“You know how they say you couldn’t write this s**t? You couldn’t write this s**t!” Jennifer Grey declares of her latest role, playing controversial Remnant Fellowship Church founder and Christian diet guru Gwen Shamblin in Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation, a compelling new Lifetime docudrama.
When the project first came her way, the Dirty Dancing actress had never heard of the woman it depicted, despite HBO’s buzzy 2021–22 docuseries The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin.
“I immediately downloaded it, watched it, was appalled and stunned, and thrilled,” she shares. “I’m always fascinated by charismatic leaders and the power someone can gain from really hooking into a need in the culture.”
Who was Gwen Shamblin? pic.twitter.com/VO1fpzjM4U
— Lifetime (@lifetimetv) January 31, 2023
The film, premiering Saturday, February 4, spans roughly 20 years of Shamblin’s life, from humble beginnings to a rise fueled by her 1997 bestseller, The Weigh Down Diet: Inspirational Way to Lose Weight, Stay Slim and Find a New You, and her workshops. Soon, she built an empire in Tennessee; fellowship members saw her as a prophet.
“She was using God and the highest form of prayer to destroy people’s lives, to starve them and fill them with shame and give them this rigid culture they would have to adhere to or be shunned,” Grey says. “She was absolutely without empathy.”
Shamblin told a woman whose husband had cheated, “God forbids divorce”…but later got one of her own to wed TV Tarzan turned church handyman Joe Lara (Vincent Walsh, above, with Grey).
Shamblin had a larger-than-life public persona, much of it documented on film and used as source material, from early preachings and the chat series Life With Gwen & Joe to spots on Larry King Live and The View. And her towering hair, teased to the moon, was a definite standout.
“As she became more powerful, her look became much more extreme,” Grey concludes. “You can see the decline of her mental health and her physical health. And the hair becomes crazier and crazier.”
Shamblin’s reign came to a tragic end in May 2021, when the plane her husband was flying crashed shortly after takeoff, killing her, Lara, her son-in-law and four other church leaders. It’s indeed a story you just couldn’t have written.
Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation, Original Movie Premiere, Saturday, February 4, 8/7c, Lifetime