What Happened To Tammy Faye Bakker?

For many, the idea that a televangelist who got their start as a sock puppeteer could become a celebrity and LGBTQ icon seemed almost incomprehensible, if not impossible. That is, until Tammy Faye Bakker came along. Bakker, who was the subject of the acclaimed 2000 documentary "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," is once again the subject of public discourse after the release of a biopic of the same name this September, with Oscar-winner Jessica Chastain in the titular role. 

Using the original documentary as source material, the new film explores Bakker's rise as one of the founding forces of televangelism, which she did alongside her husband Jim Bakker, and her eventual fall. Much of the latter was due to her husband's fraudulent use of funds donated by followers and his attempts to pay off a woman he had allegedly sexually assaulted, per ABC News. But Tammy Faye's ongoing substance abuse at the time also seemed to play a part. 

As Today noted in a profile of Tammy Faye's daughter, Tammy Sue, much of Jim's crimes and misdeeds were overshadowed by the public's willingness to instead lampoon Tammy Faye. As explained by the podcast "You're Wrong About" (via Today), this manifested in ridiculing her appearance, her voice, and her demeanor. Though Tammy Faye later resurrected herself as a reality TV personality in the aughts, the diaphanous aftermath of the Bakkers' downfall deeply affected her for the rest of her life.

Tammy Faye Bakker's unlikely rise to fame began with sock puppets

When Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband, Jim Bakker, started The PTL Club in 1972, neither one of them could imagine it would become popular enough among American evangelical Christian viewers to launch not only a de facto media empire but also the entire advent of televangelism as a broadcasting mainstay. At the time, the Bakkers were already TV veterans. In 1965, the couple created and aired their children's television show "Come on Over," which was eventually renamed "The Jim and Tammy Show" and featured both Jim and Tammy Faye using songs and sock puppets to entertain viewers with Christian-based themes, per The Virginian-Pilot

As John Wigger, author of "PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's Evangelical Empire," said to ABC News in 2019, Jim desired to branch out into the domain of adult viewership and pitched "a Christian version of The Tonight Show" to Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network. The show ultimately manifested as the long-running "The 700 Club," which Robertson hosted, per Biography

However, the Bakkers' partnership with Robertson didn't last, with both parting ways in the early '70s. Rather than licking their wounds, Jim and Tammy Faye decided to create their own Christian television network, naming it the PTL Satellite Network after the aforementioned PTL Club, with the initials "PTL" shorthand for the phrase "Praise the Lord." 

Tammy Faye Bakker was a Christian television trailblazer

"The PTL Club," Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker's talk show on the network of the same name, ran from 1976 to 1987, per Biography. Unlike much of the televangelist fare of today, "The PTL Club" was considered groundbreaking for the types of issues discussed and the guests they invited to speak on-air. 

Possibly the most well-known example of this was an interview Tammy Faye conducted in 1985, in which she spoke with Steve Pieters, a gay man living with HIV at the height of the AIDS epidemic, per NBC News. (Other topics which were considered unusual and innovative for a Christian network to facilitate then — and to wit, even now — included penile implants, which led to a bona fide deluge of mail inquiring about pamphlets for the procedure.) 

Tammy Faye's unorthodox take on the Christian principles of loving one's neighbor would eventually lead to her status as a gay icon. As Bakker's friend Reverend Mel White told The Guardian in 2000, Tammy Faye was a kind of Christian "PTL Club" viewers had rarely encountered. "Her fans were people who grew up in a very fundamentalist tradition, not being able to wear make-up, or dance, or go out in public," he explained. "So here comes Tammy, with her dyed hair and make-up, her ebullient spirit and outspoken ways with both men and women. She talked about sex, and flirted with Jimmy. She took on the caricature of an obedient wife, and blasted it."

Tammy Faye Bakker's fall from grace was replete with scandal

In the late 1980s, it seemed Tammy Faye Bakker and Jim Bakker were infallible. Their success led to other money-making ventures, including the development of a Christian theme park named Heritage USA in the same location as their network headquarters near Charlotte, North Carolina. But two major scandals would eventually thwart their de facto faith-based empire. 

In 1987, Tammy Faye was admitted to the Betty Ford Center for substance use disorder, per ABC News. The same year, Jim Bakker's fraudulent use of donations was also discovered, which included a large payment made to a woman named Jessica Hahn, who he had allegedly sexually assaulted, the outlet reported. But rather than the public focusing on Jim's illegal activities, it was Tammy Faye who became the subject of ire.

In his 2019 analysis of why the tide turned on Tammy Faye, podcast host Michael Hobbes (via Today) speculated that Tammy Faye's appearance, which veered toward the outlandish, was a physical manifestation of her husband's greed, which was then projected onto Tammy Faye — even though she hardly had anything to do with the business dealings of their network. "For a woman to be greedy is worse than for a man to be a rapist," he explained. "[Post-scandal] she becomes the face of everything that was wrong with PTL because she wore the extravagant outfits, the jewelry, she had the shopping sprees and fancy home decoration."

Tammy Faye Bakker died after her comeback

After years of enduring public ridicule and scorn — years which also saw Tammy Faye Bakker divorce from her husband and remarry — the usurped one-time queen of televangelism made a comeback, of sorts, part of which was spurred by the 2000 release of the documentary "The Eyes of Tammy Faye." 

Embracing her status within the LGBTQ community, the former Christian TV personality appeared in a number of Pride marches over the years and publicly expressed her shared sense of affinity with queer people worldwide. She told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 2002, "I think I have a lot in common with the gay population because they've been made fun of and put down and misunderstood and have really had a rough row to hoe in life." She also became a reality television star, appearing on VH1's "The Surreal Life" in the mid-aughts.

But her renaissance would be comparably short-lived. In 2007, Tammy Faye died ten years after receiving a diagnosis of colon cancer, which had metastasized to her lungs, per The New York Times. Shortly before her death, she posted one last message to her fans on her website (via Heavy). "I have times when I feel good and times when I feel really bad," Tammy Faye wrote. "But, I have learned one thing about feelings. They have nothing to do with faith in God!! He is the same yesterday, today and forever."