The Eyes Have It

Tammy Faye Messner

Her hair is exactly the color of copper electrical wire, freshly stripped of its insulation. Her jacket is decorated with little cutouts of puppy dogs. And then, of course, there are the trademark eyes -- gazing at me, girlish and mirthful, through harlequin ovals of mascara and eye shadow.

Tammy Faye Messner has just been led to my table, and greeted me with the warmth and ease normally reserved for a dear, close friend you were chatting with only the night before. As she sits down, she glances heavenward and says, "Thank you, God."

This is not, I'm pretty sure, because I'm such a blessing as a lunch date or because she's in for such a spectacular meal. Tammy Faye's thankfulness is for the break. It isn't one of the more intimate lunches I've ever had -- we're sitting in the food court at Mesa Market Place and Swap Meet, the sprawling redneck bazaar at Signal Butte Road and Baseline in the eastern wilds of Mesa, with security guards hovering on either side of my guest, and passersby gawking. Yet Tammy Faye seems unaware of the fishbowl effect. She's been signing books and schmoozing adoring fans for hours. And even while she wolfs a hot dog and some fries, she's still going to have to turn on the charm.

No problem. If the ex-wife of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker knows how to do anything, it's win people over personally, regardless of their religious, social or political stripe. A friend of mine has warned me, when I mentioned the interview, not to buy into her naive act -- not to forget that this woman was the front for PTL, a multibazillion-dollar empire built on donations from the elderly and the spiritually desperate. And after her husband became a broken jailbird, she even dumped his pathetic ass.

Maybe he's right; maybe she really was the Imelda Marcos of television evangelism. But . . . I don't care! It's Tammy Faye! I want to talk makeup! I dive right in and ask her how she came to start wearing it so thick.

"Well, when I was a little girl, I grew up in a church that didn't believe in makeup," explains the International Falls, Minnesota, native. "Everybody always said it was wrong. Well, I thought all the pretty women had makeup on, and the ones in our church looked kind of dowdy. So once I went to Bible college, you know, I realized God doesn't care what we put on our face -- or on our body, really. He's concerned about the inside. I just wanted to feel pretty. I never did, in my whole life, and when I put it on, it just made me feel better about me. So I've been wearin' it ever since."

She's been using the same color scheme for a long time, she says. "It's a lavender. . . . I wear it only because it brightens up my eyes a little bit, 'cause I wear the taupe up here. It's always the same; I never change anything. . . . I've done this for years." She insists, though, that she's toned down the war paint since her PTL days, and this may be true, in the same way that, say, Nagasaki was toned down from Hiroshima. "It seems like the older I get, the less I need," says Tammy Faye. "I guess I'm just getting more sure of myself. And that's a nice feeling."

Tammy Faye's belief in the Almighty's indifference to our cosmetic choices is indicative of her theology in general -- her central commandment seems to be "Thou Shalt Not Judge." In recent years, for instance, she has won much affection -- and rehabilitated her image from laughingstock to hip-kitschy cultural icon -- through her mutual affinity with the gay community. Back in the old PTL days, she says, these sympathies weren't always approved of.

"I have taken heat for that, but I don't care," she says firmly. "Because I feel that's what Jesus would do. . . . You know, I've been put down, I've been made fun of, and I think that's why I have such an affinity with the gay community, because we've all been treated kind of alike. I understand them, and they understand me."

A middle-aged man approaches the table and greets Tammy Faye. They're old acquaintances, or if they aren't, Tammy Faye acts like they are, brilliantly. While they chat, I finish the tuna salad sandwich that was recommended to me by the woman who set up the interview. She's right; it's much better tuna salad than one might expect from a swap meet food court. Tammy Faye has barely had the chance to make a dent in her hot dog, however.  

The guy leaves, and I have Tammy Faye back to myself again. There's a theological difference between her and gay people, she admits, but, "They love God, too! I've got so many gay friends who really love God. But, see, it doesn't make any difference to me if they love God or not; they're people, God loves them, and I love them. I don't care what they believe, it's okay. I don't want to judge them. I've been judged so harshly myself, and been hurt by so many people through judgment."

I start to point out to Tammy Faye that the fundamentalist Christian tradition out of which she comes . . .

"Is judgmental," she says, nodding and finishing the sentence for me. "The traditional Assemblies of God that I came out of, it was like God was up in heaven with a big hammer, ready to strike us over the head the minute we even thought a bad thought. But we serve a God of love. We serve a God that's very different, I think, than what some of the churches preach."

My friend's caveats notwithstanding, I can't help but think that if Christians sounded like this more often, they'd be a lot less annoying. Here, I'm thinking, is a woman who might have actually hung out with Jesus, rather than with the pharisee moneychangers in the temple. But maybe I've been snowed. . . . After all, she and husband of seven years Roe Messner, who's running the show back over at her counter, seem to be taking in a pretty good haul today themselves, selling CDs and copies of her 1996 tome Tammy: Telling It My Way and other mementos. (After lunch, I buy a copy of the book for $25, and Tammy Faye signs it for me.)

Now based in North Carolina and spending a lot of time with her grandkids, Tammy Faye makes these public appearances every couple of months. She's launched a line of lotions, cleansers and shampoos called "Recovery III," aimed at men as well as women. She's planning a new album, and she'd like to get back into TV -- she enjoyed her short-lived secular talk show with co-host Jim J. Bullock. Her greatest recent personal triumph has come from the response that The Eyes of Tammy Faye, last year's documentary portrait of her, has received. "The movie was one of the greatest things that happened in my life. I was extremely happy with how it turned out."

That film may represent a further example of Tammy Faye's gift for ingratiating herself with people. I was among those who sensed that the filmmakers started out intending to make fun of their subject, and that Tammy Faye, with whom they spent about two years, eventually became their heroine.

Tammy Faye hints that this was the case. "It started out to be one thing," she says, "and ended up to be something else. They didn't realize the story behind my life. I felt it was very fair; I felt they reported the good, the bad, the ugly . . . 'cause it's part of my life. It has vindicated us, our whole family. I get hundreds and hundreds of e-mails saying, 'I'm sorry; I misjudged you.' And that's very nice."

Of her ability to win friends and influence critics -- to, as Christians say, "turneth away wrath" -- she says, "I really love people, and I care about people, and I think when they meet me, they realize that's true. I'm not just pretending. I'm the oldest of eight kids; I'll never forget where I came from -- a little girl with an outdoor bathroom, helping my mother raise seven kids. We hung the clothes on the line in 40 below zero weather. You don't ever forget that."

It's time to let her finish her hot dog, but before I do, and as delicately as I can, I broach the subject of the PTL debacle. Have the intervening years, I ask, given her any perspective on the whole affair?

"I think it was a wonderful ministry, and I think maybe we were a little ahead of our time," she says. "I know it grew much, much faster than we ever dreamed it could grow. It kind of was like a snowball going down a hill and getting bigger and bigger and bigger. We hired people that we thought could do the job. Because we wanted to hire Christians, we hired Christian people, and I think a lot of the people were not qualified to the job we entrusted them with, and therefore, the things happened that did. We did the best we can, and that's all I can say."


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