When I returned from my glorious weekend in Vail, I was saddened to hear about the passing of Tammy Faye. (Yeah, she's got a bunch of last names but really, how many Tammy Fayes' are there?)
I was actually surprised at my own response, "Oh, no!" In general, I loathe Christian TV evangelists who steal from their loyal congregants, women who wear too much make-up and phonies in general. So, why would I care if Tammy Faye walked the earth or not? Why did I not have the same reaction when I heard about the passing of Jerry Falwell: "Well, that took waaaaaay too long!"
There are two men I blame for my attitude reversal, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, directors of the documentary, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye." I Netflixed this film several months ago, specifically so I could laugh and gawk at this ridiculous woman. (FACT: I am an asshole.) Instead, I ended up with an unavoidable affection for the strong little lady who insisted on being herself, even as her world came crashing down while all of society mocked her.
Admittedly, I knew nothing about her past - that she and Jim (still creepy, after all these years) Bakker had been pioneers in Christian broadcasting, twice building empires from the ground up. I also did not realize what a large role Jerry Fucking Falwell and Pat "I Actually Work For Satan" Robertson played in the PTL scandal.
What struck me the most about the film was how her actions consistently matched her words. No one questions that she was the first among Christian celebrities to stand up and offer comfort to AIDS patients ... in 1985! That's really early, folks. Shockingly, other so-called Christians weren't as quick to embrace the mostly gay male victims of the mysterious new disease. When her own fans recoiled instead, she was openly disgusted:
"How sad that we as Christians, who are to be the salt of the earth, and we, who are supposed to be able to love everyone, are afraid so badly of an AIDS patient that we will not go up and put our arm around them and tell that that we care."
She was genuinely confused about their hesitation - after all, isn't this what Jesus would do? Watching her shake that fiery little fist on the air, I saw a real naivete that became more and more apparent throughout the film. I had been too busy judging her public persona and somewhat distracted by eighty layers of mascara. Turns out, Tammy Faye was no phony, she'd been this way all along and continued to be exactly who she was long after the world had dispensed of her.
I also began to see a LOT of Dolly Parton in Tammy Faye and let us not forget the gospel of Dolly: "You wouldn't believe how expensive it is to look this cheap."
I couldn't help myself - by the end of the film, I wanted to hug TF and take her to lunch. Despite the fact that she looks kinda freaky and has the voice of ... well, if cute bunnies got angry and could talk, this what they would sound like.
After some contemplation, I could pinpoint the source of my unexpected affection - she was a real Christian! Who knew? Sadly, I only know a handful of these folks, people who actually have their hearts open and love all mankind, y'know, like Jesus? Others who like to hide behind the Christian name meanwhile passing judgement upon others while spewing hatred and fear toward anyone who is different, those are the Christians who have claimed the airwaves, not to mention the White House. I detest them. Trouble is, they often use the same words, quote the same Bible and invite you to the same friendly BBQs. I am notoriously wary about these folks. As Johnny Cash sang, "You're so heavenly minded, you're no earthly good." Amen.
Tammy Faye was, ultimately, a good sport. Little known fact: The quickest way to Heather's heart is self-deprecation. When Tammy Faye started to re-emerge on the public scene, she appeared on The Drew Carey Show, playing the mother of character Mimi Bobek (Kathy Kinney, at right), also known for wearing excessive amounts of makeup. She then appeared on VH1's reality series, "The Surreal Life" in which Tammy Faye, Ron Jeremy, Vanilla Ice, Traci Bingham (who?), Erik Estrada and Trishelle Cannatella (WHO?!?) all lived together in LA.
Evidently, Tammy Faye forged close bonds with all her house mates, many of whom came to look up to her as a mother figure and a spiritual inspiration. She encouraged the household to "grant themselves permission to cast off the things that are holding them back, to forgive themselves and others, to be happy with themselves whoever they are, to persevere in the face of opposition, and to show each other unconditional love." Her speech moved the cast to tears; Bingham later confessed that it had been a "life-altering moment" for her.
At the end of the show, Tammy Faye said she thought of Vanilla Ice and Trishelle Cannatella as children and could relate to them deeply. Tammy Faye as Vanilla Ice's adopted mama? It doesn't get weirder than this, folks.
Point is, Tammy Faye, when all was said and done, walked the walk. Coming from a non-Christian (not quite anti- but often veeeeery close) such as myself, this speaks volumes. She made me realized I had judged her, the very behavior that I so detest in others. Who could have possibly guessed that Tammy Faye would end up teaching me such a lesson? I hope they give her lots of puppets, microphones and lash applicators in the clouds.
Rest in peace, TF.