By People Staff
Updated October 05, 1987 12:00 PM

She could be any starlet in Hollywood, flitting around Sunset Boulevard with her agent and her security people, granting interviews to plug her latest project and fussing with stylists, makeup artists and wardrobe advisers to get just the right look for her cover shots. Her lawyer says she’s about to make it big, with book and movie deals in the works and a $1 million project due out this week. She turns heads when she passes—the face is attractive and oddly familiar—yet her name eludes most sidewalk admirers. In fact the woman is no starlet, and her reported million-dollar project is no TV special. Astonishingly transformed, she is Jessica Hahn, the onetime $80-a-week church secretary who was wronged by Jim Bakker and humiliated by public exposure, and who now returns to the public arena in the November issue of Playboy. In a story of neck-wrenching contrasts, she appears topless and coyly nude even as she describes in painful, graphic detail how she was sexually assaulted by one of America’s preeminent TV evangelists. If the interview answers some lurid questions, it raises still another: What has happened to Jessica Hahn?

At the very least she has put her credibility to the ultimate test. After depicting herself as a pious virgin deceived and deflowered by the PTL minister, she describes her flirtation with Playboy as a rite of purification that has restored her faith in man and God. “This has made me feel clean again,” she says of the 10-page layout, a relatively tame photo essay showing a frolicsome Hahn on the shores of Lake Michigan. “It made me feel like a woman and feel closer to God, like something God created.” Yet try as she will, Hahn cannot seem to escape the sordid reverberations from her single encounter with Bakker seven years ago. Last week she was summoned to Charlotte, N.C., to testify before a grand jury investigating the fallen minister and the badly shaken PTL.

No one could envy the path that brought Hahn, 28, to this peculiar fame. Forces—and men—beyond her control have torn her from her moorings, she says, and catapulted her into an orbit beyond understanding. Last March the world learned how Jessica, almost unimaginably naive, had been sexually abused in a Florida hotel room by Bakker and John Fletcher, another PTL minister, and had accepted a settlement of $265,000 for her silence. The disclosure toppled Bakker’s crazy-quilt religious empire and brought shame and embarrassment to Jessica. The next few months, as Hahn describes them, were a horror tale in which she found herself totally alone in the world and an object of mockery. She spent weeks as a virtual prisoner in her West Babylon, N.Y., apartment, afraid of the siege of reporters outside. As she tells it, she was ripped off by agents who claimed to have her interests at heart and lied to by PTL’s new leader, Jerry Falwell. Cloistered beyond the reach of friends and family, and with her spirits steadily sinking, she came close to suicide. Throughout her ordeal, she was alone except for telephone friendships with an improbable trio of media stars—Nightline anchor Ted Koppel, blasphemous New York deejay Howard Stern and the original Playboy, Hugh Hefner. She was unable, however, to confide the frightening depth of her pain to anyone; the public saw only news photos of America’s most famous victim letting her dog out for a walk. “Everybody thought they knew Jessica Hahn,” she says.

“I am not a bimbo,” Hahn told Playboy and PEOPLE emphatically, as if to fight off the most obvious suspicion by confronting it directly. Today, in a businesslike outfit suggested by the Playboy staff, she could pass for a junior executive. She has not forgotten what she says Bakker did to her but insists she has put it behind her. “I did not want to be forever this rape victim, depressed in a corner, being a slave to Jim Bakker and John Fletcher for the rest of my life,” she says. “I wanted to feel good.”

Getting to that point took some doing, she says. On March 20, the Charlotte Observer revealed the secret of the egregious motel incident—one that Hahn had been hiding for seven years. Until then she had discussed the assault with only two people—her pastor on Long Island and Paul Roper, a mysterious West Coast businessman who negotiated with PTL on her behalf. “My parents found out the day the Observer broke the story,” Hahn says. “A reporter walked up to them and threw a paper on the table and said, ‘Here’s the story.’ That’s how they found out.”

The scandal was devastating to Hahn and her family, which she describes as “old-fashioned Catholic.” After her father deserted the family when Jessica was 3, her mother and stepfather had provided her with a warm, affectionate and sexually conservative upbringing. Her only sex education came from the library—”I’d pick out these big fat books that tell you what you need to know, and I’d learn,” she says. But she planned to remain a virgin until marriage. A girl with strong religious impulses, Jessica, at 14, was attracted to the exuberance of the Pentecostal church in her hometown of Massapequa, L.I. Her devotion was total; she was 20 when Bakker and Fletcher attacked her, yet she had only had two dates in her entire life. All her spare time as a teenager had been spent working for the church. “They had me cleaning toilets and baby-sitting,” she recalls. “I loved it. Whatever I could do to make the ministers’ job easier, I did. They represented God, and I loved God so much, and I respected them, and I wanted to make their job easier.”

Hahn had virtually worshipped Bakker for years, so when Fletcher invited her to a PTL telethon in Florida she jumped at the chance, having no reason to suspect it was a sexual trap. After the fateful trip, Jessica’s family had known that something was troubling her. But only when the scandal broke did they discover the truth. “In the early ’80s, they thought I had anorexia,” Hahn says. “I wasn’t eating. They saw the pain, but they didn’t quite know what was wrong.” When they read the Observer story, Hahn says, her parents had trouble facing what had happened to their daughter. Dodging reporters, they holed up in their own small house, 20 minutes from her apartment, and weeks went by before Jessica saw them. “It broke my heart to see them go through this,” she says. “It was a shock. It happened all at once. My parents and I cried together. We went through hard times. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”

In the years since her assault by Bakker, Hahn considered—and rejected—conventional counseling. “I think a lot to myself,” she says. “That’s my therapy.” If so, Hahn has had plenty of time for painful introspection. For four months she stayed in her apartment, occasionally slipping out at 2 or 3 a.m. to drive to New York’s Jones Beach and walk by the water, collecting her thoughts and praying. On the few occasions when she risked going out during the day, she was trailed everywhere by the media and was even photographed doing her wash at a local Laundromat. A neighbor brought in groceries, and a few reporters occasionally fetched Chinese food. Otherwise, it was the bleakest time in her life. She had a falling-out with Paul Roper, who had proposed and negotiated the PTL settlement for her; she says he kept $95,000 of the $115,000 in cash PTL paid her. (“He told me that was the standard fee,” she recalls.) Yet their disagreement may have been less over money than style. When she was photographed at her front door in tight jeans and boots, Roper, a self-described church watchdog, excoriated her in the press and Hahn was infuriated. “Because a woman may look nice or dress nice or act nice, that should be appreciated, not judged,” she says angrily. “It has nothing to do with what happened to me.”

After parting with Roper and a New York lawyer she had retained briefly, Hahn found herself isolated once more. She had no advisers, no counselors, no close friends, and her family remained at bay in their home. At this point, with no shoulder to cry on, she hit on a desperate plan to put an end to the scandal: She would appear on a television program with Bakker, grant him forgiveness and ask the PTL faithful to forget what had happened. “I was having flashbacks at this point,” she remembers. “It would have killed me to do it.” Still, through an unnamed intermediary, Hahn made the offer. “My whole life had been to build, to help people. The stories that were coming out were hurting people—people that live for the church, that go to church six or seven times a week, that surround their lives with it.”

It was a zany proposal, ultimately rejected by Bakker, yet Hahn, who had spent several years answering a church hotline and praying by phone with troubled souls, says she was consumed with anxiety for the PTL faithful. Paradoxically, the church had little interest in her. When a woman resembling Hahn walked onto the PTL grounds in North Carolina, she was hounded off the property by PTL members; the real Hahn did little better at home. She concedes that members of her local church “didn’t understand” what had happened to her, and offered no support. Still trusting in ministers, she turned next to Jerry Falwell, who offered her financial help, she says, and promised to send an aide who would spirit her through the mob at her door and offer her sanctuary of sorts at Falwell’s Lynchburg, Va., headquarters. Falwell promised, she says, but nobody came and no cash reached her. By this time, her contact with the outside world was mainly through phone calls from the media. If the great communicators of the pulpit had turned their backs on her, she was offered comfort—or thought she was—by some of their secular counterparts.

“Ted Koppel was a man who said just a few words but really encouraged me a lot,” she says. “I talked to him to try to work out something for Nightline. He never told me what to do or anything. He said, ‘Jessica, use your own mind. You decide.’ He had more wisdom than all these so-called preachers put together. I think the man is intelligent. He’s a perfect gentleman. I really admire him.”

Hahn’s other broadcast “savior” was radio bad boy Howard Stern, the profane New York deejay who was warned by the Federal Communications Commission last spring about his constant pressing at the limits of on-air tolerance. Stern called Hahn regularly during his morning talk show. Although he is known for his deadly—and often savage—put-downs, Hahn is convinced that Stern was not using her. “With all his craziness,” she says, “he was the only one to call and say, ‘Jessica, are you okay?’ He’s a decent man.”

Still, by July Hahn was hitting bottom. “I was hiding under the covers. I thought, ‘My God, I don’t want to live anymore,’ ” she says. “I’d lie in bed, and I’d have my dog, Missy, with me—I love her so much. I remember one day, I thought, ‘I want to die,’ but I remember saying, ‘Missy, I’m going to stay alive for you.’ It was getting close to my birthday, and I thought it was not a good idea for a tombstone to read Born July 7; Died July 7.” But, she concedes, “I was very angry at God.”

Then what she calls “my miracle” happened; she saw a newspaper story that mentioned a Long Island divorce lawyer named Dominic Barbara .She called him, and soon Barbara, 40, was guiding her through a morass of media offers to the lucrative contract with Hefner. In the process, says Hahn, she and Barbara turned down a bizarre approach from a tabloid that wanted to outfit her with a hidden microphone and send her to entrap Jim Bakker.

Shepherded from coast to coast by Barbara, Hahn spent much of July and August doing the Playboy interviews and photo shoots; so graphic is her story of abuse that at one point, as she was telling it, her interviewers interrupted to remind her that she did not have to proceed with the topless photos. But Jessica insisted she wanted to. The photos too, she believes, are a way of explaining herself to the world. “My feeling is that once you read the interview you’ll understand the pictures,” she says. Reliving the harrowing ordeal of the attack, cover-up and scandal, Jessica believes, has finally given her peace. “Going through all the details was horrible,” she says. “I’d be exhausted after each session. But I knew in the end it would be all right; it would be over. I didn’t always know that all these years.”

Perhaps the photographs were a sort of exorcism, liberating her at last from a ministry that had used her so badly. In any case, posing was easy. “For almost seven years, I didn’t feel like a woman,” says Hahn. “I felt dirty all the time. I couldn’t look in the mirror. Then I picked up a copy of Playboy and looked through it and thought, ‘This is how women are supposed to look—soft and pretty.’ God created me. I think all women should be seen as something beautiful, something good.” She discussed the photographs with her parents first, and she says they encouraged her to go ahead.

In Hugh Hefner, Hahn says, she found not only financial support but another strong, wise man in whom she could place her trust. “Hefner has more wisdom and understanding than most people I know,” she says. His magazine has been putting her up at an undisclosed location in Los Angeles, where Hefner’s fabled Playboy mansion is located. His minions have also provided security for Hahn, who still worries about reprisals from angry PTL followers. When she finishes her publicity blitz for the magazine, she says, she may go back to school. Whatever she decides, she will have the time, and the money, to get her life in order at last. She is convinced that now, for the first time in her adult life, the way seems straight and her mind is able to see it clearly.

Hahn believes that she is now capable of a loving relationship, even marriage, as well as a healthy sex life. But it has taken her years to become comfortable with her sexuality. “When you share that first experience, it’s supposed to be with somebody you love, somebody you want to share your life with. Jim Bakker took that from me. It can’t be replaced. It took me a long time to get over that.”

It bespeaks an awesome feat of faith, but Jessica still believes that Jim Bakker had a calling from God. “God chose him,” she says, with that simple, positive faith she seems to bring to everything in her life. “I know, because I did draw from that man once. But he got into the building business, the shopping business, the amusement-park business, the Tammy Faye cosmetic business. God chose him to preach. He was a gifted man. At one time he was an excellent preacher. He went off the track.”

So far off, in fact, that Jessica Hahn may find herself testifying against Bakker if he goes to trial. Although charges may never be brought against him for the assault Hahn has at last so painfully described, the federal grand jury in Charlotte may indict Bakker on charges related to his handling of PTL finances and the secret “hush” payments to Hahn. If asked, Hahn says, she will have the strength to tell what she knows. “I did nothing wrong,” she says. “I won’t lie to you. I don’t enjoy the man’s company. It wouldn’t make my day.”

And so she moves on, into a future she truly believes will be happy, relying on people she truly believes care for her. “God wants me to be happy,” she says. “That’s all he wants for any of us. I feel closer to God than ever.”

For that she thanks Hugh Hefner and Playboy. Sitting in a Playboy executive’s office, demure and unprepossessing in a modest, rust-toned skirt and a blouse, Hahn’s sincerity is apparent, her respectful references to the Almighty abundant. She realizes now, she says, that “the biggest mistake of my Christian life was worshipping ministers instead of worshipping God.” She seems to understand that her unquestioning willingness to trust wrought havoc in her life in the past. Yet somehow she continues to trust, sure that this time, at last, she has found people who will not betray her.