Casey Donovan has opened up about the six-year catfishing ordeal she suffered from a close female friend in an emotional new interview.
Speaking on this week's episode of Andrew Denton's Interview programme, the 2004 Australian Idol winner revealed the sequence of events that led her into a long-term relationship with a "man" she never even met.
Donovan was just 16 years old when she won Idol — "a little bit emo, a little bit depressed" and with only a handful of friends. Immediately after the win, she set off touring the country with her fellow Idol finalists.
It was on the road on Australia Day 2005 that she received a strange call from an unknown number.
"It was this guy on the line, and he wouldn't tell me who he was or how he got my number. I basically said, you need to lose this number," she told Denton.
But he kept calling — and Donovan, alone and overwhelmed by her new life as a touring pop singer, kept answering.
"When you're on the road as a 16-year-old, you can't go out to pubs and clubs with the other people. You get sent to your room. I was like, 'This is interesting'. It became comfortable to talk to this person every day," she recalled.
Her phone friend said his name was Campbell. He had an "rocker, surfie" voice and he'd regularly send her photos of himself — bald, buff, six-packed.
She wondered why he was so interested in a shy, overweight teenager — but the calls continued. She spent her days on tour "glued" to her phone, even dialling him in during concerts so she could sing her hit single Listen with Your Heart to him.
Eventually, the tour came to an end, and the pair made plans for Campbell to collect her from the airport.
At the last minute, he sent a "friend" instead, explaining he was too hungover to make it.
"She came with a teddy bear and a big card that said 'I love you'," Donovan said, describing the friend, Olga, as "a bulldog. Staunch. But likeable, friendly. I wasn't getting any weird vibes yet."
Settled back in Sydney, and despite apparently living only a few kilometres apart, Donovan and Campbell would never meet. Each attempt at face-to-face contact was rebuffed with "infuriating" excuses: His car wouldn't start, a family member was sick.
"Then he'd turn his phone off. Then I'd call Olga crying — 'What's going on? Where is he?'
As her emotional connection to Campbell grew, so to did her friendship with Olga. Aware of how bizarre her arrangement was, she found herself lying to family and friends, telling them she and Campbell saw each other regularly when, in fact, they'd never met.
"I was just creating this big ball of lies, until one day I was like, 'There's something not right'," she said.
But things were to get even weirder: Donovan's first sexual experience came when Campbell convinced her to have sex with Olga who would act as a sort of sexual conduit between them.
"I think by that time I was just willing to do anything to see him. My intuition was saying, 'This isn't right, don't be a dickhead' — but I'd put so much effort and time in this that he had to be real. He HAD to."
Donovan fought back tears as Denton asked her what kept her in such a bizarre situation — with so many signs that Campbell and Olga were, in fact, the same person.
"Hope. To think that no one could actually do that to another human being. To think of all the s*** I've been through in my life … to be at that point and to just have everything fall apart. It really hurt."
As the deception wore on, she'd probe Olga's family and friends for more information, looking for clues.
"By the end of it, I'd turned into a private investigator. I'd search her room when she was out; I'd look for answers because I knew there was something not right. I'd be on the phone to Campbell and say, 'Ooh! You just sounded like Olga'. (He'd say) 'No, I didn't, don't be stupid'."
On and on it went, for six years. By the end, Donovan says, Olga had "pissed all her friends away": "I had no-one," she said.
Donovan recalled the day she finally reached breaking point.
"I'd just had enough. I was at a gig and singing Natural Woman on stage, and I burst into tears. I was letting it affect my professional life."
Driving home from the concert, she confessed to her manager Jason she'd never actually met Campbell. He vowed to help her find the truth.
They picked up Olga, and Jason started firing questions at her — her stony silence told Donovan everything she needed to know.
"That was my world … done, basically. I wanted to die. It got to that point where it was just — 'What the f*** have I done to my life?' I'd put on so much weight. I was killing myself eating. The nothingness that I was … I was just empty."
She recalled the night she realised it was all a lie, sitting at the edge of her parents' bed and crying so hard "they thought someone had died". Her mother, it turned out, had sensed something off about the situation but was afraid of intervening in case Olga cut her out of her own daughter's life.
Donovan says the "betrayal, the distrust, and the emotional heartache" took her a long time to get over — she's in therapy to this day to deal with the feelings of low self-worth that made her such a prime catfishing target.
"I'm starting to appreciate who I am and what I do … my place on this earth," she said.
Her therapy involves "talking to seven-year-old Donovan and asking 'How would calling yourself a piece of s*** make her feel?' I've been doing a lot of that lately."
She's still not sure what Olga got out of catfishing her — "I don't know if she was a closeted lesbian who didn't understand her sexuality …" — but says forgiving her played a crucial part in moving on with her life.
Incredibly, she told Denton she saw Olga on the street just days before the interview took place. Olga did not see her.
"I was in my car, and she crossed my path — and in eight years, she has never crossed my path. I was quite surprised at myself actually: I was calm, cool, and collected. I was like, that's not me anymore and carried on about my day."
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:
• 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202