The Woman Who Fooled the World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con by Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano
Published by Scribe Publications on 13 November 2017
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Belle Gibson convinced the world she had healed herself from terminal brain cancer with a healthy diet. She built a global business based upon her claims. There was just one problem: she’d never had cancer.
In 2015, journalists uncovered the truth: this hero of the wellness world, with over 200,000 followers, international book deals, and a best-selling smartphone app, was a fraud. She had lied about having cancer — to her family and friends, to her business partners and publishers, and to the hundreds of thousands of people, including genuine cancer survivors, who were inspired by her Instagram posts.
Written by the same multi-award-winning journalists who uncovered the details of Gibson’s lies, The Woman Who Fooled the World tracks the 23-year-old’s rise to fame and fall from grace. Told through interviews with the people who know her best, it unravels the mystery and motivation behind this deception and follows the public reaction to a scandal that made headlines around the world.
The Woman Who Fooled the World explores the lure of alternative cancer treatments, the cottage industry flourishing behind the wellness and ‘clean eating’ movements, and the power of social media. It documents the devastating impact this con had on Gibson’s fans and on people suffering from cancer. Ultimately, it answers not just how, but why, Gibson was able to fool so many.
Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano first broke the Belle Gibson story back in 2015. I was fascinated by it: a woman who was my age, had all these accolades, who was validated by so many people – in some cases, very powerful people – had become one of the most infamous con artists.
I didn’t hear about Belle Gibson until Donelly and Toscano originally broke the story of her company, The Whole Pantry, ‘fundraising’ for charity and the charities never receiving the money. At the time, I really felt for her victims: as hard as I found it to believe that healthy eating and clean living could cure cancer (if that was all it took, oncologists would be getting their patients to do it), I’m sure if I had been told I had cancer, I would be desperate to try anything. Belle Gibson preyed on cancer patients and their families. In the process, she destroyed careers at Penguin, the largest book publisher in the world, and Apple, arguably the largest company in the world, because nobody bothered to fact check her story. However, I also began to feel sorry for her. The internet is where human decency goes to die, and it was just one massive pile on. I could only imagine how terrifying it must be to receive multiple death threats. This book covers the whole sordid affair: from Belle’s humble beginnings in Launceston and childhood in Brisbane to her ‘diagnosis’ in Perth and eventual move to Melbourne.
For the most part, this new breed of wellness gurus is white and female, young and attractive, engaging, and media-savvy. Some are yoga teachers, or personal trainers, or martial-arts instructors, but scant few have any qualifications that equip them to give health advice. What they do have is an Instagram account.
Donelly and Toscano link Gibson’s success to society’s obsession with consumerism and the rise of greater access to information (and, in turn, the spread of misinformation). They point out that the ‘wellness’ industry is dominated by well-off white women with an Instagram account and absolutely zero qualifications. As a sort of B-story, they look at Jessica Ainscough, the ‘wellness warrior.’ Ainscough was diagnosed with cancer at 22 and decided coffee enemas would cure the problem. She’s now dead. As is her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer and believed in the same alternative treatments as Ainscough. If you’d like to know more about Ainscough’s story, Donelly and Toscano reference a piece written by Sam de Brito that’s well worth your time. Donelly and Toscano don’t go too hard on Ainscough for peddling alternative therapies as a cure for cancer – most probably because she did have cancer, and she genuinely believed in these therapies until it was too late (Ainscough would eventually turn to chemotherapy in her last few months).
Donelly and Toscano also talk critically about who put people like Gibson and Ainscough in a position to talk about ‘alternative’ therapies and – at least in Gibson’s case – peddle their lies to hundreds of thousands of people: the media. Apple and Penguin gave credibility and a sense of legitimacy to Gibson’s story. Apple, so eager to make money off of Gibson, are probably more to blame than Penguin. If anything, their glowing endorsement of her was what probably led Penguin to not ask any questions about her story when they signed her. That said, Penguin are not completely absolved of all responsibility: a particularly chilling scene is when Penguin’s PR team is prepping her for journalists asking about the holes in her story. You can watch video of it here.
The part that got me most was where Gibson’s mother, Natalie del Ballo, was introduced. Gibson’s dysfunctional childhood is perhaps the only true part of her story, and her mother comes across as a gold digger out to mine everything she can from her daughter’s sudden infamy. It broke my heart a little, and made me wonder if Gibson had ever had some hope of being a well-adjusted adult.
Donelly and Toscano’s book is a stunning, fast-paced expose of The Whole Pantry. Positing larger questions of the dissemination of (mis)information and the ethics of the health and beauty industry, it is a fascinating look at the rise and fall of Gibson and her empire that will give you faith in the power of long form journalism. A must read.