Tammy Faye dead at 65

Tammy Faye Messner, whose can-do Christian cheer helped her survive the PTL scandal and forge a second career as a pop-culture queen, died Friday after battling cancer for more than a decade.

She was 65. News of her death was posted on her Web site Saturday night. For Tammy Faye, like Elvis, no last name was necessary.

She came to fame in the late 1970s as half of the televangelism team -- Jim and Tammy Bakker -- that founded the PTL empire in Fort Mill which grew to include a hotel, campground and Christian theme park. On the "Jim and Tammy" TV show, she sang about Jesus and shed countless mascara-tinged tears, bringing ever greater support and donations from the faithful -- and mounting ridicule from skeptics.

By the late 1980s, the first couple of Christian TV were in disgrace amid a flurry of damaging headlines: that Jim Bakker had a sexual encounter with church secretary Jessica Hahn, that he and associates had paid hush money to keep her quiet and that PTL had defrauded thousands of followers by overselling "lifetime partnerships" at its Heritage Grand hotel.

The PTL (for Praise the Lord) story eventually faded. But the public's fascination with Tammy Faye -- and her own determination to re-invent herself -- never dimmed.

In her post-PTL life, Messner grabbed the occasional spotlight by playing herself on TV sitcoms and reality shows, selling "Tammy Faye Celebrity Wigs" (16 different colors), and publishing a 1996 autobiography that mostly blamed the downfall of PTL on others.

The 4-foot-11 singer, whose first fans were conservative Christians, also developed a late-in-life cult following among gays, many of whom admired her spunk and her over-the-top style.

This year, Messner moved from her home in Matthews, N.C., to Kansas City, Mo., where the children and grandchildren of her church contractor husband, Roe Messner, live.

In May, she had this message for her fans posted on www.tammyfaye.com: "The doctors have stopped trying to treat the cancer and so now it's up to God and my faith. And that's enough!"

Messner, weighing 65 pounds, appeared on CNN's Larry King show last week to say that she was relying on her faith in God to get her through the final stages of her life.

She is survived by her husband and her two children with Bakker. Both followed their parents into the evangelism business: Tammy Sue Chapman is a Christian singer, and son Jamie Charles -- known as Jay -- branded his body with Jesus tattoos, created the Revolution Church and starred in a documentary series on the Sundance Channel called "One Punk Under God."

Love changed everything

The former Tamara Faye LaValley was born on March 7, 1942, the oldest of eight children in International Falls, Minn., along the Canadian border. The family was so poor, they didn't have an indoor bathroom.

But little Tammy had talent: Urged on by her music-loving mother, she was singing before church audiences by age 3.

In 1960, she met Jim Bakker. Both were students at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. He was a smooth-talking young evangelist whose first date with Tammy offered a whisper of the faith and romance to come. They went to church, then he kissed the petite 17-year-old.

"I had never given a boy a kiss on a first date," she once said. "But that wasn't going to stop me now. I reached over and kissed him, and 'Wow!' I, too, was in love."

They married on April 1, 1961, then set out together to preach -- and, in her case, sing -- about the joy of Jesus.

A pastor's invitation brought them to North Carolina.

Traveling from church to church led them to a big idea.

Premiering their PTL Club show from an old furniture store in Charlotte in 1974, they got their first chance to blend Christianity and talk-show-style entertainment -- something that hadn't been done before in quite that fashion.

Using their TV show as the magnet, they opened Heritage USA in Fort Mill in 1978, dreaming of a Christian complex that could entertain and inspire. It would also bring them a luxurious lifestyle and the attention of presidents. Before long, they'd transformed the 2,300-acre site south of Charlotte into a Christian version of Walt Disney World.