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Cabaret Tammy Faye

Photo by Brett Vinovich

TAMMY FAYE BAKKER MESSNER PERCHES HERSELF on the edge of a brown velour sofa in the sitting area of her manager's eighth-floor Century City hotel room, yanks the neckline of her black nylon top forward, dips her nose into her bountiful cleavage and takes a deep sniff.

"Do I smell like hot dogs?" she wants to know.

Earlier in the afternoon, she'd spent a couple of hours serving 10-inch stretch chili dogs to unsuspecting customers at Pink's on La Brea Avenue, attracting camera crews from VH1, the Discovery Channel and a BBC documentary team. "She was really slinging the dogs," said one observer, who arrived to find the televangelism veteran and gay icon behind the counter, a baseball cap turned backward on her head. "Everyone in line was saying, like, 'What is she doing here?'" Of course, when anyone in the crowd lifted a camera, Tammy Faye immediately stopped working, cocked her head and struck a movie star pose, prompting one amateur photographer to note, "All those girls behind the counter wear more makeup than she does. Instead of sticking out, Tammy Faye just sort of blended in."

Tammy Faye blending in? In the mid-'80s, when she was first introduced to most of the secular world, this would have seemed impossible. Think about her regular nightly news appearances as the incessantly bawling, overly made-up wife of then-husband Jim Bakker, who destroyed both of their wildly successful Christian TV careers by trysting with ministry secretary Jessica Hahn. Not much later, he was convicted of wire fraud and spent five years in prison.

These days, Tammy Faye still weeps at the drop of a hat, but the passage of time has blunted the shock value of her appearance. Surpassed by Botox queens like Cher and Joan Rivers, whose frozen, incessantly tinkered-with faces are painful to look at, Tammy Faye and her excessive style -- the enormous, dangly earrings, the boulder-sized shoulder pads, the fringy dyed hair, the lips frosted pink and tattooed around the perimeter with lip liner -- are somehow reassuring. Even her most Technicolor cosmetic flourish, three layers of different-colored eye shadow on her infamous heavily mascaraed eyes, and the smudges of black eyeliner that give her the look of a perpetually astonished raccoon, don't seem that weird, only labor-intensive.

How long does it take to put her face on? Anywhere from five to 20 minutes, she insists. Get out of here! "Honey," she says, "after doing it as long as I have, it's down to a science." She claps her hands, cackles loudly and, making sure that I get her point, gives my leg a playful kick with the toe of her pointy sandal. "I am always camera-ready."

She's also 22 pounds thinner and counting, thanks to Slim-Fast, which she's eager to talk about. "For the first three weeks, I ate one meal a day and drank two Slim-Fasts -- always milk chocolate because I'm a chocoholic -- for the other meals. And it just came right off!" She delivers equally persuasive, unsolicited raps on the glories of L'Oréal Lash-Out mascara and E-6000, a super adhesive. Don't even get her started on Diet Coke, which she consumes in such volume that she now considers it a regenerative substance. "They say the body is made up of a certain amount of water. Well, mine is made out of Diet Coke. I am probably pickled in it and will live forever!"

She's never been offered an endorsement deal by any of the makers of her favorite products -- "Someone's really dumb," she says -- but, almost as if she's been in sales too long, she can't help hawking them to you, anyway. When she was a young girl, growing up poor in industrial Minnesota, she worked in every department at Woolworths except the candy section. ("I'm only 4'11" and I couldn't reach over the counter!") Substitute dime-store merchandise for God and $1,000 memberships in Heritage, USA (the erstwhile Christian theme park that she and her ex-husband started), and isn't it possible to draw a line from her first job to the profession that brought her notoriety?

"That's an interesting thought!" says Tammy Faye, then swiftly steers the subject to her growing roster of projects and job offers. There's We Are Blessed, a still-unsold cartoon show pilot voiced by herself and animated by Klasky-Csupo (Rugrats), and she was asked to duke it out with Sylvester Stallone's mother, Jackie, in a celebrity boxing match. (She passed.) A couple of deals for her own reality TV series have come her way, too. She wasn't keen on the first concept, which was obviously inspired by the success of The Osbournes and involved a camera crew taking up residence in her living room until Tammy Faye­sized antics occurred.

 

"I felt that would be boring," she says, adding that she's doubtful about the entertainment value of watching her clean up pee-pee left by her two Yorkshire terriers, Muffins and Tuppens. "And just wait until they see me come out of my bedroom in my old pink pajamas and pink bathrobe a few times."

The latest proposal -- for a crew to trail behind her as she travels around the country just being Tammy Faye -- is more to her liking. By the way, in case you didn't know, she invented reality TV.

"PTL was the first reality show," she says. "It was! We never used a script and everything was off the cuff and it was just people tuning in to watch the lives of Jim and Tammy every day. (Actually, the endless hucksterism that dominated The PTL Club puts it more in the category of the first infomercial, but let's not quibble.)

"I really feel for Anna Nicole," says Tammy Faye after a lull in the conversation. Apparently, Tammy Faye, who had her own season of stumbling around, glassy-eyed on The PTL Club before kicking her addiction to the prescription anxiety medication Ativan, is totally creeped out by The Anna Nicole Show. "My heart goes out to her. When I watch her, I cry. She seems so lost and desperate. I just want to put my arms around her and say, 'It's going to be okay, Anna Nicole.'"

Anything you'd like to say to the folks at E!, Tammy Faye? "I think they're just making fun of her, and that's really wrong! I think they should just help her. Get her off her drugs," says Tammy Faye. "Don't make her destroy her life for a house. Buy her a house. Soon I think the American people are going to rise up and say, 'C'mon, give the girl a break!'"

Or perhaps Anna Nicole will meet her own version of filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who, two years ago, sweet-talked Tammy Faye into letting them direct The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a feature-length documentary. In it, they traced Tammy Faye's hardscrabble roots and offered up a sympathetic portrait of a short, flamboyant gal with a loony fashion sense, a can-do spirit and a campy way of belting out religious songs who hooked up with not one but two men who spent time in the hoosegow. (Second husband, Roe Messner -- more dashing than the squishy Jim Bakker -- spent 27 months in a federal work prison after being indicted in 1995 for federal bankruptcy fraud.) With a big, dramatic past like that, it's no wonder that in the wake of the documentary's release Tammy Faye has seen a resurgence of interest from the gay community. Still, it appears that some of her fans don't always remember that, in the end, she's a 60-year-old Christian lady.

"I've seen things I thought my eyes would never see!" Tammy Faye almost brags. Like what?, I ask, perhaps a bit too eagerly. "I'm not going to talk about it," she shoots back, with a tight smile. "I want my life to be a hospital, not a courtroom. I will not judge. I have been judged so harshly by people who didn't even know me. I think that all gay people are asking is, 'Give us a chance to prove ourselves, that we're wonderful people, that we're good people.' And they are." Tears spill down her cheeks. "They've been very kind to me."

And she's been kind to her old enemies. Tammy Faye was on a morning radio talk show sometime back, and Jessica Hahn called in unprompted to apologize for sleeping with Jim Bakker while he was still married to Tammy Faye. Tammy Faye reassured her, "Jessica, it's okay. It takes two to tango. If one refuses, there's no tango." Then they both cried. Closure!

These days, Tammy Faye, just like her daughter, Tammy Sue Bakker, 32, and her son, Jay Bakker, 26, makes part of her living by preaching at churches and being compensated with something called a "love offering," which, as racy as it sounds, is House of Worship talk for "whatever you can afford to pay me." About a year and a half ago, her manager, Joe Spotts, suggested that Tammy Faye pull together a one-woman show and hit the small-theater circuit. Just like she did back in her PTL days, Tammy Faye improvises the whole thing. It sounds crazily anything-can-happen. "I call it gospel cabaret!" she says, meaning that she wanders around an ersatz bedroom set warbling whatever tune pops into her head, sharing makeup tips, then maybe she'll tell a few tales about slop buckets, her squabbling parents and her poverty-stricken youth. When someone from the audience yells out a question, Tammy Faye is only too happy to stop whatever she is doing onstage to give an answer.

 

"Sometimes, they'll call out, 'We love you, Tammy Faye. We love you,' and I get to crying. For some reason, that always shocks me, their kindness, that they even want to come and see me." Fresh teardrops start to fall. "It's such a compliment. So I try to give my all to every person that's there, I really do."

Tammy Faye Bakker Messner appears at the Downtown Palace Theater on Saturday, October 19 (see Spoken Word Pick of the Week in the Calendar section).


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