Tammy Faye Baker (Tamara Faye LaValley)

Tammy Faye Baker

Tammy Faye Baker

She and Mr. Bakker, an Assemblies of God minister, worked as traveling evangelists in the early years of their marriage. He preached; she sang and played the accordion. They began their television career in the mid-1960s, joining Pat Robertson’s fledgling Christian Broadcasting Network as the original hosts of “The 700 Club.”

In 1974, the Bakkers founded the Praise the Lord network, based in North Carolina, and achieved wide popularity as hosts of the syndicated “Jim and Tammy Show.” At its peak, in the ’80s, the PTL show reached as many as 13 million households, always to a drumbeat of appeals for donations.

The Bakkers’ enterprises, including Heritage USA, a 2,300-acre religious theme park and resort in Fort Mill, S.C., grew in value to more than $125 million.

Ms. Messner, who stood 4 feet 11 inches, was known for appearing on camera in overstated outfits and heavy makeup. She was openly emotional, whether praying for the health of an ailing viewer or for generous financial contributions. When she broke down on camera — and she did so often — her tears and mascara both ran copiously, leaving long black streaks on her face.

At one photo sitting, when a makeup artist asked her to remove her false eyelashes, she refused. “Without my eyelashes, I wouldn’t be Tammy Faye,” she said.

The Bakker business suffered a crippling blow in 1987, when it was revealed that Mr. Bakker had in 1980 had a sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn, a young church secretary from Massapequa, N.Y., and had paid her $265,000 to keep quiet. He was stripped of his ministry.

In 1989, Mr. Bakker was convicted of federal charges that he had bilked followers out of $158 million by offering lifetime vacations at Heritage USA while knowing he could not provide them and that he had diverted about $3.7 million to support an opulent lifestyle.

The scandals forced the Bakkers to shut down their PTL program and eventually lose Heritage Village through bankruptcy.

Mr. Bakker’s wife vowed to stand by her man. When he was found guilty of fraud and conspiracy, she appeared at a news conference and, in tears, sang, “On Christ the solid rock I stand/All other ground is sinking sand.”

Three years later, she divorced Mr. Bakker, who by then was serving a 45-year prison sentence. In 1993, she married Mr. Messner, a wealthy contractor and former business associate of Mr. Bakker. Mr. Bakker, whose sentence had been reduced, was paroled in 1994. In 1996, Mr. Messner was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for bankruptcy fraud.

In the Bakkers’ heyday, they were criticized for their lavish homes and extravagant spending on items like matching Rolls-Royces and an air-conditioned dog house. Her troubles with drug dependency and depression made her a target of tabloid headlines.

Gay men came to embrace Ms. Messner as a camp figure, making her the subject of gender-bending look-alike contests. She embraced them as well. She began attending gay pride events, and in 1996, she became the co-host of a syndicated television talk show with Jim J. Bullock, an openly gay actor.

“I refuse to label people,” Ms. Messner said in a 2000 documentary, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” when asked about her attitudes toward gay rights. “We’re all just people made out of the same old dirt, and God didn’t make any junk.”

She did some acting in the 1990s, poking fun at her own image. On the sitcom “Roseanne,” she played a makeup expert at a spa. On “The Drew Carey Show,” she was the mother of Mimi Bobeck, a character known for her extreme eye shadow.

In 2004, Ms. Messner appeared in an offbeat reality series on cable television, “The Surreal Life.” The role involved moving in with a group of other faded celebrities, including the actor Erik Estrada, the rapper Vanilla Ice and the pornographic-film star Ron Jeremy.

Just recently, her story became the stuff of musical theater. “Big Tent: The Tammy Faye Bakker Musical,” an Off Broadway production, had its first public viewing in a staged concert on May 23 at New World Stages in Manhattan.

Tamara Faye LaValley was born on March 7, 1942, in International Falls, Minn. When she was 3, her mother and her father, a truck driver, divorced. Her mother then married a widowed textile mill worker and created a new household in which Tammy was the oldest of eight children.

She had a strict religious upbringing and, when she was 10, she had an epiphany of sorts, which she described in her 1996 autobiography, “Tammy: Telling It My Way.” At the Pentecostal church that her mother attended, she reported, she began speaking in tongues, prompting her to promise to devote her life to religion.

She met Jim Bakker at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, where he was the night monitor at her dorm. He proposed to her on their first date, and they were married in 1961.

In addition to Mr. Messner she is survived by a daughter, Tammy Sue Chapman; a son, Jay Bakker; and two grandsons.

Ms. Messner’s health began to fail in 1996, when she learned she had colon cancer. She was told in 2004 that it had spread to her lungs. She talked candidly about her illness on television and in her 2003 memoir, “I Will Survive … And You Will, Too!”

“I want my funeral to be a real happy time,” Ms. Messner told Larry King on CNN in March 2006. “I want everybody laughing and remembering how crazy I was.”

More Images

  • Tammy's headstone -


  • March, 07, 1942
  • International Falls, Minnesota


  • July, 20, 2007
  • Kansas City, Missouri

Cause of Death

  • Lung cancer


  • Waldron Cemetery
  • Waldron, Kansas

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