During the rise of PTL, a TV ministry and theme park just south of Charlotte, Tammy Faye Bakker and then-husband Jim were often called the First Couple of TV Evangelism. He did most of he preaching. And she sang, often with tears.
Then, in 1987, amid newspaper stories about the Bakkers’ luxurious lifestyle and Jim Bakker’s sexual encounter with a young church secretary, the PTL empire fell. He went to federal prison on fraud charges.
Post-PTL, Tammy struggled with illness and saw another husband go to prison. She also found a second career – and a lot of new fans.
In 1992, she divorced Jim Bakker while he was still behind bars for PTL-related fraud. A year later, she became Tammy Faye Messner upon marrying her first husband’s friend and associate, Roe Messner – the contractor whose company built PTL’s Heritage USA.
But the bliss was short-lived. In 1996, second husband Messner, who’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer, was sentenced to nearly three years in prison on bankruptcy fraud charges.
The same year, she had her own health problems, undergoing surgery for colon cancer.
But the 4-foot-11 singer, who famously indulged her love for makeup, also found her second act.
She played her perky self on TV sitcoms, sold “Tammy Faye Celebrity Wigs” (16 colors), co-hosted a talk show, and starred in a reality show in which she shared a Hollywood mansion with a former porn star and others.
Messner also promoted causes: 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.
“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 wrote a book – “Tammy: Tell It My Way.”
“I've had a lot of realities of life hit me right in the face,” she told the 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.”
As for PTL, Messner acknowledged mistakes in judgment but denied crimes by Bakker. Instead, she pointed the finger at others – competing evangelists, other members of the PTL team and prosecutors.
She defended the Bakkers' opulent lifestyle, saying they needed a houseboat on Lake Wylie to get away from fans and that amassing wealth was no sin.
Though many made fun of her and her false eyelashes, the public’s opinion of Tammy Faye softened in a way it didn’t with Jim Bakker.
One big reason for her comeback: She developed a late-in-life cult following among gay men.
Messner welcomed their affection, eagerly returning their hugs and showing up as the guest of honor at a gay bingo fundraiser in Charlotte organized by a ministry for AIDS/HIV patients.
“We had lost everything (with the downfall of PTL) and it was gay people who came to my rescue,” she said. “I will always love them for that.”
Her post-PTL high point came in 2000. That’s when “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a documentary chronicling her life and her fondness for heavy makeup, premiered at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Then the cancer returned, and spread to her lungs and spine.
Weighing just 65 pounds, Messner appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” show in July 2007, telling fans she loved them and would see them again in heaven someday.
Her face was skeletal, her voice whispery. But she wore her trademark makeup and managed a few jokes.
Asked how she wanted to be remembered, she cracked: “My eyelashes.”
Then she gave her real answer: “My walk with the Lord.”
Two days after she appeared on King’s show, she died.
Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Columbia University, said her style was often “camp and over-the-top. But there was a guilelessness about her that was winsome. First lady of Christian television? I wouldn't dispute that.”
Jim Bakker, by then remarried and living in Branson, Mo., said in a statement that his ex-wife “lived her life like the song she sang, ‘If Life Hands You a Lemon, Make Lemonade.’
“She is now in heaven with her mother and grandmother and Jesus Christ, the one who she loves and has served from childbirth,” Bakker added. “That is the comfort I can give to all who loved her.”
Last year, Jessica Hahn, whose brief sexual encounter with Jim Bakker in 1980 played a major role in PTL’s fall, told the Observer that she talked with Tammy Faye shortly before her death.
“When I was younger, I wanted to be her,” Hahn said. “I really grew up with the Bakkers (on TV), thinking, ‘I'd love to be in that family. They're always singing and happy.’ I loved her. I loved her makeup, the stupid makeup. That's what we did in church: We wore a lot of makeup and big hair.”
Actress Kristin Chenoweth is developing a musical about Tammy Faye’s life.
And her fans and friends continue to make pilgrimages to where her ashes were laid to rest in a remote cemetery in Kansas – where husband Roe Messner is from.
There, as tributes, they leave behind lipstick, mascara and tubes of lip gloss.
The Associated Press contributed.