Dolly Parton
Ladies' Home Journal
July 1995
About Her Nips & Tucks, Feuds & Flops And (Very, Very) Private Life
By Jim Jerome

      When she recently appeared on Late Show to chat with host David Letterman and sing a recut version of "Jolene" from her upcoming album, Dolly Parton also used her segment to plug Jukebox Junction, the seven-acre fifties-motif addition to her theme park, Dollywood, in east Tennessee.  Letterman, who delights in scrambling his guests' agendas, headed Parton off at the pass.  "So," he asked with an impish grin, "you have rides, too, like Space Mountain?"
      The imperturbable Parton thrust out the one piece of her franchise she never tires of promoting and shot back, "Space Mountain?  I got Twin Peaks."
      As Parton powers into her fourth decade in show business, those proud "peaks" and campy zingers continue to resist erosion from the winds of nineties political correctness.  But make no mistake:  Behind her fastidiously groomed facade, the superstar is a proud, shrewd hard-edged business woman who knows what she wants and how to get it.  Yet Parton seems driven not by a world-beating ego, but rather a practical knack for survival in an industry where the young devour their elders.
      "I'm competitive in the business world," she says, "trying to beat my own records.  I know my strengths and weaknesses, what I will and won't tolerate and sacrifice.  I don't put up with as much bull as I used to, and I don't have to kiss nobody's ass to get along in this world."
      And why should she?  Parton's fabled journey has transformed a dirt-poor "backwoods Barbie" from east Tennessee into an eye-popping showbiz icon:  Her success in music, film, song and book publishing, the theme park and ventures ranging from wigs and cosmetics to kids' books have pushed the worth of "Dolly, Inc." to a reported $100 million.
      Yet by all appearances, she remains just Dolly.  The day after her Late Show appearance, Parton relaxes in a suite at The Pierre Hotel, picking at a crème brûlèe and berries.  Forty-nine looks fabulous on her.  Who else would dare wear a getup best described as Frederick's of Dollywood:  A skintight bodysuit with a low-cut top and steep heels?
      Parton's bubbly, informal style masks her inner steeliness.  But clearly, that's what's helped her cope with recent career setbacks and frustrations like her proposed TV sitcom, which has been "reincarnated" several times.  The problem:  Parton decided the material wasn't quite right.  Having endured a late-eighties variety show she once admitted "sucked," she'd rather hold out than settle for an iffy concept.
      With a mixed Hollywood movie scorecard (9 to 5 and Steel Magnolias were hits; Rhinestone and Straight Talk were bombs), Parton frankly says there are "no big [film] offers."  And as for her music, she has quit the grueling bus-tour grind of younger days, but because she is now considered Old Guard by country radio stations focusing on attracting young listeners, she "can't get singles played on the radio.  I keep thinking they're going to start playing me again.  I'm still a dreamer."
      Or schemer:  Parton displayed keen survival skills with "Romeo," her 1993 single/video with then-hot Billy Ray Cyrus.  "I'm commercial-minded.  If I can't get my own hit, I'm not too proud to hang onto somebody else's coattails."
      Wielding cat-o'-nine-tails was more like it when Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris teamed up for a sequel to Trio, their 1987 platinum treasure.  What should have been a major event last fall backfired amid acrimonious bickering.
      To hear Parton tell it, the sessions could have been titled "The Three Tempers":  Parton, who can nail a song "just as good the first time as the hundredth"; Harris, the "sweet" country purist who painstakingly researched material; and Ronstadt, the perfectionist diva who "loves to live in the studio and works so slow, it drives me nuts.  I wanted to get a cattle prod and say, 'Wake up, bitch, I got stuff to do.'"
      True, she says, their glorious harmonies were "like a creative, emotional orgasm."  But the thrill was gone once Parton's ever-shifting schedule of business, sitcom and book projects left her unavailable to tour and help promote what would have been a fall release.  She "cried and begged" her partners to delay release until this spring, when she promised to promote the record.  "They pitched a fit and dumped the greatest project ever.  It was a sin and a shame — and a stupid decision — to give that album an abortion.  It got into a power play.  I was made to feel hurt, insulted, burdened with guilt.  I would have lived up to my word, but my word wasn't good enough for them.  Finally, I just said, 'The hell with it, sue me.'"
      "Linda never sounded bitter," an Elektra Records insider says cautiously.  "It seems like it's being made into too big of a drama."
      Indeed, when Parton demanded her vocals be mixed out of the tracks so Ronstadt couldn't use them on another album, she settled financially.  Did Trio 2 also cost her in friendship?  Parton offers a pouty shrug.  "We were never all that close — just girlfriends in the business."  Then, picking up with more Dolly-like sass and animation:  "I realized we're now just a bunch of old crotchety, cranky women, set in our ways and getting up there 'round fifty, goin' through change-of-life mood swings.  You never know a true feeling from a hot flash.  I thought, I don't need this.  I ain't that old yet."
      In general, Parton does not obsess about aging.  She thrives on "staying busy, making something happen.  If I get bored, I get depressed."  That seems unlikely, given her energy level and work ethic.  When Parton arrived for a recent photo session forty-five minutes early, for instance, she grew impatient with the leisurely pace of the photographer and her crew.
      She has business on both coasts, so she has an L.A. bungalow and a Fifth Avenue apartment, but she spends close to three quarters of her time in Nashville.  And though Parton will forge on with the development of her sitcom, she is excited to finally have time to focus on the mammoth catalog of three thousand songs she's written.  She'll make demo tapes and "tailor" her pop, gospel and country compositions so she can pitch to "certain people" to record her songs.  After all, Whitney Houston's version of Parton's song "I Will Always Love You" was a record-setting No. 1 hit for fourteen weeks, dwarfing the success that Parton had with it.  "I make more money from publishing and songwriting than almost anything else I do," she says.  "I've never really even worked at it, never pitched a song myself.  Now I'm going to see how well I do if I push my stuff."
      Parton's one career regret is "never being the consistent recording artist I dreamed of being" — meaning, the sustained platinum-album sales of, say, Kenny Rogers, Houston or Elton John.  But, if, as she agrees, spreading herself thin with film and other projects has "absolutely" compromised her in the record business, it has saved her in the piggy bank.
      "I have had a half-assed so-called crossover-pop career.  But lots of [aging country] people now are starving to death.  Most of them are what we call hick rich — get rich quick, spend it quick.  Being broke and famous is a sad, hard place to be.  Sure, I had a lot of irons in the fire, and it burned people's asses back then.  Had I not done all these other things, I'd be broke now."
      She struck literary gold, too, with her best-selling memoir, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business.  The book, Parton admits, raised more questions than it answered about her reclusive husband of nearly thirty years, Carl Dean, and lifelong confidante Judy Ogle, who was in the adjoining bedroom at The Pierre and who shadows Parton on the road as a constant companion.
      In Dolly, Parton described Dean as loyal and loving but "not strong when it comes to my having problems"; she related often sharing a bed with Ogle ("Why scream across the room when you don't have to?") and a bond "closer than husband and wife."
      Such titillation, she says, was "deliberate.  I can't tell everything about me without hurting someone else.  I prayed that I could satisfy people's curiosity in a kind, Christian manner.  But I should have called it My Life and It's Nobody's Business.  Hell, they only paid what, twelve dollars, at bargain prices?"  (They'll pay even less for the paperback version, released last month.)
      Bottom line on Dean:  "What I meant to [write] is, I loved him too much to put him through a lot of the stuff I brought on myself.  I share what I want to with Carl, and he knows the rest.  Our relationship is like mine and Judy's.  It is pure, it is sacred and it is real."
      As for Ogle:  "We've never been lovers, nor will we ever be lovers.  Judy's never been married.  She's an old maid [laughing].  She'd probably rather be called a lesbian than an old maid.  I don't care who she sleeps with or when she sleeps with them."
      Parton needed all the help she could get from both Dean and Ogle during a medical crisis in the early eighties, ultimately undergoing "female surgery" to stem internal hemorrhaging.  ("I had a couple of D&C's to control [bleeding].  I was all nerves.  I even started to drink to ease my pain," she wrote.)  Parton also had her "tubes tied" so she could go off birth control pills.  It was a time of career stress, not to mention personal woes:  There was turbulence and "betrayal" within her inner circle (she believed confidants were leaking stories to the press), in addition to a fifty-pound weight gain followed by drastic weight loss ("I was a hog, but then I got too skinny") and depression.  Her decision not to have children triggered reactions in loved ones (not Dean) that only added to her anguish:  "I was feeling guilty about not having kids, about having a career, that I'm not the woman I should be because I don't have a desire to have them, that I was selfish."
      Parton's greatest gift, perhaps, is turning such hardships into song.  "I cry, I pray, I kick, I piss and moan and cuss and write and sing my songs and it goes away.  I almost feel God puts me through heartaches so I will have more to write about.  I don't need a psychiatrist.  I blurt out everything that I feel."
      And after trying "every crazy diet," she has finally made a comfortable, lasting peace with food and her body image.  Parton maintains her figure by simply controlling what she eats with light but constant snacks — and cosmetic nips and tucks for good measure.  She makes no apologies for liposuction ("If you got those little [hip] pouches that no amount of exercise or diet's gonna get, well, you just go in for a sucking"); breast enhancements ("I had them little soldiers lifted to attention so I don't have to wear a bra"); or tiny tucks under the chin or eyes ("If it makes you feel your best self — and as long as you don't get your plastic surgeon from the Yellow Pages — what's wrong with it?").
      Parton's built herself a dream house as well as a dream body.  Her home, situated on seventy-five acres, is a few miles from Music Row in Brentwood, a Nashville suburb.  And though the house was once surrounded by lush farmland when she and Dean settled there in the seventies, Parton likes that it's now highly developed, with a mall only minutes away.  She loves hiking on local trails and playing with her three Nashville-area sisters' kids in their treehouses.  She and Dean can fish and picnic at their cabin and houseboat on Old Hickory Lake a half hour away.  Dean, fifty-two, who's retired from his asphalt paving business, buys, improves and sells properties.  Parton loves dining out, but Elvis is about as likely to be sighted in town as Dean.  "Oh, I get him out once in a while, but he don't like to get cleaned up in a suit and tie that much."
      Fortunately, Dean tinkers on farm equipment in the barn, leaving Parton free to channel-surf from Court TV to CNN for her daily O.J. trial fix.  Two recent high points, she says, were pulling alongside prosecutor Marcia Clark in L.A. freeway traffic, then spotting F. Lee Bailey dining at Mortons.  "I told him, 'I'm trying to get a TV show off the ground, be you're having a lot more luck than me.  I wish to God I had your ratings.'  The trial's just the dangedest thing."
      Not really.  The "dangedest thing" may just be growing up with twelve kids in a two-room mountain shack with no plumbing, using corncobs for dolls and newspaper on the walls for insulation — and becoming Dolly Parton.  Small wonder after three decades that it's an identity she's not likely to surrender.
      "I'll be this way when I'm eighty, like Mae West," she boasts.  "I may be on crutches, in a wheelchair or propped up on some old slantboard, but I'll have my high heels, my nails and makeup on, my hair'll be all poufed up and my boob'll still be hangin' out.  It's not a big job being Dolly.  It's just my life."