A Kiwi woman who appeared on the British edition of the hit television show Catfish has spoken out after she was inadvertently implicated in a duo's toxic relationship - from the other side of the world.
Sarah, an Auckland-based programmes and development manager, had no idea that a complete stranger in England had assumed her identity for roughly eight months - until she was contacted by producers from the popular programme.
Hiding behind pictures she had snatched from Sarah's social media, the catfish, named Courtney, was posing as 'Hannah' - a fake woman Courtney had cultivated in order to get closer to her friend, roommate and business partner, Mario.
Mario, originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had been living in west London for the past 11 years. After the bitter dissolution of his marriage, Mario plummeted to rock-bottom. Homeless and estranged from his children, the now-PE teacher decided to transform his life, quitting drugs and alcohol and losing three stone.
After getting his life back on track, Mario met 'Hannah' on a dating app - a woman he described as "beautiful, kind and compassionate".
But after eight months of back-and-forth messaging, Mario had yet to meet the woman he believed was "the one" - despite her claiming to live in the very same west London neighborhood, with a postcode that indicated she lived just around the corner.
With his suspicions mounting, Mario contacted MTV's Catfish UK, in the hope hosts Oobah Butler and Julie Adenuga would be able to track down the elusive 'Hannah'.
Speaking to Oobah and Adenuga, Mario revealed he had never even heard his beloved's voice after almost a year of daily communication. Multiple attempts at meeting had fallen through, with 'Hannah' always having an excuse at the last minute. However, Mario clung to the hope that 'Hannah' was real, with her local postcode proving she was almost in arm's reach.
But the love story did not have a fairytale ending. A photo of 'Hannah' posing with one of the city's iconic telephone boxes was the first red flag, with Oobah and Adenuga agreeing the picture looked far too touristy for a London local. They also searched the crucial postcode in the electoral register, which didn't list anyone by her name - however, the hosts noted it could just mean 'Hannah' wasn't registered to vote.
Then, through a reverse-image search on Google, a headshot of 'Hannah' was found to actually belong to Sarah, a programmes and development manager living in Auckland, New Zealand.
After making contact with Sarah, a quick video chat with the Kiwi confirmed she was clueless her pictures had been stolen by a stranger.
It was later discovered that 'Hannah' was, in fact, Mario's flatmate Courtney - a woman he had casually dated in a 'friends-with-benefits' arrangement before eventually becoming roommates and business partners. However, Courtney was not happy with being kept at arm's length, and concocted a ploy in a bid to experience a serious relationship with her roomate - a man she claimed she was "desperately in love with".
After Courtney revealed herself as the catfish during a tense meeting at Wandsworth Park, a visibly shocked and heartbroken Mario said: "I didn't expect to see you today. Out of everyone in the world, I didn't expect you."
But now, a week after the episode's premiere, Sarah says she still has questions after watching the episode for the first time.
'I thought I was being catfished'
"It was all a major shock. I don't know how else to describe it," she told Newshub on Wednesday.
Sarah said coincidentally, she had recently started watching Catfish again with her colleague during lunch breaks - mere weeks before she received the fateful message via Instagram.
"Three weeks later, I got an Instagram DM from a person who said they were a producer for Catfish UK," Sarah said. "And I thought I was being catfished!"
But after agreeing to a Zoom call, Sarah found the producer was "a very legitimate human" who believed she had inadvertently become entangled in a serious case of catfishing.
"I had a chat with the producer first. I know the hosts have to figure it out for themselves first, so they're given some clues, but it's all worked out on camera," Sarah explained.
During the initial conversations, Sarah was asked whether she knew Mario personally or could recall any past interaction with him. After establishing there had been no prior connection between the two, Sarah was largely left in the dark about the identity of the man who had fallen in love with her photos - and the person who had assumed her identity for the better part of a year.
"I didn't know what he looked like literally until the promos came out about a week ago," Sarah said.
"I [also] didn't know until the episode came out that [the catfish] had created a [fake] Instagram page and had followed all these people, which I guess was a bit scary."
Sarah is still unsure how Courtney came across her profile, and why the catfish decided to curate her fake persona using her photos in particular.
"I can only assume what the reasons for that might be," she told Newshub.
"I still don't know how [Courtney] found me or why she used my information. I have no idea. I don't know if I tagged myself at the London Eye or something like that? I might have used a geotag function and she might have found my profile that way, or maybe through a friend of a friend. I was told not to contact the woman who took my identity… I'm not allowed to contact them directly or reach out to either of them.
"I guess I still have some questions."
Now, Sarah says she has mixed feelings towards the stranger who fell in love with her photos. She admitted there was a small part of her that couldn't help romanticising the situation, and wondered whether she could in fact be "the one" Mario was looking for.
"There was a part of me that was flattered, and there was a part of me that thought, 'maybe this could be it' - a strange story that would bring us together," she said candidly.
"I met my ex on a flight when he was sitting next to me, so there was a part of me that hoped it would maybe be a love story. In hindsight, having watched it, definitely not - but there was a part of me that was flattered, but also weirded out."
In the days following the broadcast, Sarah has been coping well - but is aware the uncharted territory of reality television could present its own set of challenges.
"I didn't want to make my [Instagram] profile private, like why should I change or censor myself? It's not like I post anything with nudity or anything too controversial. But there are some people out there - which was kind of scary - that might try and assume my identity [again]," she said.
"I guess the catfish didn't take it too far - not my name, just my images. I guess I was almost lucky in some ways."
Despite claiming that all participants had been offered the appropriate support in the aftermath of the revelations, Sarah says no services have been provided to her by Catfish UK staff.
"I haven't been offered any support, but also I don't really need it."
She also acknowledged a photo she had specifically requested not to be used had been featured in the episode, prompting her to send a stern message to her contacts at the show.
Following its premiere last week, Sarah says she believes the strange story between Mario and Courtney is legitimate - but remains as in the dark about their relationship as the viewers.
Despite the betrayal, the end of the episode shows the two reconciling, with Courtney telling her unrequited love that she will always love him unconditionally. When the hosts catch up with the duo two months later, it's revealed that Mario has moved back in with his catfish after a brief three weeks apart.
Social media photos show the pair are still running an athletic apparel business together and appear to remain close friends.
"I think he's still living with her and they're still working together. I don't know whether it's platonic or if a romantic relationship has evolved there," Sarah said.
Despite contracts in place prohibiting Sarah from speaking to Mario and Courtney, she says she did have one bizarre interaction with the woman who stole her identity.
"I didn't have a clue who this [catfish] was, I still hadn't seen the episode, but when the promos were coming out on the MTV UK page, I had tagged a friend… [in] a comment and was like, 'haha, he knows my postcode' - and the girl responded to me," Sarah revealed.
"[She was] like 'why didn't you meet him?' and now I know that it was her, that's really weird. That was quite weird."