Inside 'Catfish': A Tale of Twisted Cyber-Romance

Nev Schulman, 24, says he fell fast for 'unbelievably sexy' teen Megan.

October 6, 2010, 5:58 PM

Oct. 8, 2010— -- For Nev Schulman, a 24-year-old New York City photographer who became entangled in a twisted online love affair with the girl of his dreams, it all began innocently enough.

In 2007, Schulman was contacted by an 8-year-old girl named Abby on MySpace. A budding artist from the remote upper peninsula of Michigan, Abby said she'd seen one of Schulman's photographs published in a newspaper months before, and wanted permission to paint it. Weeks later, Schulman received a watercolor rendition of his photograph.

"I was kind of floored," he recalled, describing the young prodigy's work. "We all said, 'Wow, this is great!'"

Schulman sent Abby more of his photographs to paint. With her mother Angela's blessing, the two began to correspond online and Schulman developed a friendship with the entire family.

"I was in a weird place in my life where I didn't have a lot going on ... and it was very flattering," Schulman told "20/20's" Jay Schadler. "She was inspiring me and... it was a really strangely reciprocal kind of give and take."

Schulman was blown away to learn from Angela that local art dealers were bidding on Abby's paintings; one had sold for $7,000.

"It was just so satisfying to feel like I was contributing to some little girl's life," he said.

Watch the full story on "20/20" tonight at 10 p.m. ET

Schulman was flooded with packages filled with Abby's drawings and paintings. That's when Schulman's brother Ariel and friend Henry Joost -- both filmmakers who shot Schulman and their friends hanging around all the time -- said they sensed a story was building.

"That's when I started filming because he would go, 'Pick these packages up, bring them down to the office and slice them open,'" said Ariel. "I thought it would make a cute short film. Simple as that."

The story would become the documentary film "Catfish," a reality thriller that shocked media and moviegoers alike when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Within two months, Schulman became Facebook friends with a small throng of Abby's fans, followers and family, including her 19-year-old half-sister Megan. Like Schulman, she was a photographer and he was intrigued by the striking photos of herself which she posted online.

"She was smoking hot, unbelievably sexy ... super beautiful," Schulman said.

Although they were complete strangers, he quickly fell for her.

"I was opening up to Megan in ways that I had not with actual girlfriends that I had had," he told "20/20."

Sexy Text Messages, Passionate Songs Fuel Romance

As part of their virtual courtship, Megan, who was also a talented musician, would write songs for Schulman -- often singing them as duets with her brother and mother, Angela -- and post them on Facebook.

"I would listen and you know, I would melt," he said. "Here's this girl, this beautiful girl, virgin girl in Michigan who's writing me passionate love songs."

The two talked on the phone and exchanged steamy text messages about their attraction.

Megan: My body is craving you tonight

Schulman: What exactly would you do if you had me there?

Megan: Id have you in the tub with me between my legs. Id kiss you on the neck and whisper in your ear begging you to make love to me

Schulman: begging is something you wouldn't have to do ... in fact im willing to bet if anything youd have to beg me to stop

But the closest they had actually come to being together was in a photo Schulman doctored on the computer.

"I titled the photo 'someday' because I thought, you know what … I'm not going to be guarded. ... I'm not going to reserve the fact that I really do like her and that I'm hoping it works out," he said. "I'm going to go for it, tell her I'm down."

Schulman was ready to go the distance to meet Megan. When she said she was moving from her family's home to a horse farm on the shores of Lake Superior, Schulman wanted to move there to be with her.

"I was looking for a huge change," Schulman said. "I was as tightly wound as I could have been in my life. College hadn't worked out. I was sick of making bar mitzvah videos and I wanted out."

Trip to Colorado Bursts Schulman's Fantasy World

When Schulman got a job shooting a dance performance in Vail, Colo., a destination closer to Michigan than New York City, he leaped at the chance for a rendezvous with Megan, inviting her and her family to meet him.

His brother Ariel Schulman and friend Henry Joost were by his side, ready to film what they thought would be the happy ending their friend was waiting for.

"That's why we turned up the heat with the cameras ... so we were filming assuming the happy ending was finally coming," said Joost.

But before a real-life meeting could take place, in an online chat, Megan told Schulman she was taking requests for songs. Since Schulman was so excited about Megan's horse farm, the guys tried to think up songs about horses, and came up with "Tennessee Stud," famously sung by Johnny Cash.

Within a half-hour, Megan sent them a rendition of the song that they found so impressive, they wanted to try to help her find professional representation as a singer in New York.

They looked back at the list of songs on her Facebook page that Megan said she and her mother had written. A simple Google search revealed that the lyrics belonged to another artist. On YouTube, they found a version that sounded almost identical.

When Schulman and Joost searched for "Tennessee Stud" on YouTube, way down the list of results they found that the only female rendition of the song was the exact song that Megan had supposedly played and just sent Schulman.

"When we found 'Tennessee Stud,' which she had just sent half an hour earlier on You Tube, that's [when] we realized everything was fake," Joost said.

The realization that his seven-month relationship could be a complete sham devastated Schulman, but his friends were eager to get to the bottom of it and confront Megan and her family on camera.

"I became infuriated and I called Megan and I left her a voice mail basically calling her a liar," Schulman said. "After I sort of cooled off, [Ariel] said to me very sort of soberly, 'Don't you want to get to the bottom of this? If nothing else, don't you want to get -- find out what's real here? Who these people are?'"

The trio set out for upper Michigan from Vail looking for answers. After a 1,300 mile journey, they pulled up to Megan's horse farm just after midnight. Would she be there when they knocked on the door? Was Schulman's cyber-romance a sham?

Watch the full story on "20/20" tonight at 10 p.m. ET