KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, a former televangelist who helped lead a huge television ministry before its collapse in a sex and corruption scandal, has died, her Web site reported on Saturday.
Messner died on Friday at age 65 after a long battle with cancer. CNN’s Larry King, who interviewed Messner on his “Larry King Live” talk show on Thursday night, said her family had asked him to make the delayed announcement of her death.
“She died peacefully,” King said on CNN’s Web site.
“I believe when I leave this Earth because I love the Lord, I am going straight to heaven,” Messner told King in the interview.
On May 8, Messner, who recently moved to the Kansas City area from Charlotte, North Carolina, posted a message on her Web site, www.tammyfaye.com, saying she had withered to 65 pounds and that doctors had decided to stop treatment, leaving her fate “up to God and my faith.”
Messner was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1996 and announced in 2004 it had spread to her lungs.
In a “final note” posted on her Web site on Monday, Messner said: “I have times when I feel good and times when I feel really bad. 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. He never changes. That is what the Bible says and God’s word does not lie ever.”
With her former husband Jim Bakker, Messner became a household name in America through the PTL organization (“Praise The Lord” or “People That Love”) that he founded in 1974.
Their television evangelical empire brought in close to $130 million annually at its height in the 1980s and reached 13 million homes daily.
Messner was a fixture of her first husband’s ministry, her heavy mascara running riot as she tearfully beseeched TV viewers to open their hearts to Jesus and their wallets to PTL. The ministry’s empire included Heritage USA, a Christian theme park in South Carolina.
Finance and sex scandals brought it all crashing down after the Internal Revenue Service started investigating whether the Bakkers were using their tax-exempt ministry to pay for an opulent lifestyle that mushroomed to include several homes, servants, luxury cars, jewels and an air-conditioned doghouse.
Before the investigation was finished, Jim Bakker resigned from PTL on March 19, 1987, admitting a 1980 sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn, a former church secretary in New York who later sold her story and posed nude for Playboy magazine.
As Bakker’s troubles multiplied, PTL was taken over by rival preacher Jerry Falwell, whom Bakker blamed for the ministry’s eventual collapse.
Bakker was convicted and sentenced to 45 years in prison but the term was reduced to 18 years in August 1991. Tammy Faye, after countless declarations of loyalty to Bakker, subsequently divorced him and later married Christian construction magnate Roe Messner.
In a statement on Saturday night, Bakker said his former wife “lived her life like the song she sang, ‘If Life Hands You a Lemon, Make Lemonade.’”
Messner admitted the demise of PTL and her marriage were a challenge to her faith.
“I was so disappointed that God would allow all that to happen,” Messner told the online magazine Salon in a 2003 interview. “But after the fact I realized that He allowed it for my good.”
She also denied there had been any wrongdoing at PTL.
Tammy Faye LaValley was born in International Falls, Minnesota, on March 7, 1942, the eldest of eight children.
She met Bakker while they were students at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis and, after marrying, they went to work on evangelist Pat Robertson’s television show in 1964.
Her heavy makeup became her trademark and she told Salon she had had eyeliner, eyebrows and lip liner permanently tattooed on her face.