IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Jennifer Grey says her 'outrageous' look as Gwen Shamblin Lara is meant to send a message

For the movie, the "Dirty Dancing" star sported the same blond wig as Jamie Lee Curtis did in 1978's "Halloween."
/ Source: TODAY

Jennifer Grey is nearly unrecognizable embodying Christian diet guru Gwen Shamblin Lara in a new Lifetime movie. The actor says her "outrageous" look is meant to send a sobering message about eating disorders.

Speaking to after her broadcast appearance on Jan. 31, the “Dirty Dancing” star takes a deep dive into her transformation into the late larger-than-life church leader for “Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation,” which premieres on Feb. 4 on Lifetime.

"I love the idea of playing someone so different from me, which I rarely have been able to do," Grey says.

Jennifer Grey as Gwen Shamblin Lara.
Jennifer Grey as Gwen Shamblin Lara.Lifetime via YouTube

The 62-year-old's character is based on the real-life Lara, who created a faith-based nutrition program, the Weigh Down Workshop, in the 1980s, and founded the Remnant Fellowship Church in the late 1990s. Her controversial life is the subject of HBO Max’s docuseries "The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin." 

Lara was notorious for her slim figure, bleach blond hair and memorable outfits. For Grey, achieving this unfamiliar look was not an easy process.

"The wigs and the makeup are about two hours before getting into wardrobe," she says. "So that’s a lot, especially when you’re working 14-hour days and then driving an hour to location."

Grey alternated between two wigs while filming, each with different levels so they could morph into various sizes (or, more specifically, heights).

Grey says the first wig that she wears as Lara is the same blond hair as Jamie Lee Curtis donned in 1978's "Halloween," just "fixed up." The second wig was made from scratch, hair-by-hair, and then altered depending on the scene.

Jennifer Grey preaching as Remnant Fellowship Church leader Gwen Shamblin Lara.
Jennifer Grey preaching as Remnant Fellowship Church leader Gwen Shamblin Lara.Lifetime via YouTube

Throughout the film, similar to her real-life trajectory, Lara's look becomes increasingly eccentric as she falls deeper into her role as leader of her church.

When asked why she thinks this happened, Grey posits body dysmorphia is at the root of Lara's behavior. Dr. Katharine Phillips, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, defined body dysmorphia as a condition where people are preoccupied with their appearance and its perceived flaws in a previous interview with TODAY.

"I believe her dysmorphia was more than just her weight because she did shrink and shrink and shrink as she got older. And as she got smaller, her hair got bigger and higher and more outrageous," Grey says. "She couldn’t see that that was not a natural head of hair."

In her eyes, Grey believes Lara likely had good intentions when starting a nutrition program that encouraged members to turn to God in an effort to lose weight. She says that Lara "really wanted people to feel better about themselves" through weight loss, but took an extreme approach.

Though other programs exist that encourage a person to depend on God, faith or a higher power in an effort to divert themselves away from addiction, Grey noted that Lara’s diet plan-turned-religion was based heavily in shame.

"She didn’t admit that she was deeply anorexic, and deeply harming the people who she was supposed to be helping," Grey says.

Though her take on weight loss and developing a closer relationship to God relied on especially harsh disciplinary tactics, people listened to Lara because she was "charismatic" and "upbeat," Grey says.

"She was just like your friend, your sister, your mother, and she was just rooting for you and (encouraging) you to come home," Grey says. "As all of the lawyers, all of the plumbers, all of the real estate people, everyone would be in the church, so it was separating people from outside world so that they felt this community. But really what it was was an alternate universe that Gwen was running."

Grey tells that she hopes “Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation” will show that the reality of eating disorders is "so terrifyingly serious."

"I didn’t want it to be normalizing it," Grey says of disordered eating. "I wanted people to see the extremity of her story and how wrong-headed, how insane her theories were. So that, if somebody is suffering from some version of an eating disorder, whether it’s overeating or bulimia or anorexia or just even being too restrictive, they might be able to see themselves as an early stage of (Lara's experience) and be able to get help."

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder and need help, information or resources, visit the NEDA website or call 1-800-931-2237.