An early adopter of the cult of Instagram influencers, wellness blogger Belle Gibson convinced her 200,000-plus followers she cured her terminal brain cancer with nothing more than a healthy diet.
Time and again, huge holes in her fabricated story were overlooked until, in 2015, two young journalists at The Age newspaper, Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano, began to suspect her cancer claim was bogus.
Alerted to rumours by a former editor, a close friend from Gibson’s inner circle confided her suspicions off the record. Soon it was a handful of Gibson’s friends, but none were willing to go on the record.
Unable to categorically prove the allegations, they went for what they could, exposing that the vast majority of Gibson’s extensive fundraising for cancer charities had never been donated.
Their tenacious reporting triggered an earthquake, disgracing Gibson, who was ultimately fined $410,000 in September this year after being found guilty of misleading and deceptive conduct.
“These are two of the things our society finds unthinkable, cancer scamming and charity fraud,” Donelly tells The New Daily ahead of the launch of their explosive new book The Woman Who Fooled the World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con.
“If someone says they have terminal cancer, you believe them,” he says.
“As a society, cancer is probably the scariest thing we face and with Belle Gibson here you have a young woman, a single mother, photogenic, talented, entrepreneurial and she’s making waves, seemingly donating to charity. Everyone wanted to partner with her.”
Apple helped take Gibson’s lie global.
Monetising that staggering deception via her wildly successful healthy living app The Whole Pantry, the global corporation handpicked Gibson to work on their Apple Watch prototype, hugely boosting her profile. An international cookbook deal with Penguin followed.
“Apple and Penguin needed to check out what they were standing behind,” Donelly insists. “They failed on a monumental level.”
Even within Gibson’s harmful myth, the logic doesn’t stack up. “Her whole business was built off of healing herself from terminal brain cancer,” Donelly shakes his head.
“Apple swallowed it, Penguin swallowed it – and then in mid-2014 she comes out and says she has multiple other cancers. At that point everyone’s in in too deep already, but surely someone should be asking questions?”
While Penguin publicly acknowledged their negligence and paid a $30,000 penalty, Apple has failed to address the scandal publicly. When we put that omission to the company, Apple declined to comment on this story.
In interviewing Gibson’s school friends, the reporters uncovered a long history of lying about imagined health conditions. Their research also highlighted an unusual childhood. Donelly spoke to Gibson’s estranged and eccentric mother, who appeared to demonstrate similar personality traits.
“I definitely think Belle Gibson is a troubled person who had a troubled upbringing,” Donelly adds. “She left home at a very young age and lived with an older man for some period of time in her teens years. No one seems to know why or to have questioned that living arrangement.”
Does he think Gibson feels remorse?
“In her public appearances, I haven’t recognised anything that looks like genuine remorse,” Donelly offers.
“The most important thing was that she was found guilty and it got a huge amount of international publicity, because anyone with cancer, or their families, need to be aware there are people out there peddling bulls*** for profit and what they are selling is false hope, nothing more.”
The Woman Who Fooled the World by Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano is out now, published by Scribe.