Belle Gibson being interviewed on Australian TV

Instagram’s Worst Con Artist: How and why ‘social influencer’ Belle Gibson LIED about having cancer

A two-part documentary exposes her shocking scam

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Belle Gibson received an outpouring of love and sympathy when she told the world she had brain cancer. But the affection eventually turned to anger, when she was exposed as a heartless liar.

The so-called social influencer is the subject of ITV‘s two-part documentary Instagram’s Worst Con Artist (Thursday, April 25, 2024). The series examines how Belle went from being a symbol of hope, to an object of horror when her shocking deception was subsequently discovered.

So why did 21-year-old (now 32) Australian Belle Gibson dupe millions of followers by claiming she had terminal cancer? Not only that, she claimed to have “cured” the cancer through wellness and healthy eating.

Here’s everything you need to know about the pseudoscience advocate.

Belle Gibson appearing on 60 Minutes Australia
Belle Gibson faced an awkward interview after being exposed as a fraud (Credit: 60 Minutes Australia)

Instagram’s Worst Con Artist on ITV1 and ITVX

Two-part documentary Instagram’s Worst Con Artist examines the rise to fame of 21-year-old social influencer Belle Gibson. Belle was a single mother, allegedly diagnosed with brain cancer who chose to give up traditional treatments to pursue a revolutionary diet as her cure.

Five years after revealing she had brain cancer – and apparently given weeks to live – Belle Gibson thanked her ‘wellness regime’ for her good health. However, after people began to suspect something wasn’t quite right, Belle’s sickening scam was revealed. She had lied about her diagnosis, reaped the benefits, and even preyed on other cancer sufferers.

Over two episodes, her former friends, journalists, and cancer survivors describe how they were originally inspired by her story. However, after being sucked in by her lies, they ultimately discovered that Belle’s identity was a deception.

Who is Belle Gibson?

Belle Gibson became famous as a social influencer and wellness guru. Tasmanian-born Belle used Instagram in her attempt to become a food and health blogger.

However, she resorted to desperate measures to get noticed. Over the course of a few years, she claimed to have beaten a multitude of illnesses with the help of healthy eating, and natural remedies.

She faked having terminal brain cancer, as well as other primary and secondary cancers. She also claimed to have survived two heart attacks and a stroke.

Belle attracted a huge fan base under the now-deleted Instagram handle @healing_belle, which she launched in 2013. She described herself as a “gamechanger with brain cancer”. At first, she shared ‘healing’ recipes. However, she soon started to profit from her story, launching an app called The Whole Pantry.

Her miraculous story brought her fame and money, with a successful app with Apple, a book deal with Penguin, and countless television appearances.

She was paid a substantial amount for the book deal. The blurb on the book reads: “Belle Gibson is an inspirational young mother who encourages us to nourish ourselves in a more natural and sustainable way. After being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Belle found herself unsupported by conventional medicine.

“She began a journey of self-education to treat herself through nutrition. Her award-winning app, The Whole Pantry, is a phenomenal resource of recipes, wellness guides and personal support, and has inspired hundreds of thousands of people to change their diet and lifestyle.”

Belle Gibson's Instagram page
Belle Gibson launched her Instagram page in 2013 (Credit: Wag Entertainment for ITVX/AAP Image/David Crosling)

Did Belle Gibson have cancer? What was wrong with her?

Belle claimed she’d suffered multiple strokes, and undergone three heart surgeries, during which she “died twice on the operating table”. She also claimed she had an inoperable brain tumour and just six months to live.

She announced the news in a post, saying: “Five years ago today, I was sitting in front of a man who was about to tell me I was dying from malignant brain cancer with six months to live.”

Later, she told her followers she had been “diagnosed with a third and fourth cancer”. She added: “One is secondary, and the other is primary. I have cancer in my blood, spleen, brain, uterus, and liver. I am hurting.”

In fact, Belle was totally healthy – physically anyway. She never had cancer. The only person she was hurting was her followers, and other cancer sufferers. Belle subsequently went on to boldly claim natural remedies were curing her over traditional medications. She pledged profits from her book to cancer charities – another lie. She fraudulent claimed she had donated $300,000 of income to charities.

After her duplicity was exposed, the book The Woman who Fooled the World suggested she had mental health issues. Authors Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano believed she suffered from “Factitious disorder”.

What is Factitious disorder?

Factitious disorder is described as “a serious mental disorder in which someone deceives others by appearing sick, by purposely getting sick or by self-injury”.

Factitious disorder also can happen when family members or caregivers falsely present others, such as children, as being ill, injured or impaired.

The biography of Belle Gibson describes an incident involving her son. At her son Oliver’s 4th birthday party, Belle shocked guests and frightened her son by collapsing against the wall and falling to the floor in what seemed to be a potentially fatal seizure. Also all apparently faked.

Belle's message revealing she had cancer
Belle’s Instagram message revealing she had cancer (Credit: Wag Entertainment for ITVX/AAP Image/David Crosling)

How was ‘cancer sufferer’ Belle Gibson found out?

When her book was released in 2014, her lies began to unravel. The book’s preface said she’d been “stable for two years now with no growth of the cancer”.  The claim contradicted what she’d previously said.

One of her closest friends, Chanelle McAuliffe, describes how she started to get suspicious when she witnessed Belle have a “seizure” which she then recovered from very quickly when someone suggested calling an ambulance.

Speaking in the doc, Chanelle says: “I started to question everything, and go over things in my mind. She always looked so well and she never looked sick. She was very passionate about wellness, but then there would be times where I noticed her and another friend went to a solarium to do tanning and another time we went out to a nightclub and she was ordering shots and lots of drinks and drinking quite excessively.

“These weren’t things she shared with her online community. Things just didn’t add up for me.”

Around the same time, journalist Richard Guilliatt – whose wife had been diagnosed with cancer – began to dig into Belle’s story. He describes how he started ringing experts to ask their opinions.

He says: “I realised, if it’s a scam, it’s a really big scam. She had hundreds of thousands of followers all around the world.”

Richard uncovered the extent of her deception when he investigated her relationship with the charities she had promised to help. Most had never heard of her. They certainly had not received any money.

When the charity lies were discovered, it was logical that her cancer diagnosis was investigated too. Her web of lies was subsequently exposed in 2015.

Did Belle Gibson admit her guilt?

In 2015, journalist Richard arranged to meet Belle for an interview. He shares the recording of his meeting in which Belle claimed her doctor had diagnosed her – and then gone missing! She wonders if perhaps she was misdiagnosed and maybe didn’t have cancer after all.

At the time, Richard said: “Christ almighty, Belle, you’re kidding, you actually don’t have cancer? This was just the last thing I expected… Belle Gibson just recanted on the record. She’s basically saying she can’t back up her cancer claims.”

In April 2015, Belle gave an interview to The Australian Women’s Weekly, during which she admitted to fabricating her terminal health problems. Faced with collapsing support, Belle Gibson admitted “none of it’s true”.

She added: “I don’t want forgiveness. 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.”

Speaking to The Australian Women’s Weekly, Belle Gibson blamed her upbringing. She claimed she’d been neglected by her estranged mother. Although the interview was as an admission of deceit, she did not express regret or apology.

In 2015, she appeared on the 60 Minutes Australia, where she was interviewed by Tara Brown. The disgraced wellness blogger insisted she did not try to “get away with anything”.

Belle Gibson, 23 at the time, claimed it was she who was the victim after her lies were exposed and her wellness empire fell apart. She claimed a doctor had falsely told her she’d had cancer.

Belle Gibson arriving in court in sunglasses
Belle Gibson leaving the Federal Court in Melbourne in June 2019 over failure to pay a $410,000 penalty (Credit: AAP Image/David Crosling)

What was Belle charged with?

Belle’s actions were described as “particularly predatory”, as well as “deceit on a grand scale, for personal profit”.

On 6 May 2016, Consumer Affairs Victoria announced legal action against Belle Gibson for “false claims by Ms. Gibson and her company concerning her diagnosis with terminal brain cancer, her rejection of conventional cancer treatments in favour of natural remedies, and the donation of proceeds to various charities”.

On 15 March 2017, the Federal Court of Australia supported most of those claims, concluding that “Ms. Gibson had no reasonable basis to believe she had cancer”.

In September 2017, Gibson was fined $410,000 (£240,000) for making fraudulent claims about her charity donations. May 2021 saw Gibson’s house raided in an attempt to recoup the fine – which she had not paid up until that point. Belle Gibson told the court that she was “not in a position” to pay.

There have been two reported house raids on her Northcote home, in a bid to recoup Belle Gibson’s unpaid fines. With interest and costs, they exceed half a million dollars.

Where is Belle Gibson now?

Unsurprisingly, Belle Gibson is now living a life out of the spotlight. She is now 32 years of age.

However, in 2019, Belle Gibson claimed to have been adopted into the Oromo community – an ethnic group native to the Oromia region of Ethiopia.

A Shabo Media video from October 2019 surfaced in which she was wearing a headscarf and speaking partially in the Oromo language (referring to herself as ‘Sanbontu’).

She discussed the political situation in Ethiopia, and referred to Ethiopia as “back home”. She claimed to have been adopted by the Ethiopian community in Melbourne after volunteering for four years, calling the adoption a gift from “Allah”.

However, on the same day, the president of the Australian Oromo Community Association in Victoria, Tarekegn Chimdi, stated that Belle Gibson was not “a community member” and “not working with the community”.

In Instagram’s Worst Con Artist, Belle’s brother and stepfather speak for the first time, and allude to Belle having a difficult childhood. Belle previously claimed her brother was autistic, which the family has denied.

Instagram's Worst Con Artist
More of Belle Gibson’s outlandish claims (Credit: 60 Minutes Australia)

Kaitlyn Dever to play Belle Gibson in new drama

Dopesick star Kaitlyn Dever is said to be playing fraudster Belle Gibson in a new six-part drama about her scam. The series is reportedly filming in Melbourne.

The Sunday Herald Sun reports the rumoured Netflix drama project currently underway.

Belle Gibson, who admitted to having made up the cancer claims, has also been the subject of several documentaries. These include the BBC’s Bad Influencer in 2021, and Instagram’s Worst Con Artist, on ITV.

A publicity representative for Netflix said “We have nothing to confirm at the moment.”

Read more: Influencer embraces natural body hair in bikini pics – and doesn’t care what critics think

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Instagram’s Worst Con Artist airs on Thursday, April 24, 2024 at 9pm on ITV1, and

What do you think of Belle Gibson’s actions? Do you have any sympathy? Leave us a comment on our Facebook page @EntertainmentDailyFix.

Helen Fear
TV Editor