Belle Gibson sat on a blue-cushioned pew, her sleek blonde hair pulled back and tied high in a bun. She was flanked by two women.
The older woman had her arm around Gibson’s shoulder; the younger one clutched her hand. Gibson, sobbing loudly, appeared as though she might collapse were it not for their support.
It was Friday, March 6, 2015. The memorial service in Buderim, 90 minutes’ drive north of Brisbane, was at Lifepointe Baptist Church, a pentagon-shaped building that looked more like a mid-sized concert hall than a place of worship. There were slick light and sound systems, a stage, a mezzanine floor and enough space for almost 1000 people. On this autumn morning, a sea of mourners wearing colourful clothing gathered in their grief. Among the large but tight-knit circle were public relations specialists and self-help authors, life coaches and wellness-industry entrepreneurs.
They were here to farewell Jess Ainscough, known to her fans as “The Wellness Warrior”. She had died at home on the Sunshine Coast the week before, aged 29, almost seven years after being diagnosed with an incredibly rare, slow-growing and incurable cancer called an epithelioid sarcoma. In her quest to survive, Ainscough had overhauled her lifestyle and become a devotee of the controversial Gerson Therapy, a regimen of five-daily coffee enemas, raw juices on the hour, every hour, and an organic vegetarian diet.
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Ainscough was blonde, slim, clear-skinned and photogenic, and had shot to fame by writing a blog about curing herself from cancer. A top-ranking health and wellness website, book deal and celebrity appearances soon followed. She was, without question, Australia’s best-known cancer-fighting wellness guru.
At the service, Ainscough’s bereft father, Col, bade farewell to his blue-eyed daughter – he called her Jet – and recounted anecdotes of her style and sincerity. Her first steps and first day of school, captured on film, flashed up on a projector screen. Guests spoke of the unending love between Ainscough and her partner, Tallon Pamenter. The pair were to have been married in just a few months’ time. Finally, former Australian Idol winner Wes Carr performed. Those who were there say it was a moving tribute; one filled with happy memories, moments of laughter, and smiles through the tears.
Through it all, Gibson wept, at times uncontrollably, and over the top of everyone else. “Some guests seemed put off by it,” one remarked. “She was noticeably having outbursts.” Said another: “It was like she was making a point of being seen and heard. Like she was trying to prove that she was more devastated than everybody else who was there.”
‘SOMETHING WAS OFF’
Belle Gibson had first met Jess Ainscough in April two years before. Ainscough was addressing a Self-Love and Sisterhood conference in Prahran, a fashionable suburb in Melbourne’s inner south-east. Gibson, a rising star in the self-help movement, lined up at the town hall with the scores of other fans to meet the keynote speaker after the event. Like Ainscough, she was also building an online following off the back of her story of beating terminal cancer, hers ostensibly of the brain.
Gibson used the opportunity to tell Ainscough about the health and wellness smartphone app she was building. The app was called The Whole Pantry. Developed over several months, it included healthy meal planners and recipes based on natural ingredients. It would go on to be downloaded an impressive 300,000 times. It wasn’t long before the pair were moving in similar circles, albeit in different cities. They regularly exchanged niceties on social media, usually in the form of gushing praise on Instagram of each other’s “wellness journey”.
But Gibson and Ainscough were not friends. That first meeting had never sat well with Ainscough, who felt uneasy. “Something was off about her,” she would later tell a friend. Ainscough’s manager, Yvette Luciano, remembers Gibson lining up to meet Ainscough again, this time in 2014, during Ainscough’s Melbourne book tour. She said Gibson stood out in the crowd of fans. “There definitely was a feeling like she… [was] trying to force something with Jess.”
After Ainscough died, Luciano took to social media to set the record straight: “Beyond an Instagram comment or two,” she wrote, there was no relationship whatsoever, personally or professionally, between Ainscough and Gibson.
Gibson’s decision to travel from her home in Melbourne’s affluent bayside area to Ainscough’s memorial on the tropical Sunshine Coast, almost 1800 kilometres away, was something of a surprise to many at the service. Some of Ainscough’s friends remember the bizarre moment when Gibson approached them as they were gathered outside under evergreen shade trees in a sea of bitumen car-parking, and insinuated herself into their grief. She was politely embraced, and comforted. Those closest to Ainscough then made the short drive back to the house that she and fiancé Pamenter had shared with her father in Alexandra Headland. The two-storey property, 800 metres from the surf, was set back on a suburban street behind native rainforest. Gibson had never been there before, but she acted like she had.
Inside, she cried. She cried about Ainscough, and about her own cancer. “She was hysterically sobbing, saying how devastated she was to lose Jess,” one of Ainscough’s friends said. “No one really knew what to do with her.” Luciano said she was confused to see Gibson. “I didn’t even know how she knew where Jess lived or how she got there.”
At one point, Gibson summoned the dead woman’s fiancé into a bedroom and wept on his shoulder.
She told him her heart was breaking, that she was petrified of dying the way his partner had. “I don’t know how they ended up in [the] room together,” one onlooker commented, “but I do remember her coming out crying. If she didn’t even know the girl, then what the f… compelled her to be doing any of it?”
Pamenter, Ainscough’s partner, remembers that Gibson was upset and asked him for a private moment to talk. He knew who Gibson was, through her social media profile, but the service was the first time he had met her. She spoke about her own cancer, he recalls. “At the time, there was so much going on that, I guess, I was just feeling sorry for her, thinking, maybe she’s kind of thinking the same could happen to her.”
For years before Ainscough’s death, Gibson had been positioning herself as the next poster girl for holistic health and wellness. The template she used in her story followed a similar path. Both women spoke of spiralling into bad eating habits that began as teenagers. They talked about listening to their doctors and trying conventional medicine to treat terminal cancer, but ultimately coming to the realisation of needing to trust their “intuition”.
They both said they believed it was their only option. Ainscough said her journey of “research and empowerment… ultimately saved my life”. Gibson said she “was empowering myself to save my own life”. The “whole” way of eating, “whole body” wellness, and “whole life” are littered throughout the pages of their books and transcripts of interviews. Ainscough called herself a cancer survivor, and said she was “living proof of the body’s ability to heal itself”, while Gibson knew her cancer was “curable; my immune system is just suppressed”.
There was one problem, however, with Gibson’s story: she didn’t have cancer at all. Ainscough’s illness was real. She had proved it was possible to forge a wellness career from a terminal-cancer diagnosis, but it was short-lived. The queen of wellness was dead; her website would soon be taken down. There was a void left in the market, and plenty of people ready to believe again.
Perhaps, as Gibson sat in the bedroom with Pamenter that day, her tears were all for show. Perhaps they were genuine, or perhaps they were about something else entirely. One thing was for certain, though: Gibson was coming undone. She knew she was about to be exposed. We had called her from The Age newsroom in Melbourne the day before Ainscough’s service to discuss the myriad discrepancies in the stories of cancer and philanthropy that she had used to promote her global brand. We had been looking into her for weeks, suspicious about the veracity of her tale. Her cancer story seemed far-fetched, and her claims of donating huge amounts of money to charities didn’t hold water. Her phone was off.
We called her partner, Clive Rothwell, who said she was on a flight to the Sunshine Coast for the service. So we emailed her a list of 21 questions, asking for evidence of her cancer diagnosis and charitable donations, and seeking clarification of other parts of her story that didn’t stack up, such as her age, and her qualifications.
Not long after, Gibson called back and left a message. She sounded very young. Her tone was friendly, professional, busy: “Good afternoon. My name’s Belle Gibson. I’ve had a missed call from you, so, if you could give me a call back that’d be great. Thank you.” Later, Gibson emailed to say she was attending the funeral of “a close friend and someone who mentored me through many years”. She has never taken or returned our calls since.
By the same time the following week, the cracks in Gibson’s story would become chasms. The Age exposed Gibson for fundraising fraud and revealed she was deleting comments from the net questioning her cancer diagnosis; and The Australian published an admission by Gibson herself that it was possible she had been misdiagnosed. Within weeks, she had confessed to The Australian Women’s Weekly that her story was a lie.
This is a story of large-scale deception; a tale that duped millions in the reckless pursuit of attention and fame. It began in Brisbane, where Annabelle Natalie Gibson grew up, before moving to Perth, then Melbourne. In just a few short years it took her around the globe, propelling her to extraordinary heights and into lucrative partnerships with two of the world’s best-known companies, publishing giant Penguin and tech giant Apple, who were eager to capitalise on her astonishing story.
Gibson had claimed that, in 2009, she was 20 years old and working in a corporate job when she started experiencing memory loss, vision problems and walking difficulties. Gibson said her concerns were brushed aside by her doctor, and was prescribed antidepressants. Not long after, she said, she suffered a stroke at work, following which tests revealed she had terminal brain cancer. She claimed that in 2009 she was given four months to live.
Gibson said she endured chemotherapy and radiotherapy for two months, but decided to stop the gruelling treatment after passing out in a city park near the hospital. She started exploring the world of alternative medicine and the detoxification properties of lemons, which got her thinking about the importance of a healthy diet. Gibson then embarked on a quest to heal herself with nutrition and holistic medicine, including “salt, vitamin and Ayurvedic treatments, craniosacral therapy, oxygen therapy, colonics, and a whole lot of other treatments”.
Four years later, she said, what she was doing was working. She appeared on Instagram just as the photo-sharing app was becoming popular, posting as a cancer patient healing herself naturally. She had tapped into something big. Her social media profile exploded, and she quickly amassed tens of thousands of followers. She built an app, and it was a winner.
On August 5, 2013, The Whole Pantry went live. It contained more than 50 gluten-free, paleo and vegan recipes, as well as health and wellness lifestyle guides, recipe conversion tools, and a shopping-list function. The app was “not just about food”, Gibson would later say. It was also about “combating stress, achieving wellness and a healthy, wholesome lifestyle”.
Gibson, who in 2013 was actually just 21 years old, could not have anticipated the success that lay just around the corner. The Whole Pantry took off overnight, earning the No. 1 rating in the App Store in its debut month. By the end of 2013, it was named Apple’s Best Food and Drink App, and the second-best iPhone app in the world. It was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times globally, and inspired lucrative book deals in Australia, the US and the UK. The Whole Pantry brand would earn Gibson $500,000 in less than two years.
Following the 2015 revelations that Belle Gibson did not have cancer, she went from being publicly adored to despised. Sales of her book were suspended, remaining copies pulped. Overseas publishing deals were cancelled and her app was removed from the Apple store. That year, the Washington Post ranked Gibson in its top-10 Internet Villains of the Year. This year, in late September, the Federal Court of Australia found Gibson guilty of misleading and deceptive conduct. She was fined $410,000.
This is an edited extract from The Woman Who Fooled The World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con by Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano, to be published on Monday (Scribe $38).
– Your Weekend