Tammy Faye: Show Woman to the End

by Tommi Avicolli-Mecca, 2007-07-23

No one symbolized the opulence of the televangelist life like Tammy Faye Baker Messner. The once queen of the half-million-member television ministry called PTL (Praise the Lord) died July 21 at age 65. She went after a long struggle with colon cancer that left her weighing only 65 pounds.

In her final years, Tammy Faye became a camp icon among drag performers and their audiences as well as a pro-gay televangelist who defended a community that most fundamentalists publicly denounce, though what they do in private is often another thing altogether.

Tammy Faye once told Metroweekly, a gay publication in D.C. (June 2002): “I’m trying to educate parents and the Christian world and tell them, (gays) are wonderful people, allow them to be in your church, love them. Don’t be so judgmental. Christians are so judgmental and as a result of that they become very cruel.”

Tammy Faye started her life in March, 1942 as Tammy Faye LaValley in International Falls, Minnesota. Her family was very poor. She met Jim Baker at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. As husband and wife, they teamed up to make a lucrative living from the world’s oldest scam: Saving souls. Though heavy eye makeup was the devil’s work, it became her trademark after she decided that it was okay if it made her look more attractive.

Opulence was fine, too, as long as it made her feel good. The couple and their family lived like royalty. They owned three mansions in three separate states. Their over-the-top lifestyle reportedly included gold-plated fixtures in the bathrooms and air-conditioned doghouses. They had numerous expensive cars, including a classic Rolls-Royce.

The PTL religious empire came crashing down in scandal when Jim Baker was forced to admit an affair with a church secretary and to paying her off for her silence. He ended up spending a few years in jail for defrauding millions from PTL. Tammy Faye managed to escape charges.

Tammy Faye’s choice in husbands never improved. After divorcing Jim, she married Roe Messner who was sent up the river for two years for bankruptcy fraud. Messner was an architect of her and Baker’s Heritage USA Christian Theme Park in South Carolina.

Some people in the queer community were mistrustful of Tammy Faye when she embraced the cause. They thought she was being opportunistic, a fallen televangelist diva who desperately needed a new audience and found it among the camp-loving crowds in gay bars and at pride celebrations. Randy Shulman, publisher of Metroweekly, told NPR in 2002: “It comes back to this forgiveness thing--she’s saying to me, ‘I forgive you for being gay, and once you go off and die, it’s going to be between you and your maker.’”

Whether she was one of those rare breed of fundamentalists who overcomes their homophobia or someone who craved attention no matter where it came from, Tammy Faye was always the consummate show woman.

And for that many of us are thankful.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a radical, southern Italian, working-class, atheist queer performer and writer with a webpage: www.avicollimecca.com