It’s getting harder to make a real romantic connection these days, and no one understands that more than Nev Schulman. Back in 2010, the native New Yorker became the subject of a successful documentary directed by his brother Ariel and Henry Joost. Nev had forged a sweet, romantic relationship with a beautiful woman on Facebook – or at least he thought he had. As the documentary crew dug deeper into the woman’s life, they discovered that much of what she had told Nev was a lie, and the term “catfish” was coined.
Over a decade later, Catfish and its meaning are part of the cultural lexicon, and Schulman is still heavily involved in the investigative concept of the original movie, producing and co-hosting a hugely popular MTV docuseries exposing the online truths, lies, and scams encountered by a seemingly endless stream of lonely and lovelorn people over hundreds of episodes. When Schulman’s original co-host Max Joseph departed the show in 2018, he was replaced by former Miss Teen USA winner Kamie Crawford, a no-nonsense Fordham University grad whose energy completely transformed the dynamic of Catfish.
“I had been watching Catfish since the movie,” Crawford tells Den of Geek, adding that booking this gig was her big break. “I’ve watched every single episode since. I remember when the documentary came out, I was so freaked out and terrified. I mean, we all knew this stuff was happening. I used to be in chat rooms talking about Britney Spears, pretending to be 24 when I was like 13.”
Schulman mulls the secret ingredients that have seen the show change co-hosts but endure well into a 13th year on air. “It’s like a cake,” he analogizes. “The frosting is mystery – everyone loves a delicious mystery. The piping is the travel and adventure. But when you cut into it, the real success of Catfish is empathy and feelings. The show gives people an opportunity to discover feelings that they maybe didn’t know they had, discuss feelings that they’ve struggled to or not wanted to discuss, and have people listen to those feelings and help them process them. I think that’s something that a lot of people need, whether they’re on the show or watching the show, to help them figure out what they’re feeling in their own lives.”
Then there’s the drama, of course. Every episode of Catfish is packed with surprising revelations and inevitable confrontations, and more than a few episodes have led to memorable encounters, not just for the people who wrote into the show to discover the truth about their elusive crush, but for the hosts themselves. Schulman cites an installment that saw him fling Jerez Nehemiah Stone-Coleman’s phone into a nearby lake when he wouldn’t engage with the team. The notorious scammer was later sentenced to 21 months in prison for a host of other crimes.
Crawford namechecks a standout episode with repeat Catfish offender Ashley Taylor. “That’s the one where I think I won Catfish fans over. I think that they realized, ‘Okay, this girl, she’s got it. She can replace Max and do her thing; she can hold her own.’ Ashley called me a bitch three times. They only aired that she said it once, but it was three. And she called me ‘the help.’ She really came for me.” During our interview, it’s clear that the duo’s vibrant onscreen dynamic is extremely real, with Schulman trying to get a rise out of Crawford, only to get clapped back. “I don’t know why her calling you ‘the help’ was offensive, you’re helpful,” he teases, and Crawford retorts, “No! That is NOT what she meant!”
The hosts are on a pretty punishing schedule. Each episode of Catfish takes around five months to complete, and even though the pair are only filming for a sliver of that process, they film throughout the year, traveling from hotel to hotel, with no real start or stop. “We’re always in production,” Schulman explains. “It’s an ongoing cycle.”
A lot happens in pre-production, way before the person who wrote into the show and their catfish can even step in front of the camera. With emotions running high, hearts broken, and lies exposed, no one wants a Catfish confrontation to explode into violence or harm for anyone involved. “Everybody who comes on the show is pre-screened by a psychiatrist,” reveals Schulman.
Crawford adds that the main subjects, including the catfish, actually go through two or three rounds of psych evaluations before they get clearance. “Before I got the job full time, even I had to get a psych evaluation, to make sure that I could handle the topics we discuss. But a lot of the things that we talk about on the show don’t make it to air because they’re personal, or could land somebody else in a bad spot if they were to share it. Like, if it’s not a public court case, it can’t be discussed on television.”
Recent episodes of Catfish have exposed scammers in impoverished countries who view the act of catfishing comparatively wealthy Americans as a way out. Schulman says these experiences caught him by surprise. “I don’t want to say ‘not all scammers are bad people,’ because I do think a lot of them probably are, but it was a really interesting insight into their stories. It’s been educational, both emotionally and politically, to meet some of these people and hear where they’re coming from and why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
How long can Catfish continue? According to Schulman, it may never end, which is good news for the show’s fans but likely troubling for those who are hopeful that looking for love online could be getting easier – or at least less paranoia-inducing. “Things keep changing,” says Crawford. “AI is crazy. Someone will write in saying that they met on a new app that we’ve never heard of.”
But Schulman says that Catfish will likely go on as long as it remains a canvas for contemporary culture. “Yes, there’s romance, there’s love, there’s interest, there’s mystery, but every episode gets filled in with whatever those people are going through in their lives, which is often a snapshot of what lots of other people are going through. Catfish lets us tell these stories, and share experiences that I think people relate to. Whether it’s the apps that we’re using, the language that we’re using, technology that’s changing – it’s a show about ‘right now’ and how we’re relating to each other. Everybody is looking for love. As long as that doesn’t change, I think the show could go on forever.”