Lance Armstrong is a cheater. Manti Te'o is a liar. And Beyoncé, it seems, is a pretender. Heck, even Storage Wars is staged.
Is anything for real these days?
From sports heroes to superstar performers to reality TV, we're deluged by deception. We've become obsessed with who-knew-what-when and did-she-or-didn't-he debates, passionate about recent pop-culture crimes and insistent about how important each is or isn't.
"It's so unexpected," explains Gabrielle Adams, assistant professor of organizational behavior and an expert in the area of deception at the London Business School. "It takes us by surprise because we want to believe that they are perfect."
While "who cares?" is a common chorus, and many grump about there being more important issues to cover, the stories are hitting home. They are feeding the national conversation, from the morning TV shows to late-night monologues to round-the-clock social media chatter.
And why not? The stories are resonating because we have an emotional, moral and at times even a financial investment in them. No one likes to be deceived. Fans don't want to feel hoodwinked by their idols.
On Thursday, Notre Dame Heisman Trophy finalist Te'o told more of his dead-girlfriend-hoax tale to Katie Couric in the first TV interview since the scandal broke. "I wasn't as forthcoming, but I didn't lie," he said.
Except that he did - to his father, as he points out in the same interview: "The biggest lie I'm sorry for is the lie that I told my dad."
Understandably, fans, viewers - well, all of us - are left scratching our heads.
"What's happening here is people feel betrayed. They feel foolish," says James Ratley, president and CEO of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. While many argue that there are varying degrees of deception going on, Ratley contends "there are no small frauds. Only frauds that have not had time to reach the massive stage."
In some cases, such as Armstrong and Storage Wars, the troubles become legal battles, with money and jobs at stake. For others, like Beyoncé and Manti Te'o, the court of public opinion is doing the judging.
Real or Memorex?
It's been a long time since the phrase "Is it real or is it Memorex?" became popular. In 1971 (the year Armstrong was born, and well before Te'o's girlfriend wasn't), an ad featured Ella Fitzgerald hitting a note so perfectly that it shattered glass. Was she real, or was it an audio cassette? The taped version was able to do the trick.
Beyoncé's Inauguration Day singing did the trick, too. She delivered with a national anthem rendition that, while widely praised, is still being questioned: Was it real or recorded? Or some combination? Many say it doesn't matter because she was singing to her own voice.
"Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o's situations are related to people who lied. The Beyoncé lip-syncing to her own song is not a lie. There is a vast, vast difference," says Natalie Byfield, assistant professor of sociology at St. John's University in New York. "Where's the infraction?"
Billboard's Brad Wete countered this week: "It's a big deal. In a musical feats of strength contest, the national anthem is arguably one of the heaviest weights to lift." Christina Aguilera, Steven Tyler, Roseanne Barr and Whitney Houston have all given performances that attest to that. "It's understandable that any artist who doesn't think they could do it justice pre-record their performance."
Aretha Franklin laughed it off, telling ABC News that she found the brouhaha "funny." But Franklin noted that when she sang My Country, 'Tis of Thee in 2009 for President Obama's first inauguration, she sang it live. "I wanted to give people the real thing, and pre-recording never crossed my mind."
Particularly for stars bearing household names, being "real" carries meaning. In advertising, it has long been one of the most popular words used for selling.
"Authenticity creates loyalty for brands and people both online and offline," says Keith Turco, president of gyro New York, a global ad agency. "Social media has made it imperative for brands (including celebrities) to have not just open, but honest dialogue. It's never been easier to communicate. Though a double-edged sword, this can be a huge benefit. Integrity and honesty are key."
That may also be true for those attempting to establish public identities, as in Te'o's case. His future includes the NFL draft and perhaps lucrative endorsements.
So far, his fall from grace hasn't been taken as seriously as the others. Te'o has been the butt of jokes, spoofed by FunnyOrDie in a fake eHarmony video, on Saturday Night Live in a sketch and relentlessly on Twitter. The satire site The Onion ran a "commentary" from the fictitious girlfriend: "Try as I might, I can't blame anyone else but myself. I'm the one who isn't real, and this is all on me."
His father, Brian Te'o, told Couric as a defense, "He's not a liar. He's a kid."
Says Turco, "People are still trying to determine the sincerity behind Manti, and whether he was hoping to build his brand by using and continuing the hoax; the jury is still out on this."
The jury might come back with a big shrug. That seems to be the verdict for reality TV, which has been revealed time and again not to be quite "real."
In December, Dave Hester, a paid star bidder on A&E's hit Storage Wars, sued the network and producers, claiming he was fired in retaliation for complaining about what he called deceptive practices on the show. Among Hester's claims: The show would "salt" the storage lockers with "valuable or unusual items to add dramatic effect," and producers "manipulated the outcome of certain auctions by paying for storage units on behalf of the weaker cast members," the suit charges. "Nearly every aspect of the series is faked."
Reality shows not being 100% kosher - at least in some genres - is a concept that producers assume fans know, just as musical performers assume fans know it's common to use backing tracks.
But, argues fan Jimmie Bise, 44, a police dispatcher from Waldorf, Md. "If it's staged, it's not a reality show, is it?"
Re-enactments, suggestions by producers and other forms of TV trickery, referred to as "scene enhancements" and "soft scripting," are meant to jack up drama. And while the genre uses the word "real," these shows are entertainment, not highbrow documentaries.
"It would make for pretty boring television if on Storage Wars every time they opened up a locker they got garbage of no value. How long would people watch?" says Mauricio Polack, 49, a salesman from Los Angeles. "We're all sold stuff all the time, it's incumbent upon us as consumers to disseminate what's real or not. The intelligent person has to decide the wheat from the chaff."
Jill Zarin, who appeared on Bravo's Real Housewives of New York from 2008 to 2011, says good reality TV requires unreal situations. "You know when they do experiments on rats? They set them up and see which way they go," she says. "We're like lab rats: We're put in positions and we react. Is it real that you're going to St. Bart's on vacation with someone you met a month ago, and now you're fighting and enemies? It's entertainment. We're characters they can manipulate."
But Zarin, who parlayed her fame into Jill Zarin Jewelry and Skweez shapewear lines, says producer meddling is hardly unethical. "Does anyone tell us the words to say? Never. But they hire producers who know how to push buttons."
Not all reality shows are created equal, though. Competition series such as American Idol and Survivor, which deal in cash prizes, are bound by the federal law to abide by certain rules when money or any other thing of value is offered as a prize.
"When we do reality, it's always true reality; we've never manipulated a reality show (and) we don't make changes during production," says Bertram Van Munster, executive producer of CBS' AmazingRace, in which teams compete to win $1 million.
No such restrictions inhibit so-called "docu-soaps," and Van Munster isn't bothered by their looser formats. "The audience is smart enough to see what is what, and at the end of the day does the audience really care, if they get a good show?"
Gavin Polone, a veteran TV and film producer, likens production of many reality shows to his HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, which improvises dialogue and shoots several versions of a scene based on a loose outline.
"If you're doing these kinds of shows and doing them on a budget, you need events to unfold quickly," forcing unreal situations to amp up the drama. The result? "It gets phonier and phonier."
Happily ever after?
So the scale of deception and the public's willingness to accept it are often determined by the players, the venue and the history of all involved, experts say.
"It's not that some lies are bigger than others," says Adams of the London Business School. "It's that they have greater consequences."
In Armstrong's case, he had been denying allegations for years. When he finally was caught by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, seven big sponsors dropped him from millions in endorsement deals. Along with public disgrace, he now faces legal consequences tied to the money he received during the time he was winning his Tour de France titles.
Oprah said this week that she thinks Armstrong can be "a hero" again. "Everybody has the ability within them to rise again. What really matters in the world is what kind of human being he chooses to be."
Reality TV seems to be bulletproof. Storage Wars may be embroiled in a legal battle, but it, its New York and Texas spinoffs all still routinely draw a strong 2 million or 3 million viewers to A&E.
As for Manti Te'o? "I think he can move past it himself," Jim Carrier, the Mormon bishop who counseled him, told the South Bend Tribune this week. "But I think it will always follow him. Other people will bring it up."
And Beyoncé? We'll see her on the Super Bowl halftime show Feb. 3. "In the end," says Turco, the controversy "will probably raise ratings of the half-time show, doing more good for her and the network than harm."
Geoff Thomas, senior vice president of entertainment marketing for TBA Global agency in Los Angeles, predicts she'll sing live at that venue. Why would she? "Just to show everybody she's got the pipes."
Ann Oldenburg, USA TODAY