March 7, 1942– Tamara Faye LaValley Bakker Messner:
“Don’t Give Up When You’re On The Brink Of A Miracle.”
Sometime in the early 1980s, my boyfriend (now husband) called me to the television set to catch The PTL SHOW with its demented hosts, Jim Bakker and his wife Tammy Faye. We laughed and cried, then laughed and cried some more until our mascara was running down our cheeks and on to our summer white clothing. In that moment, I would not have believed 25 years later, I would actually shed real tears when it was announced that Tammy Faye had taken her final bow and had gone to be with Jesus.
When she was 6-years-old, little Tammy Faye found Jesus. When she was 16-years-old she found makeup, and she stayed with both of them through her 65 years in this incarnation. She and first husband Jim began as traveling evangelists, parlaying a little Christian puppet show into television stardom. They helped create three television networks, were the first Christian broadcasters with their own satellite, and they built the theme park, Heritage USA, near Charlotte, North Carolina while Reverend Jim was kept busy defrauding his viewers of millions of dollars.
I must confess that in watching them, I was never saved, yet, I was mesmerized. The two of them were like Howdy Doody and Betty Boop come alive. Tammy Faye wept on every show and she sang with the power of Brenda Lee. When she would do her famous version of We’re Blest, I would sing along with her.
When the Bakkers were living the good Christian life, they enjoyed two lavish homes, matching Rolls Royces, plus an air-conditioned dog house.
When Tammy Faye sadly took her final bow in the summer of 2007, the outspoken, diminutive, fake eyelash wearing, emotive evangelist had gone from ridiculous Christian television host to vilified woman to the highest honor a human being can possibly hold: Gay Icon.
Tammy Faye is a Gay Icon indeed, in no small measure because of her fabulousness and her honesty. We celebrate Tammy Faye today for her perseverance. She fell from grace and lost her fortune when her first husband was found cheating on her and swindling their Christian followers out of more than $160 million. She talked plainly about her pain in interviews and she stood by her man after his conviction. Three years later, she divorced Bakker, who was serving a 45-year prison sentence.
In 1993, she found happiness again when she married Roe Messner (after he had divorced his own wife, of course), a wealthy contractor and former business associate of Jim Bakker. Bakker’s sentence was eventually reduced, and he was paroled in 1994. In 1996, Messner was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for bankruptcy fraud. It was Messner who had produced the $265,000 payment to Jessica Hahn, Jim Bakker’s hussy who brought the whole thing crumbling down, later billing PTL for work never completed on the Jerusalem Amphitheater at their Heritage USA. When he filed for his phony bankruptcy, Messner claimed $30 million in debts. How Nicky Arnstein is that?
Tammy Faye is a Gay Icon for so many reasons, but certainly because she refused to change her unique style of runny mascara and garish jewelry to suit her Christian television watching critics. Tammy Faye:
“Without my eyelashes, I wouldn’t be Tammy Faye. I don’t know who I would be.”
She had long refused to denounce LGBTQ people on the PTL Network broadcasts. Instead, she urged understanding of the gays and sympathy for those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
Tammy Faye’s travails with drugs and depression made her a target of tabloid talk. In the era when I discovered her, when she became a major camp figure making her the subject of many a drag queens’ creations, she had already embraced her gays. She began attending Gay Pride events, and in 1996, she became the co-host, along with with openly gay actor, Jm J. Bullock, of a nutty syndicated television talk show, The Jim J. And Tammy Faye Show, but Messner left after just a few months when she was diagnosed with that damn cancer.
She was told in 2004 that her cancer had spread from her colon to her lungs. She was open and funny about her illness on television. In her memoir, I Will Survive And You Will Too! (2003), she wrote:
“I want my funeral to be a real happy time. I want everybody laughing and remembering how crazy I was.”
The Eyes Of Tammy Faye (2000) is an enlightened, moving documentary film directed by my friends Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato of World Of Wonder Productions. More than a decade and a half later, it remains a cult classic. The film is smartly narrated by the most famous and fabulous Drag Queen of all time, our very own RuPaul.
The documentary reveals that poor Tammy Faye was a bundle of nerves in those days, as her husband became more and more obsessed with Heritage USA fund-raising and mooning over Jessica Hahn and their single night of love. Barbato and Bailey smartly use video snippets like the one when Jim Bakker says: “Now Tammy’s going to sing for us”, and Tammy Faye, high on pills, is seen wandering aimlessly around backstage, holding a prop and stating: “I’m looking at this boat”.
I have to say, Tammy Faye had real showbiz dazzle and a natural presence on camera. RuPaul tells about how she’d do three shows in a row, entirely ad-libbed, completely comfortable without a script.
In one amazing scene, Tammy Faye gives a tour of all the assorted contents of her makeup kit. About one item she quips: “I don’t know what this is!” In another scene, she walks through what is left of Heritage USA, which had been boarded up for a decade and laughs: “I’d love to give this place a good coat of paint…”
She lived more of her life on live television than perhaps anyone else in history. The Eyes Of Tammy Faye is an example of the kind of fine documentary filmmaking you always get from World of Wonder; it really shows Tammy Faye’s heart and generosity of spirit. It makes it difficult not to totally fall in love with her. You can find it on HULU.
I like to think how powerful and loving her voice would be now and how entertaining she would have been if she had made it to this age of Social Media. Can you just imagine Tammy Faye Tweets?
“I refuse to label people. We’re all just people made out of the same old dirt, and God didn’t make any junk.”
When the 45th President was sworn into office, the despicable felon Jim Bakker was there. He told his followers (yes, they still send him money):
“We’re seeing the warfare between good and evil. Everything that’s going on right now is good and evil. All the political war… they want to kill Trump. You know why? Because they want to have sin! They want to kill their babies! A million women marched on Washington DC after the inauguration so that they can kill their babies. I’m telling you people, it’s in your Bible…It was a possession, it’s the demons.”
“What’s happening is we’ve had leaders who have opened our country to demon powers. They have worked for the dark side, the other side. We have millions of demon-possessed people in this country now.”
Yet, in her lifetime, Tammy Faye brought a lesson of love. Days before her passing in summer 2007, appearing on Larry King Live, weighing 68 pounds and ravaged by that fucking cancer, yet still made up in true Tammy Faye fabulousness, speaking barely above a whisper, she reached out with:
“You know, when we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue, and I will always love them for that.”