If you scroll through the reviews of Ashy Bines’ fitness app, Ashy Bines Squad, you will find that more than half the reviews were written on the same day.
The further you scroll, the more you’ll see the same date repeated over and over again – the 15th of August, 2017 – with near identical five star reviews.
Ashy Bines, Australia’s self-proclaimed Leading Body Training Specialist, has a noticeably low overall rating on her app – 2.5 stars out of five. Her competitors, like Kayla Itsines for example, hold an average rating of 4.5 stars.
So, what’s going on?
Well, if you scroll further, you’ll see it.
“Was emailed and asked to leave a review of 5 stars. Given the issues I have had being illegally charged for stuff when I didn’t give consent, and that I was blocked from the online forums for asking for help with this… seems a bit rich!” one user wrote.
A “bit rich” might be a fair assessment, but there’s nothing technically wrong with asking your audience to leave a five star review.
But a little further down, multiple reviews allege customers had been “bribed” to leave a five star review in “exchange for a reward”, namely a free sweet potato cookbook.
If that's true, then not only are the reviews dishonest.
The person who solicited them is in breach of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010.
Who is Ashy Bines?
Ashy Bines is a 29-year-old Gold Coast based fitness mentor, who in 2012 launched Ashy Bines' Bikini Body Challenge.
With a certificate in Personal Training, and a background in bikini modelling, Bines sold women a diet and exercise plan with the promise they could "completely transform their body and their lives".
Suddenly, before and after photos of ordinary women began to appear in Facebook newsfeeds - the picture on the left often featuring a woman who looked sad, pale and defeated, and the woman on the right looking thinner, browner and, well, an awful lot like Ashy Bines.
Back then, if her name came up over Friday night drinks, at least one woman at the table would swear by Bines' program, declaring they'd never felt better. Another woman would roll her eyes, and dismiss the premise altogether, arguing there's no such thing as a 'bikini' body and the before and after photos are just a ploy to make sure every woman feels as though her body is a work in progress. And then there'd be the third woman, mouth slightly agape, asking, "Wait - who's Ashy Bines?"
Over the last six years, however, that conversation has very much changed.
How often do you take the time to pause what you’re doing and reflect on how far you’ve come? . You have been through and overcome so many hurdles and obstacles to get right here to this point. . Now think of all the laughter and the love that you’ve experienced, and the great memories you’ve created on that same journey. . Every single one of those moments, the good the bad, the hard and the joyful, have all woven together to create the amazing person you are now. You wouldn’t be you without all of it. Not everything will make sense as you’re going through it, but who you are now is exactly who you’re meant to be for this moment and that deserves your compassion and your celebration. You are everything you need to be to and should be proud of everything you are ????
A brief history of Ashy Bines.
First, there were the plagiarism claims where a Brisbane woman named Allie Dodds alleged Bines stole her recipes and photos from her own blog, Mealspiration. Bines later admitted the recipes in her clean eating e-book had been "copied from other sources".
There was the decision by the Dietitians Association of Australia to declare Ashy Bines' diet among the worst of 2013, and in breach of Australian Dietary Guidelines. Many experts expressed - and continue to express - their concern that Bines does not hold any nutritional qualifications.
There were the headlines about Bines allegedly owing $300,000 in tax debt.
There was the time Bines said Tess Holliday, an influential plus-size model, was not a "good role model for young girls," and certainly did not represent a "healthy body image that should be applauded".
There was the claim Bines made in 2017, that her meal plans had gone some way in helping a customer overcome cancer.
There have been, for years, reports of Ashy Bines' programs over-charging customers and making "unauthorised deductions". The allegations include customers paying for programs they are then denied access to, others who cancel memberships and continue to have money debited, and those who attend an event and discover they have now been subscribed to numerous programs.
Listen: Why are so many people angry at Ashy Bines? Post continues below.
There was the incident where Bines was caught parking in a disabled car spot in one of her own YouTube videos, and when questioned about it, she responded, "we have no members with any disabilities... I do use that car park sometimes."
And then there have been countless claims of censorship, where those who have paid for Bines' program, say they are promptly removed from any Facebook group or forum if they voice problems they might be having.
A representative of Ashy Bines responded to these claims in a statement made to News Corp in January. They insisted the company was "an open book with nothing to hide."
The representative continued, "sometimes the loudest are a very small percentage that may not be happy with the service or those who have not read the Terms and Conditions when signing up.
"Our T and Cs are clearly laid out and accessible... A number of the concerns raised seem to be centred around misinformation without all the facts.
"If there has been any wrongdoing or mistakes, we will own up to that. In saying that, we are highly confident in our customer service and support teams ability. They are passionate individuals whose end goal aligns with ours, all wanting to make a difference by helping girls to lead and live a healthier and happier life."
Mamamia contacted the Ashy Bines team for comment, but did not receive a response prior to publication.
Is the 'hate' towards Ashy Bines just a pile on?
In January of this year, the mother-of-one announced the relaunch of her clean treats on Facebook. When one follower asked if they had previously been discontinued, Bines replied, "Not sure what your comments are implying? If you don't like them that's OK no need to comment. #doitfordolly." The hashtag referred to a campaign to end bullying, in light of the suicide of 14-year-old Dolly Everett.
Predictably, people were outraged. But it did provide a springboard by which to ask some important questions.
Is the constant criticism waged at Bines, in fact, a form of bullying? Or do her detractors raise valid concerns? What should a potential consumer know before signing up for an Ashy Bines program, or purchasing products off her website?
And does even asking these questions constitute a 'pile-on'? Can one investigate claims made against Ashy Bines without being accused of tearing other women down? Or do we owe it to women, more broadly, to take their complaints seriously - so that businesses, big or small, are held accountable?
'I had to cancel my card': The stories of customers.
"My issues with Ashy started years ago after I spent $70 on her 'Clean Eating Diet Plan'," Lauren told Mamamia.
What she expected was a clear plan, with specific recipes and portion sizes. What she received, she said, were "a few pages of poorly written 'advice', riddled with errors and inclusive of such gems as 'avoid lettuce as it is high in sugar'." At the time, Lauren requested a refund which she said was refused.
Lauren's discomfort with Ashy Bines grew when she saw how she interacted with people's questions or comments - a point brought up by multiple women Mamamia spoke to.
"She responds rudely and bluntly to her followers when asked questions on Instagram and Facebook. When people provide constructive criticism, she blocks and deletes them... including people who had paid to be part of her Facebook forum. They were denied refunds."
The Instagram page 'Ashy Bines Company Truths,' which has more than 33,700 followers, provides multiple customer service screenshots sent from the Ashy Bines team.
In response to an accusation that the company was making unauthorised deductions from a former customer's account, Bines responded, "Post it here then? Show me YOUR proof of email and let's sort it out. Words aren't enough for my customer care to look in the back end and inboxes... Since you obviously want to stay on my page and chat LET'S CHAT. This 'money' I've apparently magically known your credit card details or anyone else - please show me the cancellation email you've sent... I'll personally get my customer care team to trace the emails and also show you the T&C where you need to read and click yes. So I can help you understand how a membership works."
There are dozens of other examples, of customers claiming to have been blocked or ignored when asking for support, and turning to online forums for advice.
Maryanne was one woman who felt her concerns whose concerns were not adequately addressed by the Ashy Bines team.
"A friend invited me to one of her work out events," she said. "I bought my ticket for the event and read the terms and conditions (which not many people do) since at the time I was on a tight budget and wanted to ensure there were no unexpected expenses.
"After the event I started getting charges on my card for a 'subscription' which I never signed up for - I was very careful.
"Upon enquiring I was told that this was a subscription for the app - which I never downloaded. I re-read the terms and conditions which specified that they do not make unauthorised transactions yet it did not mention anything about subscribing just by attending one of her events."
When Maryanne contacted the team, she said she never heard back. She alerted her friends, who hadn't noticed the payments being deducted. In the end, Maryanne had to cancel her card in order to stop the transactions.
Accounts like Maryanne's are shockingly common.
Dozens of reviews on the Ashy Bines Squad app make similar claims, with customers stating, "It continues charging your account even if you cancel. It doesn't give you all it says it does and even paying customers are booted from a Facebook group if you dare say anything negative."
It's not just the app, however, where women are reporting poor customer service.
Rita purchased Toned active wear, Bines' clothing brand.
"It arrived weeks late," Rita told Mamamia, "poor quality, and stained with make up. I contacted customer support and was ignored. I then commented on their Instagram, it was deleted and I was blocked - my message was not at all rude."
Eventually the team offered her a discount voucher, which Rita declined. The refund process took more than two months overall, and she said she found the support team "rude and unprofessional".
"Ashy Bines breached our contract and nearly bankrupted our business."
"It was an influencer campaign that went really wrong," the entrepreneur begins.
Around Christmas 2016, Delta & Co began collaborating with Ashy Bines, and found a significant increase in their sales. "We thought we'd create some bands that she could promote with her quotes on it," Parry says, so they signed a contract with the social media influencer, and dedicated a great deal of stock to the promotion.
After one or two posts, Bines "dumped it like a rock" in Parry's words. Delta & Co said they had no other way of selling their stock except through Bines, and they lost an enormous amount of money.
"Ashy Bines breached our contract and nearly bankrupted our business," Parry told Mamamia.
A company named Hello Hair also spent with Ashy Bines, sponsoring a post on her Instagram page.
Bines was pictured holding the product, accompanied by the caption, "was so nice to put a treatment through it and have silky soft bouncy hair naturally!"
Once the contract had expired, and a few years passed, a commenter inquired on Bines' Instagram page, "Do you use hello hair anymore?".
Bines replied emphatically, "I've NEVER used Hello Hair babe..." before following it up with a comment a few minutes later, "actually I think once maybe 3-4 years ago thought I liked it then my hair was just greasy and yellow and didn't go with me [sic] hair. Journey hair care is what I use as it's not oil based and I find it repairs me [sic] hair."
Journey hair care is sold on Ashy Bines' website.
The owner of Hello Hair, who spoke to Mamamia, felt her product was misrepresented and could not see why Bines would have to "tear down other companies who used to financially reimburse her," in order to promote a new hair treatment.
Why this is not about Ashy Bines the person.
These women's stories are not directed at Ashy Bines, the 29-year-old woman who lives on the Gold Coast with her family.
They are directed at Ashy Bines the business. And when your business is your name, and your name is your business, those two things often get confused.
Our criticism needs to be pointedly directed at a company that has, according to the allegations, made some mistakes.
The least a business can do is address the claims.
When reviews are censored or incentivised, a potential consumer is not adequately empowered to make an informed decision about their purchases.
One thing is clear from Mamamia's conversations with the women in this story: They are not trying to incite a witch hunt. It doesn't appear to be a pile on, or an attempt to tear a woman down.
It's an effort to keep a business - with a largely female consumer base - honest.
The Ashy Bines team was approached for comment regarding the claims published in this article. At the time of publication, Mamamia had not received a response.
Since this story was published the Ashy Bines team has filed a $120,000 defamation suit against Delta & Co.