Michelle Buteau on 'The Circle's' subversive catfishing

“I like the social experiment of it all,” Buteau says of “The Circle.” “I love me a real housewife, but I don’t need to see these boss women fighting in lashes all day long.”
Image: Michelle Buteau
Michelle Buteau speaks onstage during the 2019 Glamour Women Of The Year Summit at Alice Tully Hall on Nov. 10, 2019 in New York City.Ilya S. Savenok / Getty Images file

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By Gwen Aviles

Netflix’s “The Circle” is a far cry from MSNBC’s “To Catch a Predator” or MTV’s “Catfish.” Although all three shows are about the implications and danger involved when people mask their identities online, “The Circle,” which premiered Jan. 1 and is hosted by comedian Michelle Buteau, takes a lighter approach.

“In this day and age, we cannot go without the internet, so ‘The Circle’ asks, ‘How do we exist?’” Buteau said in an interview. “How do we form friendships online?”

The premise is this: “The Circle,” based on a U.K. reality television show of the same name, takes a group of strangers and puts them in separate apartments in a complex. While the contestants talk to one another regularly through group chat, they are never able to meet or connect face to face. They’re asked to rate their fellow contestants at least once an episode. Essentially, whoever is the least popular goes home after every rating, until the final rating, when the most popular player wins $100,000.

Most players choose to present their actual selves — or a least carefully curated versions of their actual selves — building profiles with their own pictures and describing their real occupations and hobbies. But a number of contestants opted instead to “catfish” — misrepresenting themselves online by creatinge conjured identities with other people’s pictures, names and personalities.

Among the catfishers this season were Karyn Blanco, 37, a native of the Bronx who pretended to be a 27-year-old woman named Mercedeze; Alex Lake, 32,-a married artist from Los Angeles who pretended to be a 27-year-old named Adam who flirted with all of the female contestants; and Sean Taylor, 25, a New York-based social media manager who used her friend’s pictures because she was concerned that people would judge her for her weight. One of the catfishers, Seaburn Williams, used his girlfriend’s pictures and made it to the final round.

While suspicion, distrust and antics ensued because of the catfishers, Buteau said “The Circle” subverts viewers’ preconceptions by showing that catfishing can come from a place of insecurity, not malice. She said the show differentiates itself from other reality shows, particularly those that illuminate the downsides of technology, because “the base is all kindness.”

“I like the social experiment of it all. I love me a real housewife, but I don’t need to see these boss women fighting in lashes all day long,” Buteau said. “When people hear the world ‘catfish’ they automatically think of something negative, which I totally get, but at the end of ‘The Circle’ you’ll see that a lot of people who catfish are insecure. They’re suffering with their self-esteem, because we do judge quite harshly based on profile pictures and definitely judge books by their covers.”

By following the contestants’ every mundane message, “The Circle” illuminates how all of them want to be liked and have their own agendas, not just the catfishers. As the contestants talk with one another and challenge the notion that true friendship can occur only among people who’ve met face to face, they come to learn difficult and uplifting truths about themselves, and viewers are called to look beyond the superficialities of their profiles and become acquainted with them, too.

“Most of the people who catfished realized: ‘Damn, I could have been myself and still been accepted and probably still would’ve been in the game and actually formed true friendships,’” Buteau said. “When I met Karyn, aka Mercedeze, in person, she is so gregarious; she can light up a room. And for her to use any other picture besides her was such a disservice to America, so I'm so glad that we got to see her behind-the-profile picture and really get to know her and fall in love with her.”

For Buteau, “The Circle’s” underlying message — urging others to use the internet to create community, as opposed to trolling or demeaning someone — is personal. Although she is now an accomplished comedian and actress — she appeared in some of last year’s most popular rom-coms, including “Someone Great” and “Always Be My Maybe,” she recently finished a tour, and she has a stand-up project with Netflix in the works — Buteau recalls dealing with naysayers earlier in her career. In college, a professor told her that she was “too fat to be on camera” in front of her classmates.

Buteau said she believed the professor and had resigned herself to staying behind the camera until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, reinvigorated her dream by reminding her how “short lived and fragile” life is.

While Buteau said she can remember the pre-internet days, when she’d call her friends on a landline to let them know she planned on coming over, her experiences are no longer the online reality, so people of all ages must be equipped to use the internet in a productive, benevolent way.

“People my age and older have to figure out how to navigate life with the internet and how to be themselves without giving too much away, and also these young people need to learn how to treat each other,” Buteau said. “I think everyone's taking it for granted.”