Tammy Faye says I'm going to hell

The famous ex-preacher's wife talks about her new self-help book, kicking Ativan, forgiving Jerry Falwell, and why she's a gay icon.

Published September 25, 2003 9:15PM (EDT)

Makeup shopping with Tammy Faye? It seemed like a great idea at the time. I arranged to meet the Queen of Eyeliner at the makeup counter in the bowels of Bergdorf Goodman in the midst of her promotional trip to New York for her new self-help tome, "I Will Survive ... And You Will, Too!"

In her book, Tammy Faye Messner (she's remarried and no longer a "Bakker") proves herself to be a font of advice such as "I think almost everyone should own a wig. It makes every day a good hair day" and asks big questions like "Who made the rule that you don't put mascara on false eyelashes, anyway?" So I thought she might be able to give me a few tips on jazzing up my look.

I had no idea I'd start a mini makeup riot.

Tammy Faye has certainly survived a lot. As you likely recall, she and her ex-husband, Jim Bakker, once presided over the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club, a TV network on which they were watched daily by about 13.5 million people, and Heritage USA, a popular gospel theme park in South Carolina. They owned lavish properties as well as his-and-hers Rolls Royces.

But in 1987, Bakker was forced out of his PTL post when certain irregularities in his business and private life began to leak out. (Remember the allegations of bisexuality and his infamous one-nighter with church secretary and future Playboy model Jessica Hahn?) In 1988, Bakker was sent to prison for diverting millions of dollars from PTL's coffers for his personal use and PTL crumbled along with the Bakkers' reputation and fortunes.

For a time, the flamboyant Tammy Faye retreated from the spotlight, all the while maintaining her and Jim's innocence and insisting that the Rev. Jerry Falwell had orchestrated their fall for his own gain. But a few years ago, an award-winning documentary film, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," narrated by RuPaul, was made about her rise and fall and she quickly became a cult figure. And now -- having also survived cancer, an addiction to prescription drugs, second husband Roe Messner's two-year stint in prison for bankruptcy fraud and the deaths of numerous close family members -- she's back and busier than ever. Not only is she promoting her book, she's also peddling a one-woman play, has just signed on to do a reality TV show, and is fixing to re-enter the world of Christian television with "The Tammy Faye Show," a daily variety program she's planning to syndicate.

The afternoon of our Bergdorf meeting, it's not hard to spot Tammy Faye, with a middle-aged man and a woman trailing her like loyal pups, striding past the society women who populate the store in the middle of a workday. She looks pretty much like you'd expect her to look -- lots and lots of makeup; teased-out, blond-streaked red hair; black-and-white striped outfit with matching black-and-white striped earrings -- only way better and, like most celebrities, much tinier.

After we exchange greetings and she introduces me to her companions -- her cousin Phyllis, in to meet her from Minnesota, and Joe, the man she credits with coaxing her back into the spotlight after all these years -- I share my makeover plan.

"Oh, well, see, if I'd known you wanted to pick out makeup, I'd have taken you to the drugstore," Tammy Faye whispers from behind her hand.

She digs around in her purse and whips out her off-the-rack eyeliner: Maybelline Great Wear. "They say it doesn't budge, and it's true," she says. "It adds drama."

Eyeliner stowed, we pause and look at the tubes and tubs tastefully arrayed on one of the makeup section's many counters.

A subtly made-up woman steps around the counter and asks if she can help us.

Tammy Faye looks confused, panicked even. "I know how to do my own makeup," she says. "But I wouldn't know how to do anyone else's."

We turn to leave, but she's been recognized. Makeup salespeople and customers begin to swarm. Men and women rush from behind their counters, pressing compliments on Tammy Faye and creams, unguents, perfumes and lotions into her palms. It's mayhem.

But Tammy Faye is in her element, thanking people, shaking hands left and right, positively glowing as I whisk her out of there, up the elevator and into the store's white-tableclothed café, where she orders tea and cookies and stops to smell the roses on the table.

"Aren't they cute?" she says of the flowers, bunched in a silver cup.

Then I switch on my tape recorder, she helpfully props it up between the salt and pepper shaker, and we're off.

What made you decide to write this book now?

Because they asked me. They came and found me. I still can't believe it. I thought my 15 minutes of fame was up long ago. Then the book company came and said, would you like to write a book? And I said, well, I would love to but what do you want me to write about? And they said, whatever you want. So I went home and just started writing from my heart on my old typewriter.

The book is called, "I Will Survive ..." Do you feel like now you're in a stable place?

The book is a journal of how to survive. I've been through a lot. I mean, I've lost everything in my whole life. I've been rich. I've been poor. I've been through so many deaths. I've had my reputation just ruined and had to build that back again, and husbands and cancer and prison, and I survived it. I made it through. And I want to tell other people how to make it through those same type of things.

It's sort of a new way of ministering, isn't it?

Yes. So many times I thought it was all over, that I would never get to do another thing, and I'm going back on Christian television again. We're starting over again, and there's nothing wrong with starting over small again. When people fall down and they feel like they've had it and there's nothing left, they just need to pick themselves up and dust themselves off and say I'm going to start again.

Were there days when you thought you wouldn't be able to do that?

Oh yeah. There were many days I thought, "I'll never be able to start again. It will never work. Everything's been too destroyed." But something inside me kept saying -- I mean, I know it was God -- you know, nothing is ever destroyed as long as you know me.

Did your faith ever waver? In the book it sounds like it did a little bit right after PTL collapsed and Jim went to prison.

Oh, I think everybody's faith would waver in a situation like that. I was so disappointed that God would allow all that to happen. But after the fact I realized that He allowed it for my good.

There's a verse in Isaiah that says, "For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. In everything give thanks." Oooooh, that's hard. Oh, man. Be thankful for losing everything? Give thanks for divorce? Give thanks for two husbands in prison? That's almost an impossible thing. Give thanks when your brother dies, when your mother dies, when your dad dies, when your aunt dies, when your sister dies, when your best friend dies? I lost all of those people within just a few months. And we're supposed to give thanks? That's what the Bible says.

Why in your book did you soft-pedal around the whole Jerry Falwell thing? You didn't soft-pedal in the documentary made about you a few years ago, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," in which you indicate that he deliberately brought down PTL, smearing your and Jim Bakker's reputations, and betraying what you thought was a friendship. Yet in your book you don't name him as the man who destroyed PTL.

I did name him, but my book company asked me not to.

They were worried about lawsuits?

I don't know. I suppose. But I did it before and there was no problem. I've always been very honest with the Jerry Falwell thing.I would love to talk to Jerry. I would just say, "Why? I forgive you, Jerry, but why? Can you explain why you put your arms around us and said that you would help us and then you took everything from us?"

Do you feel that part of your mission is to open people's eyes to people like him?

No, I don't have anything against Jerry. I really don't. But I do think that the truth ought to be told. I think people ought to have to live the truth.

How do you not have something against someone like that?

Because, you know, back in the olden days, when you killed somebody, rather than putting you in prison, they would strap that dead body onto your back, and what that dead body ended up doing was killing you.

And Jerry Falwell was strapped on my back. I carried him with me all the time. I hurt all the time. It was all I could talk about. It was all I could think about. That hurt was unbearable. And one day, I felt like God said to me, "Tammy, lay him down. Lay him down at the cross that I bled and died on. Just lay him there and I'll take care of him." And I literally, physically, pretended like I was unstrapping a body from my back, and I laid it down, and when I did, I got peace for the first time. Because, see, holding bitterness and holding unforgiveness only hurts you. It makes your blood pressure high. It makes your heart rate increase. It does all these bad things to you. And why destroy yourself over something they'd be glad about? I mean, he'd be glad to know if I was still hurting.

He's still out there preaching.

Yeah, I know.

How can --?

How can people hear [about how he betrayed us] and so many things like that and they're proven to be true and still it not faze them? I don't know the answer to that question.

How can people tell the difference between a Jim Bakker, who you say is an honorable man, and a Jerry Falwell?

You know, I really don't think you always can. If people know God you're supposed to be able to tell the difference. But you know, sometimes we as Christians get so busy, that we don't have time to stay in contact with God, and that's when we make mistakes in judgment.

Do you think Christians have a corner on the market of God?

Absolutely not. No. They think they do, but they don't. [Mischievous giggle.]

Anybody can come to God, anybody. God loves a person who is not a Christian just as much as he loves Billy Graham. Just as much as he loves Oral Roberts. Just as much as he loves these great men of God, he loves that person that he still wants to bring to him. So nobody has a corner on God. We're all exactly the same in God's eyes.

What about if you don't accept Jesus Christ as your savior, are you going to hell?

Yes. Oooh yes.

Even if you live a righteous life?

Oh yes, because it's not by work lest any man should boast, the Bible says. You have to come to Jesus. You have to come to him. And that's a choice. So, he loves us whether we come to him or not, but there is a consequence to pay if we don't come to him and that's going to hell. I believe in hell.

So Jerry Falwell ...

He can be forgiven. Jerry Falwell, if he's asked God to forgive him for what he did, then he's right with God again.

But if he lives this cruel and crooked life, which you have experienced, and I, who am not Christian, live a perfectly upright life, then am I going straight to hell and yet he gets to go to heaven?

See, honey .. [pausing to bite into a cookie] God doesn't do it that way. The way God says is if you come to God, he will in no way cast you out. It doesn't make any difference if you're Jewish, if you're Catholic. If you love God and you've asked God to be a part of your life then it's not works, it's not anything else that you've done, or haven't done, it just ends at the cross.

Switching tacks a little bit ... I didn't know this until I saw the documentary "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," but you really were quite progressive when it comes to the gay rights movement. How do you reconcile that with the fundamentalist Christian stuff?

Because I think that's the way Jesus would be. He loves everybody. I think Jesus loves the rascals. [Laughs mischievously.]

Was there any backlash? I mean, the clip that's shown in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," where you're interviewing the fellow who has AIDS and you're crying because no one will embrace him. When was that, in the '80s?

Yeah, that was way back. And people wouldn't even walk into the same room as someone with AIDS. They wouldn't even breathe the same air. Wouldn't even hug 'em. That's awful.

It is awful. What was the reaction when you did shows like that? Did anyone ever try to stop you?

They never tried to stop me, which was very interesting. I wouldn't have stopped anyway, but they never tried to.

You're not wearing a wig now, are you?

No, this is my hair.

I got the impression from the book that you never went out without a wig on.

Well, I didn't and then all of a sudden my hair began to grow under my wig and when I took it off I thought, "I don't need these wigs anymore." I just started sticking my hair up and letting it go. I washed it last night, which was a very daring thing on a trip, because it only looks good if it's real dirty.

Well, it looks great now. You must have rolled in dirt.

Thank you.

So are you done with wigs? This is a news flash.

No, I'm not done with wigs, but I'm not gonna wear one unless I have to. If it's raining outside, I might put one on because you can take it off and just shake it and put it back on and look great. You can't do that with your own hair.

What motivated you to become a preacher?

It was sort of an accident. I mean, there are no accidents with God, I know, but people always ask me how I do the will of God for my life and I couldn't tell them, I don't know. I think you just get out and start doing something, if it works, it's God's will and if it doesn't ... [Laughs] Everybody's on his own for that.

Are you still in touch with Jim Bakker?

Oh yeah. Jim and [his new wife] Lori live in Branson, and Jim's back on television also. Not long ago, the grandkids graduated from their middle school and Jim and Lori came and Roe and I were there and we all laughed and had a really good time together. We all get along just fine, which is wonderful because I was married to Jim for 30 years so why not be friends?

Did you ever consider living a very private life after all your troubles and not going back out into the spotlight?

Oh, I tried until he [her friend Joe, across the table] came along. He literally pulled me back into my work again. He said, "Tammy, it's not right that you sit back here and don't do anything, because the people need you. They need you back." And he was doing big flea markets at the time. Beautiful big flea markets. And he said, "I'll tell you what, you try it. You come to my flea market, you sing, and you autograph pictures, you talk to the people, and let's see how you feel doing that." And when I went to that flea market it was totally, like, overwhelmingly awesome what happened. And [tearing up] I've been back ever since.

Who are your heroes?

I loved Lucille Ball. She was funny, and she was a tough woman. I like Dolly Parton because Dolly's a tough, strong woman. I feel like we're a lot alike. She has gone through a lot to get where she is. I like strong women.

In the book you say very specifically that you're not a women's libber.

I am not a women's libber.

What does that mean?

It means that I love to be taken care of by my husband. I think it's terrible that the men don't open the doors anymore for the women; they don't dare. The men don't carry things for women anymore; they don't dare. They don't pay the bills anymore; they don't dare. I mean, how awful is that?

We've ruined it ourselves. I want my husband there. I want to be under his protection and care. I love that feeling. And women's libbers who say, Well, I can do it all myself. Well, I can't do it all myself. I wouldn't want to do it all myself.

But you're hardly staying at home, meekly ...

The calling of God is like a little puppy dog chasing you, nipping at your heels. "Pick me up, pick me up, pick me up." And that little dog will not stop running after you till you pick it up. Once you get the calling of God on your life and God says, "I want you to work for me," you can never lay it down.

Has anyone in your family fallen away from the church?

Oh, many. My own son drifted away from God. He was on drugs and an alcoholic. Oh yeah, of course they have, but they've all come back.

What's your son doing these days?

He's a preacher. He preaches better than his dad -- and his dad was a good preacher. He goes all over the country, preaching to young people.

When he was in his drug phase ...

That's when his dad was in prison.

Did you feel somewhat responsible for that?

Oh, course I did. But even if you feel responsible for it, you still have to do something. So I just loved him. I didn't understand drugs, I didn't understand alcoholism. So all I did was clean his room, feed him food, love him, wash his clothes and then when he wasn't looking pray for him, back in the bedroom on my knees.

And yet you, at least according to the documentary, also had a struggle with addiction at one point.

I had a struggle with a little prescription pill called Ativan because I was feeling like I was having a heart attack all the time. I was stressed. And when I would take an Ativan, that would go away. Now, if you were feeling like you were having a heart attack all the time, you'd want something to take it away. It's a very scary thing. I've learned how to live without it now and how to control that stress in my life, through Betty Ford. That was the best thing that ever happened to me. To go there and get knowledge. And that knowledge set me free. I just cold-turkeyed it.

Do you think you have an addictive personality?

No, not at all. I don't think I have an addictive personality. Because I don't know of another thing I've ever been addicted to -- ever. Well, shopping.

Whatever works.

It's so funny because I'll go out shopping. And I'll hear women whistling and singing and humming. And I never see women as happy as when they're out shopping.

So what made you decide to get eyeliner, eyebrows and lip liner permanently tattooed on your face? That's a bold move.

No, it's not a bold move. I tattooed around my eyes because I line them anyway. I tattooed my eyebrows on because they were gone from pulling them out so much when I was a little girl. When we were young ladies we all plucked them real thin and they never grew back in. So I had to do that. The only thing I wish I wouldn't have done was the lining of my lips, but that's all faded now, so it's about gone.

It must have been incredibly painful.

It was. Yeah. It felt like fire. I thought, man, I don't want to go to hell after that.

And the beauty mark you have tattooed on your face?

I did that way after. And I cover it up now.

So, plastic surgery: When you wrote the book you hadn't had any.

No, I still haven't. I want to do this [pulls skin on face taut] so bad. But I haven't been able to get brave enough to do plastic surgery. Now I love liposuction. See, because your clothes can cover that if they mess up. But what can you cover your face with if they mess up? And I don't like to see women who look as if they're in perpetual surprise. So I may not ever get my face done. I just may age gracefully.

What made you decide to do lipo?

Oh, that was years ago. But I was a very round little woman. I was that old-fashioned hourglass figure and all the sand had fallen into the bottom.

What's your house like?

I have just a simple little two-story Southern home on a cul de sac, but inside, it's really fun. It looks like television sets everywhere, because I have two life-size dolls that are wearing my clothes that are sitting in the dining room drinking tea. I have them set up like a little tea party. They used to be on the bed, but I took them off because they used to scare everybody when they walked in the bedroom. So now they're sipping tea in the dining room.

So you eat your meals next to them?

No, I don't eat my meals there. I never go in the dining room. That's why they're sitting there. I eat in the kitchen. [Laughs]

So do you collect anything?

Oh my gosh, I have this horrible thing for purses. And I used to collect baby dolls. I just love 'em. I just love to look at 'em.

You waited for a while to have kids.

Nine years, because Jim wouldn't let me have any kids. He didn't want children because he was too interested in building a ministry and all. I was such a part of that that he felt that children didn't belong in our lives. Me, I had the heart of a mom and I would beg God -- beg -- for a baby. And then finally after eight years, I went to the doctor to make sure I was all right. I told Jim, I gotta have a baby. So he let me. Then after the first one, he wanted 10. Yeah, forget that. It took me two days of screaming to get the first one here. I had the second one Cesarean section and then it was all over. You go to sleep and wake up and there it is.

Well, you have the scar to show for it.

You know, I've got a 9-inch scar from my cancer surgery and I thought, wouldn't it be fun to go to a tattoo artist and have him tattoo a zipper? Wouldn't that be fun? I think that would be so funny. Or like a rose stem or something?

Why not? As you like to say, if life gives you lemons ...

Make some lemonade.

If life gives you a scar ...

Make a zipper.

What are your days like now?

It goes between cleaning the house and scrubbing toilets and picking up wee-wee from the puppies. I use more Clorox Cleanup than any human being in the world with those two little puppies of mine, Muffin and Tuppins. I also make cigar-box purses, as a hobby.

What's a cigar-box purse?

Oh man, they are darling. I go to the cigar store and get empty cigar boxes. I drill holes in them, put a handle on them and they've already got the paraphernalia on them to close them. I use my cigar-box purses all the time.

So does it cut down on your purse shopping?


How did I know you were going to say that?


So you have a reality TV project coming up?

Yeah, I do.

And what's that about?

They lock you in a house for -- oh, oops! It's supposed to be a surprise.

So it's not like an Anna Nicole thing where the camera follows you around.

No, they wanted to. I was approached to do a reality series but I said my life is too boring. How many times can you clean up puppy wee-wee and commodes and make beds and all that?

Do you ever feel like you can't leave the house without makeup? Is it a burden, carrying your image around?

Well, I never have left the house without my makeup, but see, I do my makeup for me. I don't do it for other people, so that's no burden. The first thing I do in the morning is put my makeup on. It just takes me five or 10 minutes. I just put it on and go do my thing. So even if I don't go out of the house I put my makeup on.

If you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one makeup item with you, what would it be?

Eyeliner. You can do without the eyelashes, you can do without the mascara, but you can't do without the eyeliner.

So what else do you have coming up?

I have a variety show for television that I think will be lots of fun. It's going to be like "Tammy's House Party" which I used to do at PTL. We're gonna syndicate it if we can.

Is it Christian or secular?

It's going to be both, a good mixture.

What kind of projects have you been approached with that you've turned down?

I won't do anything with any pornography connected to it. I won't do Comedy Central. I won't do any shows where I have to pretend to be mean. I will only be real. I've turned down many, many shows. In fact, I've turned down almost a show a week.

When you say real, you mean be you?

No, I don't mind acting, but I'm not going to act the part of somebody mean or I'm not going to go on a reality show that is rigged.

Honesty sounds like it's really important to you.

Honesty to me is the most important thing in life because I think if you lose honesty you've lost everything.

So it's ironic that one of the things that you and Jim Bakker were being accused of was dishonesty.

Yes, it is ironic. Neither one of us can believe it. And the people that know us can't believe it.

So there was no truth to any of the allegations?

No, there was no truth. The newspapers absolutely made up things. There was no money misuse. There was no misuse of finances.

Do you think you just got too big for your britches and so the world just wanted to bring you down?

I think the world just likes to build people up and then bring them down. I think that's human nature, which is really very sad. You build someone up and then you knock 'em down. Then you love to see them fall down. I think that's very sad.

Are you worried that if you get built up too much again the same thing can happen again?

I'll probably die before that. [Laughs]

By Amy Reiter

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