A new day for Tammy Faye

Published Jan. 17, 1996|Updated Sept. 15, 2005

In a (rare) moment of quiet reflection, former PTL television evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker _ actually, it's Tammy Faye Messner now _ recalls her childhood.

"It's funny," she says. "When I was a little girl, I used to pray, "Dear God, please don't let my life be boring.' I found out that you have to be careful what you pray for."

"Boring" is an adjective that could never apply to Tammy Faye, who is promoting The Jim J. and Tammy Faye Show, a daytime talker that premiered in about 30 markets on NBC the day after Christmas, though not in the Tampa Bay area.

The "Jim" in Tammy Faye's TV life now is actor Jim J. Bullock, best-known for his six years as the "nervous, flamboyant, dim-witted but lovable Monroe Ficus" _ so says his official biography _ on the series Too Close for Comfort, as well as a couple of seasons as the upper-right-corner personality on The New Hollywood Squares.

It's an unusual _ okay, bizarre _ pairing. Bullock, whose biography says he was originally considered "too fat and too gay" to play Monroe on Too Close for Comfort _ he lost weight and got the part _ is clever and animated to the point of being hyperactive on the show.

Tammy Faye (calling her "Messner" seems inappropriate) is a gushing, speak-before-she-thinks earth mother with pancake makeup. On this day, that world-famous makeup has been painstakingly applied, accentuated with a peculiar black outline around her lips.

The Jim J. and Tammy Faye Show is lively, positive and lighthearted. Considering Tammy Faye's religious convictions and that Bullock spent two years at Oklahoma Baptist University, don't expect sleaze.

"We want to do a show where you don't have to chase the kids out of the room," Tammy Faye says. "I feel very sad about what has happened to talk shows. I don't think it's good for our children, for the next generation. We are exactly coming at the right time. I think America is just fed up with that kind of talk show.

"Someone said to me, "You know, you have high, lofty ideas on keeping this show clean, and keeping it a family show, but what's going to happen if you don't get the ratings?'

"And I said, "Well, then I leave. Because rather than turn it into a sleazy talk show _ I won't do that. I'm a Christian, I'll always be a Christian first, and if they want to turn it into sleaze, then I'm gone.' "

Television is certainly nothing new for Tammy Faye. She worked in live television for 25 years. "She's the Moses of talk TV," Bullock says.

"I really am the mother of Christian television," Tammy Faye says. "Jim and I started Christian television. I've been in it a long, long time."

Context tells us that the "Jim" referred to here is Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye's former husband. Both were quite young when Bakker dropped out of Bible school and married Tamara Faye LaValley; they worked as traveling evangelists before beginning a children's show on a small Virginia TV station in 1964.

That led to a job working for Pat Robertson at his new Christian Broadcasting Network. Bakker and Tammy Faye hosted the original 700 Club. Eventually the Bakkers moved from CBN to the Trinity Broadcasting Network, now run by Paul and Jan Crouch.

"Paul and Jan voted us out," Tammy Faye says. "They wanted Paul to take over. They stacked the board against us and voted us out. That's how we lost TBN. Then we started PTL, which became a mega-success."

Indeed it did. Signing on in 1976, PTL _ which stood for "Praise the Lord," then "People That Love" _ became a blockbuster in the religious TV business. By 1984, annual revenues hit $66-million.

The kingdom began to crumble in 1986, when rival evangelist Jimmy Swaggart began a campaign of public criticism against the Bakkers. At the center was the rumor of an affair between Jim Bakker and PTL assistant Jessica Hahn, a tryst that took place at the Clearwater Sheraton Sand Key Resort in 1980. Swaggart, soon proved to have visited some dark closets of his own, was interested in taking over PTL, so Bakker turned over his enterprise to still another rival evangelist, Jerry Falwell.

Falwell soon washed his hands of PTL and its Christian theme park, Heritage USA, declaring that there were troubling irregularities in the PTL books. Subsequent government investigation suggested that Bakker had taken $158-million from his viewers _ mostly in lifetime "partnerships" from followers who were guaranteed free lodging at Heritage USA, which could never hold all the lifetime members from whom Bakker accepted money.

Bakker was convicted of 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy in October 1989 and sentenced to 45 years in prison. Judges later reduced that to 18 years, then eight. He served five. Bakker now lives in relative seclusion in Hendersonville, N.C.

While Bakker was in prison, Tammy Faye divorced him and married Roe Messner, one of the chief builders of Heritage USA. Though published reports suggest Bakker still carries a candle for his ex-wife, she says they have no contact.

"We aren't at odds with each other at all. It's just that there's no reason for us to talk."

She doesn't watch much Christian TV and has no contact with the current crop of TV evangelists. After the PTL scandal, she says, "they all turned their backs on us. There is no relationship there. I don't think they want us back, because we took too big a piece of the pie."

Still, "as long as they're doing work for the Lord, I'm not going to say anything against them. We started it, and it's wonderful to see something that we started going on to be such a success. My heart is for getting the work of the Lord done."

Support from husband Messner, she says, did much to get Tammy Faye over the public disgrace.

"He gave me a big boost. Roe is such a positive, "You can make it' man. I never see Roe down. And he's so much for what I'm doing. I've never done anything on my own before.

"I thought my day was over. I really did. After PTL, I really felt like that. The only thing that made me think it may not be was that people still recognized me after seven years off the air. That was the only thing that gave me any hope that I'd work again."

The Jim J. and Tammy Faye Show most closely resembles Live With Regis & Kathie Lee. "It's funny," Tammy says, "people are starting to compare me with Kathie Lee Gifford. But I was doing TV before Kathie Lee was out of her high chair."

Both Bullock and Tammy Faye have remained busy with projects other than the show. Bullock has been starring in a play in Los Angeles, and Tammy Faye just completed an infomercial for a new album.

An accomplished singer, Tammy Faye's album contains some secular songs, such as Zippity Doo Dah, Singing in the Rain and Welcome to My World. Tammy Faye and Jim J. sing their own theme song for their show: "We're not what you'd expect, we're a crazy, goofy duet . . . ."

Despite it all, Tammy Faye, a survivor, seems to be doing fine. She has learned to live with being a human parody, ceaselessly imitated and made fun of, and now it doesn't bother her like it once did.

"There's a point where you have to feel that way, or you'd be crying all the time. You have to just learn to enjoy it. I decided that I'm going to walk out with my head held high. Let 'em say what they want, as long as they're talking about me. But it always hurts just a little bit. But I laugh and smile through it, and nobody knows.

"I feel like a bird that's been set free, to see if I can fly," Tammy Faye says. "And I've had some terrifying flights."