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 The Husband) called me to the television set to catch The Jim & Tammy Show with the demented hosts, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. We laughed and cried until our mascara was running down our cheeks and on to our white summer clothing. In that moment, I would not have believed 25 years later, I would actually shed a real tear 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, 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 Bakker began as traveling evangelists, parlayed a puppet show into television stardom, created three TV 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 busy defrauding his viewers of millions of dollars.
I must confess to watching them, not because I was saved, but because I was mesmerized. They were like Howdy Doody and Betty Boop come alive. Tammy Faye cried on nearly every show and sang with the power of Brenda Lee. When she would sing her famous version of We’re Blest, I would sing along with her.
When Tammy Faye sadly took her final bow in summer 2007, the outspoken, diminutive, fake eyelash wearing, emotive evangelist had gone from ridiculous Christian TV host to vilified woman to the highest honor a human can hold: Gay Icon.
Tammy Faye really is a Gay Icon, indeed, because of her fabulousness and her honesty. She is celebrated 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 $160 million. Tammy Faye 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 married Roe Messner (after he had divorced his own wife), a wealthy contractor and former business associate of 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. How Nicky Arnstein is that?
Tammy Faye is a Gay Icon because she refused to change her unique style of runny mascara and garish jewelry to suit her Christian TV 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 homosexuals on the PTL Network broadcasts. Instead, she had urged understanding and sympathy for those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
When the Bakkers were living the good Christian life, they enjoyed two lavish homes and matching Rolls Royces, plus an air-conditioned dog house.
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 embraced her gays. She began attending Gay Pride events, and in 1996, she became the co-host of a nutty syndicated television talk show with openly gay actor, Jm J. Bullock.
“I refuse to label people. We’re all just people made out of the same old dirt, and God didn’t make any junk.”
That same year, Tammy Faye was diagnosed with that damn cancer. She was told in 2004 that it 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 & remembering how crazy I was.”
The Eyes Of Tammy Faye (2000) is a terrific documentary film directed by my friends Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato of World Of Wonder Productions. 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 she 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 expertly use video snippets like the one when Rev. 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”. Yet, I have to say, Tammy Faye had real show biz chemistry 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 fine documentary film-making, and it really shows her heart and her generosity of spirit. It makes it really difficult not to totally fall in love with Tammy Faye. You can currently 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?
Days before Tammy Faye’s 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.”