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Monday, November 27, 2017

‘The Woman Who Fooled The World: Belle Gibson's Cancer Con’ by Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano,

From the BLURB:
Belle Gibson convinced the world she had healed herself from terminal brain cancer with a healthy diet. She built a global business based upon her claims. There was just one problem: she'd never had cancer.

In 2015, journalists uncovered the truth: this hero of the wellness world, with over 200,000 followers, international book deals, and a best-selling smartphone app, was a fraud. She had lied about having cancer — to her family and friends, to her business partners and publishers, and to the hundreds of thousands of people, including genuine cancer survivors, who were inspired by her Instagram posts.

Written by the same multi-award-winning journalists who uncovered the details of Gibson’s lies, The Woman Who Fooled the World tracks the 23-year-old's rise to fame and fall from grace. Told through interviews with the people who know her best, it unravels the mystery and motivation behind this deception and follows the public reaction to a scandal that made headlines around the world.

The Woman Who Fooled the World explores the lure of alternative cancer treatments, the cottage industry flourishing behind the wellness and ‘clean eating’ movements, and the power of social media. It documents the devastating impact this con had on Gibson’s fans and on people suffering from cancer. Ultimately, it answers not just how, but why, Gibson was able to fool so many.

The Woman Who Fooled The World: Belle Gibson's Cancer Con’ is an Australian non-fiction book by journalists Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano, who broke the story of Belle Gibson’s multilayered fraud back in 2015 for The Age newspaper.

I didn’t know who Belle Gibson was when her “cancer con” story broke a couple years ago. I don’t follow any wellness bloggers and I can’t cook – so I was entirely remote from her Instagram/App/Cookbook world. But when she was exposed to be a fraud on multiple counts – chief amongst them that she lied about having brain cancer, and donating her followers’ money to various charities – I, like many others, became fascinated by the story. I bought the Women’s Weekly edition featuring her explosive interview where she finally admitted that she didn’t have cancer. This was where I got a lot more background information about who Belle Gibson actually *was* and what she had been peddling. And my overwhelming thought was; how did anyone believe her in the first place?!

My disbelief about Belle (and the entire wellness world she had sprung up from) was best summarized by this piece by Richard Cooke for The Monthly when he wrote; “It is weird that this startlingly transparent load of horseshit was carried as far as it was…”

‘The Woman Who Fooled The World’ is an attempt by the two journalists who first broke the story to wade through all the horseshit – and what they’ve come up with is a deeply fascinating and infuriating examination of not just one woman’s deception, but a confluence of users and abusers who have a lot to answer for. They examine rising social media alongside misinformation and – yes – “fake news”. They dig deep but still find little information on the woman herself, who remains a bit of an enigma for the journalists throughout … what saves the book from being a frustrating half-take though, is their spreading the blame (/horseshit) around and laying it at the feet of an industry that has conflated “health” and “beauty”, the rise of Insta-celebrities as snake oil salesmen, and profit over common sense. They also lay a hefty load of blame at their own door – on a new landscape of journalism that’s more interested in getting clicks than checking facts, and being first instead of being right.

I owe thanks to Carly Findlay for raving about, and recommending this book. I was a little wary of reading something that was just about Belle Gibson – we have all been touched by cancer in some way, and I just didn’t think I had the strength to read 319-pages of the authors deconstructing her hurtful lies. But I trusted Carly’s enjoyment of the book, so gave it a go myself and I am so glad I did.

It is particularly pertinent and important that Donelly and Toscano link Belle Gibson’s deception to wider consumerism and industry failings. Like the billion-dollar Swisse Vitamins business which has been proven to be nothing but a long-con (yet they still have celebrity endorsement – Nicole Kidman!). There’s a subtle link between a rise of access to information, the spread of misinformation and a general distrust of science, doctors and “Big Pharma” as a result (in this I would have liked an entire chapter devoted to the anti-vaxx movement that I see being intricately linked to “wellnesss”). Belle Gibson thrived in this environment, and we let her.

The authors repeatedly point out that the likes of Belle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lola Berry, Jordan Younger, and the late Jessica Ainscough all have several startlingly obvious features in common;

For the most part, this new breed of wellness gurus is white and female, young and attractive, engaging, and media-savvy. Some are yoga teachers, or personal trainers, or martial-arts instructors, but scant few have any qualifications that equip them to give health advice. What they do have is an Instagram account.

It is key that majority of the people the authors mention in the book are indeed young, female, thin, and moneyed. It takes money to live healthy. A lot of it. This is why socioeconomics and obesity are often intricately linked – it’s also how the likes of Belle Gibson and Jessica Ainscough were able to peddle “alternative treatments” – because they looked good doing it. It made the story that much sexier, and easier to sell. No matter how much it stunk.

Speaking of Jessica Ainscough – the “wellness warrior” who rejected medical cancer treatment in lieu of things like juice cleanses and coffee enemas and subsequently died at the age of 30 (after briefly trying a return to traditional medicine in her last months, to no avail) – is almost a secondary story in ‘The Woman Who Fooled the World’. Her story and Belle’s are similar – save for the fact that Ainscough really did have cancer – but both women peddled alternative, cancer-curing treatments to hundreds of thousands of followers (some themselves in vulnerable positions due to their own health) that were nothing more than dangerous quackery. The authors are almost careful not to be too critical of Ainscough though – since her story had a truly tragic ending, that included her mother dying of cancer two years before she did, and all because upon diagnosis she likewise refused medical treatment and chose her daughter’s holistic path. A great commentary piece by the late Sam de Brito is highlighted in the book though, and well worth a read.

‘The Woman Who Fooled the World’ at times reads like a long gossip column – particularly for the Melbourne socialite and pseudo-science set who Gibson surrounded herself with. There’s also an extensive look at the roles Penguin and Apple played in legitimizing Belle’s fame and unscrupulously perpetuating her holistic lies. In this – Apple has the most to answer for (though they never will); they were very quick to capitalize on Belle’s rise, common-sense be damned. To an extent, Apple vouched for Belle so that Penguin felt more secure in signing her … but to that I say; you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. 

The last half of the book gets pretty wild – when Belle’s lies get international attention and her world unravels … and her mother steps into the picture. Here is offered a brief but important insight into the sort of childhood Belle probably grew up with – and the one part of her convoluted narrative that might ring true. The authors themselves talk to Belle’s mother, and they get impressions from two more journalists who interviewed her and her husband (Belle’s step-father). This family unit is like a cross between ‘Struggle Street’ and ‘Shameless’, and suddenly it’s easy to see where Belle learnt to tell lies with such ease … 

And finally, Donnelly and Toscano examine the media’s role in letting Belle’s horseshit waft. They unflinchingly look at a new newsroom culture where there’s half the people doing twice the work with paper-thin deadlines. But it’s no excuse – and the number of media outlets who happily let the likes of Belle Gibson and Jessica Ainscough peddle their snake-oil sales is atrocious and part of the toxic culture that let them thrive.

Overwhelming I was reminded of Harry Houdini, while reading this book. I’m a bit fascinated by the magician and stunt-performer, particularly his later-life devotion to debunking spiritualists. In 1913 Houdini’s beloved mother died, then throughout the 1920’s a post-WWI rise of spiritualism sprung up around grieving families desperate to reunite with their loved ones. Psychics and mediums suddenly become a booming business around the world. Houdini was just as desperate as so many others to communicate with his departed loved one, and so attended séances and meeting with psychics. But here he was the world’s greatest illusionist and stunt-performer and he easily saw through the deception – and then devoted the latter half of his life to proving these people to be scam-artists, preying on the desperate and grieving. That’s what Donelly and Toscano (a couple of modern-day Houdini's!) are trying to do with ‘The Woman Who Fooled the World’ – highlighting the noxious false hope of wellness bloggers, when they peddle alternative medicine that’s not complimentary to traditional treatments, but replacing it. Much like spiritualism – the deception comes at the intersection of death and hope, and that’s why people are so vulnerable.

It’s a fascinating book and I do highly-recommend reading it not just for the way Belle Gibson’s infuriating story unfolds, but for the bigger industry discussion around “health and beauty” and distribution of information.


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