Cancer fantasists come along all the time. So why did this one get so far?
“Be authentic” was one of Belle Gibson’s most common bromides, uttered whenever she was interviewed about her success. In one of those interviews, conducted by Annette Dasey in the Sunday Telegraph, she claimed to have a brother with autism, a mother with multiple sclerosis (who had cared for foster children), and to have had an eating disorder at age 11. She also claimed to have contracted terminal brain cancer from a vaccine, suffered vision, memory and motor problems, and a stroke, and to have cured herself of these ailments by eating vegetables and herbs. She later added to her laundry list of maladies three heart surgeries, three minutes of being clinically dead, two further brain cancers, and cancers of the blood, spleen, uterus and liver.
“My whole life has been weird”, Gibson said, and here she was telling the truth. It is weird that this startlingly transparent load of horseshit was carried as far as it was, all the way to the launch party of the Apple Watch. Hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers. A fortune in app sales. Acres of magazine copy, and an award for being a “Fun Fearless Female” from Cosmopolitan magazine. It should have been a warning – the gong was not in the Role Model category, but for Social Media. Whatever else happens to Belle Gibson, I reckon she should get to keep that one.
Cosmo’s befuddled retraction makes it sound as though they were taken in by a master of disguise, and elsewhere the phrase “she made it all up” is in high circulation. But what’s impressive is not how much Gibson made up, but how little. Here’s what happened when a friend finally confronted her: “I asked her when she got her diagnosis, she said she didn't know,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported. “I asked her who gave her the diagnosis, she said Dr Phil. I asked her where she saw Dr Phil, she said he came and picked [her] up from [her] house.”
At the heart of this empire of lies, there isn’t even an alibi: just an unfinished doodle, a briefcase full of shredded newspaper. Dr Phil, who makes house calls. It might as well have been Dr Pepper.
It’s no mystery why cancer fantasists do what they do. They do it for money. They do it for attention. They do it because they have personality disorders and thrive on manipulation. But they rarely do it as poorly as this. Usually, Munchausen types will go to extreme lengths to create evidence for their claims. They will cram like medical students, shave their heads, go on starvation diets, poison themselves. Gibson makes you wonder why they bother.
She got basic diagnostic terminology wrong. She looked perfectly healthy, something the media loved noting as a “stigma”. She left a trail of lies online from another life, even fibbing about her age. The most rudimentary, even accidental examination of her claims would have destroyed everything. But it almost never came. And, in the meantime, she signed contracts with Penguin Books and Apple for a “wellness bible” that was just a cookbook, and reaped the attention of many media organisations. What makes her fascinating isn’t the why, but the how.
Lifestyle publications, colour supplements and women’s magazines are supported by an advertising culture that can’t even acknowledge ageing, let alone getting sick and dying. It’s not an accident that the alternative cancer cure proponents these publications signal boost aren’t hardy baby boomers getting a second go. Instead, they look just like the ads: young, white, blonde and with a fresh-faced, conventional Australian attractiveness that’s equated with vitality.
Even the ubiquitous section name “Health and Beauty” shows how pernicious this kind of thinking is, as though one is synonymous with the other. Jess Ainscough, another health blogger who became a proponent of alternative cures for cancer, had worked for Dolly magazine. She’s not in the same category as Gibson: a real cancer sufferer, she only sought alternative treatment when conventional medicine had almost run out of options.
But there is something appallingly tragic about the way Ainscough felt compelled to hide her diseased arm as her condition progressed, like a kind of real-life Photoshopping. In our current media environment, not even someone who’s dying is allowed to look unhealthy. Belle Gibson made herself into the perfect avatar of this culture: all the inspiration of cancer, and none of the actual disease. No wonder she found her audience so receptive, and the media so grateful.