A taped interview with Mrs. Messner had appeared on CNN “Larry King Live” a day before her death. The ravages of her cancer were clearly visible and she was said to weigh only about 65 pounds. In the interview, she told King, “I talk to God every day. And I say, ‘God, my life is in your hands and I trust you with me.’ ”
Mrs. Messner, whose face was once one of the most familiar in the public arena, divorced Jim Bakker in 1992 while he was serving a prison sentence for fraud and conspiracy. Her fame continued in a reduced way, and in 1993, she married Roe Messner, a business associate of her first husband who was later imprisoned for bankruptcy fraud.
Mrs. Messner was never implicated in any crimes. Charles E. Shepard, a former investigative reporter who wrote a book on the Bakker ministry’s rise and collapse, said: “Every impression I got is that she was not involved in the business. She was very involved in the spending money that [Jim] Bakker fraudulently received.”
The Bakkers’ story, which attracted enormous media coverage, was one of the most compelling chapters in the American subculture that combined the power of television with the influence of evangelical religion.
After starting as itinerant Bible Belt preachers, the Bakkers made a shift to television in 1965 on Pat Robertson’s new Christian Broadcasting Network. Within a decade, Jim Bakker created a Charlotte-based business that included the PTL Television Network as well as a Christian resort and theme park called Heritage USA.
PTL once stood for Praise the Lord or People That Love. To its many critics, it stood for “pass the loot.”
At their peak in the mid-1980s, the Bakkers claimed to reach more than 13 million viewers and have more than $100 million in annual revenues. Heritage USA, across the state line in Fort Mill, S.C., drew a reported 6 million people annually to its water park, faux Main Street shopping mall and Victorian storefronts.
Humorist P. J. O’Rourke once wrote that being at Heritage USA “was like being in the First Church of Christ Hanging Out at the Mall.”
His observation captured the opulence of the Bakker enterprise. The Bakkers spread the Pentecostal message of intense worship through broadcasts that were nothing less than visual and musical extravaganzas with cross-marketing of Heritage USA.
The Bakkers’ on-camera chemistry depended on his cherubic face and apparent mild manner and her more unpredictable behavior. She was sunny or dramatic at any given moment, ready to launch into a gospel song or make a tear-filled plea for money that caused bountiful mascara to stream down her face.
Her grooming and fashion habits drew attention. She favored grandiose wigs, leopard-spotted pantsuits and spike heels (she stood 4-foot-10 without them). Her long false eyelashes poked forward in an exaggerated homage to Lucille Ball, her early idol.
She attained a strong following on her PTL programs, including “The Jim and Tammy Show” and “Tammy Faye’s House Party.” She discussed her fudge-making secrets and fondness for shopping (“My shoppin’ demons are hoppin’!”) and displayed a flair for singing country and gospel music. Several of her albums sold well.
Her vulnerability became part of her appeal to viewers. She made on-camera references to her postpartum depression, her addiction to painkilling medication, her breast enhancement surgery and her increasingly troubled marriage. “A lot of people say, ‘Don’t air your dirty laundry in public,’ but my laundry’s been cleaned by the Lord,” she said.
Mel White, a former ghostwriter for preacher Jerry Falwell and now a prominent gay-rights activist and religious leader, once offered an explanation of her appeal to the New York Times. “For the evangelical community, she was Dr. Joyce Brothers, Martha Stewart and Carol Burnett, all rolled into one,” he said in 2000.
“Her fans were people who grew up in a very fundamentalist tradition, not being able to wear makeup, or dance, or go out in public,” White told the Times. “So here comes Tammy, with her dyed hair and makeup, her ebullient spirit and outspoken ways with both men and women.
“She talked about sex, and flirted with Jimmy. She took on the caricature of an obedient wife, and blasted it. You have never seen Pat Robertson’s wife, or Jerry Falwell’s wife. They stay at home, doing what those wives do.”
Mrs. Bakker also had many detractors, and her image became a national punch line. Frank Zappa’s song “Jesus Thinks You’re a Jerk” asked, “Did he really choose Tammy to do his work?” And televangelist Jimmy Swaggart also condemned the Bakkers’ lifestyle and message shortly before a sex and money scandal derailed his own career.
The Charlotte Observer won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for public service for investigating the PTL ministry finances and backstage marital dramas. The newspaper helped uncover how Jim Bakker misappropriated ministry funds.
There was widespread reporting on the Bakkers’ many homes, vintage cars, hefty bonuses, expensive vacations and tendency toward eccentric spending, including an air-conditioned doghouse.
Jim Bakker paid a former church secretary, Jessica Hahn, more than $250,000 to keep silent about their extramarital relationship. He also had vastly oversold investor “partnerships” in the Heritage USA resort.
He was sentenced to eight years in prison for fraud and conspiracy before being paroled in 1994. He was also defrocked by the Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal denomination to which the Bakkers both belonged.
Tamara Faye LaValley was born in International Falls, Minn., on March 7, 1942. Raised by her mother and stepfather, and living with seven siblings, she endured very humble circumstances. The family lacked indoor plumbing.
It was also a strict religious home. A prohibition from wearing makeup as a teenager spurred her desire to flaunt it when she became rich, she later said.
She spoke in tongues as a child and developed an interest in becoming a missionary. In 1961, she enrolled at an Assemblies of God school in Minneapolis now known as North Central University.
At college, she met Jim Bakker, a onetime Michigan disc jockey. They wed two days after their first date, dropped out of school and became wandering revival preachers.
In 1965, Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network in Portsmouth, Va., used the Bakkers to fill in for a preacher on leave. They were an immediate hit with their Christian hand puppet show, and Jim Bakker also hosted “The 700 Club” Christian talk show.
The Bakkers were popular with their audience and in 1972 left for California to start the Trinity Broadcasting Network with Paul and Jane Crouch. A dispute with their partners over control prompted the Bakkers to leave, and Trinity soon took its place as one of the most powerful Christian networks in the world.
In 1974, the Bakkers started their PTL Network in an abandoned furniture store in Charlotte. Almost immediately, Jim Bakker began planning Heritage USA. PTL became a periodic target of Federal Communications Commission investigations but continued to harvest a reported $10 million a month until the ministry collapsed in 1987 amid the corruption charges.
When it was all over, Tammy Faye Bakker was left with what she claimed was $1,000. She sold off her vast wardrobe and said she netted thousands of dollars every month from a clothing resale shop in Orlando. She later sold wigs and positive-thinking videocassettes.
Mrs. Bakker, by then Mrs. Messner, wrote a memoir, “Telling It My Way,” and tried unsuccessfully to return to television as a talk-show host. Her co-host for one effort was JM J. Bullock, an openly gay former sitcom actor. They both sang the theme song for their show, “We’re not what you’d expect, we’re a crazy, goofy duet . . .”
Mrs. Messner was presented as a gay icon in the 2000 documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” in which she said, “How sad that we as Christians, who are to be the salt of the earth, and we who are supposed to be able to love everyone, are afraid so badly of an AIDS patient that we will not go up and put our arm around them.”
The film’s directors, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, spoke of her “over-the-top camp sense that we relate to.” She appeared at gay pride festivals nationally and spoke warmly of the support she felt from homosexuals.
In recent years, Mrs. Messner appeared on the TV show “The Surreal Life” along with porn actor Ron Jeremy, rapper Vanilla Ice and other marginal celebrities. She was a frequent guest on “Larry King Live,” often discussing her recurrent struggles with cancer.
She learned to lampoon her image. Asked how long it takes her to apply her trademark makeup, she once told a reporter, “Five minutes. It goes real fast when you use a paintbrush.”
Toward the end of her life, she moved to Loch Lloyd, Mo., from her longtime home in the Charlotte suburb of Matthews. In addition to her husband, survivors include a son, Jamie Charles Bakker, and a daughter, Tammy Sue Chapman, from her first marriage.
She was asked by King in her final interview whether she had any regrets.
“I don’t think about it, Larry, because it’s a waste of good brain space.”
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