TOOLING AROUND HER RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif., neighborhood in her husband's white Honda Accord, Tammy Faye Bakker Messner is ticking off the modifications she has made to her once high-flying lifestyle. Six years after her first husband, Jim Bakker, went to prison for defrauding the couple's PTL TV-ministry flock of over $150 million, the former televangelist has sworn off the diamonds and designer finery those ill-gotten gains provided. "I only wear cubics," she chirps, pointing out the swap meet where she now indulges her passion for shopping. "And I don't buy retail."

A glance at her violet lids and lacquered lashes, of course, tells you that Tammy Faye hasn't transformed herself completely. "I'll change my makeup," she proclaims, giggling, "when Dolly Parton has size-32 boobs."

And another remarkable consistency is her taste in men. Later this month, Tammy Faye's second husband, Roe Messner, 60, a church developer and former Bakker associate, is headed for prison, convicted of making false statements and hiding $400,000 in assets during his 1990 bankruptcy proceedings. The conviction—along with Messner's recently diagnosed prostate cancer—so devastated Mrs. Messner that she quit her latest project, The Jim J. and Tammy Faye Show, a two-month-old syndicated talkfest cohosted by her and ex-Too Close for Comfort star Jim J. Bullock. The secular show, which producer Brian Graden described as "Regis and Kathie Lee on acid," had been well-received, but Messner, 53, felt she needed out. "It would be worth it if the efforts were for the work of the Lord," she said in a statement released after her departure last week. "But the rigorous tape schedule and stress...is more than I can handle at this personally difficult time in my life."

Such high-profile turmoil would surely have reduced the old Tammy Faye to mascara-tinted tears. But Messner is facing her troubles with an attitude as determinedly rosy as her rouge-stained cheeks. "Not only am I standing by my man," she says confidently, "I'm standing by a man who is innocent. And I'm doing good. I lost everything once, so now, the worse things get, the harder I laugh."

It's an attitude that would have served her well back in 1987. When the television empire that she and Bakker had created collapsed, "it was the worst time in my life," says Messner, who became addicted to tranquilizers at the height of the PTL debacle. Although she and Bakker haven't spoken since their 1992 divorce, she maintains that the media vilified both of them unfairly. "We lived no differently than any of the other evangelists," she says. "That report about an air conditioner in the dog house was ridiculous—it was an old heater Jim found lying around. And our bathroom fixtures weren't gold-plated; they were brass."

After Jim began his five-year stint in prison in Minnesota and Georgia, it was Roe Messner who helped Tammy Faye pick up the pieces. "I'm a very hyper person," she says, "and Roe is so wonderfully calm. I love his quiet, strong nature." Messner and his wife of 36 years divorced in 1992—before he began dating Tammy Faye, she insists—and he married Bakker in 1993. Her children from her first marriage—Tammy Sue, 25, now a Charlotte, N.C., minister, and Jaime, 20, a seminary student in Atlanta—were so dismayed by the romance that they didn't attend the wedding. "There was naturally some resentment at first," says Tammy Faye's longtime friend Fran Moore, "but they're coming along real good."

Tammy Faye credits Messner with giving her the gumption to say yes when Fox television offered her a talk show in early 1994. "I didn't think I could do it, and he said, 'Yes, you can,' " she says. "I have grown immensely because of Roe."

Cohost Bullock, though, was initially skeptical. "When they first asked me, I said, 'Tammy Faye Eyelash Bakker?!' " he admits. "But we clicked." And though Bullock is openly gay, Tammy Faye was able to put aside her religious objections and enjoy the chemistry. "We like and accept each other," she says.

Still, it soon became obvious that taping three shows a day, three days a week, was wearing her down. Says Bullock, who will carry on with talk show veteran Ann Abernethy: "It was a surprise to Tammy how much work a talk show is. I hope it all works out for her. Having a husband go to jail once in a lifetime is bad enough."

Messner knows she'll get by. While Roe, who will be sentenced March 20, serves up to five years, she plans to finish her autobiography (due out this fall) and promote her own line of inspirational tapes via infomercial. For fun, she'll shop or put-put around in a motorized dinghy at her lakeside condo. And if she cries, it will only be a little. "I always thought I was a wimp," she says. "I found out I'm a tough old broad."

CYNTHIA SANZ
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Rancho Mirage

  • Contributors:
  • John Griffiths.