The woman who fooled the world
Simon Caterson on a book that shines a light on the shadows of Belle Gibson, the Australian hoaxer who shot to global fame with claims she had beaten terminal cancer without any medical intervention
Non-fiction: The Woman Who Fooled the World, Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano, Scribe, paperback, 336 pages, €17.49
There can be few Australians detested more bitterly and in as many countries as Belle Gibson. The Melbourne-based 29-year-old fake-cancer sufferer and charity fraudster enjoyed a meteoric rise to international fame and fortune as a "wellness" guru who preached against the toxicity of modern life.
Gibson's spectacular ascent was followed by an equally rapid fall into infamy after her hurtful and financially damaging scams were exposed in 2015. She and her former publisher have since been fined heavily under Australian consumer protection laws, with her misconduct excoriated from the bench of the Federal Court. To date, she has yet to face criminal charges.
The Woman Who Fooled the World is a balanced and authoritative account of Gibson's career. Apart from the light it sheds on the substantial areas of shade in Gibson's life and character, the book is essential reading for anyone seeking an understanding of how so many people could have fallen for her pernicious lies.
Co-authors Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano are award-winning investigative journalists whose reporting on this complex and multifaceted story for The Age newspaper in Melbourne played a pivotal role in exposing the scandal.
Gibson didn't just lie big time and use the leverage the lies gave her to misappropriate a large amount of donation money. Also unpardonable was the false hope she gave to the real-life cancer sufferers and their loved ones persuaded by Gibson that this cruel disease could be treated effectively without medical intervention.
No breakthrough in medicine is longed for more than a cure for cancer, yet a cure remains elusive. As one senior neuro-oncologist quoted in the book observes in relation to brain cancer: "People often refuse to accept that there is no answer".
Cancer sufferers can thus be highly susceptible to purported remedies that have no clinical standing. The authors note in passing that the late Steve Jobs, the mercurial head of Apple who died from pancreatic cancer in 2011, chose to delay conventional medical treatment in favour of alternative therapies. It was a decision Jobs told his biographer he later regretted.
As historian Philippa Martyr demonstrates in Paradise of Quacks, false health claims of one kind or another are nothing new in Australia. In the rogue's gallery of contemporary health hoaxers, Gibson takes her place alongside such notorious Australian con artists as Peter Foster, who promoted dodgy weight-loss schemes at home and in the UK, where notoriously he became associated in property dealings with Cherie Blair, the wife of former prime minister Tony.
Belief in quackery begins with the charm and guile of the quack. Like many world-class liars, Gibson began practising to deceive at an early age while growing up in the Brisbane suburb of Wynnum.
As the authors recount: "Those who knew her describe a melodramatic girl with a tendency to imitate others, who was prone to lying. She'd say things about her life and about her family that seemed totally unbelievable. Over the years, she told a number of people that she was in a witness-protection programme. One classmate recalls Gibson claiming she was a test-tube baby."
Adapting to audience feedback and refining her shtick, Gibson's lies coalesced around imaginary medical problems. A sizable number of the people who knew Gibson personally did not believe the yarns she spun about overcoming severe illness.
"On the internet, though, something different was starting to happen. In a chat room about rock band The Flaming Lips, her stories of astonishing medical miracles were beginning to be believed. There were some doubters, but also huge outpourings of sympathy and support. Here, Gibson's biggest, most prolific, and most dangerous lie was born."
Gibson's claim to have tamed terminal brain cancer through the "self-empowerment" of certain dietary practices fell on fertile ground when propagated via social media. The foundational falsehood on which Gibson built a reputation as a plausible wellness warrior was lent plausibility by her carefully crafted presence on Instagram, attracting hundreds of thousands of followers.
Later came a bestselling smartphone app that received a major award from Apple, which in turn was joined by a slickly presented recipe book published by Penguin. The Belle Gibson show thus received substantial backing from two highly respected global brands. "Gibson, for a while, was untouchable", the authors note. Many people - including celebrities, prominent business people and other influential figures - associated themselves enthusiastically with Gibson. In our culture nothing, it seems, succeeds like success.
And 2014 was the champagne year for Belle. With cash pouring in from sales of the app and book, Gibson embraced the lifestyle of the rich and famous, buying a luxury SUV to complement her lavishly furnished upmarket apartment in the posh Melbourne bayside suburb of Brighton. She hired a personal trainer and had her teeth fixed.
The vast "wellness" industry had warmly embraced Gibson, and for a while it seemed nothing could stop her from becoming her own global brand. Only after scrutiny from serious journalists such as Donelly and Toscano, among other principled sceptics, was Gibson exposed as a con artist.
One former friend spoke to the authors of a sense of utter betrayal, no doubt giving voice to the feelings of many others similarly duped: "I admired her and loved her. Now I feel like an idiot."
Simon Caterson is a Melbourne-based writer and author of Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds