Like any gay man worth his salt, I was drawn to Tammy Faye the first time I laid eyes on her sometime back in the 80's when she hosted the PTL show with her ex, Jim Bakker.
Back in those days, I watched a lot of religious programing because I felt that something was going on in the country, and these whack-jobs with their TV shows were starting to build a head of steam ... little did I know what was to come. I had a professor in a communications class back then when I was in college, and he was telling us to keep an eye on these TV preachers; that they were getting their guns loaded and that a lot of them understood the, relatively new, power of cable and satellite TV.
So I watched them all, Pat Robertson and his down home snakey charm on his 700 Club, Jerry Falwell and his smug puss glaring at me from his Old Time Gospel Hour show (not much old time gospel going on, just a lot of political pontificating), and of course Jim and Tammy.
Unlike the others, Jim and Tammy never made me nervous, they never filled me with dread or made me fear that they had some grand plan to take over the country ... no, I kind of admired their folksy charm and their happy message. I also realized that they liked what most Americans of the 80's enjoyed, they liked living large!
Jim had built his studio and his theme park, and he made no bones about asking for more money to make it all bigger and better. Meanwhile, his wife would be all bubbly and goofy; and then conversely, at the drop of a dime, she'd turn on the water works and that make up would run and she'd look like Alice Cooper.
I laughed a lot at Tammy and her running make up.
One of my best friends from college, Andy, and I sort of became fans. We even discussed a trip to Heritage USA -- we wondered what would happen if they discovered that two homosexuals were going to ride the water slide there -- we never did make it , life got in the way.
The years went by, Andy went his way, I went mine. But we kept in touch.
When the scandal hit, Andy called me at work one afternoon and asked me if I was following the news about PTL.
Of course I was!
We laughed a lot over the mess the Bakkers had made and wondered if poor Tammy was going to have a melt down. Personally, I was glad that they were busted. I felt bad for the stupid people that had sent them money. I figured that the Bakkers, if nothing else, had a few bucks in the bank, and would be just fine.
Then I heard that Falwell had screwed them over. But then, that should have come as no surprise, the man was pond-scum through and through.
Eventually the scandal ran its course, Jim went to jail and Tammy kind of faded from view.
A few years ago, a documentary called The Eyes of Tammy Faye came out, and on Christmas of that year, Andy sent me a copy.
I watched it and thought it was a decent movie, but it was obvious that the filmmakers (who are gay by the way), really liked their subject, so it was not very objective. But, it did present the woman as less of a cartoon character and more of a human being. I was shocked to see that the bubbly goofy, tear prone woman was not an act. What you saw, was what you got (beneath all of that makeup).
In watching the film, Tammy sort of reminded me of some women I have known; happy-go-lucky, charismatic, concerned with outward appearances, not very bright, but basically good hearted. In a way, Tammy Faye was a lot like the South Philadelphia women I remember from my childhood. Just change the religion to Catholic, and add a few cocktails and there they were.
A little while later, Tammy reemerged in the public eye. She did a little guest stint on Roseanne's sitcom as a make up artist, and then she showed up on a reality program (befriending people like Porn Star, Ron Jeremy) ... the more I saw of her, the more I grew to genuinely like her.
During this time, she briefly hosted a TV show with Jim J. Bullock (a gay man), wrote a book, battled cancer, and made the rounds of all the talk shows.
Tammy proved that in life THERE ARE second acts.
Sadly, there are also third acts, and hers was tragic.
Tammy and Jim's son, Jay Bakker, had his own reality show last year on the Sundance channel. Like his dad, Junior Bakker is also a preacher. However, this guy is shaking the religious right to it's core with his embrace (not tolerance mind you, but embrace) of gays and lesbians who he feels are not damned at all ... one can not help but think that his mother helped him come to this conclusion.
It was during one of the episodes of Jay's show that we saw Tammy again, and saw how sick she had become.
Her cancer had returned in earnest and the old girl was fading fast.
And then of course, last week, Tammy was on Larry King's show, just a shell of her former self, down to what she claimed was only 65 pounds, gasping for every breath ... but still being as earnest and bubbly as ever.
Tammy claimed that she still had her faith, and she could not wait to go to heaven during that interview.
Of course she died a few days later.
Her death, of course, has been treated like a three ring circus, moving to the top of most news shows (because, you know, nothing else of any great importance is going on in the world). So called "entertainment" programs run pieces of her last interview right after the latest Paris Hilton bit of fluff ... I'm sure it's only a matter of time before a national day of mourning is decreed.
Myself, I mourn the passing of a genuine character. I seriously doubt she had no idea that her ex husband was not ripping off money at the height of PTL, but I also believe, that in her heart of hearts, she saw nothing wrong with what he was doing, in her heart of hearts she probably thought that all of the riches bestowed upon her and her family were god's way of saying, "Nice work, Tammy and Jim", because I think that's how she saw god, as a benevolent buddy.
I also believe, that Tammy did see good in everyone. That while she might have lived in her own little mascara festooned bubble, she felt that she was doing the best she could and so was everyone else.
And that's what I hope her legacy is all about. Not the scandal, not the makeup running down her face, but the belief that we are all doing the best we can... amen.