Holy innocent – or did she do a deal with the Devil? New film examines life of televangelist’s wife Tammy Bakker who revelled in excess – until her husband was brought down by a sex and fraud scandal
- The Bakkers’ sins of excess came to define them as empire came crashing down
- Jim paid off church secretary who claimed he raped her and was jailed for fraud
- Questions were raised over how much Tammy knew about what was going on
- Hollywood is now tackling it with the production of The Eyes of Tammy Faye
- The film sees Jessica Chastain star as Tammy while Andrew Garfield plays Jim
During their glory days serving the Lord back in the 1980s, America’s most popular ‘televangelists’ Jim and Tammy Bakker didn’t let old-fashioned Christian virtues like modesty and thrift get in their way.
Let others preach that ‘blessed are the poor’. The Bakkers were chauffeured around in a fleet of black Cadillacs, kept various luxury homes and ‘his-and-hers’ Rolls-Royces. For a Christmas party they once spent $8,000 flying in truffles from Brussels.
The king and queen of the lucrative religious broadcasting market had gold-plated fittings in their bathroom and air-conditioning in their dog kennel.
Tammy was always immaculately if rather heavily made-up — her spidery eyelashes were her ‘trademark’ — and swathed in garish, designer clothes.
‘You don’t have to be dowdy to be a Christian,’ she assured the faithful.
The look was more ‘Dynasty than ministry’ — and it was financed by worshippers who tuned into the Bakkers’ international satellite-TV network and answered their teary-eyed appeals for cash to help them do God’s work.
As pioneers of the so-called ‘electronic church’ between 1974 and 1987, their programmes were broadcast into tens of millions of God-fearing homes (Brits can only be thankful that UK television regulators spared them that possibility).
They even built a Christian theme park in South Carolina.
And the glossy couple were not remotely ashamed of their extravagant lifestyle. They preached a controversial variant of Pentecostal theology called the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ which promised believers that God would reward their faith — especially their donations — with plentiful material blessings.
Ultimately, however, it was the Bakkers’ sins of excess that would come to define them as their empire came crashing down in a frenzy of headlines about sex, drugs and fraud.
It was a jaw-dropping scandal at the time, sending shockwaves around the world and embarrassing the evangelist ‘Moral Majority’ that had brought Ronald Reagan to power.
Jim Bakker was first defrocked for paying off a church secretary who claimed he’d raped her and for being exposed as a closet bisexual, and then jailed for fraud.
Tammy was never charged but she didn’t escape public shame after admitting being treated at the Betty Ford Centre for drug addiction. She fled to her desert home in California and a lifetime sentence of being the butt of jokes on late-night TV.
And while Jim Bakker — now 81, still TV preaching and still making trouble (last year he was sued for selling a fake coronavirus ‘cure’) — was definitely the villain of the saga, a question mark has always hung over his fragrant ex-wife.
How much did Tammy, who divorced Jim while he was in prison, and who died of colon cancer aged 65 in 2007, really know about what was going on?
Surely there was more to her than the TV image as the earnest, sweet-natured but ultimately fluffy and shallow singer and presenter — perpetually weeping tears of Christian compassion but so vain she had her eyebrows, eyeliner and lipliner tattooed on her face?
Now Hollywood is tackling that question in The Eyes Of Tammy Faye, a film with Jessica Chastain as Tammy and Anglo-American actor Andrew Garfield as Jim.
America’s most popular ‘televangelists’ Jim and Tammy Bakker didn’t let old-fashioned Christian virtues like modesty and thrift get in their way
The showbusiness world has recently embraced Tammy as a gay icon thanks to her compassion for homosexuals during the Aids epidemic — a stance that pitted her against other evangelicals who cited the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality.
Elton John apparently has plans to turn Tammy’s rags-to-riches life into a musical, while Chastain says she wanted to rescue Tammy from misogynistic attacks.
However, some critics say her portrait is just as cartoonish and glosses over the salient issue of whether Tammy was up to her fake eyebrows in fraud.
To be fair, Tammy hardly encouraged the world to take her too seriously. In a 2000 documentary, she revealed a lifestyle in which she was surrounded by big wigs, tiny dogs and a kitschy collection of dolls — and still able to burst into tears at the slightest provocation.
Tammy was certainly a woman of extremes. The star who would one day own 14 mink coats grew up the eldest of eight children in International Falls, Minnesota, in a house with an outdoor lavatory. She never wore lipstick until her marriage and would sleep with it on.
The child of evangelists, she was ten when she found God, falling to her knees in a church of the Assemblies of God — a Pentecostal denomination — and speaking in tongues the moment she took her first sip of communion wine.
In 1960, aged 17, she went to Bible college where she met a young, charismatic Jim Bakker. They married in 1961 and travelled the U.S. as itinerant preachers, Tammy playing the accordion and singing while Jim evangelised.
After getting their TV break with a churches’ children’s puppet show, in 1974 the Bakkers struck out on their own, launching Christian talk show, The PTL (Praise The Lord or People That Love) Club, from an old furniture shop in Charlotte, North Carolina.
It proved a huge success with its mix of glitzy entertainment and wholesome family values. Their message that God wanted people to be rich was exactly what many affluent evangelicals wanted to hear.
Contributions flooded in — not just cash but mink coats and diamond rings, even deeds to property.
While the wives of America’s best-known evangelist preachers generally stayed out of the limelight, living and dressing soberly, in thrall to their husbands, Tammy broke the mould. She dyed her hair, discussed penile implants and made jokes on air about her sex life with Jimmy.
In her leopard-print trouser suits and 4in spike heels, she was a modern American Christian woman and viewers adored her.
Jessica Chastain as Tammy Faye Bakker and Andrew Garfield as Jim Bakker in the upcoming film, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
By the late 1970s, The PTL Club was a satellite TV network and making $120 million a year. Cynics remarked that ‘PTL’ actually stood for ‘Pass The Loot’.
The Bakkers, who had two children, rewarded themselves by moving into a mansion on a 25-acre estate and adding a health club and huge pool. Rolling in God’s munificence, Jim Bakker claimed that if ‘Jesus was alive today, he would be on TV’ and became ever more ambitious.
In 1978, they opened Heritage USA, a 2,300-acre Christian-version of Disney World. It eventually drew five million visitors a year, making it the third most popular resort in the U.S. after Disney World and Disneyland.
But as he spent more time building his empire, Bakker spent less time with Tammy who consoled herself with shopping, eating and cosmetic surgery — liposuction and a breast enlargement was covered by PTL’s generous health plan for its top people.
Karen Paxton, a close friend, recalled Tammy showing off her new cleavage in a transparent red silk blouse at a motor race event.
‘She showed ’em off,’ she recalled. ‘I touched ’em and they felt very natural. It was a great job.’ But not exactly godly.
Friends say Tammy always suffered self-doubt. ‘She said Jim made her feel ugly,’ said Paxton.
As her singing career took off, she made a string of records even as her marriage was disintegrating and she was embarking on affairs.
Divorce, though, would have been commercial suicide given that they assured their flock faith and Christian counselling could sort out any struggling marriage. Insiders say it became a marriage of convenience in which they held hands for the cameras and drove to the studio in separate limos.
In 1987, after a long absence from their show spawned rumours she’d died, Tammy went on air to admit she’d been having treatment for addiction to an anti-anxiety prescription drug that had made her see ‘demons coming at me’.
Then, days later, Jim resigned from The PTL Club after shocking newspaper revelations that, seven years earlier, $279,000 had come out of the ministry’s coffers to pay off Jessica Hahn, a church secretary who claimed Bakker and another PTL evangelist, John Wesley Fletcher, had drugged and raped her when she was 21.
Bakker admitted they’d had a one-night stand in a Florida motel room but claimed she instigated the 15-minute encounter and he’d been ‘set up’ by rival televangelists. She then told her side of the story to a grand jury and Playboy (also posing topless for the magazine).
Shocking newspaper reports revealed that $279,000 had come out of the ministry’s coffers to pay off Jessica Hahn (pictured), a church secretary who claimed Bakker and another evangelist, John Wesley Fletcher, had drugged and raped her when she was 21
Ms Hahn claimed she’d idolised Bakker and he’d told her, a virgin, he was sexually unsatisfied with Tammy. Before Bakker raped her, she said Fletcher had reassured her: ‘You’re going to do something tremendous for God.’
Bakker and Fletcher had later sniggeringly referred to her ordeal on TV, Ms Hahn claimed. ‘Jim, God really ministered to us today, didn’t He?’ she quoted Fletcher as telling Bakker during a televised fundraiser.
‘Yeah, he really did,’ Bakker was said to have replied.
Bakker turned The PTL Club —then making $129million a year in donations alone — over to televangelist Jerry Falwell. Bakker intended to step back for a few weeks until the furore died down but Falwell had other ideas.
The founder of the Moral Majority that had helped propel Reagan to the White House in 1981 was appalled by the allegations of financial and sexual misconduct leaking from the Bakker ministry. He also found that, having borrowed heavily, it was deeply in debt.
Asking Tammy for a list of the lavish benefits they were accustomed to — $300,000 annual salary for Jim, guards, maids, cars — so he could ensure they continued, Falwell instead read out her list on air.
‘Jim, as much as I love you and pray for you, I’d be doing a disservice to God and the church at large to allow you to come back here now or for ever,’ he added in a tone of deep regret. The Bakkers had been had.
PTL soon folded under the weight of another scandal. Two male PTL executives accused Jim Bakker of making passes at them and another said they’d had sex.
Austin Miles, a circus ringmaster-turned-preacher, claimed Bakker once invited him to join him in his steam room. ‘I walked in and there was Jim frolicking in the nude with three other men,’ he said. ‘They were dancing around and taking turns laying on a table, massaging each other.’
Bakker denied it all.
Insiders claimed wife-swapping was rife and that Bakker would visit female prostitutes. Again, Bakker denied this.
It was Ms Hahn’s hush money revelations that drew the attention of federal investigators who started looking into whether Bakker and his top aides had been fraudulently raising and spending money.
They made stunning discoveries about what the Bakkers were claiming as tax deductions — $592,000 for a beachfront flat in Palm Beach, $67,000 for women’s clothes and $8,000 for a single dinner party.
In 1989, Bakker was sentenced to 45 years in prison on 24 fraud and conspiracy counts, after a court heard he had sold twice as many timeshares at their Christian theme park resort as were needed to build it (and far more than it actually had capacity for) and pocketed $3.4 million.
He was let out on parole after five years.
Many expected Tammy Bakker to be charged, too.
‘That was the big talk: how could she have not known? She was wearing fur coats, she was wearing rings,’ says U.S. TV journalist Suzanne Stevens.
In 1992 Tammy filed for divorce, saying: ‘For years I have been pretending everything is all right, when in fact I hurt all the time… I cannot pretend any more.’
She never returned to televangelism, but she still sang and preached — and showed she could make the same mistake twice with men. Second husband, property developer Roe Messner, was also jailed for fraud.
When she could no longer afford mink furs and expensive cars any more, Tammy somewhat ghoulishly started collecting the spectacles of dead friends and relatives, sometimes wearing them. She truly believed, that ‘the eyes are the heart of a soul’.
What she chose to see with her own eyes — or more likely chose not to see — is another matter.
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