The Sunday Times Magazine: Dolly Parton

Best face forward

The queen of country music is hitting the road again. We meet the self-confessed ‘irreverent whore’ and finds she is still quite a handful


I’d braced myself for the plastic surgery, but I hadn’t expected Dolly Parton to swear quite so much. Here she is trilling away next to me on a sofa, talking about the paparazzi: “I’m so old I don’t give a shit.” And music: “If you mix country and rap you get crap.” And rumours she’s a lesbian: “I may be a whore but I’m not gay!” (We’ll come back to that.) The ageless face spouts another expletive and I think, it’s like interviewing a Barbie doll with Tourette’s. But that kind of contradiction is Dolly all over.

Dolly’s Parton is the original genuine fake. The dirt-poor dumb-blonde self-made multi-millionaire. A hillbilly gay icon. A bimbo feminist who wrote the pink-collar anthem Nine to Five. The female Elvis who writes her own songs (more than 4,000 to date). Pneumatic enough for her own genre of jokes — “What’s worse than a giraffe with a sore throat? Dolly Parton with a chest cold” — and witty enough to claim “I made the best ones up myself!” Unless Barbara Windsor had a knee-trembler with Johnny Cash, and their secret baby is being raised by Donald Trump, the world will never see the like of her again.

She’s not to be underestimated. Beneath those bouffant wigs lies a shrewd business brain; the woman who once refused to go on one of her own rides at Dollywood lest it damage a false nail has her finger in many pies, all of them selling. As well as the amusement park, which attracts 2.5m visitors a year, she owns a restaurant chain, a water park, a production company. She employs more than 3,000 people. One of my favourite stories about her is that she once refused Elvis permission to record one of her songs because Col Tom Parker was demanding half the songwriting royalties. When Whitney Houston covered it instead in 1992, I Will Always Love You netted Dolly more than $6m. But it is her music, not her business acumen, that has made her a legend. Her pure voice and wistful lyrics have sold around 100m records and gained her a heap of awards. In February she won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. And she has single-handedly changed the face of karaoke.

Now Dolly’s 65 and going on tour. At retirement age, she’s eyeing up Lady Gaga: “I’d love to do a duet… always wanted to work with Madonna, but she never asked.” Either would be “the perfect fit. I’m as outrageous as they are. I was gaudy before they were gaudy!” Actually, she was gaudy before Gaga was born. She is planning on “fallin’ dead right in the middle of a song on stage, doing something I love to do”. Although hopefully not this August, when she brings her tour to Britain.

I go to Nashville to meet Dolly because it is the only place in the world Dolly makes sense. She arrived aged 18 and fresh out of high school in the Smoky Mountains — and met her husband, Carl Dean, outside the Wishy Washy launderette the same day. She intended to become a star; now she has one on the Music City Walk of Fame. Downtown in the honky-tonk bars, I find Dolly wannabes singing Jolene in the same cowgirl yee-ha style. I see her outfits displayed in the Country Music Hall of Fame; her rhinestone-studded costumes alongside Elvis’s blue-suede shoes and Tammy Wynette’s wigs. I tap up locals for Dolly gossip — they all know her. Katy B says they played a drag cabaret together. Rooster Bean’s caught her shopping in Victoria’s Secret (they stock her size, reportedly DD, though they look bigger up close). But in the end I never see Dolly. She’s got a lung infection, says her PR, and the interview’s off.

A month later at the Savoy in London, I am fed into Suite 718 by three PRs and a manager like a cog entering the Dolly Machine. The beige room is sterile and unsequined. We are not in Nashville now — at least until an unmistakable voice chimes “Are you Kay-Tee?” in honey tones straight from Walton’s Mountain. You can hear her back catalogue singing when she speaks.

She intended to become a star; now she has one of her own on the Music City Walk of Fame “Let me a find a lil’ napkin get rid o’ mah guhm… ah’ll sit right here and you sit right there.” Here’s Dolly! She looks like a Pamela Anderson dwarf: a 10-year-old boy’s body with the tits of a porn star. She’s just as Kenneth Clarke described her when chastising Gordon Brown for subscribing to the Dolly Parton School of Economics: “an unbelievable figure blown out of all proportion, with no visible means of support”. #

She teeters in, stitched into skin-tight leather trousers, knee-high stiletto boots and a Dallas-era gold-and-black-brocade shoulder-padded jacket. Dolly does not like to dress down. Even at home she wears “baby clothes” or, as the Dollyism goes, “clothes that are two sizes too small and then take them in a little”.

Dolly bird hops up onto the sofa. She’s so feather-weight she floats over the cushions, her little feet swinging two inches off the ground. “Oh my! Where d’you get that?” is the first thing she squawks — straight at my boobs. In what seemed like a good idea this morning I am wearing a Dolly Parton T-shirt. The girl on my top is a fresh, hollow-cheeked goddess, with dark roots, in a polo-neck.

“That was when I was a young girl,” Dolly exclaims, delighted. “That was one of my first sessions after I moved to Nashville when I was 18 or 19! And that was all my hair that spoiled with all the wigs, looks like my roots are showing! That’s before false eyelashes and everything else.” Before the look? “Yeah, the look,” she considers. And she frowns. Or maybe she frowns — her face doesn’t move.

I have never met anyone who’s had as much plastic surgery as Dolly. Perhaps there is nobody. From a distance, if you squint, you can still recognise the pretty blonde beehived girl with dimpled cheeks who got her break on Porter Wagoner’s 1960s TV show; up close it’s as if she’s wearing a mask of her own face. Still, in a strange way she is beautiful. Her eyes are emerald green (probably contacts); her skin is like alabaster: white and immobile. When I ask what she looks like without make-up on, she says: “Like a blank wall.” It occurs to me this is probably true. Anyway, these days nobody sees her like that; she’s always prepared. In California she sleeps with her make-up on and a wig handy in case of an earthquake evacuation. Is she afraid to be seen without it? “I’m not afraid of that, ’cause that ain’t going to happen!” The look is “as much for myself as for the fans. I have a very outgoing personality, so I wanted my outsides to fit”.

Some people say Dolly’s clever despite her bimborexic image; personally I’ve always thought her cleverer for it. Practically post-feminist, she wears the accoutrements of Woman like drag — “if I hadn’t been born a woman I’d have been born a drag queen” — and couldn’t give two hoots what people say. “I wanted them [her tits] out there. Here they are! Say what you want to say, I just do what I do.” Having based her look “on the town hooker”, it’s become as much a statement of her class mobility as P Diddy’s bling — as she says, her look “came from a serious place: a country girl’s idea of glamour”. Meanwhile she presents a constant challenge to those who judge intelligence on looks. “People say I would have been taken more seriously as a singer and a songwriter if I hadn’t been so outrageous because most people just see me as tits and hair and over-exaggerated clothes, but that’s part of the fun for me,” she coos. “I figured that if somebody really was to follow me close enough, they would see how serious I take my work, and my songwriting and my singing, or even my acting for that matter.”

If you want to know what it’s really like to be Dolly there are better places to look than under her wig. Her mysterious 45-year marriage to the invisible man, Carl Dean, for a start. He is a Denis Thatcher figure who is never seen and about whom Dolly is usually coy even speaking about. Today, however, she’s pretty relaxed. “A lotta people think he don’t exist,” she twinkles, cosying up to me on the sofa, “but he does.” So she tells me, he hates the limelight, “loves anything to do with history, so he watches a lot of that”. He listens to Led Zeppelin, Frank Sinatra, bluegrass, big band. Any Dolly Parton? “He’s less a fan than most!” He made a fortune in asphalt paving, and retired in his forties, a millionaire. They have little in common. Dolly “loves to read”, is “always writing”, doesn’t watch telly or listen to music. “I’m not really that influenced by other people. I just write what comes out of my heart and out of my gut.”

But “it’s what we don’t have in common that makes it work for us! The fact we have different interests gives us a lot to talk about. He’s always writing things down, he’s always got a list of stuff to tell me when I get home, some joke he’s heard or something he’s thought was so funny, or a commercial he wants me to see. ‘Did you see this?’ Or, ‘I found this out on watching so-and-so.’ Or, ‘Here’s a book I think you’d like,’ and he wrote down the name ’cause he knows I love to read”.

2 thoughts on “The Sunday Times Magazine: Dolly Parton

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