News

Tammy Faye Messner succumbs to cancer

Tim Funk and Ken Garfield
Tammy Faye Bakker Messner appears at the Monroe Rotary Club in Monroe, North Carolina, in October 2002. One-time wife of former television evangelist Jim Bakker, Messner died after a long battle with cancer on Friday, July 20, 2007. She was 65. (Melanie Bass/Charlotte Observer/MCT)
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Tammy Faye Messner, whose can-do Christian cheer helped her survive the PTL scandal and forge a second career as a pop-culture queen, died Friday after battling cancer for more than a decade.

She was 65. News of her death was posted on her Web site Saturday night.

For Tammy Faye, like Elvis, no last name was necessary.

She came to fame in the late 1970s as half of the televangelism team - Jim and Tammy Bakker - that founded the PTL empire in Fort Mill, S.C., which grew to include a hotel, campground and Christian theme park. On the "Jim and Tammy" TV show, she sang about Jesus and shed countless mascara-tinged tears, bringing ever greater support and donations from the faithful - and mounting ridicule from skeptics.

By the late 1980s, the first couple of Christian TV were in disgrace amid a flurry of damaging headlines: that Jim Bakker had a sexual encounter with church secretary Jessica Hahn, that he and associates had paid hush money to keep her quiet and that PTL had defrauded thousands of followers by overselling "lifetime partnerships" at its Heritage Grand hotel.

The PTL (for Praise the Lord) story eventually faded. But the public's fascination with Tammy Faye - and her own determination to re-invent herself - never dimmed.

In her post-PTL life, Messner grabbed the occasional spotlight by playing herself on TV sitcoms and reality shows, selling "Tammy Faye Celebrity Wigs" (16 different colors), and publishing a 1996 autobiography that mostly blamed the downfall of PTL on others.

The 4-foot-11 singer, whose first fans were conservative Christians, also developed a late-in-life cult following among gays, many of whom admired her spunk and her unapologetic - and over-the-top - style.

This year Messner moved from her home in Matthews, N.C., to Kansas City, Mo., where the children and grandchildren of her church contractor husband Roe Messner live, and where he built her a house.

In May, she had this message for her fans posted on www.tammyfaye.com: "The doctors have stopped trying to treat the cancer and so now it's up to God and my faith. And that's enough!"

Messner, weighing just 65 pounds, appeared on CNN's Larry King show last week to say that she's relying on her faith in God to get her through the final stages of her life.

She is survived by her husband and her two children with Bakker. Both followed their parents into the evangelism business: Tammy Sue Chapman is a Christian singer, and son Jamie Charles - known as Jay - branded his body with Jesus tattoos, created the Revolution Church and starred in a documentary series on the Sundance Channel called "One Punk Under God."

Through the years, Messner called on her sunny Christianity to get through one crisis after another: Bakker's imprisonment and the breakup of their 30-year marriage in 1992; her own addiction to tranquilizers; the 1996 conviction and jailing of her husband, Roe, for federal bankruptcy fraud; his battle with prostate cancer; and her own health problems, which began with colon cancer surgery in 1996.

Messner even learned how to laugh along with those who mocked or imitated her. Stand-up comics made fun of her mascara while drag queens did their best versions of her at gay nightclubs.

"I've had a lot of realities of life hit me right in the face," Messner told the Charlotte Observer in 1996. "But I've always believed the words, `You can make it.' It's not just something I sang at PTL. I never give up."

The former Tamara Faye LaValley was born on March 7, 1942, the oldest of eight children in International Falls, Minn., along the Canadian border. The family was so poor, they didn't have an indoor bathroom.

But little Tammy had talent: Urged on by her music-loving mother, she was singing before church audiences by age 3.

In 1960, she met Jim Bakker. Both were students at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. He was a smooth-talking young evangelist whose first date with Tammy offered a whisper of the faith and romance to come. They went to church, then he kissed the petite 17-year-old.

"I had never given a boy a kiss on a first date," she once said. "But that wasn't going to stop me now. I reached over and kissed him, and `Wow!' I, too, was in love."

They married on April 1, 1961, then set out together to preach - and, in her case, sing - about the joy of Jesus.

A pastor's invitation brought them to North Carolina.

Traveling from church to church led them to a big idea.

Premiering their PTL Club show from an old furniture store in Charlotte in 1974, they got their first chance to blend Christianity and talk show-style entertainment - something that hadn't been done before in quite that fashion.

"I really am the mother of Christian television," she told a Texas newspaper years later.

Using their TV show as the magnet, they opened Heritage USA in Fort Mill in 1978, dreaming of a Christian complex that could entertain and inspire. It would also bring them a luxurious lifestyle and the attention of presidents. Before long, they'd transformed the 2,300-acre site south of Charlotte into a Christian version of Walt Disney World.

At its height in 1986, about 6 million people visited Heritage USA for its hotel, shopping mall, rides, Christmas lights and more.

For all the attractions, the centerpiece remained the Jim and Tammy TV show, broadcast over satellite to millions each day.

It all came crashing down.

Bakker resigned as PTL president in 1987, amid a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles in the Observer detailing scandals. In 1989, he was convicted of bilking followers of $158 million.

Messner steered clear of legal troubles herself. But she remained unrepentant, acknowledging mistakes in judgment but denying any crimes by Bakker. Instead, she pointed the finger at others - competing evangelists, disloyal members of the PTL team, and government prosecutors.

She defended the Bakkers' opulent lifestyle, saying the couple needed a houseboat on Lake Wylie to get away from fans and insisting that amassing wealth was no sin.

"If you have a diamond ring," she wrote in her 1996 autobiography, "that diamond ring isn't going to keep you from loving the Lord."

The day Jim Bakker was convicted in 1989, she stood outside the federal courthouse in uptown Charlotte, looked into a sea of reporters and sang the first verse of "On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand."

But while Bakker served his five years in prison, Messner divorced him in 1992. A year later, she married Bakker friend and associate Roe Messner (a contractor whose company built Heritage USA) and moved on. Eventually, that meant a spot in a pop culture landscape that had become increasingly obsessed with celebrity.

She starred in a TV talk show with a gay sidekick and a reality show where she shared a Hollywood mansion with a former porn star and others.

"I thought my day was over (when PTL fell)," she said in a 1996 interview. "The only thing that made me think it might not be was that people still recognized me."

She liked the limelight - and all the perks. "After PTL, I thought I'd never ride in another limousine again," she said.

Messner also promoted causes - in her own way: In 1995, she taped "You Can Make It," a motivational infomercial at Spirit Square in Charlotte. Sporting spiked pink heels and hot pink stirrup pants, she brought her beloved Yorkshire terrier, Tuppins, to the stage as part of the act.

A critically praised 2000 documentary, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," chronicled her eccentric life and times and premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

And her popularity with many gays inspired a one-woman show in 2002 at the Jackie Gleason Theater in the South Beach section of Miami Beach. She even was guest of honor at a gay bingo fundraiser in Charlotte, put on by a ministry to HIV/AIDS patients.

"I think they (gays) see me as a survivor," Messner said, articulating the theme that ran like a thread through her life. "We in America appreciate someone who can survive. There's no one I won't hug."

Then the cancer returned, and spread.

But even then, she enjoyed a few more moments in the spotlight. For her, cancer was another plot twist to play out on her Web site or on TV talk shows such as CNN's "Larry King Live," which first broke the news of her death.

As she shared the most personal details of her treatment, she stayed upbeat - even perky.

"I know I'm going to heaven to be with Jesus," she said at one point. "I just don't want to be on the next bus."

Then, facing head-on the possibility of hair loss, she said, "Honey, I was born with wigs ready."

She also kept shopping, often at the T.J. Maxx store on Independence Boulevard, before moving to Kansas City.

Looking back on her life a decade ago, Tammy Faye summed it all up this way:

"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."

___

TAMMY THROUGH THE YEARS

1942 Born in International Falls, Minn.

1961 Marries Jim Bakker.

1978 Bakkers open Heritage USA in Fort Mill, S.C.

1987 Jim Bakker resigns as PTL head, signaling the beginning of the end of their religious empire.

1989 Belts out "On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand" in front of the federal courthouse in Charlotte after Jim Bakker is convicted of fraud.

1992 Bakkers divorce.

1993 Roe and Tammy Faye Messner marry.

1996 Publishes her memoir, "Tammy: Telling It My Way."

1999 Messners move from Rancho Mirage, Calif., to Matthews.

2000 "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" documentary debuts to strong reviews.

2004 Goes on national TV talk show to talk about fighting cancer.

May 2007 Stops receiving cancer treatment; moves from Matthews to Kansas City, Mo.

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