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Religious leader Gwen Shamblin’s larger-than-life persona once made her a regular on the TV circuit in the late 1990s—but it was the power she held over others, encouraging them to forgo food for religious reasons and eventually gaining control over nearly every aspect of their lives that left a much larger mark on the Brentwood, Tennessee community where she lived.
Shamblin’s meteoric rise to fame as a weight loss guru and founder of a church—which rejected the notion of the Holy Trinity and relied on Shamblin’s extreme theories on weight loss—is the focus of the new HBO Max docuseries “The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult Of Gwen Shamblin.”
The first three episodes of the series are available now. The final two episodes chronicling the church’s future after Shamblin’s death in a plane crash earlier this year are expected in 2022.
With a head of blonde, teased hair and a stick-thin frame, Shamblin evinced a bubbly, often cheerful persona, showering her followers with affection. But filmmakers say her outward appearance was nothing more than a mask for much darker intentions and a need for control.
“People talk a lot about her makeup and her hair, and of course there’s a funny aspect to it, but that is a mask, that is a façade in itself,” filmmaker Nile Cappello told The Guardian. “It is a perfect representation of her doctrine and the way that she approaches the world, and the way that she has her members portray the image of perfection and happiness and joy to the outside world when they’re suffering internally.”
Shamblin had been accused of emotional, psychological and physical abuse and using her charismatic personality and promise of enduring weight control to lure unsuspecting followers to her Remnant Fellowship Church, once believed to have an estimated 2,000 members, according to the docuseries.
But just who was the alleged cult leader?
As a child, Shamblin grew up as a member of the conservative Church of Christ.
She graduated from Central High School in Memphis, Tennessee before heading to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where her own struggles with her weight triggered her focus on nutrition and weight loss, Elle reports.
In 1986, she started the highly successful Weigh Down Workshop, which promised to help people lose weight and manage their cravings through the power of prayer.
She claimed to teach participants through the workshops “how to stop bowing down to the refrigerator and how to bow back down to him,” according to the docuseries.
The idea immediately gained traction among those desperate to lose unwanted pounds and earned her appearances on “Larry King Live” and “The Tyra Banks Show.” The philosophy also served as the foundation of her 1997 book “The Weigh Down Diet: Inspirational Way To Lose Weight, Stay Slim And Find A New You.”
“We all worship something,” she told The New York Times in a 2004 profile. “My goal is to teach people how to transfer this adoration into a relationship with God.”
She encouraged followers not to eat until they felt the “growl of hunger,” but her philosophies soon became about much more than weight loss.
“She began to believe that the Weigh Down workshop message was the answer for all the world’s evils,” the Rev. Rafael Martinez, a cult interventionist said in the docuseries. “She had the truth. Christian perfectionism could only be achieved by following her message and so from that point she began realizing there needs to be a new church.”
She founded the Remnant Fellowship Church in 1999, but Shamblin soon began to control much more than her follower’s weight. She also allegedly exerted control over their finances, marriages, custody agreements, parenting strategies and outside contact with non-church members, according to The Guardian.
“Gwen Shamblin’s motivation isn’t money. It would almost be easier if it was, but I think, I think her motivation is power,” Glen Wingerd, whose own daughter was drawn into the group, said in the docuseries.
Shamblin also started to believe that her church was acting on the true word of God, eschewing belief in the Holy Trinity — the doctrine that there is one God in three forms, the Father, Son (Jesus Christ), and Holy Spirit — embraced by many Christian denominations, according to the docuseries. And she criticized other churches who she said tried to co-opt her ideas.
"One of her big premises of this church was people out in the world that are doing these classes in these false churches are gaining their weight back," former member Gina Graves said in the series. "This church is her big savior to help people keep their weight down and stay saved."
The group’s philosophies came under scrutiny in 2004 after church members Joseph and Sonya Smith were charged with murdering their 8-year-old son by beating him to death in Atlanta.
“A lot of our evidence is that they disciplined their children in ways the church recommended,” Cpl Brody Staud of the Cobb County, Ga. Police told The Times in 2004. “It’s possible that these two parents took what they learned to the extreme.”
Shamblin denied having anything to the do with the boy’s death, telling the newspaper at the time “I can’t be responsible for what goes on elsewhere.”
She added, however, that she had helped pay for the parents' legal defense.
The Smiths were sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years, according to The Guardian.
Shamblin also raised eyebrows in 2018 when she married former “Tarzan in Manhattan” actor Joe Lara. While Shamblin had always looked down on divorce and counseled others against it, she divorced her first husband David Shamblin to make way for the new romance, People reports.
“All of those years you have told people to suffer through their marriage, but then whenever the spirit hits you, you done had a whole change of heart, now it’s okay to get divorced,” former member Helen Byrd said in the series.
Shamblin and Lara also sparred with his ex-girlfriend, Natasha Pavlovich, over custody of their young daughter after Pavlovich feared they were trying to isolate and indoctrinate the young girl.
Shamblin, Lara and five other members of the church were killed on May 29 of this year when their small airplane crashed into Percy Priest Lake in Smyrna, Tennessee, according to local station WTVF. Also killed were Jennifer J. Martin, David L. Martin, Jessica Walters, Jonathan Walters, and Brandon Hannah. Hannah had been the husband of Shamblin’s daughter, Elizabeth Hannah.
Even after her death, the church continues on under the leadership of her children Elizabeth Hannah and Michael Shamblin.
To learn more, tune into the HBO Max docuseries, streaming now.
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