article

10.04.10

Catfish's Photo Fraud Victim

As shown in the documentary Catfish, model Aimee Gonzales’ online photos were used by an impostor. Gina Piccalo spoke to Gonzales about feeling “violated”—and how it’s not over.

Before a Facebook impostor changed her life, Aimee Gonzales was living a relatively ho-hum existence in the Portland, Oregon, area with her two young children, her electrician husband, and a modest career as a model-photographer.

Now, however, Gonzales possesses an unsettling kind of fame. Since the release of the documentary Catfish, her semi-nude self-portraits, showing a lithe and lovely woman with waist-length hair in provocative poses, have become popular online avatars for all sorts of strangers. And though Gonzales now trolls the Web almost every day looking for new impostors, she’s still recovering from the first bold con—that of the troubled Michigan housewife Angela Wesselman-Pierce—that set off all these copycats.

“In a way,” Gonzales told me this week, “it’s almost worse than stealing someone’s name. She actually stole my face. There’s nothing more than your face that makes you who you are.”

As Catfish chronicles (spoiler alert), unfolding with the tension of a crime thriller and marketed to amplify the suspense, Wesselman-Pierce used Gonzales’ images—as well as those of Gonzales’ husband, sister, stepsister, and friends—to craft a comely online alias that seduced young Manhattan photographer Nev Schulman. After eight months in 2008 of breathy phone calls and lusty text messages, the 24-year-old Schulman discovered his soul mate was actually Wesselman-Pierce, a heavy-set, 40-year-old artist attempting to escape her sad life. That’s when he and his filmmaker brother Ariel Schulman and their friend Henry Joost called Gonzales.

Without telling Gonzales the whole story, the Schulmans and Joost insisted she and her husband Andrew fly to New York. (The filmmakers paid the airfare.) Gonzales thought they simply wanted to discuss her photography for their film. Her reaction was filmed and Gonzales says it will be included on the DVD.

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During their first meeting, they asked Gonzales if she knew Wesselman-Pierce or the persona she’d invented with Gonzales’ image—that of a 19-year-old musician and dancer named Megan Faccio. Then they handed her a copy of a screenshot of Faccio’s Facebook page. “It’s me,” she told them blankly.

“It was really scary to me how much she stalked me online,” says Gonzales. “She went to my MySpace page, my Model Mayhem page. She was even quoting things that I would say on my pictures and she would use that on her own pictures.”

Gonzales says: “Your natural response is, ‘Oh, it’s OK.’ And it’s not. It’s not OK.”

Wesselman-Pierce even used the name of Gonzales’ 8-year-old daughter to identify an imaginary dead pet snake.

“I definitely felt violated and just completely drained,” says Gonzales, who also has a son, 6. “I don’t think I’ve every felt so tired in my life.”

Wesselman-Pierce—who has her own Facebook page and a website featuring her paintings—has since emailed a brief apology to Gonzales, claiming she destroyed the computers she used to download Gonzales’ photos. But Gonzales has no intention of acknowledging it. (Wesselman-Pierce did not respond to an email request for an interview.)

“I don’t want to be forced into a situation where I would have to accept an apology,” she says. “Your natural response is, ‘Oh, it’s OK.’ And it’s not. It’s not OK.”

Initially, Gonzales considered reporting Wesselman-Pierce to some authority to see if she had any legal recourse. In the end, though, she decided to let it go. “She didn’t really financially gain anything from me,” Gonzales reasoned. “I’m not a person that really deals with confrontation very well. I just kind of avoid it. It didn’t make sense for me.”

Perhaps to her credit, Gonzales hasn’t been spooked off-line. Publicity is, after all, her bread-and-butter. She has a Facebook page, on which she gamely plugs Catfish and accepts all friend requests. Her personal photos on Facebook are available only to close friends and she has watermarked her online portfolio. But Gonzales still has her cellphone number online for all to see. As well as the provocative, semi-nude self-portraits that set Schulman’s heart aflame in the beginning.

“How do I draw the line?” she asks. At the moment, she’s willing to put up with the strange text messages, emails, and calls she’s received since the film’s release Sept. 17. “I also refuse to hide,” she says. “There’s always going to be people that do this kind of stuff.”

Facebook impostors are increasingly common. Con artists routinely hack into accounts to impersonate people and bilk money from strangers. And then there are folks like Wesselman-Pierce who just want a break from the drudgery of real life. Models are especially susceptible to the latter group, because who wouldn’t want to look like one?

“It happens all the time,” says Las Vegas-based pinup photographer Lesley Brown, a friend of Gonzales’. “The only way to avoid it is to just not be out there on the Internet.”

Well-known pinup model Sabina Kelley has regular Facebook impostors, some of whom usurp her family photos as well, says Brown, who has worked with Kelley. “They post the pictures of her children and are writing people and pretending to be her,” says Brown.

Another friend of Brown’s, tattooed model Amina Munster, has had strangers use her photos on dating sites, Brown says. Brown has had so many of her own photographs stolen, her watermarks removed and illegally used on billboards, T-shirts, and magazine ads that she has given up policing the Web for thieves.

Gonzales, on the other hand, is still trying to control it. She found an “Aimee Gonzales” posting comments during a live online chat with the Catfish filmmakers hosted by the Los Angeles Times. And just last week, the Schulman brothers pointed her to a woman who had put up three separate Facebook pages posing as Megan Faccio, using Gonzales’ self-portraits. Gonzales reported the page to the social-networking site. (Calls and emails to Facebook for an interview about this issue were not returned.)

Gonzales acknowledges the attention has had some perks. Since the film came out, the hits on her professional website have skyrocketed, “450 percent,” she says. At the Sundance Film Festival this year she was a superstar, stopped for autographs on the streets. After the film’s opening in Manhattan and Portland, audience members lined up to meet her.

“The publicity is really great for my business,” she says. “I’m trying to figure out how I can use that.”

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Gina Piccalo spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood. She's now a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.