On this episode of Misfortune: A Financial Crimes Podcast, Adam and Danger discuss the bizarre case of Belle Gibson, a blogger and “alternative health advocate” who built a business off claims that she had cured her cancer through natural remedies and healthy eating. Our guest is Beau Donelly, an award-winning journalist who written for many Australian publications including The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2015 Beau, along with fellow journalist Nick Toscano, uncovered the truth behind Belle Gibson’s lies. In November 2017, Beau and Nick published The Woman Who Fooled The World: Belle Gibson’s cancer con, and the darkness at the heart of the wellness industry.
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Annabelle Natalie Gibson was born on October 8, 1991 in Tasmania, an island state in Australia. Not much is known about her early childhood, although we do know she and her brother were raised by a single mother. She dropped out of high school in 2008 at the age of 16 and moved across the country to Perth, where she worked in a call center for a private health insurance company.
Belle had a history of fabricating stories about her upbringing and her medical conditions. She claimed to have undergone several heart surgeries but didn’t have the scars one would expect from such surgeries. She told stories about having to care for her autistic brother when she was just six years – as it turned out, her brother did not have autism.
According to Belle, after she moved to Perth, she began experiencing vision, memory and walking problems, and one day had a stroke at work. In 2009, the story goes, she met a man named Mark Johns, whom she believed to be a doctor. Mark diagnosed her with brain cancer and told her she had 4 months to live. She claimed to have undergone 2 months of chemotherapy, and when that caused her to pass out one day in a park, she decided to explore the world of alternative medicine and natural cures.
In July 2010, at the age of 18, she gave birth to her son Oliver. She and Oliver’s dad, Nathan, lived together in Melbourne, where Belle worked part time at a baby store. In 2012, Belle and Nathan split and she began dating Clive Rothwell, an IT consultant. She became pregnant again, but lost the baby. This loss, she later wrote in her book, was part of the reason she started an Instagram account:
“I needed something to break the negative cycle, and I realised there must be other people out there, feeling just as unsupported as I was, so I started posting on Instagram — I wanted to share what I had learnt about health and nutrition on my journey with cancer.”
Belle joined Instagram with the handle healing_belle. A brain scan the previous year had found her to be cancer free and healthy, so she portrayed herself as a woman who had healed herself through a combination of diet, exercise and alternative treatments such as the highly controversial Gerson therapy.
Her posts reflected a woman living a full life – selfies, photos of her son, food photos and inspirational quotes. She was a woman who, despite her pain and suffering, was determined to make the most of every single second of life. She quickly gained about 200,000 followers.
In 2013, Belle began laying the groundwork for her Whole Pantry business. When Belle registered her business, she gave her correct birthdate on the paperwork, despite publicly claiming to be 3 years older than she was. There is no evidence that Clive had anything to do with business, other than registering a domain name for it.
In August 2013, she released The Whole Pantry app, which was advertised as “the world’s first health, wellness and lifestyle app.” It received 200,000 downloads the first month, making in #1 in the app store, and was voted Apple’s Best Food and Drink App of 2013.
Thanks to the app’s success Apple executives flew Belle out to its Cupertino headquarters to work with them on its secret Apple Watch project, and even chose her app to be one of the few pre-installed apps on the watch. In November 2013, Belle also signed a contract with Penguin for a 250-page cookbook with 80 mostly plant-based recipes.
In violation of Australian law, Belle held at least 2 fundraisers without being officially registered as a fundraiser. In December 2013, Belle hosted an exclusive party to raise money for several charities including the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and One Girl, which runs education programs in Sierra Leone.
A few months later, she ran another fundraiser, promising to donate proceeds from app sales to two different charities. She initially claimed to raise $5,000, but when later confronted about this fundraiser, she said it only raised $2,800, She felt that wasn’t enough to divide between 2 so she “allocated,” but did not actually give, the funds to the Bumi Sehat Foundation, which operates health education and childbirth centers in Indonesia.
In July 2014, Belle posted some heartbreaking news on Instagram – the cancer had spread to her “blood, spleen, brain, uterus and liver.” There was a tremendous outpouring of grief from her fans and followers. Yet, confusingly, when her cookbook launched in November the same year, Gibson wrote in the preface that she was “stable for two years now with no growth of the cancer.”
Belle’s company reportedly made $420,000 from sales of The Whole Pantry cookbook and smart phone application. Despite her claims that nearly all profits from the book and app would be donated to charity, Belle purchased a new BMW X3 and move into a beachside townhouse that rented for more than $1,000/week.
In early 2015, Beau and Nick received a tip that someone close to Belle believed her story was a lie and was concerned about Belle’s increasingly growing platform and the potential for harm. After weeks of reading going through Belle’s social media and reading numerous articles and interviews, the inconsistencies became clear. She was vague on the actual details of her cancer, made contradictory claims that her cancer had spread and that she was cancer free, and made varying promises about how much of her business profits she would donate to charity.
The journalists sent Belle an email with a list of 21 questions, including questions about why the charities had not received any of the promised donations, asking her to clarify her age, as she claimed to be 26 at the time but was actually 23, and specific questions about her cancer diagnosis.
Within minutes of receiving the email, Belle began contacting charities about the promised donations and made a $1,000 donation to one of the charities. When she replied to Beau and Nick’s email, she touted that single donation while stating that the company was running at a loss and that “external accountants had advised it to put a hold on all donations until their records were up to date.”
On March 8, 2015, The Age, a Melbourne-based daily newspaper, published an article alleging that Belle had solicited donations from her 200,000 followers in the names of various charities, none of which had any record of receiving these donations.
Belle’s book was pulled from shelves the same month, with Penguin publicly acknowledging that they had failed to verify her claims. Apple quietly pulled the app and any mention of it from their advertising and website and has never publicly commented on their partnership with Belle.
In April 2015, Belle admitted in an interview with the Australian Women’s Weekly that she never had cancer. She is quoted as saying “I don’t want forgiveness. I just think [speaking out] was
the responsible thing to do. Above anything, I would like people to say, ‘OK, she’s human.'” She attributed her lying to a rough upbringing and neglect by her mother, which her mother denied.
In a June 2015 60 Minutes interview with Tara Brown, Belle said finding out she didn’t have cancer was so traumatic that she wanted to wait until she was strong enough to reveal the truth. “Once I received the definite, ‘No, you do not have cancer,’ that was something I had to come to terms with and it was really traumatising and I was feeling a huge amount of grief.”
She also continued to be strangely evasive about her age. When the interviewer asked her age, Belle said “I’ve always been raised as being currently a 26-year-old,” and added that she had two birth certificates and had changed her name four times.
Consumer Affairs Victoria began investigating the fraud allegations against Belle. In June 2016, they brought a civil case against Belle and her company Inkerman Road Nominees, which had been shut down by that point.
On March 16, 2017, Federal Court Judge Debbie Mortimer upheld most of the allegations, ruling that Belle’s false claims of donating the proceeds from The Whole Pantry book and app constituted unconscionable conduct under Australian consumer law. At the time, the judge noted that she was open to the possibility that Belle was suffering “from a series of delusions about her health condition.”
Several months later, however, the judge had much harsher words for her. Pointing out that Belle had failed to attend of the hearings, the judge said, “If there is one theme or pattern which emerges through her conduct, it is her relentless obsession with herself and what best serves her interests.”
On September 28, 2017, Judge Mortimer ordered Gibson to pay a total of 410,000 Australian dollars (U.S. $320,000). The court noted that Belle’s company had made $420,000 from sales of the cookbook and app and had only donated $10,800 of that amount, despite pledging to donate much much more.
Breakdown of fine:
$90,000 for failing to donate proceeds from the sale of The Whole Pantry app, as publicly advertised
$50,000 for failing to donate proceeds from the launch of The Whole Pantry app
$30,000 for failing to donate proceeds from a 2014 Mothers Day event
$90,000 for failing to donate other company profits
$150,000 for failing to donate 100 percent of one week’s app sales to the family of Joshua Schwarz, a boy who had an inoperable brain tumour – the judge described this as the most serious violation, stating, “Ms Gibson expressly compared the terrible circumstances of young Joshua to her own, asserting she had the same kind of tumour as he did; a statement which was completely false.”
Consumer Affairs Victoria also fined Penguin $30,000 for “making false and misleading representations” by publishing the book.