December 28, 1987 12:00 PM

She rode to celebrity on a cathode ray and a compulsive giggle. But after seven years as telehostess of PTL (Praise The Lord, Pass The Loot—your choice), Tammy Faye Bakker, the shopper extraordinaire, is fading like lipstick after lunch in her lonely exile from the airwaves. It was a harrowing year for the 40ish mother of two: a spell at the Betty Ford Center for her addictions to Valium and Allerest; the elopement of her 17-year-old daughter, Tammy Sue, with a lifeguard; the public auction of her personal possessions (everything from a hair dryer to an air-conditioned doghouse, which went for $4,500). Yet these seemed puny humiliations indeed compared to the aftershocks following husband Jim Bakker’s public confession that he had had a 15-minute tryst in 1980 with former church secretary Jessica Hahn. Within days the electronic walls of The PTL Club and Tammy’s House Party came tumbling down. The strings controlling the television empire that Tammy and Jim shared, as well their 2,300-acre religious theme park, Heritage USA, were reluctantly handed over to a fellow pulpiteer, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and the Bakkers descended into the California desert.

Then, as the pair hunkered down in their $600,000 Palm Springs home, allegations began to fly that Jim was guilty not only of adultery and financial misconduct but of involvement in a number of homosexual encounters as well. Lust and venality might be forgiven, but could a religious broadcasting career be born again after this? Maybe not, but the world could never say that Tammy stopped trying. Joining her husband on ABC’s Nightline, before an incredulous Ted Koppel and the show’s largest audience ever, she seemed impervious to embarrassment and, in all her cartoon glory, more baffling than life. A stunning mixture of Marabel Morgan and Betty Boop, she apologized to her dog, Snuggles, for the sale of his home, claimed she never bought anything that wasn’t a bargain and pledged support for her philandering husband. “I can tell you right now, Jim is not a homosexual and he’s not bisexual,” she chirped. “He’s a wonderful, loving husband.”

TV land was taken aback. In the habitat of her own shows, Tammy Faye in a jungle-print jumpsuit might be acceptable, but on Nightline she came across like a Dallas caricature who had been beamed onto the wrong soundstage. The audience’s curiosity turned to stunned disbelief, and the medium that giveth began to taketh away. Plans for the Bakkers’ triumphant return to the financially shattered PTL weren’t playing in Peoria or anywhere else. Retreating to a comparatively modest house in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Jim and Tammy settled in to ride out the ridicule. And who could do that better than Tammy? Had her predilection for garish makeup and wigs become a national joke? She kept on giggling and begging for more. “I think a woman ought to be sexy for her husband,” she would say. “Jim never knows if I’m going to be a blond, a redhead or a brunet.”

Plans for a national comeback tour have long since been scrapped, and Tammy and Jim’s sole remaining link to their public is a Dial-the-Bakkers hotline that nets them 25 cents a call. But there is no quit in Tammy Faye; she still-hopes to reach out to her flock with a new mock-country album being cut in Los Angeles and is angling for an offer to promote cosmetics. If she succeeds it would indeed be a miracle, but of course she’s always been in that business.

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