Inside My Private World
The larger-than-life (and 5ft-tall) icon opens up about her real life, her decades-spanning marriage and how she stays so young at heart
Dolly Parton isn’t one to be caught offguard. “If I go to the grocery store, I’ll dress like me because if I’m going to see somebody, I’d rather them say, ‘I saw Dolly at the grocery store, and she was so overdone,’ than say, ‘God, I saw Dolly at the grocery store, and she looked like hell!’ ” says the country legend, her lilting laugh filling the room. At 72, with nearly 60 years of showbiz under her belt, she’s always prepared and knows exactly what she wants. As with her iconic, over-thetop style: “I don’t like to not look like me,” says the singer, who arrives camera-ready and 30 minutes early for her WHO photo shoot with her signature blonde mane coiffed, charcoallined eyes shining and lips perfectly painted. Her infectious charm is also at the ready, and the ever-private star is not opposed to using it as a shield when she needs to. Finding herself opening up as never before about her personal life, she suddenly pauses for a moment. “What does this have to do with Dumplin’ ?” she asks herself as much as anyone else, referring to her latest project – a Netflix film starring Jennifer Aniston. But it’s that balance of sass and savvy that has fuelled her amazing journey.
Beloved for her unshakable sense of self, Parton wasn’t always so confident in her skin. Born in a one-room cabin in the tiny town of Pittman Center, Tennessee, the singer was the fourth of 12 children raised by Robert Lee Parton, a farmer, and his homemaker wife, Avie Lee. “I grew up in a very poor family with no material things. I had to claw and scratch my way through everything,” says Parton. With five sisters and six brothers, she struggled to find her place and also battled body-image issues. “I’m a hog at heart,” says the star, who co-wrote six new songs on the soundtrack for Dumplin’. The musical comedy, based on the young-adult novel of the same name by Julie Murphy, tells the story of an overweight teen who is the daughter of a former beauty queen (played by Aniston) and draws inspiration from Parton’s music.
Though she cemented her status as a bona fide star in the ’70s with No. 1 hits like “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You”, before breaking through in Hollywood in 1980 with her first feature film, 9 to 5, Parton says she faced struggles in the spotlight. “I can certainly relate to what girls go through in their young years and even in their adult years,” she says. “I’ve been up and down with my weight. I’ve been a Dumplin’, and inside of me there’s a Dumplin’
still trying to get out.” With her participation in the film, Parton hopes to help girls with similar issues. “It’s not easy for anybody, but it’s good to let them know it’s OK to be you.”
Parton feels most like herself inside the private world she shares with husband Carl Thomas Dean, whom she met at just 18 years old. Celebrating 52 years of marriage this year, the couple are never photographed publicly, and Dean shuns the spotlight. Much unlike her, “my husband doesn’t like to dress up,” says Parton. “Our life is simple but easy. We don’t even have that much company at home. We just like to be together.” On her days off, the Nashvillebased couple enjoy mini road trips in their RV and quiet picnics in the countryside near their Tennessee home. After more than five decades together, date night is low-key. “He loves Mexican food, and we know a few little places we can go without being bothered,” says Parton. “He only likes to go places where he can be comfortable.” Parton, of course, still gets dolled up at home – “I pull my hair up in a little scrunchie and roll it with little hot rollers and always try to look cute” – but the star is confident it’s her inner beauty he loves most. Says Parton, “He doesn’t care what I wear as long as I’m happy. He loves me the way I am.”
Two years ago the couple renewed their vows in an over-the-top celebration held at their home. “I never really felt like I had the wedding that we wanted, so we decided to get married again,” says Parton. When they got hitched in 1966, the fledgling singer had been asked by her record label to stay unwed. In true form she rebelled and snuck over to a “little church” in Ringgold, Georgia, with Dean to exchange vows. “We’d already sent out invitations, and I thought, ‘I ain’t waiting!’ ” recalls Parton. “I had a little white dress and little flowers. My mom went with me and made me a little bouquet.” At their vow renewal Parton finally got to wear the “big, long gown and veil” she’d always envisioned. “He got all dressed up, I got all dressed up and we did a beautiful ceremony,” she says about the special day. “It’s been a good 50 years, and I don’t know how many more years we’ll have left. Fifty years is a long time for anything.”
Just as long-lasting: her enduring career. Called “unstoppable” by Rolling Stone in the 1980s, the entertainer has continued to reinvent herself. Since making her debut in 1959, Parton has recorded more than 45 studio albums, appeared in a dozen films, formed her own production company and even opened a wildly successful theme park, Dollywood. Next year Netflix will release an eight-part anthology series she executive-produced based on her songs. “Sleep’s no big deal to me. I just do that ’cause it’s necessary,” says Parton. “The older you get, the less you need. I don’t want to miss anything.”
“Everyone should be able to love who they love, how they love. Love is many colours but love is love”
She’s not exaggerating. Every day, Parton wakes up at 3am. “I get more work done by seven in the morning than most people get done all day, because it’s quiet time,” she says. It’s also when she finds her peace. “I spend a lot of time in the mornings with my meditation and my prayers and talking to God,” she says. “After that I’ll have my coffee.” While she’s careful about her diet, she still indulges in her favourite southern dishes. “I can’t eat as much of it as I’d like to or as I used to, but I still have to have chicken and dumplings, pork roast, fried corn and fried okra,” she says.
She also loves cooking, a bittersweet pastime that reminds her of her “Mama,” Avie – who died in 2003 and was the rock of her family. “Mama’s gone now, but she’s not gone in our memory and in our cooking.” She’s also remembered in song. “When I sing ‘Coat of Many Colours’, that’s very personal to me,” says Parton. “I’m always singing that to Mama. After [she] passed, it was really hard for me to perform that song … I would often cry.”
Parton never became a mother herself, but with a host of nieces, as well as goddaughter Miley Cyrus and her millions of fans, “everyone thinks I’m their aunt,” she says with a laugh. “Now that I’m older, I realise I didn’t have kids of my own so everybody’s kids could be mine. I try to write songs that touch people’s lives because everybody touches mine.” As long as the world will have her, Parton has no plans to slow down.
“I never think about retiring. I just hope I fall dead in the middle of a song, hopefully one I wrote, right onstage,” she jokes, slipping back into her lovable, quotable self. “I figure I’ll sleep when I’m dead. At this rate I will be soon!” Parton’s life is richer than she ever thought possible, and it’s not something she takes for granted. “When I was younger, I used to wonder what my life would be like, ’cause I always wanted to do something to touch people,” she says. “I am grateful that I’ve seen my dreams come true.”
“There’s a whole lot to be said for loving your work and having confidence in yourself. God gave me a gift, and he meant for me to use it”