Talking about The Woman Who Fooled the World: A Conversation with Nick Toscano

Kylie Sturgess

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.

Written by the same multi–award-winning journalists who uncovered the details of Gibson’s lies, The Woman Who Fooled the World tracks the twenty-three-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.

Token Skeptic podcaster Kylie Sturgess spoke to one of the coauthors of the book, Nick Toscano.

Nick Toscano: The book itself was a few months in the making, with Beau and I both taking two months of unpaid leave from work just to really knuckle down and get the meat of it done, working on it every day out of my crusty little apartment. We really sort of broke the back of it, and it took about two months all up of intense writing. But really, it was probably a couple of years in the making, because what started this book was really our news reporting while we were both working at The Age Newspaper, which is a metro daily newspaper from Fairfax in Melbourne. I’m still working there, but Beau’s left and he’s gone to live in Ireland, where his partner’s from.

In early 2015 was when the name Belle Gibson first came across our desks. Beau and I had sort of parallel careers leading up to this. We both worked for the same kind of community radio stations when we were at Uni doing current affairs. We both worked for the same sort of suburban newspaper group before we both landed jobs at The Age within about six months of each other. We worked closely whenever a big story came across our desks, and we’d often team up on projects and assignments. And this was kind of one of those examples.

So, it was a tip off that came into us through sort of a former colleague of ours, back from the Melbourne weekly newspaper, which was the suburban newspaper that we worked for. And the tip was that there’s this girl, Belle Gibson, and she’s cancer scamming. So, it was a tip that could have come from a friend of a friend. And the source of it all was a friend of Belle Gibson’s, who is someone who was quite close with her, living in Melbourne, in the same sort of social and professional circles. She’d become a kind of confidant of Belle Gibson’s, and she wanted to talk to us because she had started to have misgivings about the veracity of Belle’s story.

Beau spoke to her first to see if it was something worth pursuing. He was left with the impression straightaway that yes, this was worthwhile, and this wasn’t someone who was approaching us with an allegation or someone who was malicious or had an axe to grind. Chanelle, who contacted us, seemed really more than anything genuinely scared of what would happen if Belle Gibson’s stock continued to rise. What if she was given an even greater platform from which to disseminate her potentially dangerous story of ditching conventional medicine and trying to treat her cancer through overhauling her diet? This person was quite worried. And so, we trusted her, and we decided that we’d take a look at who this person Belle Gibson was and dedicate some time to it.

That’s kind of how we got involved. Beau and I never really heard of Belle Gibson before this point; I mean Belle Gibson was something of a celebrity in Australia and elsewhere in the world. I suppose what you’d call a social media celebrity. She had hundreds of thousands of followers, she had a very successful smart phone app that was being given all sorts of awards by Apple. You know, she’d really shot to prominence. Her story had really broken into something quite powerful. Her story of being a young mum who had beaten cancer from the brink of death by choosing to empower herself through a healthy diet—it was a remarkable tale. Unfortunately, none of it was true. So, we’d never heard of her; we’d never heard of this story.

After speaking with Chanelle, we sort of pulled everything there was to find on Belle Gibson; everything that was on the public record so far: magazine interviews, Sunrise appearances of breakfast TV, all her Instagram posts, and we kind of just started piecing together the story so far. Everything she’d said about her life, and her diagnosis and her prognosis, and we were both sort of struck almost immediately by some glaring inconsistencies in her story: things that were just vague or that didn’t stack up, and things that she was clearly lying about. There were little things at the start, and it was kind of hard to define the kind of misgivings that we felt, but that’s how it all sort of began. From there, we took her a case to our oncologist to let her have a look at her account of her sickness, and we started to talk to more of her friends, and before too long, we had enough that we could write a story. Not about her health claims, but about her charity fraud, as she was claiming at this point to give large amounts of money to charity all the while, while launching her business, which she hadn’t done. So that was kind of the first straw that broke the camel’s back and sent the house of cards tumbling down. It kind of all started from there.

Kylie Sturgess: The book delves into the wellness industry. For example, chapter four has a great title with, “What the Hell Is Wellness?,” in addition to the story of Belle Gibson. What was it like researching that aspect?

Toscano: Yeah, it was interesting researching that aspect. I think the story of Belle Gibson in itself is an interesting one, but it probably wasn’t something that we thought there’d be a whole book in by itself. There’s a reason why Beau and I were drawn to taking this book beyond just our general news reporting for our daily newspaper: the fact that it kind of brought in all these other deeply fascinating factors. She was at the center of this kind of perfect storm of factors that led to her rise, we think. I mean, this story of Belle Gibson brings in cancer scammers that have been around forever. There’s nothing new about that, but, we were really interested in what else and who else were complicit in the rise of this young twenty-something girl from Brisbane, what propelled her to fame.

There’s a power of social media, you know, the new age of social media celebrities and the capacity for people now to generate their own fame outside of the mainstream media channels, and also the dangers that can arise when this happens and these people aren’t subjected to the same sort of checks and balances that perhaps once applied. But the other extraordinary thing we were really fascinated by was this world of wellness bloggers and the wellness movement itself. So, I mean, Beau and I had never really much been into juice cleanses or fad diets or wellness bloggers on Instagram, so this was all really new for us. We were sort of fascinated by where this word came from, “wellness.” It is everywhere these days. You see wellness clinics, wellness spas; there are wellness sections in department stores. People go on wellness vacations.

But perhaps the most well-known iteration today of wellness is the wellness blogger. You know, these young women, all who look pretty similar to Belle and all have a really powerful story, who have hundreds of thousands if not millions of followers, and it’s a massive influence. So we thought it would be worthwhile tracking the story of wellness and what it actually means, and we tracked it back to the 60s and 70s, when it was first popularized on a large scale. And largely out of the kind of New Age revolution that was sweeping California. So, we found a young doctor who was one of the pioneers, the early pioneers of wellness philosophy, wellness theory. He told us his story and he told us the origins of this movement and how it’s evolved and unfortunately devolved, which is the kind of interpretation that many give it now.

The general concept of wellness according to Jack Travis, the doctor we speak to, is kind of the opposite of illness, and it was something that medicine had never really thought of before. There’s the idea that medicine is cut and dry. It’s black and white; you’re either sick or you’re not sick. You can go to a doctor and get a clean bill of health, and you’d be well, but Jack and the early pioneers of wellness sort of brought to the fore this idea that there are many degrees of wellness, just the same way that there are many degrees of illness. It’s not just the absence of being sick.

So, essentially, it’s the kind of trinity of mind, body, and spirit that we sort of refer to today that was kind of an early definition of wellness, but wellness also took into account other personal factors of importance, like environmental factors, social, emotional, intellectual. It became a kind of philosophy that was very much a holistic health philosophy. And pretty soon it caught on and it became big business. There were wellness centers springing up around the world; there were clinicians promoting activities like meditation, stress reduction, nutritional counselling, and group therapy, all falling under the umbrella of wellness. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that; it’s perfectly reasonable and a perfectly appealing sort of proposition. The idea was that it’s about learning about yourself and bettering yourself outside of the medical sphere.

Moving through decades to where we are now, wellness has gone beyond those sort of holistic and down to earth values, and in some respects, like we see with the likes of Belle Gibson and other social media sort of gurus like her, their interpretation of wellness is a lot more extreme and a lot more cultish. Ideas that were once confined to the sort of fringe of the wellness movement have now become prominent.

And those sorts of ideas are kind of distrust in conventional medicine. This idea that illness is more about an imbalance in your body than about anything medical. And it’s this kind of world of fad diets and juice cleanses and miracle cures might be nonsense, but it’s harmless. Except, I think, when it’s promoted in the context of cancer, like Belle Gibson did it. And like her predecessor, Jess Ainscough, the Wellness Warrior did.

When it’s promoted in the context of cancer, and at the expense of conventional medical treatments, like chemotherapy and radiotherapy that have the best chances of keeping patients alive, it’s dangerous. And, that’s really the most devastating part of Belle’s story. The whole thing—her whole business, her recipes, her fame, her celebrity—were based on her story that she had ditched chemo and overhauled her diet and look what had happened to her, she’d defied the odds. It’s a very powerful story, and it’s a really dangerous one.

Sturgess: How difficult was it to find out information on the Gibson story? Because there’s a number of interviewees who spoke about how they knew her, and I was quite astounded when reading the book.

Toscano: That was definitely the most difficult part about writing this story. It was the hardest part. From our early news reporting days, I mean, when we were writing on a story as it broke, we spoke to a lot of people, and very few wanted to be named. Which I suppose is fine. I mean, we did a lot of digging and we gleaned a lot of really good information from sources. But for the purpose of writing a book, which was a year down the track by this point, no one wanted anything to do with Belle Gibson. But in the beginning, Belle Gibson was a really inspiring and awesome person to be around by all accounts.

Sturgess: Yes, she comes across as incredibly charismatic.

Toscano: Yes, she had an energy about her that really endeared her to a lot of people. She had a capacity to make friends, close, intimate friends really quickly, and there were a lot of people, not just in Melbourne but all across the country and even when she was touring around the world who sort of latched onto her and they loved being around her. So, these were all sorts of people.

In Melbourne, her social scene included graphic designers, PR people, life coaches, all these so-called wellness celebrities. And this community, this sort of community emerged around her. And they were all there for the rise, and I mean, they had no reason to doubt her claims I suppose, but they were all extremely happy to be a part of her story. And then you got people who were her corporate partners, all these executives at Apple who reached out to her in the early days of her app launching, and really partnered with her and started promoting her behind the scenes and bestowing awards upon her, and gearing her up for talks at Apple stores and flying her to and from California to work on her prototype for the new Apple Smartwatch, for her iApp. And then there was her publishing partners, who similarly were extremely eager to cozy up to her and partner up with her, and they saw dollar signs too.

But when everything came sort of crashing down, when her lies were exposed, no one would sort of utter her name. No one would utter a word. Even people who were, I suppose, marginal characters in her story who we were trying to talk to for the book, they wouldn’t even talk to us on an off-the-record basis. They wanted nothing to do with her. Belle Gibson’s name became poison. And no one wanted their name googled next to Belle Gibson’s I suppose, but it was really difficult. Beau and I made hundreds of phone calls, and the people who are quoted in the book are among a very large number who we spoke to but not everyone spoke to us, so it was quite difficult.

Sturgess: Were there concerns in relation to that about the emotional aspects of health scams and wellness seeking? I imagine that must have made it difficult to edit and structure the story because these are people’s lives in some cases.

Toscano: In some respects, the emotional aspect of health scams and the impact of the wellness trend in these sorts of wellness-seeking people is the most important part of this story. I mean, what really motivated us to write this book, apart from all these really interesting and intensely modern forces that I was talking about earlier, was this absolute flood of emails and phone calls that we received in the early days after our story broke.

Beau and I’d written big stories before, and a big story always elicits big feedback, but neither of us had experienced anything like this. It was hundreds and hundreds of phone calls and emails. And they were from people who were pissed off. They were from people who had bought her book and were her followers. They were sometimes though just people who were appalled at the idea that someone could profit off of such a terrible lie.

The majority of people who called us had cancer themselves. Or they were people who had loved ones with cancer, and there were people who knew about how vulnerable people can be with a terminal diagnosis, and how they’re susceptible to the idea of a miracle cure or something that could beat the odds. Especially in light of the kind of devastating effects of things like chemotherapy and radiotherapy and conventional cancer treatments. I mean, they’re brutal; you put on weight, and you lose your hair, and you’re tired all the time. And it’s devastating.

When you look at the appeal of someone like Belle Gibson and the lies that she was perpetrating, the lies that she was spinning, her story was all about allure, I suppose. When people are suffering from cancer and they want to try everything that they could possibly do to beat it, to beat the odds or to be the one in a million, they’ll go down that kind of rabbit hole, and down that rabbit hole is someone who looked as healthy and as vital and as vivacious as Belle Gibson. She had cancer, yet all her Instagram photos showed her thriving, and sitting by a pool, and touring overseas—glamorous oversea cities. I think that allure can’t be overstated.

So, the personal stories were really what sort of propelled us to devote a large section of the book to the power and the influence of these sorts of wellness therapies or at worst cancer scams. And there were some people who had contacted us after this story who we got into contact with again when we decided to write the book, who were cancer patients who had been inspired and influenced by Belle Gibson. They sort of let us into their lives, and we followed them around and went to appointments with them and stuff like that, and we kind of used their stories as a way to explore the kind of vulnerability of people suffering from terminal cancer, and what it might be like inside their minds when they see someone like Belle Gibson. There were two really brave women who let us into their lives, and it was a special but totally upsetting part of the book to write.

Sturgess: Any plans for following up the story?

Toscano: Following up the story, we’re not sure because she’s kind of gone to ground.

She was prosecuted not too long ago now, in the federal court of Australia by Consumer Affairs. She was fined half a million dollars, which she will have to pay back in some capacity over some period of time. But she didn’t participate in the proceedings against her. She didn’t appear at a single day of court hearings, and the judge was pretty eager to point out in delivering her decision that Belle Gibson’s failure to cooperate or to take part displayed an absolute lack of remorse.

So, I mean, there are a lot of people that are still really cut up about what she did and the fact that she’s given interviews with the Australian Women’s Weekly, and she’s been on 60 Minutes, and she had the opportunity to talk in court and she didn’t. And not once in any of those appearances has she apologized. She’s always stopped short of apologizing, and I think people are still sort of waiting for that. We don’t have any immediate plans to follow this up. We’ll just have to see how we go.

The Woman Who Fooled the World – Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con is out through Scribe Publications.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.