I Gotta Be Me By Tammy Bakker (With Cliff Dudley)

(Click here for information on the 2022 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. This week, the second selection, Tammy Faye [Bakker] Messner’s I Gotta Be Me

There may be three feet of snow on the ground in Buffalo, New York, but Constant Readers, it can be summer in our hearts! Put on your pink dotted-swiss sundress and matching floppy hat and join me as I try to extract myself from the months-long odyssey I have taken down the wormhole of late 20th century televangelism.

gotta be me

As I hinted, the reason why this is so late is the more I learned about Tammy Faye the more I wanted to learn, resulting in research encompassing not only the official Imaginary Summer Book Club title, but also John Wigger’s recent book PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire; the 2000 documentary film The Eyes of Tammy Faye; the 2021 Jessica Chastain-starring, Oscar-winning biopic of the same name; the 1990 made-for-TV movie Fall From Grace starring Bernadette Peters and (boo, hiss) Kevin Spacey; the episode of the podcast You’re Wrong About featuring a lengthy interview with Chastain and how she brought her passion project to fruition over the course of a decade; and finally, Jim and Tammy’s diet book How We Lost Weight & Kept It Off (Foreword by Pat and Shirley Boone), at which point I started to wonder why friends were avoiding me.

In an attempt to organize my thoughts and not just start spewing all of my newfound knowledge and opinions into the internet, I forced myself into making a list of the top five points I wanted to discuss here. This is that list:

tammy faye list

So… still kind of unhelpful.

I kind of hope as a culture we’ve moved past the idea of Tammy Faye as the weepy, money-begging, mascara-dripping bimbo parodied by Saturday Night Live and SCTV, and like Tonya, Monica, Anna Nicole, we can look back give a collective “DUDE. THAT WAS FUCKED UP.”

Wigger’s overview, the latest in a number of accounts of the PTL television ministry (many of which have “rise and fall” in the title) is quite exciting in retelling the early years of Jim and Tammy Bakker’s life together, and their on-the-job education in the ins and outs of TV production in the 1970s, how they help to found all three of the major Christian TV networks (getting squeezed out of the first two when they became more popular personalities than organizations’ actual leaders), going on to found PTL, creating many technological innovations out of necessity, and launching it as the second TV network to distributed by satellite (only HBO beat them to it). The success of the TV network was followed by a number of real estate projects in the American south… you know how you’re watching a documentary on a cult and everything is peace and love and progressive values until out come the machine guns? Well, in this case it’s out comes the amusement park.

For those of us fully outside of the evangelical Christian culture (hi there), for whom the various personalities and scandals tend to blend together, Wigger helpfully notes:

The story of PTL defies the notion that the evangelical resurgence in the 1970s and 1980s was primarily about the rise of fundamentalism and the Religious Right in politics. Jim and Tammy only cared about politics for its celebrity appeal.

At the time, the downfall played out in the media after a decade of investigations into shady financial practices, topped off by paying hush money out of church funds to a 20 year old church secretary in what at the time was characterized as a tawdry sex scandal (and has subsequently been reframed as a horrific gang rape). The Bakkers’ and their associates spending habits were made public, mainly by their successor, Jerry “lesbian witches caused 9-11” Falwell. Jim Bakker was found guilty of fraud and did prison time; Tammy was tried in the court of public opinion and found guilty of tackiness and spent some time in exile, before returning to public life as a gay icon and reality TV star, described by Wigger as “the evangelical Judy Garland,” before dying tragically of lung cancer at the age of 65.

I Gotta Be Me is Tammy’s first (of four!) autobiography, published in 1978, at the very start of PTL’s problems with the FCC, as the organization was being investigated for fundraising on public airwaves for specific projects,  and then spending the money on other church-related projects, a system that Wigger describes integral to the PTL’s business plan, as construction projects ran over-time and -budget, the fastest way to get the money was to announce a new, exciting project, fundraise for it, then spend that money on the old, less exciting project. Illegal, but not very sexy.

I was hard-pressed to find any sources with a word to say against Tammy. Wigger discusses the genuine dedication and long hours that she put into connecting with people, including her work with teenage mothers and in women’s prisons. In the 2000 documentary she meets with Charles Shepard, the Charlotte Observer reporter who dogged PTL’s finances for years before breaking the “scandal”, and she easily charms him, demanding an apology before cheerfully agreeing to autograph a copy of his book.

But even (or especially) in 1978, the men around Tammy refused to take her seriously. In preface by her co-author, Cliff Dudley, he muses

What would sweet little Tammy Faye Bakker have to say about anything?

This is followed by a foreword by born-again music industry producer Gary S. Paxton (with whom Tammy was alleged to have had an affair with around this time) who adds:

If you ever see her or my wife, Karen, either of separately or especially together, slow down, move over to the right and let them pass! They both have enough fuzz between their ears to cover a basketball ten feet in diameter!

In the 1999 documentary Tammy reads a quote from Falwell in which he refers to her as a “loony whose elevator doesn’t go all the way up.”

Which is the main appeal of Chastain’s portrayal of Tammy in the 2021 feature film, recasting her as an everywoman who keeps getting told that she wants too much: too much love, too much sex, too much power, too much say in her own life. Too much make-up, too many fur coats, too much food, too many pills. Way too much Diet Coke.

The figure whose persona (and public’s treatment of) Tammy reminds me most of is Richard Simmons, who has also received some past-due reassessment; what got dismissed as corny empathy schtick 30 years ago… might actually be the real thing? At one point in the documentary (in a scene recreated beat for beat in the 2021 film) Tammy pitches a show to the USA Network in which she’ll go to “tattoo parlors and piercing parlors and places where teenagers hang out” and talk with them about their lives. She calls the concept “Tammy’s Terrific Teens” which is a terrible title, but by this point I think her intent is completely sincere and her vision ahead of its time.

I Gotta Be Me, in true Tammy style, is a mind-bending, stream-of-consciousness journey. She has absolutely no filter, as she off-handedly lays bare grudges with other evangelical leaders and her in-laws, doesn’t think twice about telling her readers about the best flea markets in the area to buy make-up, false eyelashes and deep-discount wigs, and cheerfully exposes her husband’s emotional instability. Seriously, Jim Bakker has a full-on nervous breakdown in every chapter.

And sometimes that lack of filter is downright disturbing. You know that one friend who occasionally offers up a lighthearted childhood anecdote, only everyone is like DUDE. THAT IS FUCKED UP? Tammy is that friend. A story illustrating her love of animals and the close relationship she had with her stepfather goes off the rails pretty quickly:

One winter day something wonderful happened at our house. Daddy came home and as usual we all ran for his lunch pail, but he told us all to stand still a minute and he pulled out from under his coat a tiny, black fuzzy puppy. Us kids went crazy. We named him Smokey.

We had him about ten years, and of course, he grew up from a puppy to a big dog. He was good friend to all of us children.

One hot day some kids came into the yard and a little boy knocked over Smokey’s water bowl. As a result Smokey bit the boy on the cheek. Mom sent us out to the playground and then called my uncle who came a shot Smokey. When we got home we looked and looked for Smokey. We found him in the garbage can. I thought I would die from grief. Part of my “life” seemed to be in that garbage can.

The lack of filter extends to every single aspect of her life, big and small, from discussion of post-partum psychosis following a harrowing labor and delivery of her daughter, Tammy Sue, to her dietary habits.

In We Lost Weight, an overstuffed pamphlet masquerading as book, Jim and Tammy are interviewed about their diet plan. Jim’s answers are slick and evasive, and he immediately falls back on quoting scripture. Tammy on the other hand tells you exactly what you want to know:

When we would go to a movie, I had to have a candy bar, a cold drink, a box of candy coated almonds and buttered popcorn.


Tammy takes a similarly frank view to discussing demonic possession, which she blames for most physical and “nervous” ailments. Which I mean, as a metaphor for mental health… is somewhat reassuring? It’s fine, nothing to be embarrassed about, we all get some demons up inside of us sometimes!

While Chastain’s film ends with Tammy’s return to public life, via a public performance at Oral Roberts University, signifying that she is being accepted back into the evangelical fold… that is probably the least interesting point to end her redemption arc.

The 2000 documentary picks up with Tammy after her divorce from Bakker while he was serving prison time, and she had remarried to Roe Messner, the real estate developer responsible for many PTL projects, including Heritage USA, the theme park that eventually brought it all down. Not until midway through the film is it revealed that Messner is serving out the final weeks of his prison sentence for bankruptcy fraud. After the couple’s reunion, the film follows Tammy’s comeback plans, including the Oral Roberts performance- sadly missing from Chastain’s film is a recreation of the scene in which Tammy’s plane is grounded due to weather and she entertains her traveling companions by putting on a puppet show with one of her wigs.

Tammy’s rise as an icon in gay culture is also touched on, as she finally makes a comeback on TV, cohosting a syndicated talk show with openly gay [this seems like a very strange phrase to be typing in 2022 -Ed.] comedian Jim J. Bullock. Broadcast at the height of 1990’s daytime talk show-mania, the show is a weird time capsule of its era; sadly production was halted after only one season, following the death of Bullock’s longtime partner due to AIDS-related complications, Bullock’s own positive HIV diagnosis and Tammy’s first cancer diagnosis. Bullock is interviewed for both the documentary and Wigger’s book, in which he expresses a great deal of affection for Tammy, but also that she never could quite make the jump from “acceptance” to activism with the gay community.

After her cancer went into remission, Tammy continued to appear on TV (Chastain’s film posits that it was the only thing she knew how to do for a living), including guest spots The Drew Carey Show, before becoming the break-out hit on the 2004 season of VH-1’s The Surreal Life. She was a regular guest on Larry King Live, which is where she made her final public appearance in 2007, looking shockingly frail after having been out of the public eye for a little while. Announcing she was in the final stages of terminal lung cancer, she bid farewell to her fans, specifically singling out the gay community:  “when we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue, and I will always love them for that.”

She died two days later.

Stray Thoughts and Observations:

Ok, how did Jerry Falwell end up in charge of PTL? In Chastain’s film, Tammy expresses bafflement at the idea, pointing out to her then-husband “He’s a fundamentalist, and we’re charismatics!”

Wigger does a great job explaining the difference to people who (like me) don’t really know the difference between the terms evangelical, charismatic, fundamentalist, born-again, etc. and gives a nice overview of the charismatic movement in the United States, and how its working class, multi-racial, and women-lead traditions enabled PTL and the Bakkers to be dismissed as (YES) tacky.

Jim Bakker’s drive for celebrity is also explored throughout the book (one of his high school teachers is quoted as saying he had everything needed to become a rock star except musical talent) (BURN), and it can be easy to accept that Bakker wanted to keep up the level of celebrity, so he handed over PTL to OTHER most famous televangelist at the time (the Bakkers had long claimed that Falwell offered to temporarily take the helm while Jim worked out his legal problems, then turned on them).

BUT! Wigger lays out a whole conspiracy involving the OTHER, OTHER most famous televangelist of the day, Jimmy Swaggart, who of course would soon have his own fall from grace in a sex scandal. But according to Wigger, Swaggart and his wife had a long-time sideline of setting up other successful regional evangelist pastors in compromising positions, blackmailing them, and stealing their “territory” (and funding from their congregation). Swaggart allegedly went to Falwell with his plan to confront Bakker as part of cartel of TV pastors (Pat Robertson and Charles “In Touch” Stanley are named) and take over PTL… but Falwell went rogue with the information and blackmailed Bakker, grabbing the whole Heritage USA pie for himself. Which, lacking the Bakkers charisma, ultimately failed.

While the televangelism of the scandals of the 1980s will always bring to mind the image of little old ladies eating dog food because they sent their social security check to the TV preachers,  even Wigger has to contend:

“Heritage USA was not Jonestown. None of the lifetime partners lost their life savings or had to dramatically alter their lifestyle as a result of PTL’s collapse.”

Wigger both quotes the original court transcripts and interviews former PTL “partners,” and their main complaint about PTL is that after Bakker left, Jerry Falwell was no fun, didn’t share their values, and didn’t keep up maintenance on the theme park (damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the park closed shortly thereafter).

Whither Jim Bakker? Released from prison in 1994, he initially disavowed the “prosperity gospel” that he popularized and eventually lead to his downfall… but the 21st century saw him return to TV and his message get darker and weirder, as he focused on the endtimes, hawking freeze-dried survival rations (“much of it overpriced” according to Wigger), giving a platform to Trump-adjacent conspiracy theorists, and claiming (after the fact) to have had visions portending 9/11 and the Parkland, Florida school shooting.

Oh, and of course in 2020 he was sued by the state of Missouri for promoting sham COVID-19 cures.

In my meaner moments, I am certain that God smote the wrong Bakker.


I Gotta Be Me and How We Lost Weight & Kept It Off are out of print but plentiful used.

PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelic Empire is available in hardcover and paperback

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021) is streaming through HBOmax, Hulu, Amazon, etc.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000) has become very hard to find! I ended up with it on a Dutch import region-2 DVD set with two other documentary features. It is well worth seeking out, especially to hear Tammy muse that while she doesn’t get to say who is hellbound or not, she would advise Jerry Falwell to get right God!

Fall From Grace (1990) is worth seeking out (it is on YouTube) ONLY for a truly iconic performance from Bernadette Peters, casting that manages to get the audience to take Tammy seriously

“You’re Wrong About: Talking Tammy Faye with Jessica Chastain” is an update of the podcast’s original episode on the PTL scandal- definitely go with the updated version, which adds a lengthy interview with Jessica Chastain about how she finally brought Tammy’s story to the big screen.

(Chastain, btw, will be starring as the OTHER Tammy in a miniseries out next month on Showtime, which might be more Everywoman than my poor heart can bear)

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4 Responses to I Gotta Be Me By Tammy Bakker (With Cliff Dudley)

  1. squirreltooth says:

    As a kid growing up in the ’90s, I was mostly familiar with Tammy Faye through her parody in the old Bloom County comic strip anthologies I read, where she was predictably depicted as OTT, garish, untalented, and shrill. So I was surprised to find, during her ’00s renaissance, that she was a warm-hearted, talented, imperfect woman who dared to be quirky and genuine.

    I also always thought her appearances on The Drew Carey Show (she played the mother of Mimi, who loved wearing clownish makeup) was a good example of how Tammy never took herself or her image too seriously.

    • mondomolly says:

      Thanks for commenting! I had forgotten about that whole Bloom County story arc! I do remember the makeup spattered “I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall” T-shirts from the era.

      And I agree, I remember when she was on The Surreal Life and it’s like… wow, she’s actually kind of…cool.

      And she certainly had a sense of humor about her image, I could have gone on for another 1,000 words about her underappreciated talent for performing and puppetry- she was really good in a medium that is usually dismissed as a joke.

  2. Oh man, this was fascinating! Thank you for doing that level of research because I honestly might’ve gotten too mad after awhile. I knew some of this, that a good amount of these people are god-awful and that Tammy got a terrible rap, but not at this level! This makes me hate certain people (like Falwell, whose grave I still intend to dance on one day, preferably whilst wearing my pentacle and waving a pride flag– we all have a dream, right?) even more, and respect and appreciate Tammy even more. I cackled at your list (damn, some of those…!).

    I kind of hope as a culture we’ve moved past the idea of Tammy Faye as the weepy, money-begging, mascara-dripping bimbo parodied by Saturday Night Live and SCTV, and like Tonya, Monica, Anna Nicole, we can look back give a collective “DUDE. THAT WAS FUCKED UP.”

    I too first encountered Tammy through the old Bloom County cartoons I was reading both way too young and many years past their original publication date (side note: I wonder how much of that content Berkeley Breathed would walk back knowing what we know now, like your important note about Jessica Hahn– of course, the same could be said for SNL). But her subsequent TV appearances showed a lovely, funny, empathetic person and finding decades later that absolutely heartbreaking 1985 interview with Steve Pieters which is so revolutionary in so many ways (Gods, can you imagine telling them in 1985 that over thirty-five years later, she’d be gone of lung cancer but he’d still be alive and well?) really made me realize she was something else.

    Those stories are both wild and fascinating (and absolutely horrifying; poor Smokey, poor little Tammy– Jesus!) and it’s definitely depressing that she’s gone but her shitty husband is still alive, basically doing his same shtick. I’m so happy she at least got a redemption, though.

    Always love your deep dives! I would’ve resisted this book for fear I’d get too mad at certain people, but you’ve made it pretty hard to resist!

    • mondomolly says:

      Gemma, thanks so much for this long and thought-out comment, this is the kind of stuff I love to read!

      I am constantly commenting that the 1990s were a very strange time to come of age as a young woman, and all the things you mention are a part of that (my local station reran an SNL from the late 90s and Weekend Update was dragging both Monica and Linda Tripp and it was appalling and *lazy* It’s not funny now, it wasn’t funny in 1998 either. I also had a lengthy sidebar about how THE NINETIES started in 1987 with “The Year of the Bimbo” and concluded around the time Britney Spears had her public breakdown, that unfortunately had to be cut for space…)

      Oh, and when they had the “what happened to…” notes at the end of Jessica Chastain’s movie and they got to Steve Pieters still being alive I was definitely loudly sobbing in public, no apologies.

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