Warren Furman went from being homeless to overnight fame, starring as Ace in the hit 90’s TV series Gladiators. As the reality TV show returns to our screens, soon-to-be Rev Furman, who was once engaged to Katie Price, tells the story of how he found God and turned from bodybuilding to building the body of Christ
My dad was a roof tiler. He was an honest person and worked harder than anybody I knew. But we grew up relatively poor, in a council house; we never had enough. After my brother died, they got angry with God. When we would ask existential questions, they would say: “If there was a God, why would a baby die?”
We just discarded God from that point. I made the assumption that he was just a sentimental story; a crutch for broken people who can’t cope with life. I didn’t want any of that. I wanted to be big and strong. You only get one life, and I wanted to live it.
Looking for more
Growing up in an MTV culture, watching Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone films, I thought: I’m gonna go and lift weights and be a movie star. I wanted to be rich and famous. That was my plan. I thought I could be just like them and live happily ever after. My mum and dad didn’t understand. Dad said: if you don’t have a job by the time you’ve left school, and you don’t want to come roofing with me, I’m kicking you out.
Gladiators was one of the first reality TV shows. Everybody tuned into it. I thought: If I could get on there, that would be a stepping stone for me to get to Hollywood. I went for a try out and I failed. I was bulky, like a bodybuilder, but I didn’t have the fitness. They put me on a treadmill, and I came flying off the back after about five minutes! I changed my training, gave it a year or so, and went back.
When I was accepted as a gladiator, it was like I had died and gone to heaven! At the time, I was homeless and living in a YWCA hostel. I’d left school and, fixated on bodybuilding, I didn’t have a job. True to his word, my dad had kicked me out. London Weekend Television sent a stretch limousine to pick me up from the YWCA and flew me first class to Mauritius for the gladiator training. It was literally rags to riches.
I was a shy, skinny kid, and I’d always wanted to be accepted. Now, all of a sudden, I was big and muscular. People idolised me. I loved it to begin with, but the novelty soon wore off. After a while, having people following you when you pop to the shop to get a pint of milk gets too much. It’s really difficult to negotiate.
Show business is a bit like social media: you portray this ideal, but it’s not the real you. You have to be this perfect person, because you’re always selling something, whether it’s a TV show, the clothes you wear…then you start to sell your intimate relationships as well. Newspapers and magazines were offering me money on a daily basis for photos and stories. Suddenly everything is up for grabs. That does something to your soul in the end.
Life was a party, but I was picking up a lot of destructive habits. I suppose that’s the definition of sin: it feels good and pleasurable at the time, but I could tell it was having an impact on me. I met a lot of celebrities, and they weren’t always who they purported to be on screen. But there were certain people who didn’t engage, and I wondered why. One was [Gladiators presenter] John Fashanu. We’d all go out partying and he wouldn’t. I thought: Why would he not take advantage? We get so many special favours. It wasn’t until much later that I learned he was a Christian.
At that time, I didn’t understand the paradox of pleasure, that the more you get of something, the less it satisfies. I was so invested in myself and I was going headlong into sin, not knowing what sin was, assuming that God just wanted to spoil my fun. But I was spiritually searching, no two ways about it.
Riches beyond measure
One day, I was invited to a fellowship in a guy’s back garden. Julian Richer owns Richer Sounds, Britain’s biggest independent hi-fi chain. I knew he lived near me, but I didn’t know he was a Christian. I heard that Prince Charles paid him for business advice, and I thought: Perhaps I could get a bit of advice for free. Perhaps if I had his sort of wealth, that would bring me freedom and happiness. Julian said to me: “The best advice I can give you, Warren, is to go on an Alpha course. Then, get baptised and come back to me.” I was like: “What are you talking about? What’s an Alpha course?”
I went home and told my wife, and she said: “I think you should go.” We both went to Alpha, and that was the first time I’d heard the gospel explained to me clearly. I’d heard people say: “Jesus loves you” in the street, and I’d say: “That’s great that God loves you, but that’s for you. It’s not for me.” But nobody had ever said: “Look, God is love and you’re separated from him.” To be honest, when I first heard that, it offended me. Why on earth would I be separated from God when I’ve done nothing wrong?
The Holy Spirit blew my mind. I’d been trying to get power all my life, and now I could be filled with the supernatural power of God!
Over the weeks, it was explained to me that chasing celebrity and putting my identity in anything other than God is a spurious place to go. And when I heard about the Holy Spirit, it blew my mind. I’d been trying to get power all my life, lifting all these weights, and now I was being told that I could be filled with the supernatural power of God. It was incredible.
I wasn’t going to risk joining a cult and ruining mine and my family’s life, so I examined the evidence. I was up and down to the British Museum in London, looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Codex, and when I realised that I couldn’t dispute this stuff, that’s when I prayed the prayer. I was so excited about the Holy Spirit that I was expecting to levitate or for my body to heat up, a bit like Bruce Almighty, but nothing really happened immediately. But over the next couple of weeks, my life began to change.
My wife had grown up with the belief that she was a Christian, although she’d never been to church, but she saw such a change in me, and she realised that I’d been born again through this prayer. She said: “I need to pray that prayer too!”
When I was accepted as a gladiator, it was like I had died and gone to heaven
I was like King Rat on Gladiators. But I came out of the rat race into God’s grace. Instead of living a life of fear, trying to prove myself, I started to live a life of love and freedom and liberation; I started to see life in all its fullness. Everything changed.
When people say to me now: “Do you still do bodybuilding to keep fit?” I say: “Yes, I am still a bodybuilder. And as Christians, I believe we’re all bodybuilders. We’re called to build the body of Christ, which is the Church.”
I’m really excited about being ordained, but if you had said to me eight years ago when I did that Alpha course: “Warren, you’ll be a priest in the Church of England one day”, I would have laughed my head off! It just shows that God’s got a sense of humour. I’m so excited for what the future holds.
Warren Furman was speaking to Maria Rodrigues on Premier Christian Radio. Listen to more of his story