Catfish UK hosts Julie Adenuga and Oobah Butler: ‘Manipulating people online has never been easier’

If any evidence were needed about the cultural significance of Catfish, the 2010 US documentary that explored deception in online dating, the clue is in the name. The film follows a lovestruck Nev Schulman as he tries to track down the 19-year-old girl to whom he thinks he is speaking on Facebook (she turns out to be a 40-year-old married woman). The film was spun off into a hit reality show on MTV, which was credited with introducing the word “catfishing” into the popular lexicon.

“Catfishing” describes the use of a fake or fictionalised online persona for fraudulent or deceptive purposes (the person perpetrating the deception is the catfish). In the TV show, Schulman and his team help others to unmask their online sweethearts, often with shocking results (my favourite endings include the one where a woman learns her husband is the catfish and the one where a couple tricks the show into paying for their tickets to meet).

The eighth season of the show finished in the US earlier this year – and this month the UK gets its own version. Enter the catfish hunters Julie Adenuga and Oobah Butler. It is the first television presenting either has done, but they are well known in their fields: Adenuga is an established radio personality, while Butler is a journalist and documentary-maker who made the news when his hoax restaurant The Shed at Dulwich became the top-rated eatery in London on Tripadvisor.

Like the US series, Catfish UK manages to feel entertaining and authentic. There is a production team helping Adenuga and Butler to close the case, and episodes are edited for pace, but neither presenter knows where the story will end up. Their responses are real, as is their banter-filled rapport – because, like every great TV show about a detective duo, the show is as much about their partnership as solving the mystery.

Adenuga is a straight-talking empath who knows how to talk to people in distress (and how to tease Butler), while Butler is the irreverent snooper, partial to a flourish of verboseness and, as we see in the series, a portion of chips. I spoke to them midway through the shooting of the first season to find out more about the highs and lows of catching catfish – and why lockdown has exacerbated online fraud.

Some people would describe Catfish as part fun, part public service, as it shows the myriad ways in which people deceive each other online. Does that sound right?

Oobah Butler: The first episode is about Emma, who is in love with a guy who says he’s in the navy. They’ve not spoken over video, except for one short call, but that’s enough to lower her defences. If you can’t trust video calls – the method we’ve been using to talk to our parents for the past year – then I think that’s pretty earth-shattering. I was so grateful to Emma that she was willing to share her story – that to me felt like public service.

When I first heard about the UK show, I thought: ‘But don’t we know all the ways people can catfish us?’ Are there any surprises in this version?

Julie Adenuga: I had the same thought. But the fact people know the internet so well is why catfishing is still happening – there are new tools and more people that know how to use them. There are many surprises in the show. We’ve had episodes where I think we’re matchmakers and will be invited to the wedding, and there have been times where I’ve been brought to tears and lost my temper.

OB: Watching the US show, you might tend to think deception was easier because the US is so big and living a state over can be a big distance away. But sometimes proximity doesn’t matter. With one case, the catfish was one of the people closest to the person. I’d say it’s easier than ever to manipulate someone online – especially during the pandemic, where all of a sudden everyone’s using social media 10 times more. The pernicious thing about catfishing –

JA: Ooh, this is a new word, pernicious, what does it mean?

OB: Like, kind of evil.

JA: OK, I’ll add that to my word folder. You were saying?

OB: The pernicious thing about being catfished is that you often end up pushing people away that can help you. From doing the show, I’ve learned that catfishes can end up isolating their targets.

Tell me about the motivations of catfishes. Why do people do it?

JA: The case that made me most angry, but also was the easiest for me to understand, was where the catfish felt abandoned and that they weren’t being listened to. They did it to prove a point. I’ve learned throughout this show that everybody has a reason.

OB: The question of why you would catfish is why I did this show – I genuinely didn’t know. We’re all so used to playing different versions of ourselves, though: one version for LinkedIn, another for TikTok. Julie, you’ve talked about [Instagram] filters and getting comfortable with seeing a different version of yourself. It makes us all catfishes, in a way.

Oobah, has working on this show made you think differently about the hoaxes in your documentaries?

OB: I’ve worked in restaurants and bars and my sister used to manage places; when someone left a one-star review, she would get it in the neck. So to see the power of Tripadvisor and then discover that loads of it was bullshit and there were companies set up to exploit rankings made me interested in exposing that falsehood.

The penny dropped for me when people came to eat. They sat on garden chairs outside a shed in Dulwich where I used to live and ate objectively bad food from Iceland. Then, because of what they had read online, they tried to book again. People trust what they read online more than what they put in their mouths. But I was always trying to be specific and address a system rather than a person, if that makes sense.

You both have substantial social media followings – did working on the show change your perspectives on your profiles?

JA: I’m actually really good at keeping my boundaries and making sure that what I put online is the business stuff. Whereas Oobah is a friendly guy talking to everyone. [To Butler] Have you changed?

OB: Definitely. On one of the first shoots, I went to get some chips. While we’re on set, we’re the responsibility of the channel, so we have security who need to know where we are. I’d left my phone in the hotel, and just from what I’d posted on my page they were able to find out what chip shop I was at. I always say that it could be me being catfished, because I really want to trust people.

One of my favourite things about the show is the rapport between you two. Did you know each other before making the show?

JA: No, we met at the screen tests. I remember at one we were asked about our favourite dinner party guests. I said Jim Carrey, Tracee Ellis Ross and some other people. But then Oobah comes out with people I’d literally never heard of. Jürgen something –

OB: Klopp. I also said Marina Abramović.

JA: And then you said “Macca” and I was like: “Who on earth is Macca?” It’s Paul McCartney, apparently. I thought to myself: “This guy is on another planet to me.” But my favourite thing about Oobah is we balance each other out. We both know we’re not going to walk away from a case.

OB: We spend time with the people who ask for our help, so we always make sure that it’s an emotionally satisfying and safe place to leave that person.

JA: And we both care about people – as in the idea of people, society. I couldn’t have picked a better team. [To Butler] I think you’re brilliant, mate.

OB: I think you’re brilliant too, Jules.

JA: I hope we get to do a season two. I’ve not finished travelling around the UK.

OB: And I’ve not finished forcing chips on you.