Poonam Pandey is no stranger to controversy. With 1.3 million followers on Instagram and X (formerly Twitter), the stunning Indian model, “erotic actress” and reality TV star is an infamous figure in South Asia.
For the uninitiated, Pandey rose to fame when she promised to strip for the Indian team if they won the 2011 Cricket World Cup.
While India lifted the trophy, Pandey did not take off for them due to public disapproval in a largely conservative country.
However, in 2012, she posed nude after cricket team Kolkata Knight Riders won the Indian Premier League.
A few years later, she uploaded a sex tape she made with her boyfriend to Instagram (later deleted).
Last Friday, Poonam Pandey's Instagram account released a statement announcing her death, claiming that she had “bravely battled cervical cancer.”
Just a day later, her death was revealed to have been faked and she wrote that she was “proud” that her stunt had sparked discussion about the disease
She is, if you will, India's Kim Kardashian – but probably with even less talent.
Then, last week – Friday, February 2 – a statement was posted on Pandey's Instagram account announcing her sudden death after “courageously” battling cervical cancer.
Her manager, Nikita Sharma, confirmed the sad news and praised 32-year-old Pandey's “steadfast spirit amid her health struggles” before she “tragically passed away.”
Sharma further discussed the “critical need for increased awareness and proactive measures against preventable diseases such as cervical cancer.”
Within hours, Pandey's name was trending all over social media. Condolences poured in from shocked fans, including Bollywood film stars, who were moved to tears and commented on how fit and healthy she had seemed just days before.
A tragedy. Except… it wasn't. A day later, Poonam Pandey was found to be alive and well. It was all a hoax – and she was the perpetrator.
She wrote on Instagram: “I feel compelled to share something meaningful with you all – I'm here, alive.” “Cervical cancer didn't take me, but tragically it has claimed the lives of thousands of women.”
Over the weekend she went a step further and boldly admitted online: “Yes, I faked my death.” Extreme, I know. But suddenly we're all talking about cervical cancer, right? “I am proud of what my death news has achieved.”
Pandey admitted online on Saturday: “Yes, I faked my death.” Extreme, I know. But suddenly we're all talking about cervical cancer, aren't we?'
Pandey's agency justified its actions by saying her mother was battling cancer, and Schbang said in a statement that she had “overcome the challenges of fighting a disease like this.”
She's no stranger to crazy stunts, but was this a new low for Pandey – or a bold and effective attempt to draw attention to a devastating issue in women's health?
According to the World Health Organization, India accounts for nearly a quarter of the world's cervical cancer cases and 77,000 deaths per year. Many of these could be avoided if more women knew about the disease and its symptoms and had access to swab tests, or if teenagers were routinely vaccinated.
But no one in India is talking about the alarming prevalence of cervical cancer and how it could be curbed. Instead, they just talk about Poonam Pandey and another incredible stunt. It certainly didn't hurt your profile.
In an online defense statement, her agency Schbang tried to justify its actions by revealing that Pandey's mother was battling cancer (which form this was was not specified).
“After overcoming the challenges of battling a disease like this in such a personal setting, [Pandey] “Is aware of the importance of prevention and the importance of raising awareness, especially when a vaccine is available,” the statement said.
So that's okay then…
However, it wasn't enough to appease the angry fans. One online comment – typical of the thousands posted – read: “I'm glad she's alive, but.” [please] Arrest them for this drama and publicity stunt.'
Another commented: “The next time people don't take you seriously you've just destroyed all your credibility.”
Film director Pooja Bhatt tweeted that this was an “absolute disgrace”. TV actor Aly Goni described Pandey's behavior as “damn cheap…”
In a world dominated by social media, some influencers are going to extreme lengths to gain attention — whether through increasingly surprising surgeries to enhance parts of their anatomy or reckless, death-defying stunts — or now even by faking their own deaths.
The Poonam Pandey case raises critical questions about how willing we are to believe everything we see or hear online.
A survey by British agency Newsworks found that 54 percent of people believe they are tricked into believing fake news.
A 2022 study by Ofcom found that 30 percent of adults in the UK who go online are unsure whether online information is true or don't even think about it, with six percent – around one in twenty Internet users – believe everything they see online.
The 32-year-old reality TV star's stunt sparked a number of angry comments online. One read: “The next time people don't take you seriously, you've just destroyed all your credibility.”
Misinformation is like a virus. It spreads quickly and can have devastating consequences.
And when celebrities like Poonam Pandey – with millions of followers and a massive reach worldwide – resort to such appalling tactics, regardless of their stated intentions, they make it even harder to separate reality from the fake news and lies.
Today it could be something trivial, like the supposed death of a reality star. But tomorrow it could be something bigger and far more serious – like fake news about a nuclear attack or the death of a political leader. And that should worry us all.