Tammy Faye Messner – formerly Tammy Faye Bakker – is legendary in American pop culture for a few things. Her makeup, with heavy mascara outlining her eyes. Her willingness to publicly cry... often sending the fabled mascara streaming down her face. And her broken marriage to televangelist Jim Bakker following scandal on their PTL Club.
But there was more to Messner than scandal and smudged makeup. On what would have been her 70th birthday, we share some facts about the great Tammy Faye.
Born Tamara Faye LaValley on March 7, 1942, she grew up in International Falls, Minnesota. Her parents were Pentecostal preachers, but her mother was alienated from the church after a difficult divorce when Tammy Faye was young. At age 10, she began attending the Assemblies of God church, where she felt a connection to God.
By the time she was in high school, her mother thought she might become a minister. Though she sang in the choir at Falls High School, she wasn’t allowed other classic high school activities like attending dances or sporting events – they weren’t approved by the church. However, she was voted Queen of her Bible Camp.
In 1960, Messner entered North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. It was there that she met Jim Bakker, a fellow student two years her senior. “I had never given a boy a kiss on a first date,” she later reflected. “But that wasn’t going to stop me now.” The following year, on April 1, 1961, Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker were married. They would go on to have two children, Tammy Sue “Sissy” Bakker Chapman and Jamie Charles “Jay” Bakker. Jay Bakker is now a high-profile minister himself, leading Revolution Church.
In Portsmouth, Virginia, in the late 1960s, the couple headed up Come On Over, later retitled The Jim and Tammy Show, a children’s variety show with content like the Claymation favorite Davey and Goliath. After the show’s end, next up for the Bakkers was The 700 Club, which they hosted from 1966 to 1973.
In 1974, The PTL Club debuted. The show was a hit with viewers who loved to watch as the Bakkers preached and chatted with guest stars, and – maybe best of all – Tammy Faye sang.
The Bakkers were notorious for their frequent donation requests on The PTL Club. Much of the money they received went toward the construction of Heritage USA, a religious theme park that at its height was third only to Walt Disney World and Disneyland in the list of top U.S. vacation destinations. After 13 years of PTL, scandal brought the empire down in 1987. While Jim went to jail for mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy, Tammy Faye managed to stay on the right side of the law. The Bakkers’ marriage ended five years later.
In 1993, a year after her divorce from Bakker, she became Tammy Faye Messner. A family friend and business associate, her new husband Roe Messner is a building contractor who made his fortune constructing megachurches and Heritage USA… and, like Tammy Faye’s first husband, he spent a bit of time in jail.
After PTL, Tammy Faye Messner reinvented her showbiz career in a wide variety of ways. First up was The Jim J. and Tammy Faye Show, a 1996 talk show with actor Jim J. Bullock. It only lasted a few months, as Messner’s colon cancer diagnosis forced her to take a break from the public eye. She wrote two biographies – Tammy: Telling it My Way in 1996 and best-seller I Will Survive…And You Will Too! in 2003. She was the subject of two documentaries: 2000’s award-winning The Eyes of Tammy Faye and 2004’s Tammy Faye: Death Defying, which dealt with her cancer diagnoses.
There was still plenty of TV in store for Messner. The Drew Carey Show featured her as a guest star in two episodes, playing Mimi’s mother. Mimi, like Messner, was known for proudly wearing excessive makeup. She participated in the reality show The Surreal Life, spending two weeks living with Ron Jeremy, Vanilla Ice, Traci Bingham, Erik Estrada, and Trishelle Cannatella in 2004. She bonded with the younger B-listers, stating that she came to think of Vanilla Ice like a son. And toward the end of her life, Tammy Faye Messner co-hosted the cooking show You Can Make It. She shared tips on folksy cooking… and unashamedly licked spoons. A lot.
As she made herself Tammy Faye Messner, Pop Culture Queen, she became an icon of the gay community, and she happily embraced these fans. This wasn’t just a reaction to a valuable fan base – she had long been accepting of the LGBT community. Even back in the early days of PTL, her congregation was unusual in its cheerful inclusion of worshippers of all races and sexual orientations.
Although she beat her 1996 colon cancer, the fight was back on in 2004, when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She battled the disease for three years. On July 20, 2007, Tammy Faye Messner succumbed to cancer.
Throughout all her life’s many ups and downs, Messner maintained a cheerful outlook and a sense of humor. Ten years before her death, she reflected, “When I was a little girl, I used to pray: ‘Dear God, please don’t let my life be boring.’ I found that you have to be careful what you pray for.”
Written by Linnea Crowther. Originally published March 2011.