When Tammy Faye Bakker spoke, it was with a high chirrup that evoked Betty Boop. When she sang, she gestured emphatically, as if trying to transmit her song by way of her whole body. She favored big hair and heavy makeup, including the spider’s-leg eyelashes that were her signature, though the lingering image of mascara-blackened tears streaming down her face probably owes more to SCTV and SNL than to her own appearances. Although Bakker—née LaValley, later Messner—did cry a lot on camera, she was adamant about wearing waterproof mascara.
Bakker is remembered for helping her first husband, the televangelist Jim Bakker, build an empire that ruthlessly melded faith and commerce. It makes sense that she would become a camp icon, this straight cis woman who performed femininity with an intensity more often found in drag. And somehow she retained an aura of blamelessness, even when everything collapsed in the late ’80s—when her husband was accused of sexual assault and indicted, then sentenced, for fraud and conspiracy charges—as though her gaudy guilelessness shielded her from any taint of complicity.
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