Pretty, fashionably tattooed and possessed of a dazzling smile, Belle Gibson looks as if she has it all. But the 26-year-old also had cancer of the blood, spleen, brain, uterus and liver.
She became a media star, online and old school, in Australia in 2013 when she told of her recovery by cutting gluten and dairy from her diet and having oxygen therapy, colonic irrigation and traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine, after radiotherapy and chemotherapy had failed to help.
Based on her experiences, Gibson launched a health, wellness and lifestyle app, the Whole Pantry, which has been downloaded more than 300,000 times, for three Australian dollars and 79 cents – about €2.75 – a time. It was so successful that Apple flew her to California for the launch of the Apple Watch, and included the app in its demo.
Her cookery book, also called The Whole Pantry, was published by Penguin in Australia last year and pencilled in to appear in Ireland, Britain and the US later this year.
Gibson soon had 200,000 followers on Instagram, whom she treated to such inspirational quotes as “Stop waiting for Friday, for summer, for someone to fall in love with you, for life.” She called her online and app fans her community.
Last July she wrote, “With frustration and ache in my heart . . . it hurts me to find space tonight to let you all know with love and strength that I’ve been diagnosed with a third and forth cancer.”
Magazines and tabloid newspapers loved the story. Cosmopolitan gave her a Fun Fearless Female award. Elle wrote last December that she was the most inspiring woman of the year. The Sunday Telegraph magazine called her a "wellness warrior" and said she was "generous, gorgeous and courageous".
Introducing her on Channel 7’s breakfast show, its presenter Andrew O’Keefe said the mother of one had “turned her cancer diagnosis into a positive”. His colleague Samantha Armytage added, “For a person living with brain cancer, might I add, you look incredibly healthy.”
Armytage’s comment was meant as a compliment, not a question, but it proved remarkably prescient. In the past week Gibson’s story has unravelled.
The first sign that all was not quite as it seemed came when the Age newspaper, in Melbourne, revealed that money promised to various charities had not arrived.
Gibson claimed that she gave away 25 per cent of her company’s profits and in her book wrote that “a large part of everything” earned is donated to worthy causes. Last year she said 300,000 Australian dollars had already been given to charity; she now says these contributions were never made, as Whole Pantry app sales were not as strong as forecast.
Gibson held a fundraiser in Melbourne in December 2013 to raise money for three charities. One Girl, which runs education programmes in Sierra Leone, was listed as one of the charities that would benefit from the event, but it tried for more than a year to contact the Whole Pantry about the promised donation. Gibson donated 1,000 dollars after media inquiries about the 15-month wait.
Last May Gibson did a second fundraiser, pledging to donate app-sale proceeds to two charities working in Southeast Asia. She thanked her community for raising a further 5,000 dollars for the cause. “Don’t forget – for every app downloaded until this Sunday, your purchase goes straight to The 2h Project and the Bumi Sehat Foundation to prevent maternal and infant deaths,” she wrote on Instagram.
Last week Gibson said the week-long campaign raised 2,800 dollars, which, as she felt it was not enough to divide between the two charities, was allocated to the Bumi Sehat Foundation alone.
A spokeswoman for the foundation, which promotes safe childbirth, said, “I can say with confidence that we have never received a donation from Belle Gibson.”
Gibson said that profit margins had been overestimated and that the Whole Pantry was running at a loss. “We have not yet donated the naive yet confident amount of $300,000, considering the very quickly [arising] issues with cash flow versus growth; providing content; managing external expectations,” she explained. Confirmed donations from Gibson and her business amount to about 7,000 Australian dollars.
Gibson said she intended to support the nominated charities “when the cash-flow management is stabilised”, adding that “it was with nothing but good intention that we publicised that a percentage of profit from the app will be donated to charity. The intentions always were and still are to give back. The execution of this has obviously been flawed.”
“Bordering on humiliated”
In better news, it has emerged that she does not have cancer of the liver, uterus, spleen or blood. Was it all a misdiagnosis? “It’s hard to admit that maybe you were wrong,” she said, adding that she felt “confused, bordering on humiliated”. But Gibson maintains that she has used alternative therapies to survive a malignant brain tumour for five years.
Although Australians are only now learning the details, some of her closest friends questioned her about her illness last year. “She admitted her diagnosis was questionable,” a now former friend said. “I asked her when she got her diagnosis. She said she didn’t know. I asked her who gave her the diagnosis. She said Dr Phil. I asked if Dr Phil had a last name. She didn’t know; he disappeared. I asked her where she saw Dr Phil. She said he came and picked [her] up from [her] house.”
Another former friend pulled out of a wholefood business with her last year because she questioned Gibson’s character after she said she had many aliases. “My accountant wanted some basic paperwork off us – full name, date of birth and address – and Belle said that might be an issue. She said, ‘I have several names that I go under . . . It’s a long story.’ ”
A former employee said she did not believe Gibson’s cancer story. “She would post on social media that she’d been at a doctor’s appointment all day, but really she was just going to the dentist . . . She got her veneers done. She would make it sound like it was for cancer-related illness.”
The Penguin publishing house has admitted that it never asked Gibson for evidence of her medical conditions, saying it published the cookbook in good faith. A spokeswoman said the revelations were concerning. “We’ll discuss them with Belle, as ultimately only she can answer the questions.”
Medical specialists have also questioned Gibson’s story of surviving brain cancer. Prof Andrew Kaye, director of neurosurgery at Royal Melbourne Hospital, said it was extremely unlikely that a malignant brain tumour would develop in the way she described.
“There is the very occasional case out of many, many thousands that may have a spontaneous regression . . . but I have never seen that,” he said. “I wouldn’t believe any of this unless I saw the pathology report with my own eyes, and the pathology itself.”
Elle magazine tried to explain why it published stories about Gibson without, seemingly, doing background checks.
Its features editor, Vanessa Lawrence, said that after the December article it received an anonymous email from someone who claimed to have gone to school with Gibson, saying, “She’s a compulsive liar. In fact, she got so tangled in her own web of lies living in Brisbane, she moved to Melbourne to start a new life of lies – ‘the cancer lie’ this time . . . It’s one thing to act as if she can cure ‘her cancer’ by eating organic (which simply isn’t true) but to give false hope to people who are actually fighting cancer is nothing short of evil.”
Elle did some digging at that point but came up with nothing. "We left it, writing off the email as a bunch of lies," Lawrence wrote.
Dr Norman Swan, presenter of Health Report on ABC radio, gave some advice this week that other organisations would do well to heed. "The general rule in health and medical journalism is the same as any other form of journalism: if it sounds too good to be true, it is."
Gibson’s Instagram is now set to private, and all of the posts have been deleted. The Whole Pantry company now refers to her as a former director.
Penguin has suspended printing of her cookbook, and Apple has pulled the app from its store and is no longer using it to promote its smartwatch or iPads.
Now Gibson may face criminal charges, as neither she nor her businesses are legally registered as fundraisers. It also turns out that Gibson is not 26; she’s 23. But lying about her age is the least of her troubles.