The story of Belle Gibson sounds like the plot of a heartbreaking movie. A young, beautiful woman is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given four months to live. Worn down by two months of chemotherapy and radiation, she decides to abandon traditional medicine and take matters into her own hands, instead focusing on healthy eating and alternative treatments. Against all odds, she starts to recover. Somehow, her alternative techniques seem to actually work. Miraculously, she gets pregnant with her first child.
If this all sounds a bit far-fetched, that’s because it is. As it turned out, Gibson did not “cure” her cancer. In fact, she didn’t have cancer at all. One of the original wellness bloggers, what happened with Australian influencer Belle Gibson is a bizarre tale that’s full of outlandish claims, lies, and deception. A new ITV documentary, In Search of Instagram’s Worst Con Artist, aims to dig into Gibson’s story. Set to air this autumn, it will feature interviews with friends and family who will be speaking on the record for the first time.
Many of the details about what happened are still unclear, but this is what we do know. Having supposedly “cured” her inoperable brain cancer through healthy eating, Gibson launched her Instagram account @healing_belle in early 2013, through which she shared healthy recipes and updates about how she was managing her (fictional) condition. Very quickly, she gained thousands of followers and was held up as some kind of wellness guru. A book deal and an app followed, reportedly bringing in A$420,000 (around £213,500).
Eventually, it all came crumbling down and Gibson was exposed as a fraudster. But how did a healthy woman manage to convince thousands of people that she had cured herself of cancer? Here’s everything you need to know about the wild story of Belle Gibson.
A troubled childhood?
Like much of Gibson’s story, the details of her early life are hard to pin down. In an interview with Australian Women’s Weekly, Gibson spoke about her difficult childhood. Growing up on the outskirts of Brisbane, she said she never knew her father and that, from a young age, she had to care for her mother, who has multiple sclerosis (MS), and her autistic brother.
“When I started school, my mum went, ‘My daughter is grown up now’. All of a sudden, I was walking to school on my own, making school lunches, and cleaning the house every day,” she said. “It was my responsibility to do grocery shopping, do the washing, arrange medical appointments, and pick up my brother. I didn’t have any toys.”
But in a separate interview with Australian Women’s Weekly, Gibson’s mother, Natalie Dal-Bello, said that while she does have MS, the rest of her daughter’s claims were not true. “What a lot of rubbish,” she said. “Belle never cared for me, her brother is not autistic, and she’s barely done a minute’s housework in her life. I’ve practically worked myself into an early grave to give that girl everything she wanted in life.”
A shocking diagnosis
Fast-forward from her childhood, Gibson claims she received some earth-shattering news when she was just 20 years old. “You’re dying. You have six weeks. Four months tops.” According to her book, The Whole Pantry, this is how Gibson says the doctor broke the news to her in July 2009, that she had terminal brain cancer. Gibson also claimed to have undergone multiple heart surgeries and that she momentarily died on the operating table.
As she tells it, Gibson spent two months receiving chemotherapy and radiation, before abandoning traditional medicine for what she saw as more holistic and alternative treatments, including adopting a plant-based diet, cutting out gluten and dairy, and having treatments like oxygen therapy and colonics. Writing in her book, she said: “I was empowering myself to save my own life through nutrition, patience, determination, and love.”
From cancer patient to wellness guru
In early 2013, Gibson launched her Instagram account @healing_belle. In a world where the idea of wellness and the power of “superfoods” was gaining traction, her account resonated with people. She went on to amass more than 200,000 followers. Capitalising on her success, Gibson launched a health and wellness app called The Whole Pantry, which reportedly had 200,000 downloads within the first month of its launch. After the app, Gibson continued to go from strength to strength – The Whole Pantry was named Apple’s Best Food and Drink App of 2013. Next, she signed a book deal with Lantern Books, an imprint of Penguin Books. Her cookbook was released in October 2014 — also called The Whole Pantry, it was filled with recipes that were free from gluten, refined sugar, and dairy, which promised to help readers live “a well-nourished life”.
While she continued to rise to fame, Gibson shared some heartbreaking news with her followers. Her cancer was back — and it had spread. In a post on Instagram in July 2014, she said: “I have cancer in my blood, spleen, brain, uterus and liver. I am hurting … I wanted to respectfully let you each know, and hand some of the energy over to the greater community, my team and @thewholepantry … Please don’t carry my pain. I’ve got this.”
People were enamoured with Gibson’s story. In late 2014, Cosmopolitan celebrated her with its “Fun Fearless Female” award. Around the same time, Elle Australia published an interview with Gibson under the headline: “The most inspiring women you’ve met this year”. Apple was even working with Gibson to include her app on the soon-to-launch Apple Watch.
Fall from grace
Gibson’s story eventually started to unravel. Using funds from her wellness empire, she had pledged to donate thousands of dollars to charity. In March, Fairfax Media started digging into these claims and found that many charities that were named had yet to receive a penny from her. Very quickly, the tide turned — and people wanted answers.
In April 2015, Australia Women’s Weekly published an interview with Gibson in which she admitted that she did not have cancer. “No… None of it’s true,” Gibson said. “I don’t want forgiveness. I just think [speaking out] was the responsible thing to do. Above anything, I would like people to say, ‘Okay, she’s human. She’s obviously had a big life. She’s respectfully come to the table and said what she’s needed to say, and now it’s time for her to grow and heal.”
The interviewer wrote that Gibson “cries easily and muddles her words”, and that while she is passionate about avoiding gluten, dairy, and coffee, she “doesn’t really understand how cancer works”.
Things continued to spiral when Gibson appeared on 60 Minutes with interviewer Tara Brown. “I didn’t trade in on my story or in other people’s lives,” Gibson said. “I’m not trying to get away with anything.” As well as the explosive revelation about her faking cancer, Gibson seemed to trip up over some of the basic facts of her life, including her age and her name, which she claims to have changed several times. When asked how old she was, Gibson replied: “That’s probably a question we’ll have to keep digging for.”
As news spread about Gibson faking her cancer, the repercussions came thick and fast. Apple withdrew her app from its store and Apple Watch. Her accountants wound up her business, and her book was pulled. Meanwhile, her social media accounts began to disappear from the internet.
In September 2017, Gibson was fined $410,000 (£240,000) by the Australian government for falsely claiming that she would be donating money to charity. She was found guilty of five breaches of consumer law. Gibson did not attend the civil court hearings. The judge presiding over the case said: “Once again, it appears she has put her own interests before those of anyone else,” adding: “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.”
The next chapter
Having been found out and fined, you might assume that the story would end there. But in June 2019, almost two years after Gibson was ordered to pay the fine, she claimed that she was not in a position to pay it. According to reports, financial analysis for Consumer Affairs Victoria found that Gibson had spent about $91,000 between 2017 and 2019. Since then, her home has been raided twice — in January 2020 and in May 2021 — in a bid to recoup the money she owes.
In a bizarre plot twist, after the first raid, it was reported that Gibson had embedded herself within an Ethiopian community in Victoria, Melbourne. In a video, Gibson spoke about Ethiopian politics and even referred to Ethiopia as “home”.
According to Daily Mail Australia, the Australian Oromo Community Association cut ties with Gibson after learning about her past. Dr Tarekegn Chimdi, president of the Australian Oromo Community Association in Victoria, said: “It was concerning when someone is using the community’s name who is not a member of that community. She was coming across as more Oromo than Oromo people.” He said that she was no longer involved with the organisation, adding: “She is not involved in any fundraising for us. I have not seen her since that happened.”
Today, there’s no trace of Gibson’s social media accounts online and there have been no recent reports of her whereabouts. Has the disgraced wellness influencer completely gone to ground, or will she pop up somewhere else next? Only time will tell.