On face value, it seems a touch depressing that the unravelling of an Instagram wellness blogger occupied so much of the national news cycle.
At a time when existential threats are rearing their heads with alarming regularity, it’s easy to sneer at the Belle Gibson saga and dismiss it with a roll of the eyes.
But dig a bit deeper and you’ll find it uncovers far more than just the lies of an attractive young woman with a knack for well-constructed Instagram posts.
A few years ago Gibson was the darling of the ‘wellness’ movement – a phrase almost exclusively used in hashtag form.
In its modern iteration, it’s a lifestyle philosophy trumpeted by a collection of largely white, largely female social media ‘influencers’ that champions anything from clean-eating to naturopathy to diluted revisions of Eastern spirituality.
Think kale smoothies, yoga, mindfulness, juice detoxes, activewear and you’re more than halfway there.
Belle Gibson, for her part, carved herself a lucrative slice of this pie.
She built up a rabidly loyal army of followers after claiming to have beaten a string of malignant cancers through “the power of fruits and vegetables”, exercise and controversial alternative cures like colonic irrigations and Gerson treatments.
With the enthusiastic backing of the Apple marketing machine, Gibson launched a wildly popular app, ‘The Whole Pantry’, which racked up 200,000 downloads in its first month.
She then landed an international book deal with Penguin Publishing and had a string of gushing features written about her in top women’s magazines around the world.
But things started to unravel when Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano started to painstakingly pull apart Gibson’s stories.
The cancer was a lie, the treatments were a lie and the alleged donations to charity never happened.
With remarkable skill and care, the two investigative journalists from The Age brought the truth to the surface.
But more importantly, they uncovered a hidden dark side to the wellness movement.
A place where dangerous ‘cures’ are repackaged as ‘inspiration’ and vague anecdotes act as proxies for scientific evidence.
In fact, the industry’s complete lack of accountability has led to an ever-growing community that not only distrusts modern medicine, but offers up its own (often dangerous) solutions without a shred of proof that they work.
Donelly and Toscano’s incredible book about their investigation is called The Woman Who Fooled The World’ and I was lucky enough to chat with Beau to get an inside look into how they broke one of the biggest stories of the year:
Riordan Lee: How aware were you of Belle Gibson before you and Nick started getting tip-offs?
Beau Donelly: I’d never heard of her. Neither had Nick. Neither of us really had anything to do with this wellness space.
At that point we didn’t have Instagram accounts. We didn’t follow these sort of influencers online so she wasn’t on our radar at all.
RL: So how did Belle get into your crosshairs?
BD: I was told by a friend about this woman named Belle Gibson who had built up this massive online following and had basically claimed to cure herself of cancer without the help of doctors.
The friend said to me, “she doesn’t have cancer”. At first I didn’t want to invest a lot of time into going down that rabbit hole because we get tip-offs like this all the time.
And proving something like this is almost impossible.
Finally, I called her.
I really wasn’t expecting anything. I didn’t even take my notepad with me. But I ended up sitting on the phone with this girl for about an hour and a half. I just started to believe her.
From there, I went back upstairs to my editor, told her about the story and she half rolled her eyes, half said it sounds good.
We just chipped away at it for a little while in our own time and started pulling everything that there was on the public record about Belle.
All the interview transcripts and articles that she’d taken part in, her story just didn’t seem to stack up. She was always very vague and imprecise about certain details.
Also, there was some conflicting information there and we did notice pretty much straight away that she made these huge and varying claims about giving a portion of her profits away to charity.
I went back to the source, the woman I was speaking to, and through her we managed to track down a few other people in Belle Gibson’s inner circle and they basically all said the same thing: that they believed that she was faking cancer.
They all had their own reasons for believing this.
One was someone who was going to start a business with Belle Gibson. One was someone who worked closely with her for a few months. One was someone who treated her with natural medicine.
We started getting this picture of what was going on. We started hearing stories through these friends that were pretty concerning.
That’s the point that we thought, okay, there is something here.
At that point we went to the lawyers. We went to the editor and to the lawyers and we said this is the yarn that we want to gather. We’ve got maybe five or six friends who, off the record, are all saying the same thing.
They said there’s no way that you can write this. There’s no way that we can publish it.
We were expecting that answer and we agreed because we knew that if we were going to call her out for not having cancer…if we were wrong there was too much riding on it.
RL: So how do you prove something that doesn’t exist?
BD: There wasn’t another case I could think of where someone had faked cancer on this scale and had been called out for it. It was a sort of terrifying experience for us thinking “could we pull the trigger here or not?”
And also, journalists don’t have access to people’s medical records. That’s undoubtedly a really good thing. Unless you have someone’s full medical history, it’s almost impossible.
The lawyers made a phone call on that and then we just figured, look, if she’s lying about this, she’ll be lying about other things.
We went back to the charitable donations and sort of poured over those statements that she made. We contacted that charities and asked them have you heard of her? Has she given you this money? The answers were pretty much unanimous.
None had received any money and I think all but no-one had even heard of her. We figured ‘alright, we’ll write that story‘.
As soon as it goes up online and gets shared on social media, people will start asking questions about the cancer story.
That’s more or less what happened with about half an hour of it being published. That sort of allowed us to report further about the questions being asked and the doubts that cast on to her story.
RL: You published articles in 2015 that raised doubts over Belle’s donations, and that sort of led to a snowball effect – eventually resulting in her coming clean in a 60 Minutes interview. What were you thinking when you saw it?
BD: I was pretty baffled. Watching that interview was the first time that I had seen her actually sit down and talk in depth about her story.
We’d only seen her written pieces before that and we’d never actually spoken to her. So I hadn’t actually had the chance to speak to her one-on-one.
Watching her sit there and give those really long-winded and nonsensical answers, I suspected that she was a troubled person.
RL: It seems like you’ve sort of stumbled upon a really dark side to the wellness movement that’s actually quite chilling.
BD: Yeah, I think what’s happened in the last two years is that Belle Gibson has become the face of the dark side of the wellness movement. The wellness movement has been around for decades.
It was born out of the New Age revolution, and it was always meant as an adjunct to conventional medicine. It wasn’t meant as a replacement of conventional medicine.
What’s happened in more recent years with insurance companies and chiropractic clinics and big business co-opting the word, is that that meaning is being lost.
Then on Instagram people have almost medicalised the term so they’re using wellness as a way of treating different ailments. Then to go further than that, which is what Belle Gibson did, they then promote this distrust in conventional medicine as well.
(Lead Image: XPosure)