Church, diet plan, fatal plane crash: Chrissy Teigen's first docuseries 'thrown upside down'

AUSTIN, Texas – When the small Cessna jet carrying Gwen Shamblin Lara and other leaders of the Remnant Fellowship Church crashed in a lake near Nashville, Tennessee, last May, plans for a docuseries on the controversial church founder were upended.

The team behind HBO Max's "The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin" originally planned (and nearly finished) a four-episode series about the controversial figure. Shamblin Lara was the author of "The Weigh Down Diet" (which encourages worship as a replacement for mindless eating) and a founder of Remnant Fellowship Church. But after the crash that killed seven, including Shamblin Lara; her husband, "Tarzan in Manhattan" star Joe Lara; and five other leaders of the church located in Brentwood, Tennessee, a Nashville suburb , producers had to reevaluate.

"The Way Down" marks Chrissy Teigen's first docuseries as executive producer. In an interview with Teigen and her fellow producers – Ross M. Dinerstein, Nile Cappello and director Marina Zenovich – at the SXSW festival in mid-March, Teigen remembers asking, "Does it typically work out this way, where everything is thrown upside down?”

"It doesn't," Zenovich, who directs the series, assures her.

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Executive producers of the HBO Max docuseries "The Way Down," Ross M. Dinerstein, far left, Chrissy Teigen, Nile Cappello, and Marina Zenovich (who also directs), in Austin, Texas, on March 12.

Cappello says producers asked themselves if they felt comfortable proceeding with the docuseries and wondered how their sources would feel. "HBO Max let us take the lead from our sources," Cappello says, "and they felt like, 'We've gotten to this place, where we're willing to tell you our stories and we've ripped ourselves open, and we can't think that that was all for nothing.'"

In the first three episodes, released on HBO Max last September, viewers were introduced to the church and Shamblin Lara's diet plan, which church members say could be incredibly restrictive. “I was told, myself, that I needed to just quit eating to lose more weight,” Terasee Morris (a member from 2014-17) says in the series premiere. “It’s the faster you do it, the holier you are.”

The church also allegedly advocated physically disciplining children, says Gina Wilson, a member from 1996-2012. She was told, "The way to train (her children) is to spank them until they cry, or I'm not spanking them hard enough." Two members of the church, Joseph and Sonya Smith, were convicted of murder for the 2003 death of their 8-year-old son, Josef, who "died from blows to the head," The Associated Press reported.

The series' two concluding episodes (a fifth was added) are now streaming. . Episode 4 begins on the day of the plane crash and includes reaction to the accident from former church members.

"I hope that the crash will bring fallout in that church. I'm praying for it," says Wilson. "Now's the time. They don't have Gwen hovering over them and in their business..."

Zenovich says that, after the crash, new sources reached out to producers via their websites and Teigen's social media. "We got all these people who, once she died, as sad as it was, they felt free. They felt that they could speak."

Gina Hartley, a member from 2007-2012 and 2016-2020, says in the finale that church leader Tedd Anger told her she "would never get to Heaven because I was too fat."

Laura Alvarez, a member from 1996-2006, says she was told to ingest just "10 bites" of food per day and encouraged to fast.

Teigen, who launched her career as a model, says the church's food policing really resonated with her.

"It was part of the industry," she says. "It was easy to be brainwashed, and it was easy to be told that this was the right thing to do. You feel for all these people because they want to devote their lives to God. But (the church) is also giving them this message that ... they get to go to Heaven because they look thin and beautiful. I'm no stranger to the predatory ways of the diet industry."

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Teigen is a self-described documentary fanclaiming she watches six to 10 a day. "I'm not kidding, though," she insists. "I really, really am a fan of mainly true-crime docs, but it really has completely taken over my life. ... This is why it's so exciting for me to be on the other side of it now and getting to work with this team because I come from a place of genuine fandom for documentaries."

Dinerstein appreciates Teigen's popularity on social media (she has more than 37.6 million followers on Instagram).

"All of us work on a lot of projects," he says. "We've never had anything pop like this instantly. When the trailer dropped on YouTube, it came and went. And then Chrissy puts it on her Instagram, and it was insane. And continues to be insane. It takes a village to make these things, and we all have our strengths and weaknesses, but it was such a value add for us to be able to get it directly in front of the target audience because if no one sees the show, then what's the point?"

Adds Teigen: "People trust me when it comes to television because they are literally watching me watch. Every day, I'm just Instagramming it. They're like... 'If she says it's good, it's good.'"

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Joe Lara and Gwen Shamblin Lara were killed, along with other leaders of Remnant Fellowship Church, in a plane crash on May 29, 2021.

In an emailed statement, the Remnant Fellowship Church described claims in the docuseries as "false, defamatory accusations from members who have left the church," and says, "The comments made about Gwen Lara are completely false. She was one of the world’s most kind people we have ever known, and she spent her whole life simply trying to help others find their freedom thru the help of God. Our children are strong, happy, healthy, and fully taken care of with the most beautiful loving care."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chrissy Teigen: Remnant church doc upended after fatal plane crash