LOS ANGELES, Feb. 4 (UPI) — Jennifer Grey said Remnant Fellowship Church leader Gwen Shamblin abused her power to prey on vulnerable people with eating disorders. Grey, 62, plays Shamblin in the movie Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation, premiering Saturday at 8 p.m. EST on Lifetime.
“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Grey said on a recent Zoom panel. “The number of people in the world who are so desperately sure that they are unlovable and sinful because they are fat — that to me was super alarming.”
The film depicts how Shamblin began with faith-based weight loss seminars as part of her Weigh Down Workshops in the early ’90s and built her growing following into the Remnant Fellowship Church in Tennessee.
Shamblin taught her parishioners to pray to God when they are hungry to fill the emptiness inside them — the emptiness being actual hunger.
“I cannot condone what she preaches because it is so sick,” Grey said. “It is so anathema to me.”
Grey began her research by watching the two-part HBO Max documentary The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin. Then, Grey watched Shamblin’s appearances on Larry King and The Tyra Banks Show.
Grey said Shamblin’s background shows how she became a church leader herself. She noted that Shamlin grew up in “the Church of Christ in Tennessee, in a world where the church and the church leaders are all men, very conservative, almost like Handmaid’s Tale.”
The combination of faith and diet did not surprise Grey, she said, because Grey noted that recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous also invoke higher powers.
“There are lots of 12-step programs where you bring God in to help relieve you from what you’re powerless over.” Grey said.
She said she believed Shamblin began with a sincere desire to help people.
“She started with, ‘I can’t lose this weight and then I begged God, and God removed it and made it so that I could,'” Grey said. “So I believe it started from a place of wanting to share her solution with people who are fellow sufferers.”
The film shows Shamblin chastise a bridesmaid at her wedding for gaining too much weight to fit into her dress. In the movie, Shamblin forbids parishioners from getting divorced, even though Shamblin divorced her husband David and remarried Joe Lara.
Shamblin tells a woman whose 5-month-old baby dies in its sleep that she can’t grieve in public, lest others think God punished her for her sin of failing to lose her baby weight.
“It just becomes like a virus that took over and became like ‘I know what you’re all doing wrong,'” Grey said. “If you meet someone who has all the answers and tells you that they’ve got it figured out, run. I believe that is the biggest red flag.”
Grey said she empathized with the women who fell under Shamblin’s influence because eating disorders are so common. She said she understood why vulnerable women look to someone promising salvation along with weight loss.
“It is such a devastating mental illness,” Grey said. “She took that and basically made it about her empire and her own personal gain.”
The film shows that Shamblin added childhood discipline to her preachings. Shamblin allegedly encouraged parents to lock their children in their room all weekend, with no food, to pray.
The film also depicts Shamblin advising parents to whip their child’s legs with a hot glue stick.
“She isolated people from the rest of the healthy world so that they became fully dependent on her,” Grey said. “Then she completely took advantage of it.”
To transform into Shamblin, Grey wore wigs designed by Robert Pickens. Shamblin says in the film, “the higher the hair, the closer to God,” and indeed, her hair rises over the course of the film.
“Her hair was so bananas,” Grey said.
Grey also worked with a dialect coach to speak in Shamblin’s southern accent.
“I had to make myself talk with the accent all the time because I was so not used to doing a dialect,” Grey said. “The more I did the dialect in my life, I started to be unable to not do the dialect, and it just kind of took hold.”
A religious music playlist also helped Grey get into character. It was not exclusively Christian music.
“Some of it was Sikh music,” Grey said. “It was just stuff that had to do with transcendence.”
Shamblin died in a private plane crash in 2021 shortly after takeoff in Tennessee. Grey said she hopes telling Shamblin’s story can caution viewers not to believe people who tell them they are lacking.
“We think that we need to be a certain shape or need to be a certain number on the scale,” Grey said. “How can we love ourselves and not empower somebody who basically is using us for their own gain? It’s complex.”