Is May December based on a true story? The disturbing real life inspiration revealed

7 December 2023, 20:56 | Updated: 7 December 2023, 21:12

Watch Netflix's May December trailer

By Katie Louise Smith

Who was Mary Kay Letourneau? Where is Vili Fualaau now? Here's the disturbing true story that inspired Netflix's May December.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

[Content Warning: This article contains talk of sexual abuse that some may find disturbing.]

Between the viral scenes and Charles Melton's incredible performance (the Oscar buzz is buzzing!), Netflix's May December is stirring up a lot of conversation on social media. But is it based on a true story?

May December follows the story of Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Julianne Moore) and Joe Yoo (Melton), a married couple who are visited by actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) researching her upcoming role in an independent film about Gracie.

In 1992, Gracie found herself in the centre of a scandal after her illegal relationship with Joe, who was a child when they began their sexual relationship, was discovered. She served prison time, and got married and raised their children together after her release.

The whole thing sounds striking similar to the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal, and it turns out that director Todd Haynes actually did take some inspiration from the real life story.

Is May December based on a real life couple?

Is May December based on Mary Kay Letourneau?
Is May December based on Mary Kay Letourneau? Picture: Netflix, 7NEWS Australia

Is May December based on a true story?

Director Todd Haynes has said that May December is loosely inspired by a real life, highly publicised story, involving a woman named Mary Kay Letourneau. While discussing the story with Julianne Moore, Haynes says the film stemmed from the question: "How this could have happened?"

Mary Kay Letourneau was a school teacher who was convicted of raping a 12-year-old student, Vili Fualaau and sent to prison in 1997. She gave birth to their two children during both of her prison stints. After her release, the pair got married and raised their children together.

The character of Gracie in May December has a similar backstory. 20 years prior, Gracie was caught having sex with her 13-year-old co-worker, Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) and was also sentenced to prison. They later got married and had children.

"Looking back at Mary Kay Letourneau’s story and interviews really were of concrete help in trying to formulate that backstory, and Julianne really led that process," Haynes tolds TODAY.com, but Julianne made sure to clarify that she was not portraying the story of Mary Kay Letourneau.

Gracie and Joe's relationship in May December is loosely inspired by the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal
Gracie and Joe's relationship in May December is loosely inspired by the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal. Picture: Netflix

"Well, certainly this is not the story of Mary Kay Letourneau. I think Sammy Burch, our screenwriter, used it as inspiration, but I wasn’t playing her," Julianne said. "I did do a lot of reading about the case and I looked at some documentary footage, and I think what really struck me when I was watching it was how beautiful she was, how dedicated she was to her children, how very feminine she seemed and her fragility."

"Those, to me, seemed to be the really salient points of what she was presenting to the world," she continued.

While the main focus of May December involving Gracie and Joe bares striking similarities to that of Mary Kay's relationship with Vili, the storyline with Natalie Portman's Elizabeth is completely fictional.

Ultimately, May December is a fictional story with fictional characters. It's not a direct dramatisation of the Mary Kay Letourneau case, but it does take inspiration from it.

One scene in May December was inspired by 'uncomfortable' Letourneau and Fualaau interview from 2018
One scene in May December was inspired by 'uncomfortable' Letourneau and Fualaau interview from 2018. Picture: 7NewsSpotlight/Youtube

What happened to Mary Kay Letourneau?

In 1996, then-34-year-old Mary Kay Letourneau (married with four kids, aged 2 through 11) began an illegal sexual relationship with then-12-year-old Vili Fualaau.

In 1997, she was arrested and pled guilty to child rape, and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. She was also pregnant with Fualaau's baby at the time. She served five months before being released on probation, and was ordered to stay away from Fualaau.

Less than a month after she was released, she was caught with Fualaau again. She was jailed again, and served her full sentence. She gave birth to their second child while in prison.

Letourneau was released from prison in 2004, and registered herself as a sex offender. Fualaau was 21 years old when she was released, and went on to petition the court to lift the order that prohibited Letourneau from having any contact with him.

In a 2006 interview with NBC's Dateline, Fualaau said he initiated their relationship ("I wanted her. So I wasn’t gonna stop.") and Letourneau said she didn't think what she was doing at the time would be illegal.

They got married in 2005 and began raising their two daughters together. They initially separated in 2017, and officially divorced in 2019. Letourneau died in 2020 of colorectal cancer at the age of 58.

Mary Kay Letourneau - the teacher jailed for raping a student she later married | 7NEWS Spotlight

Where is Vili Fualaau now?

Fualaau is now 40 years old. He and Letourneau divorced in 2019, one year before Mary Kay died in 2020.

PEOPLE reports that Fualaau welcomed his third child, from another relationship, in 2022 after his daughter Georgia shared the happy news about her new sister on her Instagram.

Fualaau's two daughters with Letourneau are now 25 and 24 years old, and he's also reportedly set to become a grandfather.

In the years since Letourneau's death, Fualaau has remained out of the spotlight. His whereabouts are not known, but it's presumed that he's still living in Seattle.

Vili Fualaau pictured in 2006
Vili Fualaau pictured in 2006. Picture: Getty

WATCH: Victoria Monét breaks down JAGUAR II track by track

Victoria Monét Explains Every Song On 'JAGUAR II' | Making The Album