Back in the mid-aughts, I was catfished by someone I believed to be a 23-year-old Belgian orphan named Arthur for more than a year.
I had recently moved to L.A. and felt isolated and alone, so the notion of consoling a parentless European I’d met on MySpace was alluring — particularly around the holidays, when I especially empathized with his sorrowful plight. He was practically Tiny Tim! Arthur explained he was a model who occasionally posed nude, which I was totally cool with. To demonstrate just how cool, I asked zero follow-up questions (e.g., “What’s your last name?”). I figured nude modeling was just something one did when they had an @hotmail.fr email address, which I found terribly exotic, especially when it directed me to French love songs I couldn’t understand.
Like this one:
And this one:
We spoke occasionally over the phone and were in near-constant contact via online chat; we rang in 2007 together twice over AOL Instant Messenger — once for Belgium and again for Southern California — each time sharing what we’d hoped to leave behind in 2006. (We both pledged to give up cigarettes that year, which I took to mean we’d raise healthy, bilingual children one day.) I envisioned us sharing cheese fondue après-ski while tactfully avoiding the topic of dead parents.
I’m hardly the first person to have been romantically duped on the internet; a few years ago, Glamour said one in ten online profiles are scams. My friend Gordon fell hard for a 20-something Arabic woman named Amina in the early days of AOL back the mid-1990s. “It was mostly telephone and letter writing,” he recalls. “We talked every day for a long time and the letters she sent me were fucking poetry. I started to rely on them. I remember thinking, Even if she’s a phony, I need to know anyone who writes like this. They were also sexual in nature. It was intoxicating.”
After trading photos and handwritten letters for the better part of a year, Gordon sent Amina a plane ticket and went to LAX with flowers to welcome her. “But she never showed up. It was a real letdown,” he says, still defeated all these years later. Eventually all roads seemed to lead to bullshit and Gordon finally called Amina out. “She confessed and explained that she got off on making up stories to get people to fall in love with her. I was really hurt. I hesitate to say much more about her because there was so much BS swirled in with the truth I can’t verify fact from fiction. What I do know was that she was from a working-class family in Canada, plain looking, and wore librarian glasses. Whoever she was, it’s clear that this was an escape from her unhappy reality.” Gordon actually received a Facebook message from Amina recently — 20 years later — asking how he was. “I didn’t respond,” he says without emotion. “I don’t want anything to do with her. Fool me once…”
Another friend of mine, Rory, was catfished by a guy he met on Tinder who claimed to work on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico but was looking to relocate to L.A. “Thankfully I read an article that talked about ‘signs you may be getting catfished.’ Working as an engineer on an oil rig was one of them,” Rory explains. “Soldier fighting abroad was another, so when I met a hot guy claiming to be a sniper in Afghanistan looking for a long-term relationship, I passed.”
Arthur wasn’t a fighter, though. I mean, look at that face! Every so often, he’d send me photos with cute little captions in French.
That’s so crazy, I thought. I brush my teeth, too! We have so much in common!
I told Arthur about everything that happened in my life; if I got a parking ticket, he heard about it — and reminded me 60 days later to send the fine in before it doubled. He shared details of his life, too. I became well-versed in fibromyalgia — a muscular disorder he suffered from — so I could better empathize when his chronic pain and fatigue set in. “I’m so sorry to hear that, Artie,” I’d write over IM. “Have you tried — I don’t know the word in French — wearing something like this? I’m going to mail you one.”
And so on. He was also one of the first people I shared my writing with. I’d written a spoken-word essay about having dinner with George W. Bush in the White House — that was later published in Vanity Fair — and rehearsed it over the phone with Arthur the night before reading it in front of a live audience at the Comedy Central Stage in Hollywood. Arthur assured me the audience would respond well to the honesty — as he had — and that it didn’t come off as unpatriotic, as I feared. (To this day, I credit Arthur with helping me find the courage to tell that story.)
Simply put, we provided each other day-to-day companionship and support that’s typically reserved for significant others. Like Gordon, I grew to rely on it, which is likely why I never allowed myself to consider whether I was being duped.
I don’t remember why the inspiration struck late one night to copy and paste the file name of one of the photos Arthur sent me into Google. I wasn’t suspicious; I probably just hoped to see more of the man I was falling in love with.
The search led me to a porn site, where I discovered all the other photos Arthur had sent me that year. (Adding insult to injury, he’d neglected to send any of the nudes, just the G-rated stills from the start of the various porn scenes — kicking the soccer ball around, diving off a sailboat, brushing his teeth, etc.) Over the next couple days I went through all of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief, though always returning to denial. I pressed Arthur on every facet of his life, relentlessly cross-examining him and submitting the evidence I’d found online to support my claims. I really wanted to believe him. (Needed to?)
What finally convinced me was a video I stumbled upon, deep within the same porn site, in which Arthur, the Belgian orphan who so adorably struggled with multi-syllabic English words, was speaking flawlessly in a deep, twangy Southern American drawl.
The jig was up. Arthur finally came clean: He was in fact a 47-year-old accountant from Paris named Serge. He offered to send me his real picture, but I declined, preferring to remember him as Arthur. He did sound genuinely remorseful and agreed to erase his fraudulent MySpace profile to save anyone else the heartbreak I was feeling.
I demanded proof, which he happily provided:
“Could we still be friends,” he wondered? I briefly considered swallowing the blue pill. But like Gordon, I realized that wasn’t a possibility — everything Arthur/Serge said would be a painful reminder of just how woefully gullible I’d been. How could I possibly respect myself?
So I reluctantly let Arthur drift away.
Part of me still misses him, at least conceptually — both the companionship and the reverie. I like to think the experience hasn’t jaded me, though how could it not? Oh well. A touch of skepticism is probably a good thing. The happiest, healthiest relationships tend to be rooted in reality.
It’s the fantasies that are heartbreaking.