Belle Gibson built an empire peddling lies about health food and cancer. We speak to the authors of a new book that uncovers the unbelievable magnitude of her fraud.
Photo courtesy of Scribe / 60 Minuteso
In 2014, self-styled “wellness warrior” Belle Gibson sat in the offices of her publishers, Penguin, and answered questions about her forthcoming book. Penguin filmed the interview. In the footage, Gibson appears relaxed and well rested. She wears a loose-fitting floral blouse, and sports a glowing tan and long, blonde highlighted hair.
“Do you feel like you’re dying?” a staffer asks Gibson off camera. “Yeah,” she replies casually, shrugging her shoulders. “I’m fine with that. And it’s conflicting for a lot of people. I don’t think I’m going to die tomorrow, but my body is dying.”
Of all the many lies Belle Gibson told in her life, this was one of the only times she actually told the truth.
Before Gibson was a wellness guru with over 200,000 online followers, a best-selling app, international book deals, and regular speaking gigs, she was just a young woman with a history of compulsive lying. But how did Gibson drag herself out of obscurity into international celebrity status within the space of only two years, using little more than acai berry bowl recipes and Instagram? Mostly by lying about having various forms of cancer and creating the ultimate heroic narrative of a single mother overcoming terminal illness through sheer force of will and healthy eating.
Now the journalists who exposed Gibson’s cancer fraud have published a forensically in-depth account of her meteoric rise and spectacular downfall. The Woman Who Fooled the World is about more than Gibson’s abhorrent lies. It exposes the darker underside of the wellness industry, the damaging language we use to discuss cancer, the unscrupulous charlatans who exploit terminally ill patients for financial gain, and the journalistic climate that allowed Gibson’s lies to go unchallenged for such a long time.
At the height of her success, Gibson was surrounded by followers and hangers-on. Fellow social media influencers waxed lyrical about her journey and cross-posted her content on their own feeds. But as Gibson’s lies were exposed, her acolytes vanished. None were willing to talk to the press, and they expunged all traces of her from their social media presences.
“The process of writing the book was really difficult and challenging,” explains Beau Donnelly, who co-authored The Woman Who Fooled the World alongside fellow journalist Nick Toscano, in a phone call with Broadly. “I felt like banging my head against the wall, because—really—no one wanted anything to do with Belle Gibson in any way.”
In the book, Toscano and Donnelly painstakingly reconstruct Gibson’s past. Her school friends claim she had a history of lying about bogus medical problems; one describes her as a “pathological liar.” Another remembers: “In our hometown she was extremely well-known for what basically amounts to compulsive lying."
Gibson, then 20, started out in 2009 by making outlandish claims in online skateboarding forums. (Before she was a wellness entrepreneur, Gibson flirted with emo and skate culture.) “I just woke up out of a coma type-thing,” she wrote in chat forum posts unearthed by Donnelly and Toscano. “The doctor comes in and tells me the draining failed and I went into cardiac arrest and died for just under three minutes.”
These early lies in anonymised forums and online communities paved the way for Gibson’s subsequent fraud. Of course, most of us lie in one way another online. We emphasize the good and downplay the bad, cropping wedding rings out of photos or digitally retouching photographs in lieu of working out at the gym. But Gibson perpetrated one of the most elaborate and abhorrent frauds of the 21st century—selling hope to millions off the lie that she’d used healthy eating to cure her disease, all the while building a lucrative business empire off the misery of genuine cancer sufferers.
"I think we will never fully understand what motivates her and find out who Belle Gibson really is."
Throughout The Woman Who Fooled the World, Donnelly and Toscano attack the same question from multiple angles: What made Gibson do it? Partial and incomplete answers are offered. The two writers allege that Gibson's mother is also a frequent liar, and discuss the possibility that Gibson may have mental health conditions—such as Munchausen's syndrome, in which individuals lie about being ill to elicit sympathy or attention—as motives for her pathological lying. “I think we will never fully understand what motivates her and find out who Belle Gibson really is,” Donnelly tells me.
In 2015, after her scam was exposed, Gibson agreed to a sit-down interview with 60 Minutes interviewer Tara Brown. Rather than offering a full mea culpa, Gibson doubled down on her lies and refused to acknowledge that she had lied about multiple cancer diagnoses. Instead, she blamed a doctor for misdiagnosing her as Donnelly and Toscano explain in The Woman Who Fooled the World (60 Minutes was unable to trace the man in question.)
After the interview was broadcast, viewers immediately began speculating about Gibson’s mental health online. Screenwriters for Irish soap opera Fair City even watched Gibson’s 60 Minutes interview for research when introducing a character suffering from Munchausen by proxy syndrome, a mental disorder in which caregivers harm children or those close to them to garner sympathy and attention for themselves. As Donnelly or Toscano point out in their book, however, speculation about Gibson’s mental health is largely pointless. She has never submitted to a psychiatric assessment, and neither journalist is in a position to give a clinical diagnosis.
“We’re reporters!” Donnelly says of the speculation around Gibson’s mental health. “How could we possibly diagnose her?”
Leaving clinical assessment aside, he regards her as “basically delusional... I think we’re dealing with someone who is quite delusional, and there’s an element of self-protection, too.”
Where The Woman Who Fooled The World really excels is in a nuanced depiction of a woman more commonly represented in one-note terminology as an evil liar and a fraud. While it does not evoke sympathy for Gibson, the chapter in which we meet Gibson’s mother Natalie Dal Bello, helps us to understand the home environment in which a young Belle might have learned that it isn’t always a bad thing to lie.
Smartly, Donnelly and Toscano don’t overly editorialize in this chapter. Instead, they recount the circuitous, bizarre pronouncements Dal Bello subjects them to every time they call the family home—including claims that she cares for six child refugees from Saudi Arabia at home. The authors’ conversations with Dal Bello read like an audio black hole into which reason and conversational norms are sucked into, and distortion and noise spat back out.
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“We were so curious to know—who is this girl? What sort of environment did she grow up in? Why did no one from her family come to her defence when she was being mobbed in the media?” Donnelly tells me. “Not one person came to her defence. From the conversations we had with Natalie, I think it builds up the dysfunction that she was living within.”
While researching this piece, I looked for traces of Gibson’s once-ascendant empire on the Internet. Almost nothing remains. Her wellness videos have been scrubbed from YouTube. Her best-selling book has been pulped. Her social media channels have been deleted, and she was fined $322,000 by an Australian court. Little remains of the Belle Gibson empire that claimed she could heal cancer, one green shake at a time.
But even though Gibson has disappeared into obscurity, questions need to be asked about the tech companies that feted her, the publishers that didn’t fact-check her books, and the online publishers that latched onto her claims and enabled her rise. A salutary tale about the necessity of healthy skepticism in a functioning society, The Woman Who Fooled the World is about much more than one woman’s fraud case. It’s about a society in which credulous, vulnerable people are preyed on by sophisticated predators, and as such, it should be required reading for anyone interested in intersection between fake news, social media duplicity, and the wellness industry.