Lifetime’s Gwen Shamblin Starving for Salvation: Is it a True Story?

Directed by John L’Ecuyer, Lifetime’s ‘Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation’ is a gripping drama movie that revolves around the titular character, a charismatic Tennessee-based church leader. Gwen gains notoriety for her infamous Christian diet program, Weigh Down Workshop, in which she preaches the importance of slimness and weight loss through prayer. As a leader of the Remnant Fellowship Church, she condemns anyone who doesn’t follow her commands and accumulates a lot of power and wealth over the years.

However, gradually the dark side of Gwen’s influence is revealed when she is accused of abuse and propagating cult practices amid other controversies. Featuring compelling performances by talented actors like Jennifer Grey, Karen Cliche, Jorja Cadence, and Vincent Walsh, the Lifetime movie delves into crucial topics such as blind faith and religious abuse. Moreover, the authentic portrayal of a controversial religious leader with a larger-than-life persona makes one wonder if ‘Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation’ bears any semblance with actual events. If you’re curious to know the same, let’s find out!

Real-Life Story of Author Gwen Shamblin Lara

Yes, ‘Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation’ is based on a true story. As the title suggests, it chronicles the life of Gwen Shamblin Lara, an author and a leader of the Remnant Fellowship Church in Tennessee. In the 90s, she rose to fame for her Weigh Down Workshop, a Christian diet program that shunned any commonly prescribed weight loss practices. Instead, it emphasized the power of prayer and faith in God, preaching that if a person ate when hungry and stopped when full while prescribing the church values, they would yield effective results.

Gwen was born in 1955 into a devout Christian family in Memphis, Tennessee, and studied diet and nutrition at university. During that time, she developed the notion that there was a higher power at play than just metabolism and genetics regarding a person’s weight. Initially, Gwen started conducting the program at the Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis. Over the 90s, its popularity shockingly boomed, and it was offered in thousands of churches in the US and worldwide.

In 1999, Gwen founded the Remnant Fellowship Church, gaining popularity and several followers. However, allegations of abuse and unhealthy practices were soon levied against her and other church leaders. The death of an 8-year-old boy named Josef Smith due to acute abuse by his parents, Joseph and Sonya, questioned the ethics of Gwen’s preaching. Accusations indicated that the couple were members of her church and would blindly follow her commands, which included extreme methods of reprimanding and disciplining children.

Gwen Shamblin

Furthermore, rumors began floating that Gwen and her fellow church leaders would banish those who gained weight and pursue legal action against those who voiced dissent against their values. Not just that, when she controversially questioned the biblical nature of the doctrine of the Trinity in 2000, many churches dropped her program and she lost followers. Yet regardless of all the controversies surrounding her and her beliefs, the Tennessee-based dietician and church founder enjoyed hordes of success and money in her lifetime, even authoring three books.

Gwen and her second husband, actor Joe Lara, died in an unfortunate plane crash on May 29, 2021. But many still remember her larger-than-life persona and unique appearance, which Jennifer Grey has tried to capture in her portrayal of the church leader in the Lifetime movie. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the actress shared her preparations for the role, especially how she accurately got Gwen’s southern accent. ”

I would listen to her [appearance on] Larry King over and over. I’d be in the bathtub listening, and the way she would say “Gawd” was not how I would expect it. When she is trying to be very specific and perhaps performative, she wouldn’t drop her i-n-gs. She would be like, “I am living.” And then when she would be with the kids or whatever, she’d say, “I am livin’.” I wanted to notice the nuance between when she is being the rockstar and when she is just throwing down at home and giving people s—,” said Jennifer.

Besides, the ‘Dirty Dancing‘ actress divulged that she was unaware of Gwen before the movie and was rather shocked to learn about her. She watched HBO’s docuseries ‘The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin’ to understand the person she was portraying and was taken aback by the church leader’s practices and beliefs. Hence, Jennifer was slightly apprehensive about taking the role, as she advocates body positivity and self-acceptance in real life. Through her performance, she wished to question the legitimacy of Gwen’s preachings and establish that one must not follow others blindly.

Jennifer added, “…I believe Gwen’s brokenness led her to a solution, and then to share that solution with other people felt really gratifying [to her]. And because she was so charismatic, and she was so excited and passionate about her solution, people were so drawn to her that they started to empower her and turn over their lives [to her]. They start to project onto her this love, this adoration, this idolization. It’s powerful. She is basically being treated like a version of God. There’s that famous quote: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That’s how I see it.”

While the movie’s talented writers, Richard Blaney and Gregory Small, have mostly stayed true to the real-life subject and present an authentic depiction of Gwen Shamblin Lara’s life, a few portions have likely been embellished and exaggerated for cinematic flair. Although it is commendable that despite their personal reservations about Gwen’s ideologies and lifestyle, the entire team has convincingly conveyed the factual aspects of the late diet guru’s story.

Read More: Where Was Lifetime’s Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation Filmed? Who is in the Cast