Dolly Parton Myth-Busts the Most Persistent Rumors About Her
Only the good ones are true.
Did Dolly Parton really lose a Dolly Parton look-alike contest to a drag queen? Is she really covered in tattoos, which she hides from her more conservative fans by constantly wearing long sleeves? What about those whispers that her husband of more than 50 years doesn’t really exist? Having been certifiably mega-star famous for more than 40 years, Dolly Parton has more rumors surrounding her than a Kardashian. And with the first several decades of her fame (firmly established with her 1971 hit “Coat of Many Colors”) happening before the internet and social media, all the Dolly rumors have snowballed into urban legend.
When I got the chance to speak with Dolly, I was elated. As a Southern blonde who also happens to love wearing sequins and lipstick, and weaponizing both my old-fashioned manners and 'cup of ambition' to equal degrees, I've always been inspired by her. She's a legend as much for her kindness as she is her work ethic and grit — reportedly almost unbelievably humble considering her outsized glamour. I tried to tame my glee, and made my way to Dollywood (her very real personal theme park) in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. to parse out Dolly Fact from Dolly Fiction.
It is a fact that 2019 has been a busy year of new projects and headlines from the 73-year-old entertainer. It began on the heels of the Netflix film Dumplin’, which was as much a love letter to Dolly as it was a chance for her to release some new music. Then things really kicked off with a duet of her hit “Jolene” with her goddaughter Miley Cyrus at the 2019 Grammy Awards, followed by a fashion exhibit at the Grammy Museum, and a huge announcement about a lifestyle brand that will include everything from perfume to wigs and attire. Now, Twitter's in an uproar over Dolly Parton’s America, a weekly podcast on which Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad interviews Parton. It just launched in October and is already introducing a whole new generation to the Dolly star machine.
That work will surely be continued by Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, an anthology series hitting Netflix on November 22 that brings to life a different hit Dolly song in each of eight episodes. Julianne Hough plays Jolene in the highly anticipated episode about one of Dolly's most universally beloved, most heartbreaking songs. Dolly herself introduces each episode to share a little more history behind what the fictionalization will portray. She also just debuted the single, “Faith," a collaboration with a Swedish electronic duo named Galantis, which netted her a new 'first' — a No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic chart. Meanwhile she marked her 50th anniversary as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in October, and just last week she co-hosted and performed at the CMA awards (which meant stopping by for a Good Morning America special with Robin Roberts).
What makes a person driven to do so much? For Dolly, the fun parts: “I’m the perfect person to be in show business, because I just love getting to be a glamour girl and getting to dress up in all the outfits,” she tells me.
In between drafts one and two of this very article, Dolly snagged two Grammy Award nominations to add to her 49 career noms and eight total wins. And I would be remiss not to mention that in any given year, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library — the book gifting program she founded in 1995 inspired by her own father’s illiteracy — mails out 12 million free, age-appropriate books to children (127 million books gifted thus far). A truly busy year, indeed.
The first thing I noticed when I occupied the same room as Dolly Parton was her ability at 73-years-old to walk gracefully and stand — for long periods of time! — in 5-inch stilettos (heck she even danced around in them a little). The day I witnessed this triumph, they were red booties with gold floral appliques, red rhinestone-encrusted heels and platforms.
The next was her total lack of pretense. She arrived sans stern-looking, sunglasses-clad security guards that usually accompany a star of her caliber. She has security, sure, but it’s one kind gentleman in a cowboy hat; and her team of assistants, publicists, and stylists are mostly from Tennessee and have worked for her for decades. They’re not flashy (Dolly has enough flash for them all), and they are just as nice as can be. “I surround myself with great people, because I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know," Dolly says. Especially when it comes to social media; the star has a perhaps unexpectedly strong presence on Instagram. "Oh I have people for that," she says. "They can’t be me, but I can’t be them, so we take what all I am and what all they know and make a wonderful thing, hopefully!”
That rumor about Dolly being a sweetheart — down-to-earth, gracious, and as modest as she is sequin-clad most of the time — proved true almost immediately. I asked about a story circling social media that she wrote “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same day. “You know, I never really thought about it, because I wrote all the time,” she said. “But my people were taking my old cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes and gathering things on hard drives before they deteriorated, and one old cassette had ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘Jolene’ on it, and I was in my den with the same little guitar, so if it wasn’t the same night, it was in the same very short period of time. That was a good night, if I wrote both on the same night,” she laughed.
My interview with Ms. Parton was during a press event for Heartstrings. A few of us reporters began chatting, and ended up giving celebrity-interviewing advice to a newbie among us. “Don’t waste time talking about how much you love her,” one began. “Of course you love her, she’s Dolly Parton, but ask your questions.” I joked that my mom had asked me to tell Dolly that they share a birthday, and, like, why would Dolly care? What I realized during my time in the Tennessee mountains with Dolly was that she probably does care; she is one of the more caring people I've engaged with in this capacity, and her status as an icon certainly does not require that. When it came out during our conversation that I am a mother, Dolly immediately asked me the names and ages of my children.
There’s been much speculation about Dolly’s own lack of children through the years (surprise, surprise), but she has served as a mentor to many up-and-coming musicians, and has a maternal quality you can sense a mile away. As for how she became Miley’s godmother, she shares: “Billy Ray [Cyrus] toured with me when he was young, and then I wrote a song called 'Romeo,' and I asked him to be in that video, and we were just so much alike, he was like a kid brother to me. We would just laugh and talk for hours when we were on the road together, so Miley was just my baby from the time she was born! We didn’t do it official or anything, but I was her fairy godmother, and she calls me Aunt Dolly, and we’re family.”
And what about her husband Carl Dean? The pair have been married for 53 years, but Dean is known to be shy of the spotlight, and is never seen on red carpets or at public events, and only a handful of photos of the two of them have been published through the years. These days, we see similarly private unions from stars like Scarlett Johansson (and SNL star husband Colin Jost) and Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes, but with Dolly, who has shared so much of the rest of herself with her public, Dean’s absence feels palpable to fans. For Dolly, it’s just how they do things. “He’s always been my biggest fan behind the scenes. He’s always supportive as long as I don’t drag him to stuff like this,” she quipped from the red carpet at the premiere of Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings.
Whether appearing at red carpet events or sitting down for an interview, Dolly is famous for her timeliness — she’s never on time, always early. Perhaps that's because Dolly spends several hours waiting around for everyone else's day to begin. “I’m always up by 3 a.m.,” she shared with me. “I don’t require a lot of sleep, so I’m just an early riser, always have been. I get more done between 3 and 7 than most people get done in a week!”
As for why she always has her arms and hands covered (The fingerless, rhinestone-encrusted gloves she wears are all custom made.), Dolly’s longtime creative director Steve Summers says it’s simply a matter of taste. He has been working with Dolly for 29 years, and is responsible for everything about her image, a huge component of which is her wardrobe. “People always ask why she always wears sleeves — well, she’s 73-years-old, and she doesn’t like her elbows,” he says. “[They ask] 'what’s wrong with her hands?' She’s 73, and she doesn’t like them! It’s a normal woman thing.” So, that's a no to the tattoos.
Along with punctuality, another decidedly un-celebrity-esque Dolly trait is the nearly unheard of fact that she does her own makeup — for every red carpet appearance, every television appearance, even magazine cover shoots. “No one else can do it as well as she can,” says Summers. “We’ve had talented makeup artists do it through the years, but she just doesn’t look like herself. She knows the canvas better than anyone.” Perhaps that lack of pretense is evened out with a dose of diva in that Dolly’s hair requires a staff of its own. She famously wears wigs for every occasion, and her wig master Cheryl Riddle has been responsible for the hair we see for more than 30 years.
Her wardrobe is also not particularly low-maintenance. Summers shared that there is a dress in production for Dolly every day of the year, and while an average year requires 300 dresses, the last quarter of 2019 alone will include that many looks because of her busy schedule. (The day I met her, she wore six.) Summers works out of the bottom floor of the guest house on Dolly’s property in Brentwood, Tenn. and has a 3,000-square-foot space — complete with a rhinestone wall that is full of shelves and drawers in which the crystals are organized by size and color — and a staff of five.
Elsewhere on the property is a 50,000-square-foot warehouse dedicated to homing her clothes. "Practical" storage is the working closet full of all the clothes Dolly is currently wearing. Then there is the area that houses what Summers calls "blanks," clothing he has found on a great sale somewhere, or fabrics he has fallen in love with while shopping, and that is where the team ‘shops’ first when creating a new look. The remainder of the space is where Dolly's show dresses live, and where production manager Rebecca Seaver has begun the process of archiving everything: photographing each outfit; noting the designer, the measurements, and the fabric content of each one, as well as where it was worn and including a photo of Dolly in it. It then gets placed in "history" storage, and anytime an outfit is needed, it is easily found. “It’s really a well-oiled machine,” laughs Summers.
Despite most people not having a context to grasp wearing six outfits in one day, another compelling aspect of the legend is her seemingly universal accessibility and appeal. What other singer is as beloved by church ladies as she is drag performers? (Dolly has confirmed that she lost a lookalike contest, by the way.) Dolly has a way of closing generational, religious and political chasms. Actor and singer Andy Mientus (known for Broadway's Spring Awakening, Les Misérables, and Wicked) is the perfect example of someone who saw this play out in his life. The actor, who appears in the "Two Doors Down" episode of Heartstrings, shared at the red carpet premiere of the show that as a young gay man, he was able to bond with his conservative grandmother over Dolly’s music when there was little else on which they could see eye-to-eye. And his story is just one of thousands that have the same tone.
Dolly is a common ground that almost everyone can find. A unique attribute that I credit fully with her commitment to those classic Southern manners: Kindness, loving everyone, and a distinct lack of pride. Dolly doesn’t look for the validation of having her personal feelings on hot-button topics discussed. Dolly is famous for saying she "belongs to the public," and what a perfect icon she has bestowed upon us.
In fact, Dolly is so committed to her fans that she has ensured her legacy and music will continue for years. At Dolly’s DreamMore Resort at Dollywood, housed in a wooden lockbox, is a song she has written called “My Place in History." No one has heard it but Dolly herself, and it will remain locked there until her 100th birthday — January 19, 2046. On that day, whether Dolly is living or passed, her staff knows to open the box and release the recording to the world, her final gift to us all — as if the more than 60 studio albums, nearly one thousand songs, iconic film roles, and the infinite sparkle weren’t gift enough.