped sons. Her life consisted of caring for them 24/seven. Abby, it turned out, was a real, live elementary-school-aged girl, but she didn’t paint. Angela had been the artist behind all the paintings. Megan, no matter how hard Angela tried to track her down, never seemed to appear. “You’re her, aren’t you?” Schulman asks, and Angela confesses. Not only did she pose as Abby, she posed as Nev’s entire newfound network of friends, uncles, cousins, classmates, and acquaintances.
I want to suggest that that moment, the one in the movie, changed Nev Schulman. Up until then, his adult career had been that of a jerk—nay, an asshole. In his new book, he admits as much. From that point forward, he became an empathic figure. And today, he sees his career as saving young people from the Internet-facilitated ethical confusion that nearly took him down.
“There are a small percentage of people who can identify with Angela’s motivations for such complex deception,” Schulman told me, sitting on a concrete slab in Lincoln Center. “I was one of them. I knew what it was like to want to be someone else.”
The conversation that followed was measured but emotional. There were tears, but never did Schulman accuse or cast aspersions. It was a real interaction, with all the texture and feeling online interactions lack. In the movie, and in the television show, through three seasons, he seems the furthest thing from an asshole. My time to broach the subject had finally come.
“Oh, I was a complete and total asshole,” said Schulman.
A good 15 minutes had passed since Schulman sat down and he had seemed, as he did on television, a mensch.
“Excuse me,” said a high, delicate voice. “Are you Nev?”
Schulman stood up and shook the hands of two young girls, both probably 11 or 12.
“We watch you every week.”
They asked to take a picture and handed me their phones. I prepared to take the shot.
“Actually, you should move that way, the light’s there,” Schulman said.
He took a few minutes with them and then sat back down and continued.
“Yeah, I was terrible,” he said. “There was a time where I think my mom was genuinely concerned just about whether or not I was going to be able to be a functioning person.”
He went on to tell me that his incidents of asshole behavior are well-documented in his book. He wasn’t lying. The whole book is among other things a journey out of the grips of asshole-itry, including a detailed account of the Sarah Lawrence incident. But the book also describes how he changed, a process that began with that first punch and ended at Angela’s house that day.
“The thing is, all these people on our show, the so-called Catfish who do these seemingly terrible things to others, lie to them, betray them or swindle them—I can relate to their motivations for doing so,” he said. “Almost anybody who’s ever been on the show, I can relate to them, to the terrible things that people do sometimes.”
Catfish the TV show is, according to Schulman, supposed to be humane. Both parties on every episode, the Catfish and the so-called “hopeful,” are assigned therapists to consult with before the show and for an extended period afterward, he said. In fact, I was shocked to learn, guests who appear on the show actually have Schulman’s phone number and interact with him long after the show is done.
This fact was especially surprising, for me, in light of one infamous Catfish episode. It featured a young man named Justin Voel Pel who was posing as a sexy young woman named Jess, to lure a man named Artis into infidelity. According to Justin, his motive was to teach Artis a lesson for straying from his existing girlfriend. Both parties later took to social media claiming that they’d fooled MTV, that it was all a ruse.
“Yeah, I still talk to him,” Schulman said. “I kind of like the guy.”
Today, Nev Schulman sees his career as saving young people from the Internet-facilitated ethical confusion that nearly took him down.
According to Schulman, the average episode kicks off when either the “Catfish” or the “hopeful” contacts MTV. Sometimes it’s actually the Catfish deciding that he or she wants to come clean to the person who’s been deceived. Schulman and his sidekick Max Josef meet the hopeful to discuss their relationship. Schulman and Josef then retreat to a coffee shop for some Internet investigation. Often, their most effective sleuthing tool is Google Image Search. Often, if a Catfish is using somebody else’s photo from their social networking pages, a Google Image search will pin them down. Their other major investigative tool is Spokeo, a website that collects all available data on a person, including address, phone number (including who the number is registered to), and social media information. The producers always know who the actual Catfish is, but Josef and Schulman don’t. This, Schulman says, is crucial to keeping that verisimilitude, to creating that stomach-drop feeling at the end of each episode. Schulman knows as little as we do.
“They don’t tell us anything no matter what, and it gets frustrating,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it means it’s going to take an extra couple weeks.”
Having just ended its third season, Catfish is a certified success. Schulman’s personality has resonated with the public in a real way. He currently has 750,000 followers on Twitter. Funny for someone who once clashed with just about everybody he knew. Part of his success, he said, was about embracing himself. For instance, a lot has been made of Schulman’s chest hair, which can often be seen on MTV, creeping out from the collars of his shirts. In his book he said it was something he was once ashamed of; now he has a line of T-shirts with a drawing of his chest-hair adorning them.
When I originally approached Schulman, I was focused on the question of what he’d do post-Catfish. I expected he might be the next Anderson Cooper, or some news-oriented type with a focus on interpersonal relationships in the Internet-era. However, it became clear during our conversation, and especially after having read the book, that he’s moving in a different direction. On Catfish he seems to shoulder the responsibility of comforting the afflicted, bolstering their self-worth beyond their fictitious relationship. With the afflicter he’s more like an aggressive therapist, getting to the root of why they did what they did, but also encouraging them to move past it. “Mediator” is probably the most accurate description of his role on the show.
He says he’s creating another show with MTV that uses the Catfish model of people submitting stories and him getting involved with their worlds, to try to fix a problem. This time he says he’ll deal with a far broader range of issues than just social media relationships. Instead the show will deal with parents and children, siblings, or any other two-party conflict. He said he’s also moving away from TV and into politics. “I’m working,” he told me, “with an organization that exists already that advocates on behalf of young people in D.C. in regards to issues that affect young people. Anything from voter registration to health care to student loan debt, all that stuff.”
Schulman and I later took a walk around the Upper East Side, where he grew up. It was clear from hearing him talk that the experience of dealing with so many young people has had an effect on him. The effect of the Internet and social media on those young people is something he puts a lot of thought into.
“More than ever now, people are just numbers. It’s just the analytics of the social media industry now. We live in what The Matrix suggested. We’re all just plugged into a mainframe battery and they’re just sucking out energy. That’s kind of what the Internet feels like to me. I don’t understand why someone doesn’t step up and try to make something amazing with that energy.”
The thing about bad behavior is it doesn’t just stop, there needs to be a moment of realization, sometimes a few of them. Some of us only learn from our mistakes. For those of us for whom that’s true, our mistakes can define us in way that doesn’t have to be negative. Schulman had to punch a girl, mortify his mother, lose his brother’s affection, and then have someone who was even more miserable than him manipulate and devastate him in front of a camera in order to have that moment. It seems the heart of Catfish comes from Schulman’s hope that he’s giving other young people their moments of realization. He’s saving them from a future of looking in the mirror and not seeing the person they want to be. He’s giving them the gift he once got.
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Jonathan Reiss is a writer and contributor to numerous outlets, such as Spin Magazine, NY Press, Complex, and The Source.
Jonathan Reiss is a writer and contributor to numerous outlets, such as Spin Magazine, NY Press, Complex, and The Source.