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The Tammy Faye Show 

"The First Lady of Televangelism" brings her odd, endearing act to the stage and owns the Castro Theater

Wednesday, Nov 14 2001
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An arrangement of white flowers sits on the table between Tammy Faye Bakker Messner and John Waters. It is no simple array or floral embellishment; it is an aromatic monolith, one that, in sheer girth and height, dwarfs both the "First Lady of Televangelism" and the "Sultan of Sleaze." It's no easy task, but a necessary one. Because even though, for many of the hundreds of people waiting outside the Castro Theater, this one-time pairing of the spiritual-advisor-cum-homosexual-icon and the Pink Flamingos director makes for a delightfully surreal combination, it's a bit like blending Marshmallow Fluff and kielbasa: You don't want to swallow them together.

On one side of the blooming brattice, John Waters indifferently autographs the bare ass of a "Gold Circle" ticket holder and coolly tosses another present onto the growing stack of gifts to the right of his high-backed chair. On the other side, Tammy Faye stands, listening with misty eyes as a young man praises her beauty and bravery and "bigheartedness"; she hugs him, saying, "Bless your heart," with uncanny sincerity before writing a lengthy message on the photo he offers, only one of many such lengthy notes. While the fans of both stars switch sides throughout the meet-and-greet, Waters and Tammy Faye are completely without eye contact, mascara or no.

"I think The Eyes of Tammy Faye really humanized her," says 30-year-old Nina, standing in line to meet Tammy Faye. "Before the documentary, I hadn't really been aware of her, beyond the scandal. Now, I want to meet her."

The scandal: After Tammy Faye and her husband, Jim Bakker, created the first Christian talk show, The 700 Club, for the fledgling Christian Broadcasting Network; founded the Trinity Broadcast Network with Paul Crouch; started the Praise the Lord empire, which included Heritage USA, the first Christian theme park; and became two of the world's most widely recognized televangelists, Jim Bakker was exposed for having sexual liaisons with future Playboy centerfold Jessica Hahn and for selling $1,000 memberships for lifetime access to imaginary hotel rooms at Heritage USA. Before long, Praise the Lord was bankrupt, Jim Bakker was in prison, and Tammy Faye was suffering from depression and addiction to prescription meds. Then her second husband, Heritage USA contractor Roe Messner, also went to jail for his role in PTL, and Tammy Faye was diagnosed with cancer (she's now in remission, "praise God"). Through these years, Tammy Faye's only claims to fame were bad T-shirts, such as a florid smudge accompanied by the phrase "I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall," and sitcom jokes. But, in her plunky, spunky way, she persevered, starting a line of bath products. Then along came openly gay filmmakers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, who captured all of Tammy Faye's bizarreness and kindness on film and exposed a new audience to her long-standing support of homosexuals. And makeup.

According to Tammy Faye's inspirational video Day by Day, all women over the age of 16 should wear a little eyeliner, blush, lipstick, and a makeup base. She also offers accessorizing tips and fudge recipes, as well as some very candid advice on facing fear, accepting people for who they are ("even if they don't wear makeup"), counting your blessings, and learning to laugh with the people who laugh at you.

"I watched their show as comedy," admits 45-year-old Michael Zanoni, clutching a highly treasured Tammy Faye record that his brother gave him in 1973. "But I watched it every day. In Lodi, Texas, it was the best thing going. She was very glamorous in a white-trash sort of way. "High white trash,' I would call it. But I would never say that to her face. She's wonderful."

Long after John Waters has retired to his dressing room, Tammy Faye is still signing autographs.

"It's like having warm honey poured all over me," she says of the response she's received at the Castro. "I haven't felt this sort of love from Christians."

Finally, Joe Spotts, Tammy Faye's manager and "God's way of getting me to do things I'm afraid of," hustles the 4-foot-8-inch firecracker off to her dressing room.

Downstairs in the sold-out auditorium, John Waters receives a standing ovation as he begins his self-guided retrospective.

"I feel like Anton LaVey," he says with a blithe chuckle. "A friend said, "John, how can you do that show, you're such a pagan?' and I said, "I'm not a pagan, I'm an ex-Catholic.' Which means the sex will always be better because it's dirty.

"I have great respect for Tammy Faye," continues Waters. "She's a militant Christian fag hag drama queen. ... She's got the eyelashes; I've got the mustache. We're eyeliner headliners.

"When you're young it's important to have someone bad to look up to. I hope I can be that for someone here tonight."

Unlike Tammy Faye, who grew up the oldest of eight children in an impoverished home in International Falls, Minn., Waters came from an upper-middle-class family in Baltimore. When he was 17, an uncle gave him an 8mm camera, with which Waters made Hag in a Black Leather Jacket and Eat Your Makeup, about deranged supermodels who are kidnapped and forced to eat their makeup and model themselves to death.

"It wasn't as good as it sounds," says Waters.

In 1969, Waters' father gave him $2,000 to make Mondo Trash. On the eve of its premiere in a local church basement, Waters was arrested on a charge of "conspiracy to commit indecent exposure." Since then, the city of Baltimore has named Feb. 7 "John Waters Day"; Pink Flamingos was released on video and was second only to Jerry Maguire in sales in 1997; and "coprophagy" (shit eating) has almost become a household word.

"Baltimore still inspires me," says Waters. "It's the second VD capital in the world."

During the question-and-answer period, a 17-year-old gay boy admits to writing a report on Waters for a school assignment. The boy was suspended. Waters, the audience, and the boy's mom applaud.

"Parents should support their kids," says Waters. "If your kid comes home with a tattooed face, smile and hope he opens a tattoo parlor."

As Waters leaves, clips from The Eyes of Tammy Faye flicker across the screen and a spotlight catches Tammy Faye at the back of the house wearing a long, white fur and singing "Welcome to My World." The crowd rises to its feet, and local "Stinky's Peep Show" producer Audra Angeli-Morse whispers behind me, "I have goose bumps." She's not the only one. The sold-out crowd is entranced as Tammy Faye makes her way to the mock bedroom onstage, complete with makeup mirror and cans of Diet Coke.

"Oops," she says, missing a line of her signature song. The crowd murmurs its encouragement.

"When I heard Mom and Dad screaming when I was a child I used to climb under my bed," says Tammy Faye, squeezing into bed next to her teddy bear. "Whenever I was scared I would crawl under the bed."

And she's got us. It's this sort of guileless vulnerability that has brought people from as far as Mexico, Taos, New York, and Houston to see her.

"She's one of the only people I remember from my entire religious upbringing who said things like they really were," says Trevor Donnally, who came up from Bakersfield. "And she's an oddball."

Tammy Faye opens her show with some mild jokes about lesbians and cowboys and offers some down-home medical tips for burning off toenail fungus with a lemon wedge. She talks about lying in bed with anxiety attacks and how, thinking she might die before morning, she gets up in the middle of the night to apply her makeup and do her hair.

"When you die, they say you wet your pants and all that," says Tammy Faye. "A little Super Glue will do the trick." The crowd roars, and Tammy Faye bats her trademark lashes.

Tammy shares the moment when she put on her first lipstick, a real treat for a child raised in a strict Assemblies of God family that frowned on such things as makeup and television. At Tammy Faye's request, Castro organist David Haggerty raises the mighty Wurlitzer out of the floor with Tammy Faye on the bench, kicking her feet, and yelling, "This is going to be fun," as she pounds out "Onward Christian Soldier."

And the night's just begun.

In the voices of her puppets Allie the Alligator and Susie Moppet, Tammy Faye converses with an audience member from Portsmouth, Va., who appeared on her show as a child. She leaves the main hall to take a song to the "balcony people," with whom she empathizes, and nearly falls over the banister in her excitement.

"We were a poor family," chirps Tammy Faye. "There were eight of us kids, and we couldn't afford to do anything fun, so I know what it's like to be balcony people."

Back onstage she tells us the story of how she met her "real" daddy's other kids on Jerry Springer and how one year her brother Donny dropped the "pee pail" (used in winter when the little kids couldn't make it to the outhouse) down the stairs onto the clothes stored beneath.

"Oh Lord, we all got a beating for that one," laughs Tammy Faye before talking about the potentially addictive nature of Slim-Fast and the delight of going away to North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, where she threw over her childhood sweetheart for Jim Bakker.

"He was a good talker," says Tammy Faye with a suggestive nod of her head. "He convinced me it was better to marry than to burn, and we were married in two months."

Tales of her disastrous life with Jim Bakker are sprinkled with pleas for tolerance, respect, and love for all people, and accompanied by the song "If Life Hands You a Lemon (Make Lemonade)."

"Jim got a life sentence," says Tammy Faye, shaking her head when people applaud. "No, no. It's sad. And our 14-year- old son became a drug addict. But, by the grace of God, he's cured now, and he's just preached to 5,000 young people in Chicago."

Finally, as the clock approaches midnight, Tammy Faye asks the crowd to reach under their seats for the American flags taped there. In remembrance of the horrible attack on "Sept. 9," we wave our flags while Tammy Faye sings "America the Beautiful" in the historic Castro Theater.

It is an unforgettable moment.

Despite entreaties from her management, the exhausted Tammy Faye stays onstage another hour, signing lemons, photos, and Diet Coke cans for the hundred people who stay behind for autographs.

"She really moved me," says a man with a pierced septum and blue hair. "I wanted to see her up close and shake her hand."


A few days later, Tammy Faye Bakker Messner is overheard talking to Angie Dickinson in Saks Fifth Avenue in Los Angeles, saying, "I've never felt as much pure love in a room as I did in the Castro Theater."

Future one-woman shows are in production, according to Spotts, Tammy Faye's manager. There's also a rumor of a duet with Marilyn Manson that might hit stores in time for Christmas.

About The Author

Silke Tudor

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