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image: The Irish Times
image: The Irish Times

Belle Gibson was recently honored with Cosmopolitan Magazine’s Fun Fearless Female Award for Social Media. Last year, Elle called her “the most inspiring woman of the year.” The Sunday Telegraph labelled her a “wellness warrior” and said she was “generous, gorgeous and courageous.” Since the 26-year old Australian blogger and author had beaten brain cancer following a prognosis that gave her just four months to live, she devoted her life to educating about healthy living and taking part in extensive charitable giving. The only problem: It was all a lie. 

Not only did Gibson not have cancer – ever – and thus, did not beat it by way of unconventional, natural remedies as she claims, she also did not actually donate even a quarter of the money she publicly promised to charities. And as of this week, Gibson has been fined Aus$410,000 ($320,000) for her social media-centric scheme. 

On Thursday, Federal Court Justice Debra Mortimer of the Federal Court of Australia in Melbourne found that Belle Gibson acted deceptively when she launched her popular cookbook, The Whole Pantry, and a related smartphone app in 2013 banking largely on her assertions that she had overcome cancer through alternative treatments, including Ayurvedic medicine and a gluten-free diet.

An Australian court initially ruled in March that Gibson’s claims that she would donate the proceeds from the sales of her book and profits gained from subscriptions to her app constituted unconscionable conduct under Australian consumer law. The book and app were withdrawn earlier this year in accordance with the court’s findings.

Just this week, Justice Mortimer decided on the damages amount, ordering Gibson – who did not attend any of the hearings in connection with the case – to pay a total of $320,000 as a result of five separate violations of Australian national law relating to the false claims she made, namely that the proceeds of her various business ventures would be donated to various charities.

Justice Mortimer said during the hearing this week that Gibson has been “cavalier about the truth,” unconcerned about public representations she had made and “prepared to tell outright lies.” For instance, despite Gibson saying “a large part of everything the company earns is now donated to charities,” only $10,000 of her $420,000 earnings were actually given to charity. 

The judge further noted that Gibson had been warned by her publisher Penguin Books in 2014 that she would likely face questions regarding her charitable giving, but nonetheless, “chose to perpetuate the fantasy and deception she created.” 

According to the court, Gibson lied about the cancer diagnosis and charitable giving –  including promising a week’s earnings to a family whose child had a brain tumor – “to encourage members of the public to buy her [book and subscribe to her app] and to generate income for herself and her company, and generally to promote herself and her commercial activities.” Despite such claims, however, Gibson “did not make any donations to the organizations she had mentioned in her publicity statements until public questioning of her claims.”

In furtherance of her decision, Justice Mortimer also stated: “If there is one theme or pattern which emerges through her conduct, it is her relentless obsession with herself and what best serves her interests.”

In 2015, Gibson confessed to an Australian magazine that she lied about the diagnosis. It also emerged around that time that she failed to make the donations she had publicly pledged. One of the charities that Gibson pledged to donate to, Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, brought the case to an Australian consumer watchdog after no donations materialized.