Belle Gibson: The Melbourne wellness guru who duped the world with her brain cancer story

TV: Bad Influencer – The Great Insta Con is a reminder to be wary of what you see online

Influencer Belle Gibson (front) claimed to have kept her cancer in check by spurning conventional medicine and instead adopting a ‘wellness’ diet. Photograph: Andrew Henshaw Photography

Influencer Belle Gibson (front) claimed to have kept her cancer in check by spurning conventional medicine and instead adopting a ‘wellness’ diet. Photograph: Andrew Henshaw Photography

 

At the heart of Bad Influencer: The Great Insta Con (BBC One, 10.35pm) resides a blank space. Belle Gibson was the Melbourne “wellness” guru who duped the world with a fake story about terminal brain cancer. Yet in this absorbing profile of her rise and fall Gibson herself remains elusive and unknowable.

What we do know is that her lies caused untold damage. Gibson claimed to have kept her cancer in check by spurning conventional medicine and instead adopting a “wellness” diet – avocados, berries, no alcohol and so on. When she documented her “miracle” recovery on Instagram she became a celebrity.

A book deal and an Apple app followed – along with millions of clicks. And initially nobody thought to verify her assertions or even ask how someone with cancer could radiate such a healthy glow.

The wellness industry chugs on and social media is still full of people selling ersatz versions of themselves

Hers is not a victimless story. We are introduced to Pixie Turner, who rejected doctors’ advice and attempted to treat her illness by embracing the diet and lifestyle that Gibson promoted on social media. As did Maxine Ali, who had gained weight taking steroids to deal with an underlying condition – and then gave up her meds to follow Gibson’s example.

“Seeing someone like Belle heal themselves made me feel hopeful,” she says. “This was the answer to everything I had been looking for.” Within a year her weight had plummeted perilously, and she was constantly hungry.

Bad Influencer is at its core a testament to old-school journalism and a belief in an objective truth. Both these concepts are often alien to social media, in Ireland and elsewhere. It takes Richard Guilliatt, a gumshoe reporter, to unmask the real Gibson, who never had cancer and had a history of feigning illness.

Journalist Richard Guilliatt said Gibson ‘was a very fragile person whose grip on reality was tenuous.’ Photograph: Brent Parker Jones
Journalist Richard Guilliatt said Gibson ‘was a very fragile person whose grip on reality was tenuous.’ Photograph: Brent Parker Jones

Gibson responds by calling him up and implying something dark might happen if he continues his investigation: “She’s just suggested if I publish this story she’s going to top herself.”

But he wasn’t the only reporter to see holes in her accounts. Soon the jig was up.The Apple endorsement and the Penguin book deal vanished, as did Gibson.

Guilliatt isn’t sure how he feels about Gibson. He interviewed her face to face on one occasion and was struck by the degree to which she was detached from what was going on around her. “She was a very fragile person whose grip on reality was tenuous.”

Yet the wellness industry chugs on and social media is still full of people selling ersatz versions of themselves. In addition to paying tribute to old-fashioned reporting, Bad Influencer is a reminder, then, to always be vigilant and sceptical. And that on the internet the truth routinely takes a back seat to fake sages telling people what they want to hear.

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