New York Post
A FAYE OF LIGHT
How a Bible thumper became a gay icon
THE first time Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato met Tammy Faye Messner, in the mid-1990s, they had invited her to their LA home for a new talk show they were shooting for British TV.
The two gay pals had spent the 1980s watching the gloriously gaudy televangelist on the Praise the Lord (PTL) Network, which she founded with her first husband, preacher Jim Bakker.
“She was a camp icon even back then,” Barbato told The Post, citing Tammy Faye’s high hair, artificially tanned skin and spidery eyelashes.
Bailey and Barbato would later make “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a wild documentary released in 2000. It inspired a new biopic of the same name, starring Jessica Chastain, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival Sunday and is in theaters Friday.
The Bakkers had a veritable Christian empire, with their own Jesus-themed amusement park, Heritage USA, before Jim got embroiled in a sex assault scandal and lost it all in 1987. Two years later, he would go to jail for defrauding his followers of $158 million. Tammy had to sell off her glitzy wardrobe for money. (In a truly soap-operatic turn, she later married Roe Messner, the property developer for Heritage USA, who then also went to jail, for bankruptcy fraud charges.)
Bailey and Barbato — who run the production company World of Wonder — sympathized with the 4-foot-11 Tammy Faye. Still, before that fateful first talk-show shoot, they weren’t sure how their idol would respond to their more liberal politics.
“The other guest [that day] was Sister Paula, a transsexual preacher from Seattle,” Barbato recalled with a laugh. “We were a bit nervous, but they really hit it off.”
NOWADAYS, Tammy Faye — who died in 2007 at 65 — is more famous as a gay icon than as a Bible thumper. Elton John is working on a musical about her. So is Kristin Chenoweth. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season 4 winner Sharon Needles has a tattoo of Tammy Faye on her arm. The new movie paints her as the ultimate queer ally.
That’s largely thanks to the original “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” That film, a cult classic documentary narrated by drag diva RuPaul, celebrated Tammy Faye’s camp qualities — her garish get-ups, her perpetually run
ning mascara, her creepy doll collection, pill-popping and Diet Coke addiction. But it also emphasized her radical empathy, particularly toward the LGBTQ community. It vaunted her from the depths of disgrace into queer sainthood.
“Tammy Faye [had] always been about not judging others,” said Barbato. “And I think that really resonated, particularly for artists, for outsiders, for drag queens, for drag connoisseurs: [She was someone] who didn’t care what other people thought, and she wore that proudly.”
TAMMY Faye LaValley was born in 1942 and grew up the oldest of eight kids in International Falls, Minn. She found God at 10, falling on
her back and speaking in tongues during a Pentecostal meeting. At 18, she met Jim at a Bible college in Minneapolis and married him pretty much immediately.
The two went on the road as itinerant preachers, and in the 1960s hosted a Christian puppet show on TV. In 1974, they launched the PTL Network, which at its peak broadcast to 13.5 million homes and generated more than $120 million in annual revenue.
Jim and Tammy preached a prosperity gospel — which equated money-making with spiritual fulfillment — but also a more fun, fabulous kind of Christianity, usually courtesy of Tammy, who danced, sang, made fudge and praised penile implants with unbridled emotion.
“There [was] a very artificial look to her, which is not what you’d expect from a church lady,” drag queen Lady Bunny, who watched Tammy Faye on PTL in the 1980s, told The Post. “She wore false eyelashes, she wore wigs, she overdrew her lips, and it appears that she even shaved her eyebrows to draw on higher [ones].
“She was camp but also welcoming,” she added. “She presented a side of Christianity that was less ‘damn us sinners’ and more ‘we’re loving and accepting.’ ”
In 1985, during the height of the AIDS crisis, Tammy Faye invited Stephen Pieters, an openly gay pastor with AIDS, to her show “Tammy Faye’s House Party.”
“I said yes pretty quickly, because it gave me an opportunity to reach an audience I would probably never otherwise reach,” Pieters — who now lives in Los Angeles — told The Post.
Pieters did the interview via satellite from Ontario, Canada, where he was going through experimental chemotherapy for his illness. He stipulated that he would only do the interview if PTL would air it live, so there was no chance of the network editing it to distort his message. “But I needn’t have worried about that,” he said. “Tammy Faye was very
eager to show that God loves all people.”
Tammy devoted 25 minutes to interviewing Pieters, asking him about his life as a gay man, his illness and misconceptions about AIDS. As he spoke about his experiences, she began to cry.
“I want to put my arm around you,” Tammy said through her tears.
“My arm’s right around you,” Pieters responded.
“It is still kind of unfathomable to think of an evangelical Christian TV [host] inviting people with AIDS onto her show,” said playwright Merri Biechler, who wrote the 2015 play “Tammy Faye’s Final Audition.”
“She just laid down all her vanity and tried to bring people together — I think, if she were alive today, she would be trying to bring people together.”
WHEN Bailey and Barbato asked Tammy Faye — after their initial TV spot — if she would be interested in doing a full-length documentary, she hesitated.
“She wasn’t that excited to do it, because [at that point], she was a national joke,” Bailey said, referring to the plentiful late-night parodies ridiculing her appearance. “I remember her saying, just before she signed the contract, ‘Now, you aren’t going to make fun of me, are you?’ ”
“We agreed to drive out to Palm Springs to sit down and talk with her, and we brought a camera with us,” Barbato added. “And eventually she agreed to sit down and let us film her.”
Gays had always loved Tammy Faye, but now the documentary saw that she truly loved them back. “We’re all people made out of the same old dirt,” she said when asked about her thoughts on gay rights. “And God didn’t make any junk!”
She became a regular fixture at Pride parades and drag clubs, even competing in a Tammy Faye look-a-like contest in DC in 2002.
“I remember we were in the dressing room, and she asked, ‘What if I don’t win?’ ” said Lady Bunny, who co-hosted the event.
“She walked, and of course everyone recognized her, and the place went nuts, as they might have done for Lady Gaga today.”
“Gay men in particular just loved her because she just kept coming back, and we love a comeback story,” said Pieters, comparing her with Judy Garland. “But [Tammy] was also boldly herself. She did all that makeup because that’s how she wanted people to see her, and I think a lot of gay men really related to that: We want to have people see us for who we really are, and accept us for who we really are.”
By the time of her death in 2007, she had her redemption, preaching at more progressive Christian gatherings and frequently appearing on “Larry King Live.” That’s where she gave her final interview — emaciated from cancer and weighing just 65 pounds.
She could barely speak above a whisper, but she wanted to pay tribute to her No. 1 fans. “You know, when we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue,” she said. “And I will always love them for that.”