The Wild, Misunderstood Life of Tammy Faye

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Televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker Messner died Friday of cancer. Jacki Lyden talks with filmmaker Fenton Bailey, who co-directed the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye.


She was known for her bouffant hairdos, false eyelashes and over-the-top demeanor. Today, a private funeral was held for Tammy Faye Messner, who died on Friday after an extended battle with cancer.

The former Mrs. Jim Bakker rose to prominence after she and her husband split from televangelist Pat Robertson's "700 Club" and formed their own "PTL," or "Praise the Lord Club." Scandals involving her former husband's sex life and financial improprieties undid them. Jim Bakker went to prison in 1989. In 1998, filmmaker Fenton Bailey co-directed the documentary "The Eyes of Tammy Faye."

Mr. Bailey is on the line with me now from Los Angeles. Hello.

Mr. FENTON BAILEY (Co-director, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye"): Hi, there.

LYDEN: You know, Tammy Faye Bakker - that's how I think of her - had such a huge outsized presence in the 1980s and it seemed that she was constantly surrounded in controversy back then. Now that she passed away, do those controversies seem as integral to her character as they did back then?

Mr. BAILEY: I think she outlived the controversies and I think that people came to understand in the years since the scandals, they were really more the victim of a, sort of, witch hunt, which kind of characterized a lot of the '80s.

LYDEN: Why do you think she retains so much popularity through the years, no matter what her husband did, even when he was not seen so positively?

Mr. BAILEY: Well, I think she had a seemingly effortless ability to be herself and to connect with people via the television cameras. She was incredibly positive, just never succumbed to business or resentment or anger about what had happened to her and Jim and what had happened to their ministry. She was a genius communicator and she had a huge heart.

LYDEN: Many aspects of her life seemed to be at odds with others. At the end, she had always been a passionate evangelical Christian but then she devoted the fanbase(ph) among gay people and drag queens, RuPaul narrates your documentary. She was also one of the first televangelists to reach out to those with AIDS. How did she come to that kind of awareness and acceptance?

Mr. BAILEY: I think that she was not, in any way, an exclusionary Christian who believed she was saved and that other people were damned. She was very opened-arm to all people. You know, she was first and foremost, I guess, a humanist, and people just loved that.

LYDEN: Fenton Bailey co-directed the film "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," which was released in 2000. The subject of that film, Tammy Faye Messner, died this past Friday at the age of 65.

Mr. Bailey, thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. BAILEY: Thanks so much.

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