The Strange True Story Behind Instagram’s Worst Con Artist

By Olivia Emily

2 months ago

This ITV series shows a darker side of social media


Fans of documentaries about scammers, this new ITV docuseries is one for you. But, dealing with day to day things such as social media, healthy eating, the wellness industry and, sadly, cancer, it’s one that hits a little too close to home. Instagram’s Worst Con Artist tells the story of Belle Gibson, a 21-year-old influencer who claimed she cured her inoperable brain cancer through healthy eating. An app, a book deal and countless television appearances later, the deafening alarm bells finally started being heard. But how did we get to this point? Here’s the unsettling truth behind Gibson’s scam, plus what she’s up to now.

The Truth Behind Instagram’s Worst Con Artist

What Is Instagram’s Worst Con Artist About?

Instagram’s Worst Con Artist tells the inside story of Belle Gibson, a 21-year-old influencer who claimed she cured her inoperable, terminal brain cancer through wellness and healthy eating. Drawing on interviews with friends and family speaking on the record for the first time, social media posts and recordings of Gibson’s voice, this documentary tells the story behind Gibson’s rise to fame over two parts, charting her successful app, book deal and television appearances before journalists discovered the truth: Gibson never had cancer, meaning she had misled millions of followers and broken multiple consumer laws. So, was Gibson manipulative, a compulsive liar, or damaged for another reason?

Is It A True Story?

Yes, Belle Gibson really did tell her followers that she had cured her brain cancer with healthy eating. Now 32 years old, Belle Gibson was born in Tasmania, Australia, and moved to different parts of the country during her childhood. In early 2013, she first started gaining traction on Instagram, where she posted photos and shared healthy recipes under the username @healing_belle. Here, she shared how she had been diagnosed with inoperable, terminal brain cancer, had been given four months to live, and had abandoned traditional medicine after two months of gruelling chemotherapy and radiation. At this point, she told her followers, she took matters into her own hands, living a healthy life (eating a plant-based diet and cutting out gluten and dairy) and using alternative treatments (like oxygen therapy and colonics). Miraculously, she even got pregnant and gave birth to a healthy son.

Or so she said. Regardless, Gibson’s tall tales attracted a legion of interested and inspired followers. She became a wellness guru of sorts, with her account well-timed to join the fast-growing wellness movement, bubbling with buzzwords like ‘superfoods’ and ‘clean eating’. Eventually, Gibson launched an app called The Whole Pantry, in 2013, along with a companion cookbook. The app reportedly had more than 200,000 downloads within a month of launching, with Apple naming it the Best Food and Drink App of 2013. In The Whole Pantry book (published in 2014 by Lantern Books, an imprint of Penguin Books), she told the story of her diagnosis, quoting her doctor as having told her in July 2009, when she was only 20 years old, ‘You’re dying. You have six weeks. Four months tops.’ Gibson also claimed she had undergone multiple heart surgeries and even momentarily died on the operating table. She wrote alongside her gluten-free, refined sugar-free and dairy-free recipes: ‘I was empowering myself to save my own life through nutrition, patience, determination, and love,’ and that she hoped to help her readers live ‘a well-nourished life’.

‘Nobody wants to live with the fear of a terminal illness or dying,’ we hear her say in the documentary. ‘I’m really honest about my journey with my health and that opened up everyone else’s honesty and everyone else’s stories.’

Bella Johnston, a cancer survivor who followed Belle Gibson on Instagram

Bella Johnston, a cancer survivor who followed Belle Gibson on Instagram. (© Wag Entertainment/ITVX)

In Instagram’s Worst Con Artist, we hear from Bella Johnston who found Gibson’s page after being diagnosed with cancer herself. ‘I was so sucked into Belle’s life,’ she says. ‘I just thought she was so courageous and inspiring. I was like, wow, I don’t know if I want to be this woman or be this woman’s best friend.

‘I started really comparing my life with hers,’ Bella says. ‘I was so devastated about my face and my body, in the middle of radiotherapy I started fake-tanning. I got hair extensions to try to cover all my baldness. There was this ideology that it’s the medicine that makes you look sick… She looks so good because she fuels her body with this amazing food.’

Gibson was at the peak of her career when she shared a new piece of devastating news with her followers: her cancer was back, and it was spreading. In July 2014, she wrote on Instagram: ‘I have cancer in my blood, spleen, brain, uterus and liver. I am hurting … I wanted to respectfully let you each know, and hand some of the energy over to the greater community, my team and @thewholepantry […] Please don’t carry my pain. I’ve got this.’

A graphic from Belle's Instagram page

© Wag Entertainment/ITVX

At this point, you’re probably wondering why no one was picking up the many red flags Gibson was putting down. In Instagram’s Worst Con Artist, Gibson’s close friend Chanelle McAuliffe describes her suspicions after witnessing Belle have a ‘seizure’, which she quickly recovered from when someone suggested calling an ambulance. ‘I started to question everything and go over things in my mind,’ McAuliffe says. ‘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.’

As Gibson attracted more and more media attention, journalists also started digging beneath the surface of her medical claims. The Australian uncovered a series of contradictory medical claims dating back to 2009, when Gibson said she had been diagnosed with a brain tumour aged 20 years old.

  1. Gibson was 17 in 2009, not 20.
  2. Gibson claimed to have a ‘stage two malignant tumor of the brain’. Brain tumours are measured in grades rather than stages, and a grade two tumour is slow-growing and would not result in a four-month terminal diagnosis.
  3. Malignant brain tumours do not spread from the brain to other parts of the body in the way Gibson described.
  4. Gibson was never able to name her doctors or give documentary evidence of her illness when asked.

Around this time, Lantern Books admitted they had never asked Gibson to prove she had cancer before publishing The Whole Pantry, instead operating on ‘good faith’. Meanwhile, Gibson’s ‘inner circle’ are said to have held an intervention for her. As one friend put it, ‘At first you think you’re a terrible person for questioning her illness.’ But: ‘She was always vague about the cancer, where she was treated, her [medical] appointments.’

Chanelle McAuliffe former friend of Belle Gibson.

Chanelle McAuliffe former friend of Belle Gibson. (© Wag Entertainment/ITVX)

In response, Gibson told The Australian she suspected her 2014 cancer diagnoses were incorrect, claiming a medical team in Germany used ‘magnetic’ therapy to diagnose her; she declined to name the doctor. ‘It’s hard to admit that maybe you were wrong,’ she said, adding she felt ‘confused, bordering on humiliated’. She said she would be seeking conventional medical treatment in the hopes of ‘understanding what’s happening with my body’. But the seeds of doubt had been sown.

Meanwhile, Consumer Affairs Victoria were investigating Gibson’s claims regarding her charitable contributions, after Australian media company Fairfax Media started digging into her stories. In 2014, Gibson claimed The Whole Pantry brand had donated approximately $300,000 AUD to various charities spanning maternal healthcare, medical support for children with cancer, and funding for schools in sub-Saharan Africa. But Fairfax Media found she had ‘grossly overstated the company’s total donations to different causes’, and had never given money to five of the named charities.

At first, Gibson claimed cash-flow problems and poor record-keeping, but neither she nor her companies were even registered fundraisers. Eventually, she admitted she had overstated her charitable contributions. Only $7,000 is thought to ever have been donated, with $1,000 donated after Fairfax’s investigation.

It’s difficult to lay out the full story with regards to Gibson’s deceit because, at this point, she started selectively deleting her social media posts. It started with selected comment deletion, but this led to an influx of even more negative comments (which Gibson responded to on a burner Facebook account called Harry Gibson), and so deleting posts was the next best solution. Soon enough, this meant Gibson’s @healing_belle and @thewholepantry Instagram accounts had no posts at all. Her blog posts started being deleted, and some social media profiles were made private while others were deleted entirely.

In April 2015, Gibson finally admitted she had fabricated her cancer claims in an interview with The Australian Women’s Weekly. She attributed her lies to her troubled upbringing, saying she had to care for but was neglected by her now-estranged mother who had MS, had to do all of the household chores, and had to care for her autistic brother from the age of five. She did not apologise for her lies, even saying ‘I don’t want forgiveness’. Instead, she wanted people to see her as a human who makes mistakes, and allow her to ‘grow and heal’.

When asked how she felt about having potentially steered genuine cancer patients away from conventional treatment, she said, ‘If I knew anyone [with cancer] was going to do what I did or what I have done, I would personally have driven them to hospital.’ The interviewer wrote she ‘cries easily and muddles her words’, and may be passionate about healthy eating, but ‘doesn’t really understand how cancer works’. Meanwhile, Gibson appeared on interview programme 60 Minutes with Tara Brown, for which she was secretly paid $75,000 AUD.

One month later, the same magazine tracked down and interviewed Gibson’s mother Natalie Dal-Bello, who said she was ‘deeply hurt and incredibly upset’ at her daughter’s lies about her upbringing. Dal-Bello called Gibson’s interview ‘a lot of rubbish’. ‘Belle never cared for me, her brother is not autistic and she’s barely done a minute’s housework in her life,’ Dal-Bello said. ‘I’ve practically worked myself into an early grave to give that girl everything she wanted in life. Every time she moved house, I paid for it, whenever she needed something for [her son] Ollie, I paid for it. If she wanted a new computer, I paid for it. Phone bills, clothes, beauty treatments – you name it. And this is how she repays me.’

Gibson’s brother Nick added: ‘I’m disgusted with Belle and what she’s done. It’s about attention. She’s always been like this.’

Belle's brother Nick Gibson gives a rare interview in Instagram's Worst Con Artist.

Belle’s brother Nick Gibson gives a rare interview in Instagram’s Worst Con Artist. (© Wag Entertainment/ITVX)

Why Did She Do It?

There’s no real way of knowing why Belle Gibson faked having cancer, but her brother’s comment is probably the most likely answer: for attention. Some journalists have questioned whether Gibson might have Munchausen Syndrome or a factitious disorder: those affected feign or exaggerate symptoms of disease, illness, injury, abuse or trauma to draw attention and/or sympathy.

That said, after Gibson’s scam was exposed, psychologist Sandy Rea wrote in the Herald Sun that Gibson did not fit the profile of someone with Munchausen Syndrome, because people who suffer from the disorder have an ingrained need for attention, but have little to no interest in financial gain. In contrast, Gibson used her (fake) illness to sell books and app subscriptions, and more generally profit off telling her story. Instead, Rea suggests Gibson could be a compulsive liar: ‘They lie repeatedly and consistently for personal satisfaction and are often criminal.’

What Was Belle Gibson Charged With?

Eventually, Consumer Affairs Victoria brought legal action against Gibson for breaking Australian consumer law. In 2017, Gibson was fined $410,000 AUD for her false claims about her charitable donations. Meanwhile, Penguin Australia paid $30,000 AUD to the Victorian Consumer Law Fund as a penalty for not fact checking The Whole Pantry.

What Is Belle Gibson Doing Now?

Belle Gibson has all but disappeared from public life. However, she has been subject to high profile house raids to recoup her unpaid fines. In 2017, Gibson stated she was $170,000 in debt, and had $5,000 to her name. In 2019, Gibson had still not paid her fines, but was spotted at Melbourne airport after embarking on a five-week, £8,000 safari. At this time, Consumer Affairs Victoria were still seeking to enforce the penalty, including threatening jail time. In 2020, the Sheriff’s Office of Victoria raided her home and seized items to recoup the unpaid fines, which now exceeded $500,000 AUD due to interest and costs. In 2021, her home was raided again.

Interestingly, when Gibson’s home was raided in 2020 and media interest was renewed, a video of Gibson resurfaced from October 2019. In the video, Gibson wears a headscarf and speaks partially in Oromo, a language native to parts of Ethiopia and northern Kenya and spoken by Oromo people. Gibson discusses the political situation in Ethiopia, referring to the African nation as ‘back home’. She claims to have been adopted by Melbourne’s Ethiopian community after volunteering with them for four years, which the president of the Australian Oromo Community Association in Victoria absolutely refuted, saying nobody seemed to know who she was.

Instagram’s Worst Con Artist: Belle Gibson (centre) leaves the Federal Court in Melbourne, Thursday, June 20, 2019

Belle Gibson (centre) leaves the Federal Court in Melbourne, Thursday, June 20, 2019. © Wag Entertainment/ITVX

Is Belle Gibson Being Turned Into A Netflix Series?

Kind of: upcoming Netflix series Apple Cider Vinegar follows two women, Belle and Milla, who set out to cure their life-threatening illnesses through health and wellness in the early days of social media, sharing their progress with and motivating their growing online communities along the way. ‘All of which would be inspiring if it were true,’ Netflix quips. Starring Kaitlyn Dever, Alycia Debnam-Carey, Aisha Dee, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Ashley Zukerman and Mark Coles Smith, it will probably be released in 2025.

Instagram’s Worst Con Artist Release Date

Instagram’s Worst Con Artist will air over two weeks on ITV1.

  • Episode 1: Thursday 25 April 2024 at 9pm
  • Episode 2: Thursday 2 May 2024 at 9pm

Where Is It Streaming?

The full series is streaming now on itv.com