The Eyes Have It

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.

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead