Good God … It’s Baby Rae!
Sacramento’s bawdiest preacher loves God as much as any ol’ Christian Conservative; she just loves Him in a different way.
A middle-aged woman wearing a platinum blond wig and a green teddy is looking for God. She’s a prophet, so once she finds the Lord, He’ll speak through her in a way that makes it abundantly clear that His divine holiness is present in her little two-bedroom Carmichael apartment.
But first, there’s some other stuff.
On a makeshift stage in the corner of her living room, the woman sways back and forth to the staccato opening rhythm guitar riff of Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher,” seemingly oblivious to the swirling colored lights that encircle the room. She grabs a cube of ice from a stand on the stage, closes her eyes, tilts her head back and presses the ice to her lips. The melted water drips down her chin, flows onto her neck and plunges into her prodigious cleavage. A few moments later, she guides the ice along the trail of its runoff onto her chest. The song continues.
“You know I smoked a lot of grass, Oh Lord! I’ve popped a lot of pills, but I’ve never touched nothin’ my spirit couldn’t kill.”
Then, she bends down and runs the ice up and down a pink dildo that peeks out from a male blow-up doll’s shorts. Discarding the ice, she takes a can of whipped cream and sprays the frothy white dessert topping on the dildo. Inspired, she rubs the whipped cream all over the plastic phallus. Some of it falls to the stage as she lifts her fingers to her mouth and smiles for a video camera set up in the middle of the room.
The Naked Preacher Lady is on the air.
Part aged bawdy stripper, part old-time preacher and part extravagant ’70s country crooner, Baby Rae mixes her self-invented personalities into a less-than-seamless television show that appears every Friday night on Sacramento’s public access cable channel.
During the show, she dances, sings and preaches the word of Jesus. Of course, if that were all there was to it, Baby Rae’s show would be virtually identical to the rest of Christian programming that finds its way on to the airwaves. But there’s the sex. And its proximity to God.
During the same show where she performs the simulated hand-job on a blow-up doll, Baby Rae stops between songs and begins to preach. Her voice has a Southern lilt to it, even though she was born and raised in the Sacramento region.
“There’s all kinds of those biggggg grandiose preachers that tell us if you don’t make the right choice, you ain’t gonna make it,” she starts. “Well, if Christ chose you tonight, He has never made a fucking mistake in His God-damned life. And if God chose you, you will never miss the mark of the prize of the high calling of Christ Jesus.”
For Baby Rae there’s no particular grand reason why she combines the sacred and the profane every week for all of Sacramento to see. It’s simply a way, she says, for her to “work out her shit.” Some might be drawn to the show for the sex, or maybe for the surreal nature of seeing something so imperfectly perfect on the same television that they see blow-dried anchors or video game-like wars. It doesn’t matter what her viewers see, she says. The show is for her.
On this night, the rest of the show is a mess. Throughout the performance, Baby Rae’s cordless microphone squeals with static. Her notes—which she goes over and modifies in the week leading up to the show—fall from the stand on stage. During a number she points gently to a picture of herself with her son, Bobby, and it falls to the floor. Baby Rae’s boyfriend/ex-husband/cameraman, Jim “J.C.” Sneed, scrambles to find the short in the microphone, but it’s no use. Usually J.C.’s chuckle can be heard whenever Baby Rae cracks a joke on the air. While tonight’s show is no different—J.C. is an active, if invisible, part of the show—Baby Rae senses his distance.
“Jim flows with me, but the moment something like that hits, he disconnects,” she says later. “He becomes technical and his heart’s not flowing with me, so then I feel stranded.”
Such is the life of a performer. Even though she can find it in herself to parade across her living room half-naked showing off her cleavage with suggestive bows before the camera, Baby Rae can still feel vulnerable and alone. And even though she has a Web site that charges money for even more candid glimpses—including full frontal nudity—of her body, Baby Rae can justify it by saying, “It’s the only place right now that God could put money in my pocket.”
It wasn’t always like that for Baby Rae. The daughter of two Pentecostal ministers, she married a preacher’s son and had a son of her own. She was as straight as a straight arrow can be, but once her marriage broke up her life changed into cyclical passages of hard partying and preaching the gospel. Still, Baby Rae never gave up the idea that somehow she could find salvation in the Lord. The only problem was that the Lord always seemed to take away the things she held the dearest. Now, Baby Rae says that God “requires” her to go on television every week and bring her eclectic blend of Tammy Wynette, Tammy Faye Bakker and Gypsy Rose Lee to thousands of Sacramentans. It’s the only way, she says, that she can get the high that comes with having a direct line to God.
“I have a whole hour a week of intercourse with God—that’s my motivation,” Baby Rae says. “My show is like heaven all night long.”
Baby Rae needs a magnifying glass. Later, J.C. will take some pictures of her for the Web site and they’ll need the magnifying glass because the viewfinder of the digital camera they own is too small, she says, to tell when they inadvertently capture her “baby fat.”
Driving around East Sacramento, she’s wearing her platinum blond wig, tight black pants and a white leather jacket with tassels running down the sleeves. With her sparkly eye shadow, Baby Rae looks every bit the star—as she walks around Kmart she draws stares from the shoppers and store clerks alike. Sometimes, she says, people stop her to say they’ve seen her show. Baby Rae doesn’t go anywhere without dressing up. But it’s not that often; she and J.C. usually just stay at home watching movies and smoking cigarettes.
J.C.’s look fits perfectly with Baby Rae’s, except it’s nothing flashy—a disciple of Johnny Cash, J.C. wears all black, right up to the cowboy hat on his head. He’s careful to open the car door for Baby Rae when they go anywhere.
When he first met Baby Rae, J.C. heard the word of Christ. “When she spoke, I just heard my Father’s voice,” he says. “I knew I was home.”
J.C. and Baby Rae have had a tortured love affair since they first met in 1982. Before then—in the first few years after her divorce from first husband Cecil Coughran—Baby Rae lived it up. She worked as a sales representative for Estee Lauder cosmetics and had what she calls a “hot and liberating” time pushing make-up, drinking and traveling the western U.S. In the early ’80s, Baby Rae settled back in the Sacramento area and took a job as a real estate agent. While in therapy, her therapist suggested she should just go back to God.
So Baby Rae did. But this time she hooked up with a prophet who told Baby Rae that she was a prophet too. Prophets profess to speak God’s words directly. Some churches sanction prophets, but since no church recognized Baby Rae, she did things her own way. Imbued with God’s power, Baby Rae and her son, Bobby, attended services in the Sacramento area. When a preacher took to a pulpit to deliver a sermon, Baby Rae and Bobby rose in unison and delivered God’s word. Most ministers didn’t appreciate it, but it fed something inside her that was festering since her days in the Pentecostal church.
“I always felt a little pissed off about having to sit in the audience,” she says.
A racially mixed crowd files into an old grocery store on 47th Avenue to find their own little piece of heaven at the Calvary Evangelism Center, a Pentecostal church in south Sacramento.
Energetic ushers spring at first-timers, flashing big smiles and filling the rookies’ hands with church information. After about 15 minutes of music a man gets on the microphone and tells the crowd, “You can’t be saved without a preacher and you can’t be saved without being preached to.” He then implores them to climb on stage and donate to the church. Most do.
Pentecostalism started in the United States around the turn of the century. Followers claim that the Holy Spirit manifests itself through speaking in tongues and displays of healing. The conservative U.S. Pentecostal movement took off in the 1970s and ’80s with the popularity of evangelists Oral Roberts, Jim and Tammy Bakker, Pat Robertson and Jimmy Swaggart.
After tithing, the band kicks into an up-tempo gospel song that has the men and women alike speaking in tongues, jumping up and down and openly weeping. Once they’re whipped into a frenzy, Pastor R. Michael Smith takes the stage. For most of his time in the pulpit, Smith screams at the crowd. Pacing back and forth on the stage, Smith implores his flock that the only way to repent is to be born again. Amid condemnations of “whoremongers” and homosexuals—Smith calls gays “dogs”—he tells the crowd if they are drinking beer they need to stop because God will judge all men by Jesus Christ. At the grocery-store-turned-hellfire pulpit, the cause of all the evil and damnation in the world is simply “self-will.”
This is not the Pentecostal church where Baby Rae spent her youth—that place is long gone. Plus, she was then known by her given name, Lori Rae. But the theme is the same; strict adherence to moral codes sent down by pastors in frightening tones. To the Pentecostals, the stakes couldn’t be higher—either you get born again and your soul goes to heaven when you die, or you turn your back to Jesus and when you die you live among the damned in the fiery lake of hell. And to them, it’s your choice. But Baby Rae just doesn’t buy that anymore. God doesn’t care whether people follow rules like not drinking beer or abstaining from sex, she argues. And a person can’t control whether they’re going to heaven or not—that’s God’s will.
“They always say it’s all in your hands but I’ve never made a right choice,” Baby Rae says. “So God makes those choices for me—He’s a big boy. It says in the scriptures that even a wayfaring fool can find this thing, you know?”
When she was younger, Baby Rae enjoyed the church. Because both of her parents were ministers, the family (she has one sister) went to service three or four times a week. And during a two-week concentrated time of worship—called revival—which occurred every two months, visiting evangelists would spend time at the Rae home.
“It was the only entertainment we knew and I loved the preaching,” she says. “And when the evangelists came I loved it because then my Mom didn’t have to study all the time; she was more of a Mom instead of being shut away with the Bible.”
While the Pentecostal church was all she knew, Baby Rae chafed at the strict order in her household and the sense that somehow she didn’t fit in. That feeling was accentuated when at 12 years old, Lori Rae developed extreme scoliosis, which for about 80 percent of the diagnosed cases, there is no discernable cause. Scoliosis is a curvature of the spine, beyond the natural curvature already present. To treat her case, every month doctors would string her from the ceiling and then put a body cast on her. This lasted for two years, but didn’t work. Doctors eventually took a bone from her leg and fused her spine.
When she was 19, Baby Rae moved to San Jose to marry a man who was the son of a prominent Pentecostal minister named M.F. Coughran. With her husband, Cecil, she had a child, named Bobby. She was excited to be married—she got to sing on a radio show the Coughrans put on—but 10 years into the marriage, Baby Rae recognized that the life she was leading was essentially the same stifling life she left when she left home. And it bored her to tears.
“They were all so perfect, but there was nobody home,” she says. “I was all excited and I thought maybe I’d go into the ministry, but my husband was just a no-show, a couch potato.”
So what did Baby Rae do? She slept with a guy in her father-in-law’s church band. Nobody knew what she had done, so she exposed it. “I just confessed it—I brought it all out into the open,” she says. “I wanted to shake that son of a bitch [her husband] up. He was asleep.”
Baby Rae was quickly excommunicated from the family and the church. Even though she pleaded for forgiveness, her husband never forgave her and later considered the marriage the biggest mistake of his life. Baby Rae would get over the pain of the breakup. In fact, it would initially prove liberating—she could never remember a time when she wasn’t under the thumb of her church or her parents or her husband. But eventually, she’d go back to the church. And lose everything she had.
When J.C. walked into her life, Baby Rae was a prophet. At the time, around 1982, he was a recovering alcoholic with a penchant for pornography, he says. They met when he was doing carpentry work on her apartment. J.C. took his shirt off and strutted around her living room, but Baby Rae wouldn’t bite—she rebuffed him when he asked her out. Still, J.C. left his card. Months later he got an invitation to attend services at a new ministry Baby Rae had set up on Darina Avenue in north Sacramento. Her brand of religion was different than the Pentecostalism she had grown up with. She could be just as straight-up judgmental of others as a Pentecostal preacher could be, but as a prophet she claimed to be voicing the judgment of God.
And that judgment would come in the form of what she calls a “whacking,” a sharp rebuke or condemnation straight from God to her lips. J.C. says he received more than a few whacks, but still he eventually wore Baby Rae down. Two years after they met, they married. But they never could make it work and after several stops and starts in their relationship they divorced four years later. In 1996, Baby Rae’s father died, leaving her with a healthy inheritance check. So she bought a Mercedes and moved to Modesto.
But just when her life seemed to fall in line financially, everything came apart. In late 1996, Northern California had what some officials called the worst flooding in California history. Modesto, in particular, was hit hard. The Tuolumne, which runs through Modesto, rose 15 feet above flood levels, burying about 1,000 homes and leaving 3,000 residents homeless.
One of those residents was Baby Rae, who lost her home and all of her possessions. For the next six months, she lived in her Mercedes parked in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Months later she would join a suit against the Modesto Irrigation District and the Turlock Irrigation District that alleges that the construction of the Don Pedro Dam was inadequate because the flood control it provided was not enough in heavy rains. The case is still pending.
To survive, Baby Rae sold her Mercedes to buy karaoke equipment. The prophet saw the light—she would reinvent herself into a Reno nightclub act, singing secular country hits in bars while people gambled. There was one problem: she didn’t own a car. So she got in touch with J.C., who joined up with her to start her act. This time, they made no pretense of living the gospel—and it didn’t help that they were paid in beer. They drank, they smoked and they gambled. “This time everything just hung out,” she says. “We’d get out there on stage and roll, then come home and keep rolling.”
But it got out of control, so J.C. left again. Desperate, Baby Rae moved back to Sacramento, and she hit bottom.
She was arrested for shoplifting and resisting arrest. Instead of cooperating with the police, Baby Rae fought back. She told them she was a country star and that she had a plane to catch; she told them she had a talk show in Los Angeles. She says the police wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom, so she went in the corner of the room on the floor.
“I was wearing them out,” Baby Rae says. “They wouldn’t stop and I wouldn’t stop—it was hotter than any prophecy that I had ever done.”
But then the police came at her from a different angle—they told her that her son, Bobby, had died of a heroin overdose. Apparently when the police tried to track down a relative of Baby Rae’s, they found Bobby dead. When they told Baby Rae, she was defiant at first and she told the police she had no son—she didn’t believe them. But 10 days later she was told she had a visitor—she thought it was Bobby. To her surprise it was her mother and her ex-husband, who came to get her to release Bobby’s personal property to him. The meeting did not go well.
“They blamed me for his death and said God was punishing me for my behavior,” she says. “It took me a little while to understand that God already knew when that little son of a bitch was leaving.”
Baby Rae pleaded no contest to the charge of shoplifting and spent a total of 77 days in jail. Upon her release she lived with her mom for a month, until she realized that Bobby had a life insurance policy that saw to it she would get a little money if he died. For months afterward she grieved. Bobby was born with asthma and on one drug or another from the time he was 2 years old. She says he never had a fighting chance.
“After he died, every night for months I’d sit here in my chair and cry, but then I entered into something a little more heavenly,” Baby Rae says. “I know that grieving is good for a while, but then it becomes sadistic to yourself.”
“I remembered that everything is ordained by God,” she adds. “Sometimes I think He’s on a control trip.”
Baby Rae sits in one of two recliners in her living room, nervously smoking cigarette after cigarette. It’s show day, but while she has already taken a bath, she hasn’t dressed for the show yet. Her wig is nowhere to be found—instead a baseball cap covers her long bleached and braided hair. The only way to tell that she’ll be on stage later that night is her sparkly eye shadow. She also wears leopard skin slippers. Baby Rae is hopeful for a good show.
“Most real prophets don’t know whether God will show up or not,” she says. “Sometimes He’s so dynamic and He talks to me right during the performance and I love it.”
Lately, God’s been talking with her about money—she says it’s a subject that Baby Rae and God have some “issues” about.
“I think someone who cares for God the way I do ought to be a very wealthy lady and it pisses me off when I see those big old superstar baggy pants preachers,” she says.
But she’s clearly not producing her one-hour show weekly for cash. There’s an element of sadness that infuses her life and show. On her wall in the kitchen is a picture of her with Bobby. Her look then was far from her current glam, country superstar look—in the picture she wears her hair neatly done in its natural dirty-blond color. Back then, Baby Rae looked like a Sunday school teacher.
J.C. and Baby Rae now live in an apartment in Carmichael in the same complex where Bobby lived, and died. Typically, during her show J.C. will pan to a photo of Baby Rae with Bobby and she’ll point to it while singing.
“When we first started this, it was tremendous, I felt Bobby’s presence so strong, but there is less of that now,” she says. “You can’t worship someone who isn’t here so it’s become more seeing him in Jesus.”
Baby Rae says that Bobby would have never approved of the show and what she’s doing now. “He could hear from God very clearly,” she says.
He wouldn’t be the only one who wouldn’t approve. Some people who see the show call to complain. It is a little strange, after all, to see a woman on TV, over 50, in a teddy screaming about the Lord Jesus and cursing with every other word. Ron Cooper, the executive director of Access Sacramento, says he’s also gotten a handful of those negative calls. Cooper tells them all the same thing—that his job is just to make sure she follows Federal Communications Commission guidelines. Because her show is on at 11 p.m., the swearing is allowed. Cooper says, however, that Baby Rae has agreed not to say “fuck” starting in February. It’s a small price to pay considering the language is probably not what gets viewers so upset; what gets them upset is the proximity of sex to God.
“Baby Rae triggers a big response in some people,” Cooper says. “Sometimes it’s quite emotional.”
It’s emotional for her too. Baby Rae describes it as a war with God. While most people practice religion by going to church, trying to be “good,” and practicing the rules of whatever faith they adhere to, Baby Rae practices by going on television and opening herself up in a bid to convene with God, if for only an hour each week. For anyone who isn’t religious, what she’s doing can be confusing because the sex and religion seem incongruous. And for anyone from mainstream religions, her inclusion of sex into the show can be considered blasphemy. Even Baby Rae, because of her background in the church, feels the conflict.
“Every time I sit here and I think there’s no way in hell I’m going to get up there and do that, but God presses the issue, so Him and I are in a snit with it,” she says. “And I just die … I die daily with this thing. But then He gives me a way to find there’s a gospel truth to what I’m doing.”
Isn’t the old Pentecostal in her afraid she’ll go to hell?
“Back then I thought if you were perfect for your parents or your preacher or whoever, that meant you went to heaven,” she says. “The grace of God takes the fear out of whether I’ll make it or not.”
A little before 7:30, Baby Rae slips out of the living room to change for this week’s show. J.C. checks the karaoke equipment to make sure all the connections are right and everything works. He came back to live with Baby Rae shortly after Bobby died, and while he didn’t like the sex stuff in her show at first, he’s gotten used to it, slowly.
Baby Rae emerges in a green teddy and her huge platinum wig and heads straight for the refrigerator. She says she allows herself five beers on show night, including one right before she goes on and one in the middle on a break. She’s almost ready to tape so she cracks a Keystone Ice, empties it into a mason-type mug and chugs it down in only a couple of gulps. This entire exercise, she says, is about her and her relationship with God. If others feel less condemned because of what she does, “that’s great.” But it isn’t the reason she does this. For years, Baby Rae got hung up on serving God by following the rules of men—of ministers—and now she’s trusting herself to hear what He wants directly. And for now, He wants her up on that stage, in that teddy, open to His word.
“I think God got so worn out with me saying, ‘See what I got for you, God?’ or ‘See what I’m doing for you, God?’ ” Baby Rae says. “What He was saying was ‘I want your heart, girlfriend,’ but I couldn’t give it to Him.”
“God’s a heart man,” she adds.
It’s show time now, so J.C. shuts off all the lights, except the colored ones that chase each other around the room. He steadies the camera on the stage and starts the music—“Steamy Windows” by Tina Turner. Baby Rae stands next to J.C. shuffling her feet to the rhythm and snapping her fingers anxiously to the beat. They look at each other for a second and then he says out loud:
“Here she is … the Naked Preacher Lady … Baby Rae!”
With that, Baby Rae saunters up to the stage, illuminated with colored lights, for another chance encounter with God.