I Was Catfished By ABC's What Would You Do?

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Illustration by Jim Cooke
Illustration by Jim Cooke

I originally leveraged online dating to begin seeing average-sized women. Before moving back to New York a few years ago, I had only dated little women— i.e., women who were born with dwarfism. At bars or parties, my social anxiety, the kind that comes with being a little person myself, made it difficult to gauge an average-sized woman’s interest in me. Talking with women online made it easier to determine whether or not they were comfortable with my achondroplasia.

But the anxious anticipation that comes with texting prior to a date can be a slog, and not always wholly revealing: There’s always the chance that you’ll learn something unexpected about a person once meeting them for the first time. Hopefully that reveal is nothing more than a dimple, a cute personality quirk, or the type of nervous tic that comes out when you’re confronted with the unavoidable awkwardness of a first date.

Even while playing out all the fantasy scenarios that may come, you are probably not expecting your night to end with a person handing you a legal form to sign—a form that reads, “We hope you found your participation in this scenario interesting and thought-provoking.”

The Set-up

It had been months since I had last braved online dating before a close friend from work suggested that I dive back into it. I scrolled Tinder and Bumble, my swiping platforms of choice, with the sort of distant hope that comes with them. (I like Tinder for its ease of use, and Bumble because it requires women to make the first move, which often leads to more engaging conversation.) After a few weeks of staying at it, I matched on Bumble with a woman I’ll call Jess. She was tall, dark-haired, and slender, which is not typically my type, but she looked like someone who didn’t take herself too seriously. That was a big part of my initial attraction to her, to be honest. I value a sense of humor, and Jess was funny and down to joke around. We played a bit of “Would you rather?” back and forth. Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or 1 horse-sized duck? Would you rather have a rich dad who is a porn star or a poor dad who is the school janitor?

By the time we exchanged numbers, we had broken the ice, were casually texting, and seemed to be hitting it off. But I still felt pretty confident that it wouldn’t lead to a meet-up; even a lively conversation rarely does for me. Finally, I made a move by suggesting we grab brunch. She seemed mildly interested, but neither of us followed up to set a date until a few days later, when she took me up on the offer and even did all the planning. When she replied, Jess had already picked a day, place, and time for us to meet: 2 p.m. on a Saturday at Pulperia, a Latin American restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, about 45 minutes from my apartment in Brooklyn. I had already made plans, but she was insistent on that specific time and her desire to meet me, adding that she wasn’t available the following day. It’s not often that I am pursued like this, and naturally I found it flattering. I relented, and we agreed to meet.

On the Saturday morning of our date, I woke up fairly hung over from the night before, and decided that I was in no shape to meet a stranger. When I messaged Jess to reschedule, she wasn’t having it. “A little hair of the dog will make you feel better,” she said. Her pursuit was endearing, and after she agreed to push back our date by an hour so I could get myself together a bit, I was excited enough to grab a cab and make the trek to the Upper East Side.

The Impostor

I arrived to the restaurant first, surprised to learn from the hostess that Jess had already reserved a table for us and that it was ready. She then led me to a setting for two, standing alone in the middle of the restaurant, and seated me with my back to the door. (In retrospect, I remember thinking that it was strange to be seated with my back to the entrance while waiting for a first date.) A few minutes later, a blonde woman in her mid-40s, who who was heavier than the woman whose pictures I had seen on Bumble, sat down and introduced herself as Jess.

“How was your friend’s show?” she asked, referring to my plans from the night before. While I’d like to say that my confusion was a result of the realization that I had been duped, shock was interfering with my normal thought processes. I was unable to come up with a response to her question.

She continued, nonchalantly, to ease the silence. “You’re super hungover, huh? Threw up everywhere?”

The word “No” came out of my mouth like a question, even though it wasn’t one.

“Oh,” she responded. “I threw up everywhere. All over myself.” (Looking back, this must have been an attempt at levity.)

As the initial stun dissipated a bit, I realized that I would have to be the one to address the very obvious cause for the awkwardness between us. Jess was not the woman pictured in her Bumble profile, and I said so. As she laughed nervously, she suggested that the photos of her were merely dated.

“The pictures I have on there are old,” she said apologetically. “I look a little different now.” Blown away by the suggestion that I simply had not recognized her, I pulled out my phone and brought up her profile page.

“I’m sorry, can we just forget about it?” she asked, the embarrassment of her lie now clear in her voice. “Let’s just forget about it. What do you want to drink?” But I wasn’t having it—it was too uncomfortable to me to pretend like I hadn’t been purposefully deceived, and I said as much.

This made her upset.

“So you don’t like me because I’m not as pretty as you thought? Because I’m older? Because I’m heavier?”

I told her I didn’t want to continue our date because she had been dishonest, and given that honesty is the foundation of any meaningful relationship, this was clearly not a good start. After a pause, thick with the tension between us, I took some of the hostility out of my voice. “Look, humor is really important to me, and you’re funny,” I told her. “Be honest next time, and you will find you the right guy. It’s not me.” I told her I was going to leave and got up from the table.

That’s when the cameras came out. In front of them, a shiny-faced man dressed in a suit approached me with an extended microphone. It was John Quiñones, and he told me that I was on ABC’s What Would You Do?

The Hook

What Would You Do?—which will air its new season in June—identifies itself as a journalistic endeavor, and even debuted as a segment during the ABC News program Primetime. When it originally aired in February of 2008, the series was an extension of what was happening in the country that week. John Quiñones and his cast would create scenarios pegged to social issues or ethical dilemmas that were current in the news cycle; the “hard reporting” aspect involved seeing if a different outcome would come with different actors and variables at play. In ABC News release forms for What Would You Do?, the show is described as “an award-winning series [that] depicts and explores the various reactions of bystanders to simulated events happening in front of their eyes.” Ignoring, apparently, what happens when you’re not a “bystander,” and the “simulated events” are happening to you.

The conceit isn’t entirely different from the heavily scripted reality-TV industry, in that it involves the creation of chaos for the sake of voyeurism, but it’s much more complicated because viewers aren’t watching characters or plot-lines grow and evolve. Rather, viewers are given the opportunity to pass judgment on the immediate responses of regular people confronted by something jarring or unexpected. Some of the scenarios are meant to be uplifting and inspiring—watching bar-goers warn a woman whose drink has been drugged, or women at a nail salon help an elderly man as his caretaker takes advantage of his dementia. The show’s stance that it revolves around people doing what is both good and right has given Quiñones a book deal and a semi-regular gig as a motivational speaker.

While precautions are taken for certain outcomes—during the drugged-drink episode mentioned earlier, the show alerted the local police department “about the scenario”—the series doesn’t provide warning to those who come across the scene. That would defeat the point. But when “bystanders” are not really bystanders, i.e. when participants become the scenario’s main character, things change. In these instances, it might be useful to think of the show less aligned with the innocent pranking of Candid Camera, and more along the lines of the pre-staged creepiness of NBC’s To Catch a Predator, where actors would pose as people they were not, in the hopes of finding and catching someone whose actions would propel the show in a specific direction. (Coincidentally, TCAP aired its last episode only two months before WWYD? debuted).

The similarity is best shown in an episode of WWYD that aired last May, wherein an adult man lures a underaged girl to a restaurant by pretending to be a boy during an online interaction. After revealing himself as an adult at the restaurant, he tries to convince her to come back to his apartment. Viewers know that the situation is staged, and the abductor and abductee are actors. The real stars of the show? The people who chose to have lunch at the restaurant that day.

It’s easy to see that WWYD aims to paint its lead characters—the unknowing participants of various “scenarios”—as morally sound or inept based on their instinctive reactions to incidents like the one above. These social experiments aren’t controlled, though, and the participants usually don’t get to tell their stories. Someone who abhors homophobia could have crippling social anxiety; someone who isn’t comfortable with their body might avoid stopping a physical confrontation; someone who has been catfished by an internet date could have a brutal hangover.

Context outside of this staged scene does not matter under the watchful eye of the show or its host, John Quiñones. The people who come across it will be taped and judged based on what they choose to do after they walk into his world. (We attempted to reach Quiñones for comment, and have not yet received a reply.)

The Bait

I don’t remember much of what Quiñones asked me after he approached me, nor do I remember what I said. I was in the middle of a panic attack. I was shaking, and I couldn’t stop cursing. The entire restaurant was silent, eyes on me. Growing up a little person, I’m familiar with unwanted attention from strangers. Twenty-seven years later, and I’m still not comfortable with it. I felt like I was dropped into Sara Goldfarb’s amphetamine-fueled game-show fantasy in Requiem for a Dream. John Quiñones was my Shooter McGavin.

As my thoughts began to solidify through the rush of my pulse and the haze of my anxiety, Quiñones told me that Jess, the woman portrayed in the Bumble profile, the one who I had been speaking to, was also at the restaurant, and that I could still have the date with her, at another table and without cameras. When I met her—the person I had actually chatted with, who had helped set me up for this very public scene—she was as bubbly and carefree as I imagined in our first conversation. She apologized for duping me, but wanted my confirmation that the whole thing was hilarious. I couldn’t tell if she was villainous or ignorant.

Still in shock, I sucked down the free margaritas provided by ABC News, as Jess began to reveal more about why she did what she’d done. She was an aspiring celebrity, you see, and needed a bigger buzz than her YouTube channel was providing. (That evening I found a video on Jess’s page where she prank-calls a strip club and pretends to be a “midget” stripper looking for work. When I called her out on it via text, she said she understood but the video was meant to be a joke. She later apologized—calling it “super gross content”—and took it down.)

At the restaurant, Jess was joined by her friend, a producer on the show, who brought the release forms, and handed me a pen and asked me to sign. When I shared my hesitation with her, she delivered a sales pitch on why I should sign them. I had done such a great job, she said, and told me that I should be proud of my intelligent, thoughtful response to the situation. I told them I had agreed to go on a date, not to participate in a spectacle, and that I still felt physically uncomfortable, the aftereffects of my panic attack lingering. I couldn’t justify signing my rights away in such a state.

Jess suggested that if I didn’t feel comfortable, I should sign the release form anyway, and could tell them I “changed my mind” after the fact.

(Note: The ABC News release form states that “bystanders” can opt out of having their face shown, but should they not sign the consent forms, the show will “blur or otherwise obscure” their face.)

It’s easy to look back and say that I instinctively made the right decision, but the truth is that I was so mentally disheveled at the time, I wasn’t sure what to do. I called my friend Matéo, the same friend who had suggested that I get back into online dating, and asked for his advice. He asked me how it had made me feel, and when I said that I felt like absolute shit, he told me not to sign. I am eternally grateful for that.

After more discussion over signing the forms, I refused and called an Uber back to Brooklyn. On my ride home, I called my brother, my roommates, anyone who was willing to hear my story. This allowed the shock to settle a bit, but Jess continued to text me. I blocked her shortly after.

Thankfully, a few days prior to my encounter with Jess, I had gone on a great first date with another woman. On our second date, I told her about the incident, and she joked that at least I didn’t have to deal with a flood of unsolicited dick pics from the dudes she matched with on her dating apps.

She and I have been dating for about two months now.

We met on Tinder.

[Ed note: We reached out to ABC News, and a spokesperson told us that the “scenario” described in this story will not be airing. When asked about their casting procedures for What Would You Do?, she said they had no further comments.]

Tom Cush is a Brooklyn-based little person who spends his days selling Grovo. He rarely tweets as @cushtom.

Adequate Man is Deadspin’s lifestyle and self-improvement site. You can reach us at adequateman@deadspin.com