Dolly’s no dummy!
The country star’s a straight-shootin’ feminist
Dolly Parton likes to start the day brutally early, so we've been summoned to meet her at an unearthly hour. “I'm a country girl,” she says. “We get up with the chickens.”
We meet as dawn is rising over Nashville and the coffee is brewing at her offices, where brick walls are adorned with all manner of sparkly memorabilia. There’s a leopard print and neonpink dress next to a silver sequin fishtail one. They are impossibly small with hand-span cinched waists. At 72, Parton can still get into every one of them.
Just as you’re marvelling at those proportions, there she is
in front of you, smiling and
offering a manicured hand, which is weighed down by a giant silver butterfly that spreads from her wrist to her fingers.
“Well hello,” she says in that familiar southern, honey-glazed purr. She is tiny (1.52m), and at 6am is the full package – giant eyelashes, huge hair, intricate make-up, enormous sparkling hoop earrings and high heels.
Dolly has joked that she modelled her look on the town hooker. “I swear that's true,” she tells proudly. “I thought she was just so glamorous.” Dolly is never not glamorous. She will not answer her door without make-up on.
“When I'm in LA, I go to bed like this. If there's an earthquake, I don't want to have to run outside my hotel without my hair and face in place. No way, José.”
The country star has built a $785 million empire on a super-brand that's as rock-solid as her two most famous assets.
Up close, that surgically enhanced bosom is impressive. It is impossible not to sneak a peek and she knows it. You try not to, but somehow your eyes are drawn to her chest. She stands for a moment to be admired. “Everybody wants to look,” she laughs. “I always understood guys would want to look at my boobs. I would say in a business meeting, ‘I'll give you a minute to look at these, but then I want you to listen to what I have to say because I'm here to make money for all of us.'”
No dumb blonde
What makes Dolly truly remarkable is that she's a woman from nowhere who has made it big in a man's world. At the age of 18, she left her dirt-poor family's one-room log cabin in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, and within a decade had transformed herself into a superstar who would go on to sell 100 million records, win nine Grammy awards and earn two Oscar nominations.
Her first chart hit was 1967's “Dumb Blonde”, which led to a life-changing gig on The Porter
Wagoner Show, the biggest syndicated country music TV programme in America. The 21-year-old wiggled and winked through her performance.
“I'm neither dumb nor blonde,” explains Dolly, who was born a brunette. “But back when I started out, it was easier to be seen that way. I knew exactly what I was doing.”
Dolly has proved to be an unlikely feminist, beating the sexist music industry at its own game by playing up to the most extreme version of a woman but never losing control in the process.
Her genius move was setting up her own publishing company in 1965, which means she owns every cent her records make. Almost half her fortune comes from royalties earned from covers of her songs by artists from The Bee Gees to Ellie Goulding. She's earned around $40 million from movies.
As a child, she hung around her father's feet while he did deals with local farmers and horse traders, always driving the hardest bargains. She took those lessons on board and it led to her making some tough decisions. In 1975, when Elvis Presley wanted to record “I Will Always Love You”, Dolly turned him down.
“His manager called me up the day before he was due to record the song and said, ‘Now you know Elvis has to have at least half the publishing rights of any song he records.'
“I was desperate for Elvis to sing my song, but I couldn't let that happen. It's my song, my publishing rights. It broke my heart, but I had to turn him down.”
Seventeen years later, she was proved spectacularly right. Whitney Houston covered the song for the movie The
Bodyguard and it went on to earn Dolly $30 million
and counting in royalties.
In 1978, Jane Fonda asked the singer to take on her first movie role. In 9to5, Dolly plays seemingly submissive secretary Doralee, who joins forces with two other office workers (Jane and Lily Tomlin) to turn the tables on their sexist bully of a boss and prove they can run the business better than him.
The movie's message could not chime more with the current #MeToo times and will be reprised in the stage show 9 to 5:The Musical, which heads to London's Savoy Theatre in January.
“I agreed on the condition that I wrote the score,” says Dolly with a wink. The single “9 to 5” remains – along with “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” – one of her biggest hits. “I loved the message of the movie,” she says. “But what I also loved was that we delivered it with a lot of humour.”
Dolly pauses before launching into the subject of sexism. Her view is surprisingly at odds with the #MeToo movement. “I am very supportive of these women who are speaking out – no woman should be abused – but we can't turn it all into saying that all men are bad. I don't like that.
“I grew up with 11 siblings and six of those were boys. I had my daddy and I had my uncles. And of course I had men hitting on me, but I knew what was going to happen, especially when I dressed like I do.
“It was my daddy who taught me how to handle myself with men, to take responsibility for making sure I never got into a situation I couldn't handle,” she explains. “It's just saying let's all be treated equally. I've built my own business, I own all my songs. I've never had to do anything I didn't want to and so much of that is down to what my daddy taught me. So I'm a woman who has had success because of what she got from a man.”
Growing up a self-described hillbilly, Dolly is all about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and, like the rest of her life, her career has not always been easy. She scandalised the conservative country music scene in 1974 by leaving the
Wagoner Show and finding fame in Hollywood.
It's an interesting insight that “I Will Always Love You” – acclaimed as one of the greatest love songs of all time – was never about a romance. She wrote it to Wagoner when he refused to allow her to leave his show. She felt they both needed to move on. He didn't.
“We would talk and talk but never agree,” she says.
One night, she wrote that song and sang it to him to make him understand. He finally agreed to let her go. “I Will Always Love You” is not really a love song – it's the most profitable resignation letter ever written.
Lessons in love
Dolly has never lived outside Tennessee. She has a mansion in Nashville, but spends most of her time in a smaller apartment in the city with her husband Carl Dean. They met in 1964 on her first day in the country music capital. He ran a road repair company.
Their marriage is a success in celebrity terms. “I can't think of many other people in this business who've been married this long,” says Dolly. “We just suit each other. I do my thing, he does his and we like each other – that's the secret.”
The pair never had children. “The biggest thing I wanted was my career. I wanted to be married, I wanted never to be divorced, I wanted to be a big singer and that was all I thought about. Later in life, I did think about it, but nothing happened and I accepted it.”
There's a lot looming in the Parton pipeline and Dolly is due at her next appointment. Along with the 9to5 stage show, there's a movie sequel that looks set to reunite her with Jane and the upcoming re-release of the 9to5 album.
She stands up and pats down her outfit. “If you want to know my secret,” she says, eyeing her décolletage, “think like a man, look like a woman. These aren't boobs – these are balls.”
Sh ’ b ( b h ll )