Were it the plot of a schmaltzy Hollywood movie, most people would consider the storyline way too far-fetched.
A pretty young woman is duped on a dating site by a balding, 55-year-old divorcé who — using photographs he finds online — pretends to be a handsome male model 20 years his junior.
For a year they exchange messages and share intimate telephone chats, but he always has an excuse why he cannot meet up with her.
Even so, she considers herself to be in love with her good-looking boyfriend — and is heartbroken when she finally discovers the cruel deception.
The woman decides to track down the male model to warn him about his impersonator. The dashing young man turns out to be lovely — and single — and the two of them fall madly in love.
Incredible though the story may sound, this is precisely what happened to 35-year-old Emma Perrier, a restaurant manager who lives in Richmond, South-West London.
“I know it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?” says Emma. “I love telling people how the two of us met. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it. That fraudster did us a massive favour.”
Their story began in 2015, when her long and unsociable hours made it hard for Emma to meet men. After an eight-month relationship broke down, she signed onto an online dating site called Zoosk and got talking to someone calling himself Ronaldo ‘Ronnie’ Scicluna.
His profile picture showed him as tall, dark and very handsome. Half-Italian, he’d been raised in the West Midlands and was exactly Emma’s age.
By October that year, the pair were chatting regularly online. Every morning, with butterflies in her stomach, Emma would check to see if ‘Ronnie’ had been in touch — and he, appearing equally smitten, usually had.
They chatted about work, friends and family; about Emma’s great love for her young niece, and her hopes to one day have a family of her own.
However, Emma found it a little odd when ‘Ronnie’ turned down her request for them to make FaceTime video calls, which would have allowed them to see one another.
“That’s just for teenagers,” he said.
Instead, she had to make do with chatting to ‘Ronnie’ over the phone, while looking at her favourite photograph of him, posted on the dating website, dressed in a leather jacket and sunglasses, looking every inch the movie star.
She was also eager for them to meet in person, but whenever she suggested going out for dinner, ‘Ronnie’ made an excuse, claiming his work as a shop-fitter took him all over Europe, and that he spent any free time at his parents’ villa in Spain.
Maybe Emma could join him there one weekend, he said — but, typically, nothing came of that plan.
Emma and ‘Ronnie’ were even exchanging ‘I love yous’ without ever having met, let alone kissed.
“It sounds crazy, I know, but I actually thought I did love him,” she says. “He sent me 300 photographs and we spoke several times a day, messaging one another between times.
“He knew everything that was going on in my life, all my innermost thoughts and feelings. He seemed so loving and caring that I felt confident about sharing those things with him.
“He was also very complimentary about me, obviously doing everything in his power to make me fall for him. And it worked — I really did.”
Emma’s working hours left her little time to see friends. Her twin sister Gaelle — the only person she initially confided in about her new love — was living in France.
It was this relative isolation that made her the perfect prey for a man like ‘Ronnie’ — or Alan Stanley, to give him his real name, a divorced father of one from Stratford-upon-Avon.
A practice known as ‘catfishing’, in which people create fake online identities to ensnare those seeking romance, is, with the ever-increasing popularity of dating websites, a growing problem.
As part of his con, Stanley behaved like Emma’s best friend and confidant. For instance, when he learned she commuted for three hours a day, he encouraged her to find a job closer to home — which she did, in January 2016, finding a position as assistant manager at an Italian restaurant.
However, when Emma then spoke enthusiastically about her ‘boyfriend’ to the waiters and waitresses there, they questioned why she’d never met him.
One night, as they were clearing up together, a colleague warned: “Maybe he’s not who he says he is. He could be an old man. Or he could be a psycho.”
Through naivety, or desperation, Emma refused to believe this could be true.
By spring, her family — concerned that, after six months, she was still yet to meet this man she was so smitten with — advised her to cut all contact with him.
“I didn’t want to listen to them, or believe for one moment that this lovely man I’d fallen for wasn’t who he said he was,” recalls Emma. “But by then I was getting very frustrated by his endless excuses as to why we couldn’t meet and had enough niggling doubts to do some digging.”
Emma downloaded an app called Reverse Image Search, which can trawl the internet to find the original source of photographs.
She uploaded the picture of ‘Ronnie’ in his leather jacket and — within seconds — discovered it was in fact an image of a model and actor from Turkey, named Adam Guzel.
Feeling sick and confused, she kept searching and found his profile on a talent agency website, plus his Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“Seeing images of this man I thought I was in love with, leading a life I knew nothing about in a different country, was so shocking I felt winded,” says Emma.
“As I tried to figure out who the hell this man was that I’d been speaking to all these months, it sounds like a cliche but the blood ran cold through my body and I began to cry.”
Still desperate to believe it was all a mix-up, Emma sent ‘Ronnie’ a text message asking: “Do you have anything to tell me about Adam Guzel?”
Stanley responded: “It is me”, insisting that he had once gone by that name and the pictures were from his younger modelling days.
She demanded that he reveal himself on FaceTime, but he again refused. Still, Emma would not give up. Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, Emma continued her sleuthing while staying in daily contact with ‘Ronnie’.
In August, when ‘Ronnie’ sent her a photo of a clownfish he’d taken at an aquarium, she downloaded it to the reverse image app, which took her to a TripAdvisor review written by Alan Stanley.
From there she was able to locate his Twitter account, where she found a photo of a balding and wrinkled man. No dark Italian looks. No leather jacket.
She realised she’d been duped.
“As all the pieces slotted into place, it was devastating,” recalls Emma. “Facing up to the fact that someone who had said he loved me had gone to such lengths to hurt and humiliate me was almost impossible to bear.
“When he next called, before he could speak I asked: ‘Is your real name Alan?’ Even then, he refused to do the decent thing and said: ‘No!’ Frustrated and heartbroken I sobbed: ‘But it is, it is, it is.’
As he accused Emma of having ‘trust issues’, she screamed: “Don’t talk to me about trust, Alan Stanley!” and ended the call.
Later that day, he called back and finally admitted his deception, calling it “a big error of judgment — the worst and biggest mistake of my life”, before sending her a photograph showing his less-than-model-like looks.
“‘I called my sister and wept down the phone to her for an hour,” recalls Emma. “Of course, I’d known, deep down, by then that “Ronnie” didn’t exist, but having full confirmation meant I couldn’t even kid myself any more.
“I felt so hurt and so foolish for falling for such a deception.”
Determined to prevent Stanley causing similar pain to other women, Emma sent a message via Facebook to Adam warning him that photos of him had been used to create a fake dating profile.
Though he’d received similar messages in the past, this time he decided to reply and, when he heard what Alan Stanley had put Emma through, felt furious.
Intrigued to speak to the man whose image she’d fallen in love with, Emma suggested a video call — and when Adam’s handsome face, with his big, dark eyes and perfect white teeth, appeared on her iPhone, smiling and nervously running his fingers through his thick hair, Emma burst into tears.
“You’re so real,” she said, simultaneously laughing and crying. “You actually exist.”
A shared sense of injustice meant they continued to chat online, and over the months the conversation moved from being about Stanley’s deception to a recognition of an obvious spark between them.
They arranged for Adam, who had lived in Manchester for a while after finishing drama school but was now back in his native Turkey, to visit Emma in London, and on April 1 last year she went to Heathrow airport to collect him.
She couldn’t resist telling Stanley what was happening. “I’m finally going to meet my Ronnie,” she texted. “I’m not sure if I should thank you or detest you for that.”
As Adam walked through the arrival gates, looking nervous, Emma was waiting.
“It’s impossible to describe my feelings seeing this beautiful man, who I’d never met but had such deep affection for, smiling and waving at me,” recalls Emma, welling up at the memory.
“We hugged and then, as we were waiting for a taxi, Adam turned and kissed me and it felt amazing, like coming home.” Although he spent the first few nights on her sofa, Adam was soon sharing Emma’s bed.
“I almost slipped up a couple of times in the beginning and called him Ronnie, but now he’s just Adam to me,” says Emma.
“He’s so kind, loving and gentle — everyone who meets him is smitten. It’s hard to believe that such a terrible experience could have led me to something, and someone, so wonderful.”
The path of true love still has a number of potholes along the way, however. Turkey, where Adam is still resident, is a non-EU country, which means he is not entitled to work in the UK and, as part of his tourist visa, must return to Istanbul every six months.
However, aside from a trip home in October, he and Emma have been inseparable for the past nine months, enjoying their shared interests of going to the cinema, walking and cooking.
While she is at work, he is writing a screenplay. And, when Adam returns to Turkey for a few weeks in March, Emma will go with him and meet his family.
For his part, Adam is just as delighted — and disgusted — at the events that brought the two of them together.
“I was aware that my photos had been used by men creating fake dating profiles back in Turkey, which my agent had closed down, but I couldn’t believe it when Emma got in touch to say someone had done the same in England,” he says.
“It felt a bit sinister, which made me angry towards this man. At first I thought, ‘Why me?’. But now, knowing that is what led to me meeting and falling in love with Emma, I think, ‘Thank God it was my images he chose.'”
Neither knows what the future holds, so, instead of worrying about it, they’ve decided to just enjoy the here and now.
“We’re not making plans at the moment, but we wouldn’t marry just to enable one of us to live in the other’s country,” says Emma. “For now, we’re just enjoying our time together, but I’m sure this is just the beginning of our story.”
And what of Alan Stanley, the villain of this modern-day fairy tale? When approached by the Mail, Stanley didn’t respond, but he’s explained in the past that he set up a fake profile because he knew Emma, and other women, wouldn’t be interested in the real him.
“I was going through a low point in my life and wanted someone to talk to,” he said. “I know what I did was wrong but the more she involved me the harder it was to come clean.”
While not exactly claiming credit, he added: “I think it’s brilliant that Emma and Adam have met; it’s almost like fate.”
Emma’s feelings towards Stanley veer from fury for what he put her through to sympathy that his life could be so unhappy that he’d do such a thing, mixed with sadness that he turned out not to be the caring man she thought he was.
“I’m a great believer in destiny,” says Emma. “So a little part of me is grateful to Alan, because, if he hadn’t put me through what he did I’d never have met Adam, who I really believe is the love of my life.”