Belle Gibson, the former health blogger, cookbook author and app developer who lied about having terminal brain cancer and built a business around her “wellness” advice, has been found guilty of misleading or deceptive conduct.
Annabelle Natalie Gibson, 25, did not defend the legal action by Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV), nor take part in the case, including the handing down of the judgment today.
Justice Debra Mortimer of the Federal Court in Melbourne concluded that “most but not all” of the breaches of Australian Consumer Law alleged against Gibson by CAV were proved.
But she do not accept that Gibson had acted unconscionably, saying it was possible that “some kind of delusion” played a part in her belief that she had cancer.
“She may have had other psychological or psychiatric issues,” she said.
“Those possibilities are reasonably open on the evidence. I am not persuaded on the evidence she was acting unconscionably.”
Gibson, then 23, became a regular on the celebrity wellness circuit for her “miraculous” recovery from terminal illness thanks to her diet, before her empire came crumbling down two years ago after Fairfax Media revealed she had failed to pass on donations she promised to make to charities.
Soon after, her hoax was revealed as journalists began digging and experts said her stories of multiple cancers were implausible.
Melbourne-based Gibson’s fraud began in 2013 and she rose to prominence on social media by claiming she had survived terminal illness for five years using diet and traditional remedies. It led to a best-selling wellness app on Apple’s iTunes store, and when the Apple Watch was launched, Gibson’s app played a central part in the company’s marketing.
She became a media darling for her “inspirational” story, with around 200,000 followers on Instagram. Elle Australia declared her 2014’s “most inspiring person”.
Her success was global, offering hope to people with cancer around the planet. Penguin published a cookbook based on Gibson’s advice and planned to release it in the US and UK.
Apple had flown Gibson to the US to work on the watch app prior to its launch, but when doubts over Gibson’s claims emerged, the app was pulled, followed by her book.
Gibson maintained she would provide details of her illness right up until an interview in April 2015 with Australian Women’s Weekly in which she finally confessed her deception.
Asked outright if she has, or ever had cancer, she said “No. None of it’s true.”
In June 2015, Gibson appeared on 60 Minutes and tried to defend her lies, claiming “I’ve not been intentionally untruthful”.
CAV took legal action against Gibson and her company Inkerman Road Nominees Pty Ltd, last year, shortly after it was placed into liquidation owing more than $140,000. The matter went to trial last September.
Victorian police had previously investigated Gibson, but did not press any charges.
In her written judgment, justice Mortimer concluded that between mid-2013 and March 2015, Gibson’s company received more than $420,000 from sales of the app and the book, and Penguin’s author advance.
Around $10,000 was donated to charity.
“That proposition does not represent a ‘large part of everything’, nor can it represent ‘routine’ donations by the respondents of part of the proceeds of sale,” Mortimer wrote.
“The donations were sporadic, ad hoc and, as to some of them, opportunistic: apparently motivated by the disquiet emerging in early 2015 concerning the truthfulness of Ms Gibson’s claims.”
Mortimer concluded that Gibson and her company engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct over representations about charitable donations.
Gibson now faces up to $220,000 in fines personally, and her company, $1.1 million.
As part of the CAV’s investigation, publisher Penguin Australia agreed to pay $30,000 to a Victoria’s consumer law fund for publishing Gibson’s book, The Whole Pantry, without properly fact checking.
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