In the current year, the possibility of being catfished is among the most well-known risks of interacting with strangers online.
(For those unaware, “catfishing” refers to the creation of a fictional online persona, usually for the purpose of financial gain.)
In the early days of the internet, however, people were more susceptible to deceit, as evidenced by the story of Kaycee Nicole Swenson, the original catfish.
Who Was Kaycee Nicole Swenson?
In the late ‘90s, Kaycee Nicole Swenson was a teenage girl living in Kansas, Oklahoma.
She was a high school athlete who frequented the now-defunct social networking site CollegeClub.com under the screenname KuteBabe.
While it would be inaccurate to liken her online popularity to that of, say, a modern TikTok star, Kaycee certainly made plenty of worldwide connections via her web presence.
Among her closest virtual friends was Randall van der Woning, a Canadian web designer.
2000: Kaycee Nicole Opens Up About Her Leukemia
In early 2000, Kaycee admitted to Randall that she had leukemia. In response, Randall offered to help her set up a blog, for which he would cover all costs.
The blog—titled Living Colours— essentially acted as Kaycee’s public journal, detailing the ins and outs of living with leukemia.
She discussed her treatments and hospitalizations, all the while maintaining an unusually optimistic attitude that her readership, which eventually amounted to millions of people, found deeply inspiring.
Meanwhile, her mother Debbie Swenson ran a blog of her own, expounding upon the ways in which she was caring for her daughter through such a catastrophic time.
2001: The Supposed Death of Kaycee Nicole
In April of 2001, Kaycee updated her blog with news that her liver was failing.
Randall, in shambles, begged to visit her, claiming that he couldn’t stand the pain of losing such a close friend without having ever met her in person.
Kaycee agreed. But before he was able to make the trek to Oklahoma, he received a phone call from Kaycee’s mother. In tears, Debbie told him that her daughter had died suddenly.
Two days later, Debbie made a post saying that Kaycee’s remains had been cremated and that a memorial service had been held in her honor: remember these details, as they will come into play later.
On May 15, Randall, Living Colours’s webmaster, posted a final blog entry:
“Thank you for the love, the joy, the laughter, and the tears.
We shall love you always and forever.
Kaycee Nicole passed away May 14, 2001 at the age of 19.”
Kaycee Nicole’s Story Is Called Into Question
Following her passing, Kaycee’s page became flooded with condolences and tributes.
In the midst of the internet’s collective mourning, however, a popular blogger named Saundra Mitchell posted an article satirizing people who faked illnesses online.
While at first she didn’t specify who the article was aimed towards, she later revealed that it had been inspired by the story of Kaycee Nicole.
Saundra pointed out the nearly impossible haste with which Kaycee had been cremated and interred.
According to her, a memorial service taking place only two days after a person’s death almost never happens, especially considering that in some of her blog posts, Kaycee referenced out-of-town family members.
On top of this were inaccuracies in how her leukemia treatment was portrayed. And for whatever reason, Kaycee had no public obituary.
With these revelations, even some of Kaycee’s most loyal devotees began to question the legitimacy of her story.
The Kaycee Nicole Hoax Is Revealed
Amidst growing skepticism surrounding the story of Kaycee, Debbie Swensen, in a final post on her blog, finally came clean.
She admitted that not only did Kaycee never have leukemia, but she never existed in the first place.
“Her name was not Kaycee, and she was not my daughter,” Debbie confessed.
“The online persona was about the lives of three people who suffered from cancer. I am to blame for wanting to tell their stories. I am to blame for weaving their lives together.”
Furthermore, the character of Kaycee wasn’t originally created by Debbie. She was created by her teenage daughter Kelly.
When Debbie found out that her daughter had been posing as a fictitious person online, rather than put a stop to it, she herself decided to take control of the character’s narrative, adding the leukemia plot line for dramatic effect.
The photos of “Kaycee” were actually of a college student named Julie Fullbright, who the whole time had no idea that her likeness was being used to propagate a lie.
Those who believed themselves to be close to Kaycee were obviously confused and sorely disappointed.
In an attempt to have Debbie arrested for fraud, a tip was even given to the FBI. However, she ultimately faced no legal repercussions.
All this begs the question, “Why did Debbie Swenson do it?” Perhaps she reveled in the attention it brought her, or maybe she was simply a compulsive liar.
Regardless, we will likely never have an answer, as she has gone silent since.
The story of Kaycee Nicole Swenson is one of the first widespread internet hoaxes, and to this day it stands as a reminder that we must not be too trusting towards people we interact with online.