The Untold Truth Of Tammy Faye Bakker

When folks mention the name Tammy Faye Bakker, mascara is usually the first thing that comes to mind—lots of it. In second place would be her husband, Jim Bakker, and the fall of their Christian TV show empire. Over the decades Tammy Faye has gotten little credit for how her talents built their brand. She was the creative force behind their puppet shows and many of the other TV shows she produced alongside her husband on the Christian Broadcast Network and later, the PTL Club.

Another thing people may not realize about Tammy Faye is that she was never implicated in her husband's crimes. They are often seen as two people who must have been in cahoots with each other. In reality they were two people with similar passions that got married, but as their fame grew, they became divided. Tammy Faye was a singer and beloved personality that drew in fans with her cheery demeanor and, over time, her ability to overcome trials of all kinds: infidelity, fraud, cancer, and the list goes on. It makes one wonder who Tammy Faye could have been if she had never met Jim Bakker?

Tammy Faye found Jesus early on

Tammy Faye Bakker was born in International Falls, Minnesota, a town with an estimated population of less than 6,000 people. It sits by the Rainy River which divides the US and Canadian border. According to Tammy's first book, "I Gotta Be Me," published in 1978, she lived in a home with no bathroom and had to use an outhouse. She was the oldest of eight children, whom she helped raise. At age 10, she went to a prayer meeting at her mother's Pentecostal church. There, she made the decision to pray Jesus into her heart. Tammy said, "For hours I lay on the floor and spoke in an unknown language. I wasn't aware of anyone else. I was walking with Jesus."

Ever since that prayer meeting her desire was to become a minister. After high school, she went to North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. There she met Jim Bakker. He was the hall monitor in her dormitory. According to her 1996 memoir, "Tammy: Telling it My Way," on their first date he took her to church. He told her his dreams of starting a ministry. At the end of the date he confessed, "Tammy LaValley, I have loved you ever since the minute I saw you walk into school... " and then he asked her to marry him. Two weeks later they were officially engaged.

She pioneered the Christian TV talk show

Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker married to little fanfare in 1961. Jim's family disapproved of the marriage and did not go to the wedding. Tammy Faye's family was too poor to attend. The couple was then thrown out of school, unaware that their college had a strict rule stating that no one was allowed to marry before graduating. They quietly worked their way up the ladder at their local church ministering to the teens. Tammy sang and Jim preached. According to "Tammy: Telling it My Way," a visiting preacher from North Carolina approached them and said, "Jim and Tammy, God has spoken to me. The Lord has a divine plan for the two of you." He told them he wanted them to work for him in North Carolina.

They became popular among The Assemblies of God churches and were paid to visit and minister to other churches. In 1965 they met Pat Robertson who ran CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network). Robertson offered to turn the couple's puppet show ministry into a children's television show. Jim accepted on the condition that if it was successful, he'd be allowed to create a Late Night-type show for Christians. That show became the 700 Club and is still the network's most popular show. According to Esquire, "But it was their next endeavor that cemented the Bakkers as televangelist mainstays. In 1974, they founded "The PTL (Praise the Lord) Club" that carried the televised production of Jim and Tammy Faye's preaching and evangelizing."

Tammy Faye Bakker created a Christian amusement park

Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker created their show "The PTL Club," where they preached to their viewers what was known as "the prosperity gospel," which, according to Esquire says, "... by giving your money to evangelical organizations, God would reward them with more financial and physical wealth. At the height of PTL, the Bakkers were bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue." Jim began expanding their studios to multiple buildings that became known as Heritage Village. Meanwhile, Tammy stayed at home and took care of their children with little to no help or appearances by Jim who was too busy building an empire. A division in their marriage began taking root.

As the money started rolling in, plans to expand the Heritage production compound into an amusement park called "Heritage USA" began. According to Religion and Politics, "Heritage USA combined the Bakkers' growing televangelism empire with theme-park hedonism, offering an immersive experience in the sights, sounds, and practices of American conservative evangelicalism." It had all the trappings of a typical park, but with special attractions for Christians such as a Jerusalem marketplace, a replica of Billy Graham's childhood home, and passion plays. The park became the third most popular in the US right behind Disneyland and Disney World.

Her mascara was infamous

At the height of their ministry, Tammy Faye and Jim were often criticized for their extravagance. Per The New York Times, they had an air conditioned doghouse and matching Rolls Royces. Tammy Faye was always dressed up and dripping in jewelry. But what she was best known and mocked for was her mascara. Comedians loved to impersonate Tammy's maudlin performances and tearfulness, joking that her crying would lead to thick black streams down her face. You could buy T-shirts with slathered makeup on it saying "I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall." Tammy Faye became a joke, but over time she embraced her image and used it.

According to "Tammy: Telling it My Way," Tammy said, "Makeup artists all over the country have tried to get me to take off my eyelashes or quit wearing so much mascara. [...] I just laugh and say, 'That would be like Dolly Parton having a breast reduction.'" Per the LA Times, if a makeup artist wanted to take off her eyeliner it would be impossible. In the 90s she got her eyeliner, eyebrows, and lip liner permanently tattooed on her face. No matter how rich Tammy Faye became, she always preferred to buy her makeup at the drugstore.

Tammy Faye Bakker became addicted to pills

In 1987, Tammy was diagnosed with pneumonia and sent to a hospital in Palm Springs, CA. She had a high fever, cough, and suffered from hallucinations. While under treatment, the medical staff grew concerned that Tammy must have had a heart condition because her heart rate was low. After a series of tests, they learned her heart was fine, but that she had been on a considerable amount of Ativan. According to "Tammy: Telling it My Way," it was a "... tranquilizer that had been originally prescribed to ease my fear of flying. But it seemed to quell so many of my other anxieties that I had begun to rely on it more and more... "

When Tammy was released from the hospital, she was driven directly to the Betty Ford Clinic against her will. There she asked if she could do an outpatient program. Her family took a break from PTL and stayed in Palm Springs while Tammy recovered. According to UPI, "The experience has drawn the family closer together. We have turned this mistake into a miracle," Bakker said. "We are the happiest we've ever been.'" A few months later, the couple released a video confessing why Tammy and Jim had been absent from the show.

A sex scandal takes the Bakkers' empire down

According to Tammy Faye's book, "Tammy: Telling it My Way," in 1980 Jim was introduced to a woman named Jessica Hahn at a hotel and encouraged to have sex with her, which he did. Years later, Hahn tells the story differently. Tammy states Hahn was sent to the hotel under the pretense Hahn was there to babysit Jim's children. Hahn told the Charlotte Observer, "... you (Jim) came into a hotel room and you had sex with me. I didn't push you away, but you had sex with me." Hahn was only 21 years old, religious, and looked up to Jim Bakker. She felt he misused his powerful position.

Not long before Tammy went into recovery for pneumonia and dependency on prescription drugs, John Wesley Fletcher, the man who introduced Jim Bakker to Jessica Hahn, was fired from PTL. Not long after, a woman claiming to be Hahn began calling PTL requesting money to pay for medical bills because her health was in decline after an encounter with Jim Bakker. Supposedly, Hahn was paid hush money, but still contacted the Charlotte Observer. A reporter, Charles Shepard, followed the story, and in 1987 published it in print which became the beginning of the end for the Bakkers' empire.

Scandal leads to more scandal

"Jerry Falwell had cleverly seized upon this time, one of the lowest points in our lives, to do his dirty work." Tammy says in her book, "Tammy: Telling it My Way." Jerry Falwell was a preacher known for creating the Moral Majority, a political Christian movement during the Reagan era, and for creating Liberty University, a college based in fundamental Christian principles. When Falwell learned the Hahn story was about to break, he offered to step in and take over PTL. Against Tammy's wishes, Jim agreed and stepped down. According to Tammy, Falwell wanted to destroy PTL because he was trying to help Bush win the White House and was worried PTL would support Pat Robertspm who was considering a run for president.

Falwell spread a rumor that Jim Bakker was gay, and that both the Bakkers had extravagant paychecks and demands, ruining their reputations. Then Falwell began dismantling the company, laying people off and getting rid of property. According to the Belleville News, PTL filed for bankruptcy in 1987, and in 1988, Jim Bakker was "indicted for wire and mail fraud charges as part of an IRS investigation." In 1989, Jim was convicted and sentenced to 45 years in prison. Investigations revealed that Jim had been misappropriating funds raised for Heritage USA to pay large salaries and bonuses in addition to overselling lifetime partnerships to the park, per Religion & Politics.

The Bakkers divorce

The problems in Tammy and Jim Bakker's marriage started long before Jessica Hahn, fraud claims, and Jim's imprisonment. According to "Tammy: Telling it My Way," Tammy says that after the birth of their second child and the expansion of Heritage Village, "a deep and profound separation of souls had begun to take place. We were two people living separate lives." She goes on to say that this separation led her to have an emotional affair with a man that made Jim jealous, and quite possibly led Jim to have an affair with Hahn in the first place.

Scandal after scandal broke and their life became a media circus. Per her memoir, Tammy's religious beliefs told her that "God hates divorce," but in 1992, she gave up and filed for a divorce from Jim while he was in prison. Many people thought she was wrong to leave him while he was in prison, but she stated, "How cruel it would have been for me to have waited until he walked through those prison doors, happy and filled with dreams and plans for Jim and Tammy."

Her second husband goes to prison

According to Tammy: Telling it My Way, Tammy met her second husband, Roe Messner through Jim. The Bakkers enlisted Messner, who was a professional contractor known for building churches, to help build Heritage USA. After Tammy's divorce from Jim was finalized, she and Roe struck up a friendship. At the time Messner was also married but revealed to Tammy he and his wife were separated and also getting a divorce. According to The Ledger, "Within a year, she married Messner, who also had recently divorced and filed for bankruptcy." Roe lost millions of dollars on Heritage USA. Both Tammy and Roe were rebuilding their personal and professional lives after the fall of PTL.

According to the Charlotte Observer, "In 1996, second husband Messner, who'd been diagnosed with prostate cancer, was sentenced to nearly three years in prison on bankruptcy fraud charges." Messner was convicted for "concealing assets" in his bankruptcy. He spent 27 months in prison. After his sentence, he and Tammy Faye reunited and Messner began building churches again.

Tammy Faye Bakker became a gay icon

The gay community took to Tammy for a few reasons. One, she was camp—her makeup, her over the top emotions, and all the drama of her life. Two, the community admired famous women who overcame adversity, as most people do. But thirdly, and most importantly, Tammy Faye Bakker supported gay men diagnosed with HIV and AIDS at a time when most of the Christian world had turned their backs on them. According to Esquire, "In 1985, Messner had a now-famous interview segment on 'PTL' where she interviewed Steve Pieters, a gay minister who was an AIDS survivor."

According to Wussy Magazine, "After the segment, Steve heard that network executives pressured Tammy to do an interview with a Christian psychiatrist who would give advice on how to 'cure' homosexuality or pray away AIDS. She refused." When Tammy started to make her comeback, she was able to do it in part because of her queer following. Per the Charlotte Observer, she began going to Pride parades and queer events. She went on to create a talk show with Jim J. Bullock, an openly gay actor.

Tammy Faye Bakker made a career in secular entertainment

Per the Tampa Bay Times, Tammy said, "I thought my day was over. I really did. After PTL, I really felt like that." But in 1996 she starred in her talk show, The Jim J. and Tammy Faye Show with Jim J. Bullock. It only lasted one season, but it was the start to her secular career. She went on to do two guest appearances as the mother of Mimi (a character who wore a lot of makeup) on The Drew Carey Show and one appearance on Roseanne as a makeup artist.

According to The Guardian, "Her post-PTL high point came in 2000. That's when 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye,' a documentary chronicling her life and her fondness for heavy makeup, premiered at New York's Museum of Modern Art." "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" was narrated by RuPaul, and shined a more sympathetic light on the Bakkers. In 2003, she published her third memoir, "I Will Survive and You Will Too!" And in 2004, she was featured on the reality show, "The Surreal Life" starring along with Vanilla Ice, Ron Jeremy, and Erik Estrada.

Diagnosed with colon cancer

In 1996, while working on the show with Jim J. Bullock, Tammy discovered she had colon cancer. According to her book, "Tammy: Telling it My Way," she started seeing symptoms earlier, but waited a year to see a doctor, and said, "By then it was too late." She underwent surgery to have it removed and was cancer free for a time. In 2004, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. In an interview with Larry King she said doctors were unable to do surgery because of the location of the cancer, that it would be too dangerous. Tammy Faye underwent chemotherapy instead.

According to ABC, she went into remission, but in 2005, the cancer returned. In 2007, she gave one final interview on Larry King Live, and died shortly thereafter. She was 65 years old. Tammy Faye's optimism and uninterrupted grace in the face of so many indignities, is what has drawn people to her. Per the Washington Post, religious leader Mel White said of her, "For the evangelical community, she was Dr. Joyce Brothers, Martha Stewart, and Carol Burnett, all rolled into one... " Tammy Faye inspired millions of fans while she was alive and continues to do so through her legacy.