Gwen Shamblin is the subject of the new HBO Max documentary, The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult. The first three episodes premiered in September and explored Gwen’s rise to fame as the founder of a Christian diet program, before she became the leader of a cult-like church. The final two episodes, out on April 28, will delve into the investigation and aftermath of the May 2021 plane crash where Gwen tragically died alongside six others, including her husband Joe Lara.
As The Way Down comes to a close, here’s everything you need to know about the controversial and fascinating life of Gwen Shamblin.
1. She started a Christian diet program.
Gwen became famous for her religious-based weight loss program, Weigh Down Workshop. She started hosting classes in Memphis, Tennessee in the 1990s. By 1995, the program was made available in over 1,000 churches in 49 U.S. states, as well as in the U.K. and Canada. The program spawned Gwen’s popular 1997 book, The Weigh Down Diet. Weigh Down Workshop reportedly consists of 12-week seminars with videos and audio tapes of Gwen and advises participants to “eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full,” according to its website. The program is still active in the wake of her death.
2. She founded a church.
Gwen, who was raised in a Church of Christ family, founded the Remnant Fellowship Church in Brentwood, Tennessee in 1999. The church is accused of being a cult in the documentary due to its alleged controlling nature of its members. In a statement issued after the first episodes came out, Remnant Fellowship said it “categorically denies the absurd, defamatory statements and accusations” made in the doc, referring to it as “yet another Hollywood attack on religion.” Remnant Fellowship is now run by Gwen’s children, Elizabeth Shamblin and Michael Shamblin.
3. Gwen promoted physical abuse.
Gwen was reportedly a proponent of parents physically hitting their children to teach them to obey in God’s name. On October 8, 2003, Joseph Smith and his wife Sanya, who were members of the Remnant Fellowship Church, struck their eight year old son Josef with a glue stick repeatedly and killed him. Gwen and other members of the church paid for the Smiths’ defense. Joseph and Sanya were convicted of child abuse and murder and they both received the maximum sentence of life plus 30 years in prison. The conviction is explored in The Way Down.
4. She was married twice.
Gwen’s first marriage was to David Shamblin. They tied the knot in 1978 and welcomed two children together, daughter Elizabeth and son Michael. David was apparently involved in the start of Weigh Down Workshop. Helen Byrd, a former member of Remnant Fellowship, reportedly said in the doc that David “definitely did not represent everything Gwen said was right and rigorous,” according to People. Gwen eventually met and fell in love with actor Joe Lara, who was known for playing Tarzan in the 1990’s TV series. Gwen got a divorce from David — which many church members viewed as hypocritical — in order to marry Joe in 2018. Joe had one child, a daughter, with his ex-girlfriend Natasha Pavlovich, who appears in The Way Down.
5. Gwen died in a plane crash.
Gwen, her husband Joe, her son-in-law Brandon Hannah (Elizabeth’s husband), and four other church members were killed in a private plane crash on May 29, 2021. The group of seven was flying on a Cessna Citation 501 jet from Tennessee’s Smyrna Airport towards Palm Beach, Florida, when they crashed into Percy Priest Lake. It’s been reported that Joe, who had little aircraft pilot experience, was allegedly flying the plane. The exact cause of the crash remains unknown.