From 1974 to 1987, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, televangelism's premier couple, were instrumental in the development of the world's three largest Christian television networks. On the last, PTL (Praise the Lord)-which, at the height of the Bakkers' popularity, had assets of roughly $175 million-their daily show attracted a larger audience than Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show. Then, a sex scandal was quickly followed by allegations of financial improprieties. Jim was convicted of fraud and sentenced to serve 45 years in a federal penitentiary.
Since then, the remarried Tammy Faye Messner periodically resurfaces-an enduring '80s icon, perhaps best known for her ability to morph from high-on-Jesus motor-mouth to lachrymose emotional well-spring in the blink of a heavily lashed eye.
In a telephone interview, Messner, who now lives in Charlotte, N.C., told CityBeat that she considers her whole life a ministry and expressed a desire to teach young people her philosophy on dealing with adversity: "Let it go! Suck it up, and move on!"
Messner has had her share of rough moments. Just before the PTL debacle, she kicked a prescription-drug habit. She said Bakker initiated divorce proceedings against her during the four and a half years that he actually did serve in prison. She then married Bakker's friend, Roe Messner, who also ended up incarcerated (two years) for fraud. In 1996, she battled colon cancer.
But she credited the positive turnaround in her life to the release four years ago of the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which screened at the Sundance film festival.
The movie, Messner said, changed her life because, for the first time, "people saw me as a normal person instead of just a façade of makeup" and "found out that most of the things that happened at PTL with the news media was nothing but just a hoax made up by [Moral Majority founder] Jerry Falwell."
Messner's fifth book, I Will Survive... And You Will, Too!, came out last September. Calling the book a type of "journal," Messner said it contains life lessons, "things I love" and "fun things about make-up-everybody's always curious about that." (Sample chapter name: "Facelifts and Wigs: Should You?")
Messner also recently finished a six-episode stint on The Surreal Life, a reality show that airs on The WB network. "Once they were superstars," the show's official website states. "Now, six bigger-than-life celebrities from every genre of the entertainment industry are back in the spotlight as they share a home and a series of outrageous and life-changing events for twelve days and nights...." (The New York Post called the show, "Revenge of the B-Listers.")
Besides Messner, show regulars included Erik (CHiPs) Estrada; adult film star and director Ron Jeremy; Rob Van Winkle, the erstwhile "Vanilla Ice"; ex-Baywatch lifeguard Traci Bingham; and The Real World: Las Vegas refugee Trishelle. Former child star and one-time California gubernatorial candidate Gary Coleman also starred in one episode.
Messner admitted that in the beginning, the on-set environment was so confusing "Everybody wanted to leave." Eventually, however, she bonded with her fellow cast and has maintained telephone contact with several of them, especially Estrada and Jeremy.
Episode 4, filmed last fall, featured a cast "field trip" to a Long Beach signing event for Messner's new book.
In organizing a Tammy Faye-themed art show featured on the book-signing episode, Alexandra Pierce, owner and curator of the San Diego-based collective Funerals of Distinction, enlisted the work of 10 local artists. Pierce noted that a directive from Messner's management that the images shouldn't be "mean" rendered it difficult for some collective members to participate.
Regardless, a few pointed references did sneak through. Example: a silkscreen that alluded to the Bakker's failed, 2,300-acre Christian theme park, Heritage USA.
But if Messner noticed any subtle visual puns made at her expense, she didn't let on. "That was such a wonderful art show," she commented. "I was very humbled."
The network promised that, on the same episode, audiences would "see another side of Tammy" through her gay following that attended the book signing.
"I really love the gay community," Messner said. "Our suffering has been very much alike.... Listen, if Christians don't love gay people, they're wrong." But when asked if she supported gay marriage, Messner declined to comment, maintaining that her opinions on the subject "don't make a difference in anything."
Messner wants to again minister on her own syndicated TV program. But, first, she said she needs to overcome yet another "little bump in the road"-due to a return of the cancer she fought off eight years ago, she'll soon undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
"My message is: don't ever give up," Messner affirmed. "Dare to be unique. People have wanted to take off my eyelashes and makeup for years.... This is me. If you don't like me the way I am, well, then go and find somebody else that you do like."