People lie on the internet. For most LGBT people it’s an accepted truth. Yet there are still many who, for various reasons, are so lonely and eager to find a confidante or their soul mate they’re willing to believe some pretty outrageous lies. Or up until a certain point, anyway. This is where Nev Schulman and Max Joseph step in. As the genial hosts of Catfish, the hit series about online relationships based on bogus social media profiles that airs on MTV each Wednesday night, Joseph and Schulman (whose own experience with an internet relationship hoax was documented in the 2010 film of the same title) are around to investigate the truth. Despite the fascinating online romances, including some involving gays and lesbians, explored on the series, many viewers find the bromance between Nev and Max, both of whom are straight, to be just as compelling and often homoerotic. Ahead of the season three premiere tonight, the two men chatted with Queerty about the show’s LGBT appeal, how to avoid getting catfished and just how close their relationship really is.
In lesser hands your series could easily become exploitative. What efforts do you take to respect the humanity of the people on your show?
Nev Schulman: We talk about that all the time. We’ve been concerned that we’re giving people an opportunity to, in some ways, exploit us and using the television format to get attention for doing things they shouldn’t be doing. It goes both ways.
Max Joseph: Also the film succeeded based on its integrity and the compassion Nev showed to Angela and her family and from the very beginning the show was built around that idea. We’ve always wanted to take the high road and be compassionate and hear everyone out. That’s the reason we’re so successful in getting the catfish to come meet us. It’s a crazy thing we’re asking them to do. We’re asking them to come out of the closet, whatever closet they’re in and unmask themselves, not just in front of the person they care most about but in front of cameras and the MTV audience. The only reason we’re successfully able to do that is they’ve seen the show and they know we’re not they’re to call them out and point fingers but to let them tell their story and their apology in a safe, mediated environment.
MJ: A lot of people come up to us and ask, “How can you keep a straight face when the people you’re talking to must be do dumb to have an online relationship for so long without meeting the person?” The truth is they’re not. They’re normal, grounded people for the most part. What’s happening is in their daily lives they don’t have people they can talk to. They don’t have a best friend they can trust. They get bullied in school. Their teachers are busy with the stress of being a teacher. Their parents are out to lunch or don’t understand what they’re going through. The only person who is safe for them to confide in and share their secrets with is across the country. It’s a perfect stranger who will not divulge their secrets and embarrass them, who will tell them every day that things are going to be OK and listen to them and give them advice and support. Often that’s why they stay in these relationships for so long without meeting, even though they might know in the back of their minds that this person isn’t who they say they are. It doesn’t matter because what they’re getting is so much more important to them. Of course, when we meet them they’ve been in the relationship for sometimes two or three years and it’s gotten to a point where they just have to meet the other person. They simply can’t go any further in accepting the relationship for what it is. I really believe that’s why they stay in the relationships for so long. It’s a kind of therapy.
Do you get more requests from gay people or straight people?
NS: I don’t necessarily know the answer to that. It’s not always included in the information and I don’t go through enough emails personally to give you an answer. I do think sexuality plays a huge part in our show, both heterosexual and otherwise. It’s something that as a young person I can imagine comes with a lot of insecurities and fears and implications. Often someone with those issue will resort to creating a fake online identity for themselves that allows them to explore their sexuality.
Do you find all stories to be similar or does one sexual orientation seem to be drawn toward internet romance more than the other. I ask because I wonder if gay men and lesbian women who live in remote parts of the country are more likely to turn to the internet to find romance.
NS: We have an episode about this in season three and we’ve had past episodes that deal with that. I think it’s a very real phenomenon because of the internet and social media. If you do grow up in a smaller, rural town and don’t have an LGBT community it does sort of become your only resort to go online and find people who share interests and might be eligible to date. That’s something we see for sure on the show and I’ve heard that from other people before.
You’ve had episodes in which a person has lied about his or her gender to embark on a same-sex relationship online. When their real identity is revealed, have you seen the victim become open to experimenting with their orientation anyway?
MJ: That might just be the case in an episode this season. It also happened in season one. It was definitely shocking to us but also amazing and inspiring. You asked before about sexuality and if there’s a difference in how heterosexuals and gay people deal with catfishing. What I will say is sexuality itself plays a major role because physical attraction hijacks our brains. When a catfish uses a picture of a hot girl or hot guy, the catfish thinks that’s an insignificant lie or a small thing. Maybe they’ll say, “I just used a different profile picture and everything else was true. Our souls are intertwined and we’re meant to be together. That picture was just a little lie.” I think there’s that temptation with the internet because it’s flipped the traditional model of courtship on its head. Until now, you’ve met in person. The first thing you do is decide if you are or are not attracted to someone physically and then move from there. Now, sometimes it’s the last part of the puzzle that comes into play. Sometimes you fall in love with the person’s soul only to find that you don’t have physical chemistry. I think it’s a really interesting conversation. Nev and I have talked a lot about how much physical chemistry is important and how much it plays a role no matter how close and intimate you get with someone. Sure, its amazing. We love it when people will experiment and “go gay” if they feel that connection with them or even try with someone who is the same sex they said they were but looks different. That’s very much the exception to the rule, which is people don’t like being deceived. Period. Even when they aren’t who they say they are, there’s more than likely a chance that in person it just won’t work because the physical chemistry is different. You just can’t anticipate it.
MJ: There’s an amazing gay woman who is an amazing inspiration to us. I think that everyone will love her when the episode airs. She’s from the south. She’s been out since she was 14 and she’s just really cool and we have high hopes for her.
Most of the stories you investigate tend to be folks under 30, which makes sense with MTV’s target audience. Do you ever get requests from older gay people?
MJ: I dream of older gay people. [Everyone laughs.] I dream of making another season of the show or a different version of the show on a different network that allows us to go into the stories of not only older gay people but just an older demographic, in general. As much as younger people are engaging in social media relationships and online romance, I think adults and, even in some cases, seniors are, as well. I think they’re just as interesting and it’s a topic I’d like to be more involved in.
NS: There are a lot of catfish stories which aren’t being told on our show, unfortunately. That has a lot to do with just the structure of making the show. We get a million emails about people who have met someone across the world on a different continent and or older men who’ve been on sites to meet a bride in Sweden or Russia. I’d love to tell those stories, too, but they simply don’t fit into the budget or time schedule we have to make the show. I do think there’s a large variety of catfish stories out there in the world and it would be great to be able to tell more of them.
NS: Video chat. That’s obviously a good one to start with, which is second only to meeting up in person. Just ask them to video chat with you so you can see them and have more of a personal connection. Also verify they are the person they present themselves to be. Other tips in general are… I don’t really promote having an online relationship. I think it’s OK to meet people on the internet, but if you’re really looking to date and make an effort to get involved with someone, you should be doing that in person. If someone lives far away and is unavailable to meet up with you and is conveniently unavailable to see you or meet up with you, you have to ask yourself at a very early stage in the game if this is going to be a theme and if it’s worth your time and energy to invest in someone who’s not going to be around.
You guys must be aware that you’re both considered heartthrobs to a lot of gay guys.
NS: I’ve heard that before.
MJ: I live in West Hollywood so that might have been me. [Laughs]
There’s even an article online with all the homoerotic moments between you two. Where I’m going with this is… are you guys just super tight or do you intentionally play up the bromance angle?
MJ: We don’t know how tight each other are. [Laughs]
NS: One thing that Max and I both observed and commented on is there seems to be a game or some sort of attraction people have to outing or wondering which celebrity is gay. It’s been my mom’s favorite game since I was a little kid. She’s like “Oh, John Travolta’s gay” or “I heard this guy is gay.” Everything is about who is gay and who’s not gay. All of sudden we’re in front of the camera so people think that we’re gay. That makes sense because people think everyone is gay. We think it’s silly and fun. We do play it up because to not play it up would be to dig ourselves into a hole. The more you deny it, the gayer you are. [Laughs] And if I were gay I assure you Max is not my type.
NS: We see comments on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram from gay fans. We’re aware of it. I think if we do have a larger gay fan base, they’re a slightly more evolved and sophisticated person and have more self-confidence that they don’t need to parade their celebrity crushes with comments about how hot they are and how much they want to make out with them. They’re more evolved beings and don’t use social media and fan mail to express their undeveloped sexual desires because they’re dealing with them in real life.
MJ: Maybe not your gay fans. [Laughs]
NS: I do think that gay people love the show because we’re always openly discussing sexuality and issues of identity, whether they’re self-image issues or sexuality issues. I think we’ve created a safe place to have that discussion on a very public stage I hope that is empowering to both young and old gay people. We definitely do get hit up a lot when we’re in different cities in diners by groups of lesbians or gay men who want photos with us. I don’t think it’s because they think we’re hot but that they appreciate the show.
Nev, you have a book, In Real Life, that’ll be published in September. What’s it about?
NS: It’s a collection of my thoughts and experiences of the last two years shooting Catfish as well as from before that with the documentary and before that growing up in New York City. It’s my way to collect my thoughts on where we are as a culture and offer insight and hopefully good advice to anyone young or old who’s struglling to identify themselves to live a more meaningful and honest life and hopefully make conections both friendships and relationships that offer more substance and value to them. It’s fun and very revealing in some cases. It’s very personal. Like the documentary it dives into issues surrounding the internet and all sorts of things.
My final question is from a friend who also loves you guys. He wants to know if it’s possible that there’s a parallel universe in which you two are the world’s most beloved gay couple and Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka are the world’s most beloved internet truth seekers?
MJ: I’ll let Nev answer that as I’m not sure I fully understand the ramifications.
NS: That’s flattering. All I know is that we’ve been included in a universe with Neil Patrick Harris, which is a thrill. I’d love to go to that universe.
Watch the trailer for season three’s premiere below.