MEET THE REAL DOLLY PARTON
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