Jessica Hahn, woman at center of televangelist’s fall 30 years ago, confronts her past

Jessica Hahn, woman at center of televangelist’s fall 30 years ago, confronts her past

CHARLOTTE, NC (Tim Funk/The Charlotte Observer) - It's been three decades since the world found out about the 15 minutes she spent in a Florida hotel room with televangelist Jim Bakker. But Jessica Hahn says it's only been in the last two years that she's finally confronted her anger about what happened, and how it's affected the rest of her life.

She says she's angry at Bakker, founder of the onetime PTL empire near Charlotte, for using his power and his image as a man of God to manipulate her, then a 21-year-old church secretary, into having sex.

"He just believed that everybody should serve him because he was serving God," she said of Bakker.

She's also angry at herself for being in the hotel room. And for reacting to this experience and the sudden media glare by making "maybe not the best choices" over the years that followed – including posing nude three times in Playboy.

Such choices, Hahn said, turned her into "pretty much a cartoon character."

"There are nights now that I get up (at 3 a.m.), and I'm sweating," she recently told the Observer. "I never had that before. I thought I was sliding through. I thought, 'My life is fine. I didn't get injured by this. Nothing affected me. I went off and posed in Playboy ... I did this and I did that. I made it work.' But no! I wake up now and go, 'Oh my God, I'm so angry.' "

Hahn said she finds herself identifying with some of the women now coming forward, often telling their stories of sexual harassment and abuse after staying silent about them for years.

"People used to say, 'Jessica, you kept quiet for eight years. Why?' Well, there were a million reasons," Hahn said. "These women coming out now – there were a million reasons. ... It's like the power position is abused in every lifestyle, whether it's politics, religion or business."

Hahn, who's 58, attributes her new clarity to a change in lifestyle and locale. After years of living amid "the glitz and glamor and all the B.S." of Hollywood, the one-time actress, model and radio host now lives quietly with her husband, who's a movie stunt man, and their animals – including a pet turkey named Pearl – on a 45-acre ranch an hour north of Los Angeles.

"I moved out into the country to just start over," she said. "We have a bison, horses, chickens. I get eggs every day. ... You really grow up when you're all alone. I mean, I'm married and all, but we live out in the woods. ... Boy, have I changed from what I used to be like."

In a rare, wide-ranging 50-minute interview with the Observer, Hahn also talked about her enduring religious faith and about her conversation with Bakker's equally famous ex-wife, Tammy Faye, shortly before she died in 2007.

The Observer requested an interview with Jim Bakker, who now hosts a TV ministry near Branson, Mo. But he was unavailable.

Hahn told the newspaper she has a great life now, with her "really lovable" husband Frank Lloyd, who's done stunts in the "Spider-Man" movies and in scores of other films and TV shows.

And yet, Hahn added, "it's what's deep down inside that keeps me up at night. ... After all these years. So when people go 30-40 years (before speaking out about sexual abuse), I do get it. ... It's really settled into my heart and soul what happened and how I allowed things to happen. And how it's affected my life overall."

Jessica Hahn, now 58, with her pet turkey Pearl. Hahn and her husband, Frank Lloyd, a movie stunt man, live on a 45-acre ranch about an hour north of Los Angeles. They share the place with their animals. Frank Lloyd - Courtesy of Jessica Hahn

'Like God walking into the room'

On Dec. 4, 1980, Hahn said she got a call from Oklahoma City evangelist John Wesley Fletcher, whom she had known from his crusades at the Long Island church where she worked. Fletcher was then a friend of Bakker's and a frequent guest on "The PTL Club," a popular hour-long Christian talk show that was broadcast nationally from Fort Mill, S.C., and co-hosted by Bakker's ebullient wife, Tammy Faye.

Hahn was a fan of the Bakkers and their show, so she jumped at Fletcher's invitation to come to Florida, where Jim Bakker was doing a telethon. The plan, Hahn has said over the years, was for her to meet Bakker and babysit his children.

Hahn and Bakker met Dec. 6, 1980, in a hotel room in Clearwater Beach. In the years since, different versions have been offered about why they met there and what exactly happened.

In the 1980s, Fletcher told the Observer he invited Hahn to Florida after Bakker told him he wanted to make his wife jealous. In two December 1984 interviews with the Observer, Hahn said Fletcher led her to expect she'd meet Bakker and watch the telethon.

Instead, she was taken to the hotel room, where Bakker had sex with her.

Looking back, Hahn said the young woman who met with Bakker that day was naive and vulnerable.

"It's like somebody walks into the room like Jim Bakker and you're in your 20s and you're watching him every day (on TV)," she said. "It's like 'Oh my God, this is like God walking into the room. I can't say no.' "

For awhile, Hahn said she kept silent about what happened.

"It was 'Just keep your mouth shut, Jess, because this is a church,' " she recalled. "Now, church was my world. ... Jim Bakker was my world. ... I knew (revealing what happened) would affect millions of people" who counted on the Bakkers and PTL, including donors, employees and faithful viewers at home.

There were also rumors and later reports about hush money paid for a time to Hahn from PTL coffers, though she insists now that "anything they think I made, I didn't."

Hahn, who said she was "being belittled and being used like a pawn for other people" behind the scenes, eventually called the Observer in December 1984. She got on the the phone with investigative reporter Charles Shepard, who would anchor the Observer's Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the scandals – financial and otherwise – at PTL.

"It was like: Hide in the corner and let everybody tell my story, or have me tell it," Hahn said. "Because it was going to (get out) with or without me."

In 1987, Bakker offered his own, very different picture of what had happened. His version appeared when the sexual encounter was finally made public in Shepard's front-page Observer story about Bakker's resignation from PTL.

By then, PTL – short for "Praise the Lord" – was one of the largest Christian ministries in the United States, employing about 2,500 people and taking in as much as $158 million a year from a sprawling campus called Heritage USA. The 2,300-acre resort-theme park drew nearly 6 million visitors a year and included a water slide, a steam train, the 501-room Heritage Grand Hotel, Main Street USA, a 400-unit campground, time-sharing chalets and a TV studio/church/auditorium.

When Bakker resigned, the then-47-year-old TV host/Pentecostal minister admitted to a "sexual encounter" seven years before. He referred to Hahn not by name, but as "a female confederate" who had been part of what he said was a "scheme" to set him up.

"I sorrowfully acknowledge that seven years ago in an isolated incident, I was wickedly manipulated by treacherous former friends and then-colleagues who victimized me with the aid of a female confederate," Bakker said at the time. "They conspired to betray me into a sexual encounter at a time of great stress in my marital life. Vulnerable as I was at the time, I was set up as part of a scheme to co-opt me and obtain some advantage for themselves in connection with their hope for position in the ministry."

Bakker's version still rankles Hahn 30 years later:

"His first statement was 'I was set up by a female confederate.' No you weren't. You asked me to show up in Florida, pretending to take care of your kids. And you came into a hotel room and you had sex with me. I didn't push you away, but you had sex with me. No, you weren't set up by a female confederate. You begged another preacher to get you a woman. And I was that woman. I want to say, 'Cut the crap! ... You set me up.'... I was, like, 21 years old. I was really raised in the church. I didn't even know what 'confederate' meant. I didn't even know anything. ... See how I get angry?"

In 1989, U.S. marshals led televangelist Jim Bakker to the federal court house.Jeep Hunter - Observer file photo

'Opened the door for a lot of hate'

Bakker served five years in prison after a federal jury in Charlotte convicted him in 1989 on 24 counts of wire and mail fraud and conspiracy. The crime: Defrauding PTL's "lifetime partners" by overselling free rooms in the Heritage Grand hotel in Fort Mill, S.C. By then, many were joking that PTL was really short for "Pass the Loot."

He was released from prison in 1994. Two years later, Bakker published a book called "I Was Wrong." In its pages, he insisted he was guilty not of bilking any partners, but of living an opulent lifestyle that contradicted Jesus' message to love God, not money.

In the book, Bakker described his encounter with Hahn as "a 15- to 20-minute tryst" and wrote that "I knew it was wrong. My conscience screamed at me every step of the way. But I stupidly determined to make my wife jealous."

Bakker's book sparks anger – and some tears – in Hahn these days:

"Even though he wrote a book, 'I Was Wrong' and all that crap, you never came to me and said it. And I never had a chance to tell you anything. ... I get angry because I was wrong. But so were they. .. (Bakker) opened the door for a lot of hate toward me."

Bakker, now 77, is back on TV, leading an End Times ministry in Missouri, focusing more on the future than the past. When Hahn is out in public, she said people occasionally recognize her as the woman in the PTL sex scandal.

"Once they hear my name, it's like 'Ohhh,' " she said. "I get embarrassed. I never used to get embarrassed, 'cause the reality of it hit me."

She cites the trauma and the years of bad decisions as the reasons she never had children.

"I guess I never wanted them to know about me," she said. "I am so ashamed and so I didn't want to bring a child into the world that, you know, would be affected by my actions. And that's pretty powerful because I love children. ... It's mostly my animals that are my children now."

'I wanted to be her'

During all the drama surrounding the collapse of PTL, Bakker's then-wife, Tammy Faye Bakker, reportedly called Hahn ugly and said that offered her some solace in considering her husband's adultery.

Hahn, who appeared in Playboy in 1987 and 1988, has said good things over the years about Tammy Faye Bakker, who changed her name to Tammy Faye Messner after she divorced Bakker and married church builder Roe Messner in 1993.

Not long before Tammy Faye Messner died of cancer in 2007, Hahn said the two women talked by phone.

"She had the biggest heart," Hahn remembered. "She goes, 'Jessica, if I were with you right now, I'd hug you.' And I just died inside. It was like, 'Oh my God, what she had to go through.' "

Hahn said she had always looked up to Tammy Faye, for her love of family and even for her looks.

"When I was younger, I wanted to be her," Hahn said. "I really grew up with the Bakkers (on TV), thinking, 'I'd love to be in that family. They're always singing and happy.' I loved her. I loved her makeup, the stupid makeup. That's what we did in church: We wore a lot of makeup and big hair."

Hahn said she felt guilty when she talked with Jim Bakker's one-time wife during her last days.

"I felt so ashamed – how dare I?" Hahn said. "Today, I look at families ... and (say) 'What I wouldn't do to start over and have a family and have children and do everything right and not get involved with all these men and all these stupid fantasies.' "

'Run for the hills'

These days, Hahn keeps a lower profile than she did for many years. But she has ventured into social media in the last year or so, writing Facebook posts she calls "pretty dull and sweet." She introduced her pet turkey in one Facebook photo.

On Twitter, "I'm very different," she said. "Believe it or not, I'm conservative. I have my feelings and I let them be known on Twitter. I'm a little sassy, but hey."

In her tweets, she often taunts liberals to "give it up, buttercup" and likes to promote "MAGA" – shorthand for "Make America Great Again," President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign slogan.

She's a fan of Fox News and a strong supporter of Trump – "he's a businessman and that's what our country needs."

Asked about the sexual harassment charges against Trump, Hahn said she'd like to see "solid proof" that the allegations weren't politically motivated. "Accusations sometimes are too freely thrown out there," she said. "Sexual harassment is not a game. The office of the president is also not a game. Respect and truth need to be applied on both sides."

When Playboy founder Hugh Hefner died in September, Hahn tweeted about her affection for the media tycoon in whose magazine she posed nude decades ago: "Rest in peace Hugh Hefner. I will always love you and will never forget you. You changed my life forever. Thank you. Hug God for me."

Ask Hahn what's next for her, and she sounds uncertain.

She thinks there's a book in telling her life story, but "I don't know if I have the patience to do that."

She acted in a few movies, "things that were silly," and worked on some sitcoms – Hahn dated Ron Leavitt, co-founder of TV's "Married ... with Children" for 15 years, until his death in 2008.

"But," she added with a laugh, "I'm not the greatest actress."

Only a return to radio – she once hosted a show in Phoenix – seems to interest her as a possible career turn in the future.

Hahn said that, through it all, she remains committed to her faith.

"God is still the first and most important thing in my life. The only person I really talk to," she said. "My faith is strong. ... I still believe in God more than ever. It wasn't his fault. It wasn't his mess."

As for what lesson she learned from the PTL saga, Hahn answered with words for others who are seeking a church.

"If they're not glorifying God, run for the hills," she said. "If they're not compassionate toward every human being, whether rich or poor ... then they're not preaching the Gospel. They're talking about themselves. Find a church where people embrace you."

And her advice to people – women and men – who are being abused?

"If somebody's hurting you, you've got to come out and say something because they'll keep doing it," Hahn said. "Because they think they're above you and better than you. That's not the truth. And it will affect your life if you don't. It will affect you later on in life."

Jessica Hahn in 1988, photographed by the Observer for a “one year later” PTL story. Today she says, “My faith is strong. ... I still believe in God more than ever. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t his mess.” Mark B. Sluder - Observer file photo.