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The Unusual Life and Tragic Death of Alleged Cult Leader and Diet Guru Gwen Shamblin Lara

Photo Credit: Scott Sabo / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
Photo Credit: Scott Sabo / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Gwen Shamblin Lara, the Christian diet guru and religious leader who was portrayed by Jennifer Grey in a Lifetime movie, died in a plane crash along with her husband and six others in May 2021. Nearly two years later, the National Transportation Safety Board released a final report indicating that the crash occurred when Shamblin’s husband pilot, actor Joe Lara, became disoriented while flying.

Here’s a look at the controversial figure and her rise to fame before tragedy struck.

Early life and rise to fame

Gwen Shamblin was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1955 and raised in a family belonging to the Church of Christ. She earned a bachelor’s degree in dietetics and a master’s in food and nutrition at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, before starting a weight control consulting practice in 1980.

She rose to prominence for the diet program she introduced in 1986, “Weight Down Workshop,” which encouraged followers to use their faith as part of their weight loss regimen. The program includes sentiments like “If you focus your attention on God and prayer instead of the magnetic pull of the refrigerator, it’s amazing how free you’ll be.”

Shamblin’s program was extremely successful and she drew in hundreds of thousands of followers interested in her method of losing weight. In response to this popularity, she published her book The Weigh Down Diet in 1997 which promptly became a bestseller. During this time, the guru was part of the Church of Christ but decided to leave them in 1999 due to rules that prevented females in church leadership roles.

Remnant Fellowship Church

Instead, Shamblin started the Remnant Fellowship Church where she could act as a leader and continue to spread her beliefs on everything from diet to faith. The physical church was built in Brentwood, Tennessee in 2004, but there were many other congregations spread out across the world that followed her beliefs. Shamblin preached about things like their family affairs, finances, and social media.

Aerial view of the Remnant Fellowship Church at dusk.
The original Remnant Fellowship Church in Brentwood, Tennessee, that was founded by Gwen Shamblin Lara, 2015. (Photo Credit: Shawn Ide/ Flickr/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Many soon claimed that her practices were cult-like and harmful, promoting women as submissive to their husbands, imposing isolation from outsiders, and condoning abuse as a way to ensure obedience from children in the church. In 2003, an incident occurred involving two members who beat their son to death after Shamblin encouraged them to use “harsh discipline” on him.

As allegations continued to spiral and outsiders began investigating the church, something truly shocking happened.

Tragedy strikes

On May 29, 2021, Shamblin, her husband Joe Lara, and a group of other congregation members and church leaders boarded a private jet in Smyrna, Tennessee. Lara, believed to have been flying the doomed craft, had a commercial pilot certificate. Shortly after takeoff, the Cessna crashed into nearby Percy Priest Lake. Everyone onboard was killed.

A photo of the aircraft involved in the accident sitting on the tarmac
A photo of the aircraft involved in the accident sitting on the tarmac (Photo Credit: / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)

A final report by the National Transportation Safety Board was issued in March 2023. Flight tracker data showing “several climbs and descents” indicated that Lara had become disoriented in the cloudy conditions. This type of disorientation causes the pilot to think the plane is ascending as it’s actually descending. Additionally, Lara “likely did not effectively use his instrumentation during takeoff and climb.” The investigation showed no evidence of equipment malfunction.

Church operations were taken over by Shamblin’s daughter Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah not long after the crash.

Jennifer Grey as Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation

Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation is the latest film to depict the life of the Remnant church leader. Previously, HBO produced a five-part mini-series, The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin, which was released in two parts in late 2021 and early 2022. After this success, HBO is also planning to create a scripted version of the series starring Sarah Paulson as Shamblin.

Lifetime’s production is part of the Ripped from the Headline movie series and was released in early 2023. Alongside Grey, the film features Karen Cliche, Brittany Drisdelle, Connor McMahon, and Evelyne Morissette.

More from us: The Craziest ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ Case That Was Actually Solved

Despite the Remnant Fellowship Church’s insistence that HBO’s allegations against their founder were false, public intrigue surrounding Gwen Shamblin Lara and her life hasn’t abated.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.