A photo posted to her now-private Instagram shows Gibson flying in business class. (Photo: Instagram.com/Healing_Belle)
At first glance, the story of Belle Gibson is miraculous. A 26-year-old single mother in Melbourne, Australia, Gibson was diagnosed with malignant brain cancer six years ago.
She spurned conventional cancer treatment and self-treated her disease with healing foods, building a media empire based on her experience. Her Instagram account @Healing_Belle, has 197,000 followers. She wrote a popular cookbook (The Whole Pantry), and developed an app (The Whole Pantry App) that Apple has displayed on iPhones and iPads in Apple stores and planned to launch on its new Apple Watch.
An article about Gibson detailing her involvement with the new Apple Watch. (Photo: Instagram)
She’s told fans that she donates 25 percent of profits to local charities, and she’s become something of a champion for cancer patients worldwide.
The thing is, she might not actually have cancer.
Nor has she donated the money she’s promised to charity, Australia’s Fairfax Media reports. Last year, Gibson wrote that she had given $300,000 Australian (about $227,000 U.S.) to various charities. She now says that the money was never donated, as sales of The Whole Pantry app weren’t as high as she had expected. The Sydney Morning Herald reports, “Ms. Gibson has run two campaigns purporting to raise money for five charities, but Fairfax Media has confirmed that none has a record of receiving a donation. Four of the organizations, including Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, had no knowledge fundraising drives had taken place.”
The team behind The Whole Pantry app took to Facebook to defend itself and its founder, writing:
“We have, like all start ups, struggled with managing all facets of a new business, biting off more than we could chew, juggling internal and external priorities with little staff. We have since passed our overdue business records and accounts over to an external Business Manager and Accounts team, an issue we are reassured arrises often with overwhelmed new businesses. They have been working over our finances for the last five months, and are still proceeding with a resolution in close sight. We were advised by this team to follow their process and allow them to finalise the donations once all business keepings were accounted first and brought forward.”
Followers were not convinced. Commenters questioned the ongoing delay in delivering funds raised in 2013 and 2014 to charities, and Belle’s statements that the money had gone “straight” to recipients.
The media investigation into the missing donations prompted a second look at Belle’s health claims, leading reporters and close friends to seriously question Belle’s alleged diagnosis. Last summer, she told followers of further diagnoses in an Instagram post, writing, “With frustration and ache in my heart, my beautiful, game-changing community, 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 [sic] cancer. One is secondary and the other is primary. “I have cancer in my blood, spleen, brain, uterus, and liver. I am hurting.” She later deleted the post. She’s made scattered references to worsening cancer, treatment in Bali, and fighting through her pain. Now, Australian media are questioning whether Belle is, actually, sick.
Melbourne neurosurgeon Andrew Kaye told the Sunday Morning Herald, “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.”
Fairfax Media has reported that friends attempted to hold an intervention, quoting a former close friend as saying, “She admitted her diagnosis was questionable… 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 her where she saw Dr Phil, she said he came and picked [her] up from [her] house.”
Now, onlookers are questioning her promises to donate profits to charity, her cancer diagnoses, and even her age — she’s stated that she was diagnosed in 2009 at the age of 20, putting her at 26, but on records filed with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, she listed her birth year as 1991, making her 23.
(Photo: The Whole Pantry)
According to psychology expert Art Markman, PhD, this story of an exposed hero isn’t as uncommon as we think, even if Gibson’s story feels particularly shocking. As for why Gibson may have told the story she did, he says, “a compelling back-story is an important part of success in the modern world. We love founders of companies who have overcome adversity to succeed. Not everyone overcomes adversity, though, and so there is a temptation to embellish a story in ways that make a founder look better in people’s eyes.”
While Belle has made many health claims on social media — some of which she’s since deleted — she’s also put them in print, in a cookbook published by Penguin. The publisher has since confirmed that it never fact-checked Belle’s backstory, telling the Daily Mail, “We did not feel this was necessary as The Whole Pantry is a collection of food recipes, which Penguin has published in good faith. We are concerned about the questions raised in recent days – we’ll discuss them with Belle as ultimately only she can answer the questions.”
Related: 17 Red Flag Signs Of Cancer
Apple had flown Belle to California to work on the soon-to-launch Apple Watch. Her Whole Pantry app had been slated to be one of the featured apps on the new watch; but when the phone launched this past Monday, there was no mention of Belle or the app. Apple has refused to comment.
While this isn’t the first case of a blogger touting a fake or exaggerated diagnosis, Belle has been a key player in social media’s wellness world, and the idea that she’s been spouting false claims — and, some argue, false hope — to her many followers has sparked outrage. Many are questioning how major companies like Penguin and Apple didn’t stop to make sure Belle’s history checked out, and former friends and supporters are coming out of the woodwork to question Belle’s story.
If the social media backlash is to be trusted, this is not the end of the story. Since the story broke in Australian early this morning, Belle has set the Instagram account that made her famous to private, leading some to jump to conclusions, and others to jump to her defense. Police have visited her house to investigate, and The Daily Mail is reporting that Belle had left Australia amidst increasing questions.