Two years ago, filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato tracked her down and convinced her to tell her side of the fall of the televangelism empire she and Jim Bakker built together. The result, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," comes to theaters this weekend. It is a powerful, surprising portrait of a woman the filmmakers call the "muse of American televangelism," a poignant coda to a uniquely American life.
From her home in Charlotte, N.C., Tammy Faye Messner recently spoke about the debacle of the PTL scandal, her feelings on being unfairly judged in the past, and how "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" is setting the record straight. Always a lover of conversation, Tammy Faye was extremely open and cheerful, thrilled about the forthcoming release of the film, and about her new career as a spokesperson for traveling flea markets, where she meets and mingles with many of the people who once faithfully watched her on PTL.
Was it a difficult decision to do this film?
I was completely opposed to it at first, but [Bailey and Barbato] talked me into it. I trusted them because they had been there for me in the past. It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life, to go back and revisit all that pain. But [Jim and I] never had a chance to tell our side of the story, and I felt like I could trust them. I thank God every day now that I did it. Still, it was very hard to go back. I had just managed to forgive all those people--I had just been able to start watching Jerry Falwell on the television without wishing bad things to him.
What would you say the film's message is?
Never say never, and never give up. I think it has a good message for young people--no matter how dark it is, there’s always sunshine.
Some people felt very betrayed by the PTL scandal. Do you encounter that sentiment from people still?
If they gave to God, I bet they aren’t angry. People come up to me all the time at the flea markets crying and saying, "We miss PTL so bad. We lived for it!" I have not met a person yet who felt betrayed. I am not saying they are not out there, but I have not found one person yet who was angry.
Tell me about your experience with gays and lesbians. One of the surprising revelations is the film is that you've had a long history of supporting them.
My heart went out to them when I first heard the word AIDS. I have a love for them. The gay community took care of me literally while my [second] husband Roe was in prison. There was one gay man who sent me $1,000 every month, and I always had flowers and cards and things like that coming from the gay community when no one else would even speak to me. I will love them forever.
But doesn’t the Bible condemn homosexuality?
The Bible says ‘Judge not lest ye be judged.’ Our lives are supposed to be hospitals, not courtrooms. Religious people today are courts and juries. When it comes down to it, Jesus died on the cross so that we could learn to love others like we love ourselves, not judge them or persecute them. Yet these people today who are supposed to be Christians are the first ones to pick up The Globe, The Star and The National Enquirer. And they are supposed to be good Christians?
What was it like going to Sundance Film Festival [where the film was shown in February] and being the center of attention again?
I never in my whole life experienced something like that. Having the young people come up to me and hug me and say "Tammmy, we really love you!" It was awesome! I was extremely surprised and stunned. I could not believe how much they understood me. I think young people are confused today. When I was young, we had role models, and there aren’t so many anymore. We need more people like that.
In the film, you were living alone in Palm Springs, California. Why the move to North Carolina?
[Laughs] Grandchildren! I wanted to be close to them, and this is where my daughter lives. You know, when I was a little girl, my grandmother was my best friend, and she spoke so much into my life--things I still live by--and I wanted to be able to do the same for my grandchildren. This past Mother’s Day was the first time I’ve been with my daughter in several years.
What are you doing for work these days?
Well, I’m a spokesperson for high-end flea markets in Florida and Arizona, and I’ve never been so happy in a long time. I’m also speaking at various church events and women’s conferences. Then we just did "Larry King Live," and it was the first time the family had been together as a whole since Jim [Bakker] got out of prison.
Any possibility of you returning to something like PTL in the future?
Jim is trying to get something started right now, but not with me. And I’ve been approached by people like Roseanne Barr and Rosie O’Donnell and Larry King, who have been so nice to me and supportive. But really, TV was just a way for [Jim and I] to reach out to people and love them. That’s all it ever was.
Do you think this film will vindicate you and Jim Bakker?
I don’t really care about being vindicated. I pray that it will give hope to other people and that it will make them not be so gullible when it comes to believeing what they read in the papers or see on TV. People think that if they read something in the newspaper or see it on TV, it has to be true. Well, we invited journalists into our home and opened up to them and tried to give them the whole truth about PTL, but they came with their stories already written and their minds already made up. It’s funny--people used to throw Christians to the lions. Now they just throw them to the press.