Fresh faced. Earnest. Naive. When Belle Gibson speaks, she cries easily and muddles her words. She’s passionate about avoiding gluten, dairy and coffee, but doesn’t really understand how cancer works. All of which begs the question: is this young woman really capable of masterminding one of the biggest hoaxes in recent history?
This is the pretty 23-year-old who convinced millions of people she was miraculously healing her terminal brain cancer through a regimen of healthy eating and natural therapies. The mother-of-one’s ‘inspirational’ story was going global – with her wellness app, The Whole Pantry, handpicked by US giant Apple for its new smartwatch and her cookbook scheduled for release in America and the UK – when it all began to unravel.
Surely, you might assume, this is evidence of someone with street smarts? Former friends take it further, dubbing her “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”. The truth, however, is more complicated. It seems that sometimes even Belle is unsure where the truth ends and the fantasy begins.
“I am still jumping between what I think I know and what is reality,” she says. “I have lived it and I’m not really there yet.”
There is no question that Belle is troubled, but this is not about cancer. It could be Belle is simply a vulnerable woman dealing with a psychological disorder such as factitious disorder or Munchausen syndrome.
Without downplaying the culpability of Belle, she is not the only one to blame. Big business quickly cashed in on her sorry story. In truth, this is the tale of a girl who tapped into the flourishing yet unregulated world of alternative wellness, where beautiful people with glossy hair sip on green smoothies, and relished the limelight. One of the most troubling aspects of Belle’s response is that she appears to have little empathy. When Belle cries, her tears appear to be mostly for herself.
Belle’s dizzying ascent began in May 2013, when she announced on social media that she had been healing herself of malignant brain cancer with wholefoods and alternative therapies for four years, despite being given just months to live. She would go on to attract more than 200,000 Instagram followers.
Next came TV, newspapers and magazines hungry for her incredible story, but at a time when a rapidly changing media landscape means resources are stretched, no checks were made. And all were conned because Belle’s cancer story turned out to be untrue – something she has never fully admitted until now.
Today, a more subdued Belle, blonde hair pulled back into a neat ponytail and dressed in a cream shirt and jeans, is being managed by a corporate advisory firm, Bespoke Approach. It usually deals with high-end business clients, but agreed to take on her case pro bono (free of charge).
Speaking to Belle at Bespoke Approach’s office in central Melbourne, managing director Alex Twomey is also sitting in on the interview. He believes Belle is troubled and has arranged for her to see a psychologist. Belle says she is agreeing to be interviewed and photographed because she wants to tell her story and move on.
We ask Belle outright if she currently has or ever has had cancer.
“No,” she confesses. “None of it’s true.”
And how did it feel, after more than five years of claiming she was terminally ill, when she confronted this truth?
“It’s just very scary, to be honest,” she says, her voice wobbling. “Because you start to doubt the crux of things that make up who you are. You know, I’m blonde and I’m tall, and I’ve got hazel eyes and I’ve got cancer. And all of a sudden, you take away some of those high-level things and it’s really daunting.
“I don’t want forgiveness,” she says.
“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.”
Since the scandal, Belle has become one of the most hated women in Australia. “[The backlash] is beyond horrible,” she says, voice wavering. “In the past two years, I have worked every single day living and raising up an online community of people who supported each other. I understand the confusion and suspicion, but I also know that people need to draw a line in the sand where they still treat someone with some level of respect or humility – and I have not been receiving that.”
So what does she say to accusations that she is a liar or fantasist? “I think my life has just got so many complexities around it and within it, that it’s just easier to assume [I’m lying],” she says. “If I don’t have an answer, then I will sort of theorise it myself and come up with one. I think that’s an easy thing to often revert to if you don’t know what the answer is.”
The narrative from Belle seems to be: I am a young woman with no family to guide me – and I was preyed upon. She goes on to name two men who she says told her she had cancer. The stories are strange, involving men treating her with machines said to be capable of both diagnosing and treating cancer. Yet all that is little consolation to those who clung to her so-called miracle.
Ann Tucker-Gwinn, a 49-year-old survivor of malignant colon cancer, says Belle’s story offered false hope to cancer patients. “People who are at the beginning of their cancer journey have one thing in common – terror,” she comments. “And a person in that state of mind is vulnerable.”
Psychologists cannot comment on particular cases, but they can talk about disorders. Munchausen syndrome is a mental condition in which a person fakes illness to gain attention and sympathy. Sufferers can be so convincing about their feigned symptoms that they may receive treatment or even surgery.
So what causes someone to develop a disorder like this? Clinical psychologist Dr Melissa Keogh says, “Often there will be an underlying personality disorder and history of early childhood trauma. Compulsive lying tends to be associated with more severe personality disorders.
With narcissistic personality disorder, people see themselves as superior. They will lie to get what they want because they think they are entitled to do so. They want to be adored by other people, so they will try to get attention whenever they can.
“People with borderline personality disorder strongly fear abandonment or being seen in a negative way by other people, and mistruths in this case are often desperate attempts to avoid these situations.”
That leads us to Belle’s childhood. The way she tells it, it was tough.
She says she never knew her father and grew up caring for a mother afflicted by multiple sclerosis and chronic fatigue, and for an autistic brother in Brisbane. She paints a picture of herself as a five-year-old burdened by unreasonable responsibilities.
“When I started school, my mum went, ‘My daughter is grown up now,’” she says. “All of a sudden, I was walking to school on my own, making school lunches and cleaning the house every day. It was my responsibility to do grocery shopping, do the washing, arrange medical appointments and pick up my brother. I didn’t have toys,” she controversially claims.
Whether any of this is true isn’t clear; some of her memories are unconvincing and come across as implausibly Dickensian. We were unable to track down Belle’s mother to check – Belle says they’re estranged and haven’t spoken in two years. Belle could not give us her mother’s first name or contact details.
After dropping out of high school, Belle moved to Perth at 17 and started work in a call centre at a private health insurer, where she would hear details of clients’ ailments. “I was hearing some horrible things about what people were going through,” she says.
Could this have helped her imagination run wild?
Belle claims to have suffered various health crises, culminating in her alleged brain cancer diagnosis in 2009. By 2011, the now mother-of-one said she was increasingly exhausted and drawn
to alternative health, and tried everything from acupuncture to juicing.
In 2012, when Belle was with her current partner, Clive Rothwell, she says she suffered a miscarriage. She becomes visibly upset when questioned about this and refuses to discuss it, other than to tearfully deny allegations it was another false health crisis. Clive, an IT worker, did not want to talk to us. Today, says Belle, he is “supportive but obviously devastated” by the scandal. “He’s been very stern, along the lines of, ‘I just want you to acknowledge where you’ve f***ed up and not try and smooth over that,’” she says.
In 2014, Belle launched “the world’s first health, wellness and lifestyle app”, watched as her cookbook became a blockbuster and flew to the US to meet Apple and her would-be US publishers.
On her return, after seeking treatment from a new healer, known as Phil, she told her followers that cancer was now in her blood, spleen, uterus and liver, too. Belle says she was even more devastated by this diagnosis than the previous one. “I sat for hours crying and crying and crying,” she says. “And I said to [a friend at the time], ‘How do you say goodbye to your own child?’”
Yet, by late last year, cracks were appearing in her story. Two of her friends confronted her. “They came to my house,” she says. “They were saying, ‘What Phil is telling you might not be real.’ They asked whether I had cancer at all.”
Belle believes these friends leaked doubts about her story to the media, triggering her rapid fall from grace. She says she has lost a lot of friends. Several contacted us, claiming to have been treated badly by Belle. They tell of a loyal band of friends rushing to Belle when she had panic attacks or alleged seizures. They warned we should not be tricked into portraying her too sympathetically and should beware of lies. However, none would be named.
Belle admits to cutting off relationships when things get too difficult. She says she believes her “troubled” childhood may have played a role in recent events. “But I don’t think I am so psychologically damaged that I have manufactured everything I presently think I know about my life. I’ve got to a point where if I don’t know the answer, I just don’t know it.”
The young mum doesn’t seem to have accepted the demise of The Whole Pantry, yet as we spoke, accountants were winding up the business. She is due to meet Penguin Australia, which stopped supplying her book in the wake of the scandal. After initially appearing unbothered, Apple dropped her app.
There has been a lot of speculation about profits from The Whole Pantry. Bespoke Approach’s Alex Twomey says accounts show she ploughed revenue back into the business, mainly on high-end photography and web design.
Belle will not make any profit, he says, she has returned her rental car and will shortly move out of the rented beachside home she shares with Clive and her son.
If there is any money left over, accountants have been instructed to pay it to the charities Belle pledged some profits to.
Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how Belle thought she would unite her growing fame and good health with an impossibly bleak prognosis. Unlike in the past, she had a public presence.
Belle claims she was preparing to go public when the scandal broke. “I’ve been really upset about it because it now looks like we are on the defence,” she says.
Yet like so much else in this story, it’s impossible to say whether this is true.
One of her posts on social media, almost three years ago, seems startlingly prophetic. “You have serious mental health issues if you conjure up lies, situations, health issues, struggles or
add an unreasonable amount of detail to keep things interesting, make it your way of creating interaction or to satisfy and keep up all the other lies you’ve told – grow up, calm down, live simply,” Belle typed. “Shut the f*** up and be normal, in other words.”
Perhaps it was, in fact, a terse little message to herself.
Words by: Clair Weaver
Photos: Alana Landsberry