If you haven’t heard the story of Belle Gibson by now, perhaps you’ve been under some sort of wi-fi blackout. Because for the last week or so, the story of Belle Gibson – the 26-year-old creator of bestselling app The Whole Pantry (and author of the cookbook of the same name) – has been almost inescapable. But look for her on social media now and you’ll find next to nothing. Her Instagram has been set to private and all of her photos have vanished. There’s no Facebook page for The Whole Pantry (TWP) anymore, and its Instagram account, too, has been wiped.
The gist is this: after allegedly recovering from cancer in 2009 (by overhauling her diet, and despite eschewing chemotherapy and radiotherapy), Belle began posting recipes to her @healing_belle Instagram. She then created the blockbuster TWP app, which sold for $3.79 on the Apple store. The app has been downloaded over 300,000 times, and one-third of the proceeds were said to go to charity. Belle became something of a celebrity, particularly in the health and wellness space. Apple courted her and TWP was to be one of the only apps to be pre-loaded onto the much-anticipated Apple Watch. And, in fact, Cosmopolitan awarded Belle a Fun, Fearless Female Award last year (in the Social Media category). And given the flurry of media attention around Belle right now, we figured it was time for us to share our experience with her – not to set any record straight, but to acknowledge that, yes, we may have encouraged the work of someone who was not who she said she was.
Last Monday, The Age reported that, while Belle claimed to have donated $300,000 to charity last year, in fact, she’d donated around $7000. Various charities, to whom Belle alleged to have donated, had never heard of her and certainly had never seen the money she’d spoken of. Belle said TWP had had a “cash flow problem” and that the money would be released once that had been resolved. But quickly, more and more doubts were cast on Belle’s story. While speaking to The Australian, Belle mentioned that she “may have been misdiagnosed” with multiple secondary cancers that she had spoken about in a mid-2014 Instagram post. She wouldn’t name the doctor who had diagnosed her, or confirm that this doctor was even a medical practitioner.
There are doubts as to whether Belle’s age is correct – she says she was 20 in June 2009, when she was diagnosed with brain cancer and given four months to live. But her own tax statements show that she was born in October 1991, making her 17 at the time.
I first became acquainted with Belle after she was nominated for a Fun, Fearless Female Award in 2014. I put forward the nomination myself – we look for young women who have done extraordinary things, who have captured the zeitgeist and the attention of their peers. Belle had certainly done that. At the time, she had over 200,000 Instagram followers and was so busy being flown to California by Apple that it took weeks for her to respond to my emails. But when she did, she was warm, friendly and cooperative – exactly how she appeared on social media.
She came to our FFF shoot in July last year, with an Apple representative. She drank green tea (and lamented that it was from a bag; she preferred leaves) but allowed us to photograph her holding an ice cream cone (though she didn’t eat any of it) as the shoot was set in a 50s diner and other nominees were photographed eating fries and drinking milkshakes. I remember her asking me, “I don’t have to bite the ice cream, do I?” Her entire career was based on eating naturally and well – this went against everything she stood for. Somewhat ironically, in hindsight, she said, “My community expects me to be authentic!”
Belle Gibson with Dami Im for Cosmo 2014
A few months later, Belle flew to Sydney (at her own expense) to accept her Fun, Fearless Female Award. Readers vote and make the final call on the awards, and Belle had won her category by a landslide, it wasn’t even close. She arrived late, looking a little flustered, and again, stuck to her healthy ways by sipping mineral water and refusing dessert. I sat with her and we had a friendly chat about our kids – she has a four-year-old son named Ollie. When she won, Belle spoke tearfully about her community (the word she used to describe her Instagram followers and the people who had downloaded her app) and the legacy she was leaving them. She didn’t cry, exactly, but it was very emotional. I had tears in my eyes, so did our editor, Bronwyn. I looked around me – Belle had everyone hooked as she graciously accepted the award on behalf of the TWP community. She wasn’t a natural public speaker – she began to ramble a little and seemed nervous, but slowly got to her main point and wowed the entire room. When we got back to the office, we all talked about how fabulous it was that someone so deserving had won. We even talked about doing a larger profile on her later down the track, so inspiring did she seem.
Earlier this year, we were forwarded an email from the staff at ELLE, also published by Bauer Media. Its anonymous author claimed that Belle’s cancer was a fallacy, that her entire biography was a work of fiction. The reason she didn’t speak to her mother was because she was sick of Belle’s lies, apparently. She’d faked sicknesses before, the email said. This was just a big lie by someone with a dubious grip on reality, it claimed.
We all raised our eyebrows, and wondered if it could be true. If it was, we thought, it was an impressively crafted lie. After all, we all fell for it, hook, line, sinker. But not once did we truly think the claims in the email could be real. Because nobody would lie about having cancer. Would they? Newspaper reports have slammed Penguin, Belle’s book publisher, for not asking for proof of her cancer. But why would they? I certainly wouldn’t, if I was in their position. Cancer is so all-consuming, so catastrophic, so final, that to question anyone’s diagnosis would just be downright evil.
While nothing has been proven about Belle, if she has built a house of cards, it has begun to crumble irrevocably. Her Instagram is now set to private and all of her posts have been deleted. On its Facebook page (when it was live) The Whole Pantry talked about Belle as a “former director.” Today, Penguin announced that it would be suspending printing of her cookbook. Police visited her home in Melbourne last week. Sources claim she has fled to Los Angeles amid the pressure.
It’s not our place to speculate on what has happened, but we do think it’s right to speak up and say that we did honour and celebrate Belle’s app, and in the light of the growing suspicions surrounding her, we need to acknowledge that we not only promoted her work to our readers, but also may have unwittingly fed the situation, if she has in fact lied. To be fair, Belle wasn’t honoured for being a role model, she was honoured for her app, which is still fantastic. But if she has lied about having cancer, she has given false hope to so many by claiming that eating well had a part in that process. It’s hard to overstate how wrong that is.
The only silver lining that could come from this is that, if Belle does not have cancer, her son doesn’t have to lose his mum. And so of course, we hope that she doesn’t, and that she gets the help she needs.
EDIT: An earlier version of this post said that The Australian had broken the news of Belle's fradulent charity donations. It was, in fact, The Age. This has been updated.