The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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 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 4000 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 2.5 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year, she owns a restau­rant chain, a wa­ter park and a pro­duc­tion com­pany. She em­ploys more than 3000 peo­ple.

One of my favourite sto­ries about her is that she once re­fused Elvis per­mis­sion to record one of her songs be­cause Colonel 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 $US6 mil­lion. But it is her mu­sic, not her busi­ness acu­men, that has made her a le­gend. Her pure voice and wist­ful lyrics have sold about 100 mil­lion records and gained her a heap of awards. In Fe­bru­ary she won a Life­time Achieve­ment Award at the Gram­mys. And she has sin­gle­hand­edly 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 . . . I 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’’.

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 laun­drette the same day. 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.

‘‘ 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 breasts of a porn star. She’s just as Bri­tish Con­ser­va­tive MP Ken­neth Clarke de­scribed her when chastis­ing for­mer PM Gor­don Brown for sub­scrib­ing to the Dolly Par­ton School of Eco­nom­ics: ‘‘ an un­be­liev- able 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 on to the sofa. She’s so feath­er­weight she floats over the cush­ions, her lit­tle feet swing­ing 5cm off the ground. ‘‘ Oh my! Where d’you get that?’’ is the first

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