For those that despise the modern wellness industry, Belle Gibson is something of a poster child. A perfect anti-hero, with a story so insidious and despicable that it perhaps should have sunk the likes of clean eating for good.
Gibson is, or was, an Australian wellness celebrity, who found fame and fortune on the back of her blog detailing her extraordinary battle with multiple life-threatening cancers. She claimed to have eschewed conventional treatment, in favour of dietary and alternative approaches, and boasted of having persuaded many others to do the same. She was brave, attractive and inspiring, somehow finding time to organise glamorous fundraising events attended by the great and the good of the wellness scene.
The only problem was, it was all a lie. Gibson never had cancer. Claims of charitable donations were found to be fraudulent. “None of it is true,” she later said, holding back tears in a memorable television interview.
In 2015, when details of her deception broke, this once-adored symbol of hope and triumph was revealed as an exploitative scam artist, with little regard for the people she had hurt. And, as soon as this happened, those that surrounded her scattered off into the dark – hastily deleting Instagram posts as they went.
Even though I have written many words about wellness, clean eating and various forms cancer quackery in the past few years, I have rarely covered Belle Gibson, despite it being one of the most compelling stories around. My reason for avoiding her sordid tale was a feeling that she was simply a damaged individual who got herself in too deep, and ended up in a situation she could not control. I felt that, even though it was an utterly fascinating drama, there was little to learn from a con woman extorting money from vulnerable people. On reading The Woman Who Fooled the World, the brilliant exposé written by the two journalists that first revealed her lies, out today, I can’t help thinking I missed a trick. Because although Gibson was a one-off, her story reveals a great deal about the world that allowed her rise.
Gibson claimed to have developed a brain tumour as a reaction to a cervical-cancer vaccine, something that she was naturally treating with a combination of dietary therapies. This was one of a succession of lies from a young woman who had a troubled relationship with the truth, but unlike previous deceptions, this one really took hold. While her earlier tall tales had taken place in internet forums where she was often given short shrift, this lie was told within the wellness community, where doubt, logic and reasoning are often in short supply.
If Gibson had presented her story at a conference of oncologists or dietitians, she would have been dismissed and disciplined. Yet the wellness industry handed her the keys to their world
Gibson blogged about her “journey”, creating influential brand The Whole Pantry. On the back of its popularity, she developed a large social-media following and built a hugely successful app. She was courted by the Australian wellness community, who gave her the acceptance and adulation she had craved throughout her troubled life. As her success grew, so did the extent of her lies, but never once was she questioned, despite the increasing implausibility of her claims.
Wellness and clean eating are forever criticised for being the pursuit of privileged, wealthy young women, but in Gibson they had their own working class hero. She was a young mother, attractive, down to earth, driven and determined. She had built a business from scratch, raised huge amounts of money for charity and fought off a life-threatening disease with smoothies. She was the smiling face of a new community of health gurus, with a story too good to be true.
I had always imagined that Gibson was a master manipulator; a sophisticated liar spinning a complex web of lies. After all, she bagged a hugely lucrative deal with Penguin Australia and planned to publish her book around the world. She was courted by Apple on the back of her app’s meteoric success, and there were plans to give it a privileged “default pre-installed” status when the Apple Watch launched in Australia. Elle magazine famously covered her rise with a glowing article, and a headline calling her the “Most Inspiring Woman You’ve Met This Year”.
But if her story teaches us anything, it is that she was not sophisticated in the slightest. Her lies were inconsistent and poorly conceived, barely evolved from the attention-seeking teenager who had once invented a heart condition for online sympathy. Proceeds from fundraising events were not channelled through complex, untraceable, offshore accounts, they were simply spent on holidays and nice cars.
No one asked why a woman suffering from a malignant brain tumour had no outward signs of illness, even when she claimed that it had spread throughout her body. Perhaps most troubling of all, her decision to fight cancer with unproven quackery went unquestioned, and no one criticised her when she encouraged others to do the same. Instead, the wellness community opened their arms, as did newspapers, magazines, a leading publishing house, and the largest company in the world.
I suppose they were seduced by the dream, or afraid to burst the bubble. It is perhaps hard to critically interrogate a young woman when you believe she is suffering from a life-threatening disease. With the benefit of hindsight, even the most cursory glance at Gibson’s story would have revealed holes, raised suspicions and invited questioning. And if just one person in the chain had done that, her poorly constructed lies would have collapsed like a house of cards.
That this never happened is a shameful indictment of all involved in Gibson’s sordid tale, brilliantly and compellingly told in Donnelly and Toscano’s book. It reveals that the very things that wellness sees as its strengths – its openness to new ideas, its belief in the power of anecdote, and its willingness to be inspired – are actually weaknesses that darken its heart. If Gibson had presented her story at a conference of oncologists or dietitians, she would have been dismissed and disciplined. Yet the wellness industry handed her the keys to their world.