When the documentary-thriller "Catfish" opened in New York City to enthusiastic crowds, the movie's star was at home in Ishpeming, Mich., probably doing laundry.
Angela Wesselman, whose real identity is not revealed until the end of the movie, was a troubled housewife who spent the bulk of her days caring for two severely handicapped stepsons and building an elaborate web of online deception until it all spun out of control.
In an exclusive interview with ABC News' "20/20," Wesselman admitted that she's a mastermind of deception.
"A manipulator is what my husband calls me," she said. "But yeah, I manipulate and it's not right. ... I never thought I'd become so entangled in it."
Spoiler alert! All the twists and turns of the movie "Catfish" are revealed in this article.
Wesselman posed as an 8-year-old budding artist named Abby and a 19-year-old teenager named Megan, and lured Nev Schulman, a trusting 24-year-old New York City photographer, into a romantic relationship online.
In the film, Schulman's world comes crashing down when he learns that Megan, the girl of his dreams with whom he's shared the most intimate fantasies, does not exist. Megan and Abby are both characters created by Wesselman's imagination and brought to virtual life on Facebook.
"This woman is exceptional," said Schulman. "I'm totally fine admitting she just outsmarted me."
How Elaborate Cyber-Charade Began
Wesselman said her problems began when she looked for feedback on her artwork online, and was met with snide and stinging critiques. However, when she posed as an 8-year-old artist named Abby, people online -- namely 24-year-old photographer Nev Schulman -- were kind and accepting.
An online correspondence began and the charade escalated when Wesselman created the character of Abby's older sister.
"I really created [Megan] to make it more of an age appropriate conversation for [Schulman]," she said.
Megan became Schulman's obsession and the core of Wesselman's growing cast of characters. She created online profiles for at least 21 relatives and friends to round out Megan's social circle.
"It's not normal for just one person to be on Facebook ... with just one friend," she said of her logic. "You have to have other friends."
Wesselman Says She Was Diagnosed as Schizophrenic
To bring these personas to life, Angela assumed all of their identities. She posted messages on Facebook in the voice of Abby, Megan, their brother and friends, switching minute by minute.
"In my mind there were days where I actually believed that Megan existed," she said. "I immersed myself into thinking that somewhere she's there."
She claimed she had no problem navigating such a complex fantasy world.
"I have been diagnosed as schizophrenic," she said. "But ... I don't think I have multiple personalities in normal life, really. I just think I have the ability to create a lot of illusions for people."
Who Are the Real Victims?
Moviegoers and critics alike have questioned "Catfish's" legitimacy. The New York Times' A.O. Scott scolded the filmmakers for exploiting Wesselman for their documentary -- an accusation which they and Wesselman, deny.
If anyone was led down the primrose path, it was Schulman, Wesselman said.
"When I first started interacting with them on Facebook ... even though I knew it was all a lie ... and all these people were fake ... I was like, 'This would make a great film. ... I hope they're filming it,'" she told "20/20."
But her involvement in the documentary has come at a high personal price. Wesselman must live with the movie's stigma and, perhaps worse, explain it to her family. One day, she will have to apologize to her daughter Abby for looping her into her twisted fantasy world.
"She has a hard time with it. ... She gets angry about it at times," Wesselman said. "Someday, she's going to know how this really came down. I do worry about how it's going to affect her for the rest of her life."
Then, there's Wesselman's estranged 21-year-old daughter Megan, who served as the inspiration for the character.
"I haven't seen her recently," Wesselman said. "I've spoken to her just briefly ... to let her know what was going on ... and she's not happy."
The Real Megan: The Real Victim?
Another person with a bone to pick with Wesselman is Aimee Gonzalez, a 30-year-old photographer at Bella Divine Photography, a model and a mother of two, whose image was hijacked by Wesselman. She was floored to discover her photos had been used in Megan's Facebook profile.
The filmmakers brought Gonzalez and her husband Andrew to New York under the guise of doing a documentary about photography, and revealed that her identity, her husband's and even her little sister's were stolen as part of Wesselman's charade.
"I couldn't believe that somebody would do that," Gonzalez said. "[Wesselman] sent me an apology letter ... and I never responded to it."
But Wesselman said Gonzalez should be grateful for her moment in the spotlight.
"It sounds weird to say, but it's given her an opportunity she wouldn't have had before," Wesselman said. "She's doing the things that I wanted to do, the things I can't do. I can't go to New York, I couldn't go to Sundance. ... I can't be that person ... and she is ... so I guess it's sort of that jealousy and it's not her fault."
After Catfish: Putting Her Life Back Together
After the cameras stopped rolling and the truth came out, Wesselman said she continued to send Schulman e-mails attached to fake identities.
"I just couldn't let it go," she said, adding that she attempted suicide as a way out.
"It took months of counseling afterwards to really point out how far I had immersed myself into that ... and that I couldn't get out of it on my own," she said. "And I had to get help to stop it."
Now, her husband and friends monitor all of her e-mails and time online. She insists that she's not engaged in any fake online relationships.
"It would literally kill me to do this again," she said.
Wesselman said she's replaced her virtual relationships with the real ones that don't dissolve in the Ethernet.
"I'm more stable because of the boys coming and bringing light to the problems," she said. "I've been able to focus more on our family ... on our relationship ... on making things right in the home ... and to me that's a benefit."
Here's one way to look at "Catfish." Some filmmakers in New York City, who think they're way cool, get taken apart by a ordinary family in Ishpeming, Mich. You can also view it as a cautionary tale about living your emotional life on the Internet. Or possibly the whole thing is a hoax. At Sundance 2010, the filmmakers were given a severe cross-examination and protested their innocence, and indeed everyone in the film is exactly as the film portrays them.
To go into detail about that statement would involve spoiling the film's effect for you. I won't do that, because the effect is rather lovely. There's a point when you may think you know what I'm referring to, but you can't appreciate it until closer to end. The facts in the film are slippery, but the revelation of a human personality is surprisingly moving.
The film opens in the Manhattan office of Nev Schulman, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, who make videos and photographs of modern dancers. I'm going to guess they're 30-ish. Nev has received a painting of one of his photographs from Abby Pierce, an 8-year-old girl. They enter into a correspondence — or, more accurately, Abby's mom, Angela Pierce, e-mails for her. Just as well. Would you want your 8-year daughter online with some strange adult Facebook friend?
Never mind. Nev is a wholesome, even naive man, is touched by Abby's paintings, and begins to identify with the whole family. He learns of school plans, pie baking, Sunday family breakfast, and the horse farm that Abby's 19-year-old sister, Megan, is buying. I doubted that detail. It would take a New Yorker to believe horse farms in Michigan are cheap enough for a 19-year-old to buy. She could afford a horse, farm not included.
Nev and Megan correspond and talk on the phone. Megan composes songs for Nev. They begin a cyber romance. Nev begins to wonder if this could possibly be the girl for him. There are dozens of photos on her Facebook site, and he even starts using software to put himself and Megan in the same photos. In anyone over, oh, 14, this is a sign of immaturity, wouldn't you say?
The three videographers have to fly to Vail to shoot a dance event. On the way back East, they decide to make a detour to Ishpeming. Were they born yesterday? Do they think you drop in unannounced on strangers? Using ever-helpful GPS navigation, they pay a midnight visit to Megan's horse farm, and find ... no horses. In Ishpeming, they do indeed find the Pierce home and family, and I suppose are welcomed with as much grace as possible under the circumstances.
The key to the human qualities in the film can be found in Angela, the mother, and in a couple of thoughtful statements by Vince, the father. You'll see what I mean. Living in Ishpeming may not be the ideal choice for people with an artistic temperament. I haven't been there and can't say. But this family has adapted to realities and found ways of expression, and who are we to say making dance videos in New York is preferable?
Angela Pierce comes across as an essentially good person, as complex as the heroine of a novel. At the end of the day, I believe she humbles Nev and his friends. I wonder if they agree. They all seem to be nice people. Let's agree on this: We deserve to share happiness in this world, and if we supply it in the way it's sought and nobody gets hurt, is that a bad thing?