Beau Donnelly

Posted by Sue Leonard on Sunday 27th May 2018

In March 2015, Beau Donnelly, a young reporter with the Melbourne based newspaper, The Age, got a scoop. Friends of a wellness guru, Belle Gibson, told him they believed that the young woman was a fraud.

The 23-year-old beauty had built up a global business after she cured herself of brain cancer. Her successful wellness app was about to be included in the Apple Watch, and she had a lucrative publishing deal with Penguin. But those close to her now doubted her story; they believed she had never had cancer.

Investigating, Beau was convinced that Belle was, indeed a fraud, but the legal implications of printing such a story made it difficult.

“We had to find another way,” he says, when we meet to discuss the book he has written about the case. Belle had claimed to give much of her money to various charities, and Beau was able to prove that this was untrue. “It was the only way to smoke her out,” he says. “So we did that, and the story snowballed from there.”

Happy to have raised awareness of the issue, Beau moved on to other stories for the paper.

“I’ve always been interested in social justice,” he says. “I ran a campaign to bring over an African girl with an Australian passport from Sierra Leone; she was facing genital mutilation, and I’ve worked on stories of people who were abused in disability homes, on child abuse in the church, and asylum seekers getting bashed by guards.”

A year and a half later, Beau was looking for a story to pitch to his editor.

“I was going through all my e-mails and came across the ones I’d received when I’d been writing about Belle. There were so many from cancer patients, their families, doctors, oncologists and nurses, and it hit me, again, how much harm she had done by trading on her false cancer. I had coffee with a colleague, and said, ‘I think there is a book in this.’ He agreed, so I wrote a two-line email to a publisher who had worked with a friend of mine, and he said, ‘come and meet me.’”

Fellow reporter, Nick Toscano had worked with Beau on the Belle Gibson story, and he was happy to come on get on board with the book.

“The publisher asked for a sample of our writing, along with a synopsis and chapter breakdown. We sent him 20,000 words. He got back to us straight away, and said, ‘you have a deal if you want one.’ We were surprised how easy it was.”

The Age newspaper gave the duo leave so that could write the book, and they set to investigating Belle’s story, along with the history of the wellness movement, and of cancer frauds of the past. The research was right up Beau’s street.

“I’d always wanted to be an investigative journalist. There is one at The Age, but it’s a long road to get to that point. I’d always tried to find my own stories that required a bit more digging, and I tended to have one longer term piece alongside my daily stories.”

Originally from Brisbane, Beau spent two years travelling in the UK when he left school. He wanted to be a documentary maker, and he started a degree in TV and Film production.

“It wasn’t structured enough, and I thought, if I study journalism I’ll be learning the skills a documentary maker uses. When I left college, I worked on a local paper, before moving to the Age where I was a reporter for 8 years.”

Belle Gibson’s story is quite extraordinary. Not only did her 200,000 followers believe that she had suffered from terminal cancer – and was still suffering some effects of it – her close friends and her partner apparently believed she was genuine too. Yet it didn’t take much digging to show that her story was full of holes. How had she got away with it?

The authors never met their subject; she refused to talk to them, but in talking to her mother – friends, and others who had known her, they built up a full picture.

“There were two things going on with her,” says Beau. “She had a history of lying about everything, including her illnesses. I believe a judge who said she was, to a point, suffering from her own delusions. We know she did go out and seek dodgy practitioners, and I think she wanted to believe she was sick – yet she had rebuttal evidence. A hospital scan showed she has a perfectly healthy brain.”

Beau blames the success of her scam, in part, on the whole wellness industry – or the way it has been manipulated by so called on-line celebrities.

“There’d been a whole conveyor-belt of misinformation coming from these people,” he says, “And a lot of it is targeting young women. Wellness was never meant to be about illness, but the term has become medicalised.”

What seems worse, is that Apple and Penguin were prepared to do business with her, even though her credentials didn’t stand up to scrutiny.

“Apple was her first corporate sponsor. They backed her, working really hard behind the scenes, and hand picked her as the only Australian to have an App on the Apple watch. They loved her.

“It’s a bit more understandable that Penguin would assume that some kind of verification had taken place. They did have concerns – and these were raised at a high level; when they put her through media training, it’s excruciating to watch the video, where she can’t back up her claims. Their defence was that they were publishing her cookbook – yet there was a 3,000 word summary of her life so far, and it was full of lies.”

During his investigation, Beau was constantly shocked.

“I didn’t believe at first that she could do this. But what affected me more, was the realisation that scammers exist and have done for thousands of years.”

When he thinks of those taken in by people like Belle, he is maddened.

“I had a bit of experience with this when my mum died of cancer,” he says. “I’ve never mentioned this before, but my dad looked into a few treatments, so I knew such things existed. I saw people in the town offering remedies, but I didn’t realise how widespread it was. Talking to people for the book it seems almost everyone with someone in the family who has a terminal cancer diagnosis spends money on remedies or cures.

“And the time they spend running around trying out all these things, should have been spent sitting down, saying the things that need to be said. The families said they didn’t feel robbed of the money, so much as of the time.”

Charged with misleading conduct, Belle was fined 410 Australian dollars – and now lives quietly in Melbourne with her partner and her son.

“There are rumours that she is developing another App,” says Beau. What does he think of her now?  “I think she’s a very troubled young woman. I want to feel sorry for her, but I feel much more sorry for her victims, and her son.

“By all accounts Belle was a good mum, but she faked a seizure in front of her son, and has said that he was aware, at four years old, that his mum would not be around for long.”

Since writing the book, Beau has moved to Kilkenny with his Irish wife and their two children. Currently working on storylines for Fair City, he hopes to continue to write in-depth features on social justice issues.

“And I’d like to do another book,” he says. “I’ve been trying to write a kid’s book for five years. I can’t do it, but I must!”

 

The Woman Who Fooled the World by Beau Donnelly and & Nick Toscano. Published by Scribe. €111.82  Kindle: €5.10

Published in The Irish Examiner on 24th March

© Sue Leonard. 2018

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