Tammy Faye Messner, 65; former wife of televangelist Jim Bakker, pop culture icon

Times Staff Writer

Tammy Faye Messner, the mascara-laden former wife of televangelist Jim Bakker, the charismatic TV preacher with the choir-boy face with whom she appeared on their popular Christian talk-variety show until his downfall amid scandal in the late 1980s, has died. She was 65.

Messner, who underwent surgery for colon cancer in 1996 and was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2004, died Friday, her booking manager, Joe Spotts, told the Associated Press on Saturday night.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 25, 2007This obituary misidentifies the Betty Ford Center as being located in Palm Desert. The facility is in Rancho Mirage.

In a letter posted on her website in May, Messner said that doctors had stopped treating her cancer and that her weight had dropped to 65 pounds. “Now,” she wrote, “it’s up to God and my faith.”


She revealed that she had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer during a March 2004 appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” That Messner would publicly announce her diagnosis on King’s talk show underscored her status as a faded yet enduring pop culture icon.

Indeed, her radiation treatments even became part of a 2005 documentary, “Tammy Faye: Death Defying.”

“During radiation,” she said at the time, “I did not lose my hair, but I lost my eyelashes, which is the funniest thing in the world to me, because it’s my trademark.”

As Tammy Faye Bakker in the 1970s and ‘80s, she was known as “the first lady of televangelism,” a high-profile pioneer of the “electronic church.”

At 4 feet, 11 inches tall (not counting 3 1/2 -inch spike heels) and with her red hair and heavily made-up eyes, Messner was described in the media as a “human kewpie doll” and someone who seemed to “ooze kitsch.”

As prone to giggling as she was to crying mascara-stained tears on camera, Tammy Faye Bakker proved to be irresistible fodder for late-night comedians.


“She was the most laughed-at woman in the Western world,” Fenton Bailey, codirector of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a largely sympathetic documentary on Messner’s life, told the Los Angeles Times in 2000.

“I don’t know of any woman in our time who has been so ridiculed, put down, maligned,” singer Pat Boone said in the 2000 film. “Really, I equate her with Hillary Clinton, because these two women have both suffered tremendously by the things that their husbands may have done, and yet she just keeps going.”

During the heyday of the Bakkers’ television ministry, “The Jim and Tammy Show” reportedly was carried on more than 1,400 stations and their PTL ministry took in millions of dollars a month.

The centerpiece of their evangelical empire -- Heritage USA, a 2,300-acre Christian theme park, resort and ministry headquarters in Fort Mill, S.C. -- reportedly attracted some 6 million visitors in 1986. Those who stayed at what was often described as “a Christian Disneyland” could buy eight different Tammy Faye record albums, not to mention items from the Tammy Faye line of cosmetics and pantyhose.

PTL stood for “Praise the Lord” and “People That Love,” but critics insisted it stood for “Pass the Loot” and “Pay the Lady.”

The downfall of Jim Bakker began in 1987 with the revelation that he had had a one-time sexual encounter with a former church secretary from New York, Jessica Hahn, in a Florida motel room in 1980 -- and that $265,000 in ministry funds were later used to keep Hahn quiet.


In March 1987, the scandalized Jim Bakker resigned as president of the $129-million-a-year PTL ministry and turned it over to the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Three months later, Falwell placed the ministry, which was more than $60 million in debt, in bankruptcy and turned financial records over to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In 1988, Bakker and former top PTL associate Richard Dortch were indicted on federal charges of fraud and conspiracy. The 24-count indictment, returned by a federal grand jury, charged that Bakker and Dortch had fraudulently oversubscribed at least $158 million worth of $1,000 “lifetime partnerships” that guaranteed contributors three nights lodging per year at Heritage USA to help maintain Bakker and Dortch’s “lavish and extravagant lifestyles.”

The indictment further alleged that at a time when the PTL was in poor financial shape, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker received bonuses totaling some $3.5 million for their personal use.

Messner, who was treated at the Betty Ford Center in Palm Desert in 1987 for prescription drug dependency, was not named as a defendant in the indictment.

She publicly defended her husband, who pleaded not guilty to the federal charges, and she complained that the media vilified both her and her husband unfairly. “We lived no differently than any of the other evangelists,” she told People magazine in 1996.


Dortch pleaded guilty to four fraud and conspiracy counts in a plea bargain in exchange for his testimony against Bakker. In 1989, Jim Bakker was convicted on all 24 counts of wire fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy. He ultimately served about 4 1/2 years of an eight-year sentence and was released from prison in 1994.

The Bakkers had divorced two years earlier, after three decades of marriage and two children, Tammy Sue and Jay.

Tammy Faye married former PTL contractor Roe Messner, the chief builder of Heritage USA, in 1993. Three years later, he was sentenced to 27 months in prison for federal bankruptcy fraud, and Tammy Faye once again found herself standing by her man.

Jim Bakker also remarried, and he and his second wife, Lori, now live in Branson, Mo., where they have started a new television ministry.

Tamara Faye LaValley, the eldest in a family of eight children, was born in International Falls, Minn., on March 7, 1942. Her parents divorced when she was 3 and she was raised by her mother and stepfather.

When she was 10, she underwent a life-altering experience during an Assemblies of God church service after the preacher asked “everyone who wants God to touch them” to come forward. She later related that she practically ran down the aisle and threw herself down on her knees by the front pew. She then found herself flat on her back, her “hands up in the air toward the Lord,” as she spoke in tongues.


“As that language flowed from my innermost being, I actually felt the presence of God within me,” she wrote in her 1996 autobiography “Tammy: Telling It My Way.” “I have never in my whole life experienced such love. Liquid love pouring over my entire being!”

Her “encounter with God,” she wrote, let her know what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

In 1960, she entered North Central Bible College, the Assemblies of God school in Minneapolis, where she met and fell in love with fellow student Jim Bakker. Unknowingly violating the school’s rule against student marriages, Jim and Tammy Faye wed in April 1961. Forced to leave school, they were soon traveling the Deep South preaching from one Assemblies of God church meeting to another. That ended when a puppet show they had been putting on for children after their Sunday services caught the eye of an aide to Pat Robertson.

In 1965, the Bakkers joined Robertson’s fledgling Christian Broadcasting Network in Portsmouth, Va. When the Bakkers first made their commitment to do what became a very popular children’s puppet show, Messner recounted, one of their conditions was that Jim someday would be allowed to host a “Tonight Show”-type program for Christians, something that he felt would “change the face of Christian broadcasting.”

The result was Christian television’s first talk show, “The 700 Club,” hosted by Jim Bakker. The show quickly attracted a large audience and generated considerable donations.

But Robertson began taking over as host of “The 700 Club” several nights a week and, according to Messner, he and Jim Bakker had differences over Robertson’s ideas for bringing secular programming to the network to broaden its financial base. In 1972, the Bakkers left CBN.


They moved to Orange County, where Jim Bakker teamed up with Paul Crouch, his former youth pastor in Muskegon, to launch the Trinity Broadcasting Network in Santa Ana in 1973.

With Jim Bakker as president and Crouch as business administrator, Bakker began hosting the PTL (for “Praise the Lord”) show, with his wife as the featured co-host and singer. The show was soon being syndicated across the country. But, according to Messner’s account, the board of directors voted Jim Bakker out as president.

Shortly thereafter, however, Jim Bakker received a call from friends in Charlotte, N.C., saying they needed his help to start a new Christian TV ministry.

Within only a few months after launching “The PTL Club” in a storefront in Charlotte, Jim Bakker’s new show went into syndication and the viewers began pledging financial support. By 1979, donations reportedly totaled more than $27.6 million, compared with revenue of $255,000 four years earlier, and Jim Bakker had survived an FCC investigation of allegedly improper fundraising practices.

But eight years later came the fall.

Since then, Messner never strayed far from the spotlight. She wrote books, including “I Will Survive ... and You Will Too!” (2003), and she made talk show and game show appearances. She also hosted an infomercial for her “You Can Make It” motivational tapes, appeared on the TV sitcom “Roseanne” and marketed Tammy Faye Celebrity Wigs (in 16 colors).

In 1996, she co-hosted a short-lived nationally syndicated daytime talk show with comedy actor Jim J. Bullock. More recently, she appeared on “The Surreal Life,” a reality series on the WB in 2004 in which she shared a house with five other celebrities, including actor Erik Estrada.


An icon in the gay community, she had been the only member of the televangelist community to embrace AIDS patients, interviewing a gay man on her PTL show, “Tammy’s House Party,” during the early days of the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s.

She openly championed gay civil rights, and some years ago hosted Drag Bingo in Durham to raise money for Alliance of AIDS Services Carolina.

In the end, she had permanently tattooed lip-liner, eyebrows and eyeliner, along with those famous false eyelashes.

“Without my eyelashes,” she said in her namesake documentary, “I wouldn’t be Tammy Faye. I don’t know who I’d be.”

On Thursday, an emaciated Tammy Faye appeared with her husband on CNN’s “Larry King Live” to provide an update on her condition, for which she was receiving hospice care and taking morphine to ease the pain of swallowing food.

“I talk to God every single day, and I say, ‘God, my life is in your hands, and I trust you with me,’ ” she said. Asked if she had any regrets, she said: “I don’t think about it, Larry, because it’s a waste of good brain space.”


Added Messner: “I believe when I leave this Earth, because I love the Lord, I’m going straight to heaven.”

A private family service was held Saturday.