By the time Tammy Faye Messner died Friday, the outspoken, fake-eyelash-donning 65-year-old had gone from Christian televangelist to reviled woman to gay icon. How did Messner become a gay icon?
With fabulousness and honesty. Tammy Faye’s religious background made her an unlikely object for this kind of adulation, but in many ways she had the classic profile of a gay icon. Like many others, she became celebrated for her perseverance. She fell from grace (and lost much of her money) when it was discovered that her husband, Jim Bakker, had cheated on her and swindled their followers out of $158 million. But Tammy Faye talked openly about her pain on TV and stood by her man after his conviction, singing at a press conference, “On Christ the solid rock I stand/ All other ground is sinking sand.” Her refusal to change her unique style—runny mascara, gawdy jewelry, and all—also made her icon-worthy. When asked by a makeup artist to lose those garish false lashes, she said, “Without my eyelashes, I wouldn’t be Tammy Faye. I don’t know who I would be.” And gays appreciated the fact that she had long refused to denounce homosexuals on the Bakkers’ TV show and that she had urged sympathy for those with AIDS. In her final interview last week, she said, “When we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue, and I will always love them for that.”
Gay icons are often powerful women who are also marginalized and vulnerable. Billie Holiday, for instance, endured poverty and survived rape at the age of 14 before being discovered as a singer in a Harlem nightclub. She signed record deals, but she also served time in jail, battled drug-abuse problems, and died with little to her name. Princess Di, another icon, was loved for carrying on with grace—and style—despite her public battles with the royal family. Dolly Parton, with her super-sized hair and breasts, ascended in status because of her larger-than-life femininity. Same goes for Madonna, who built a career by wearing cone bras, orchestrating orgies in music videos, and otherwise embracing her sexuality without apology. Even Miss Piggy of the Muppets has won icon status because she refuses to see that pigginess is ugly; she believes she’s beautiful and won’t quit pursuing an unwilling frog. In a sense, gays—especially those who are closeted—look upon these women (and almost all of them are women) as role models.
Gays and lesbians may be loyal fans, but an icon can fall from grace. Donna Summer lost many supporters when she reportedly said in a concert, “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” The “Hot Stuff” chanteuse has denied being homophobic, and even worked with AIDS charities in the 1990s, but she ultimately lost her status among gays in the disco generation.
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Explainer thanks Lee Edelman of Tufts University, Nadine Hubbs of the University of Michigan, and Thomas Peele, author of Queer Popular Culture: Literature, Media, Film, and Television.