'IN ADDITION to my other numerous acquaintances," the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard once remarked, "I have one more intimate confidant. My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known -- no wonder, then, that I return the love." Dolly Parton had the same faithful mistress in the early Eighties. After she made The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas movie in 1982, she sank into a long and seemingly -- at the time -- bottomless depression.
"I got overweight," she tells me over breakfast in London's Dorchester Hotel.
"I was going through some hormonal changes, some female things, and I got really depressed for about 15, 18 months. During that dark spot, I could really see how people could commit suicide or get to drinking or do drugs. I never did any of that, but I tell you, I saw how you can go."
It is refreshing to hear that the most bubbly blonde on Earth suffers from the same dark nights of the soul as the rest of us. Still, it is hard to believe that the manifestly vivacious woman behind Jolene and I Will Always Love You gets down, not least when you see her on stage belting it out in all her spangly rhinestone regalia.
"Sure, I get my moments," she says. "I get my moments of depression. I'm a human being. But I'm not only a human being, I'm a song-writer that writes very emotional songs. I can't close my feelings off. If I've had a broken heart I can't not love again. I can't not feel again, because then I wouldn't be able to write the songs I want to. So I refuse. I have all kinds of feelings. I'm not happy all the time. Nor would I want to be. Then I wouldn't know the difference."
When you hear her say something so real as this, you realise there is a lot more to Dolly Rebecca Parton than we had imagined. There is more to her than the gamey showbiz trouper who keeps the media at arm's length with well- practised lines such as, "If I see something sagging, bagging and dragging, I'm going to nip it, tuck it, and suck it," and "Plastic surgeons make mountains out of molehills." Always delivered a la Dorothy Parker or Mae West, of course.
Up close, Parton is witty and camp, but there is another side to her too. She talks about the God core, the God self, that she believes is within us all. "And I try to connect to that," she says. "I study the other religions of the world. I love knowing what other people think. But when the day is over, I have my own connection with God," she says, passionately.
"Because who knows what we're here with? Who knows who we are? Who knows if we are going anywhere else?" She then outlines her ruling philosophy. Try to find the best in every day. Try to make the most of who you are. Try to make the most of the stuff you've got inside you.
"You can wallow around in your sorrow all day long if that's what you choose to do but you better get to living and finding out. Don't wallow in it."
I say that sadness can be like quicksand -- the more you move about in it, the further you go down.
"Yes! Get out of that. Get up and get out. I know it hurts, but, you know, get on with it, get on with life."
She says that she hopes when we get to heaven that we can all be happy all the time, "but not right now".
I play devil's advocate and ask her how she can be sure there will even be a heaven. "It is just the way I was brought up," she says, referring to her Pentecostal rearing in the shadow of Tennessee's Smoky Mountains. "I choose to believe it. Even if there wasn't a heaven, I choose to believe. I want to believe there's a God. I want to believe there's something greater than us."
She'll be 62 next month. Parton says that the older she has become, the more she has thought about death. "When you get older, you think about it, mostly because you want to be prepared," she smiles.
So says the woman whom Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned mammal, was named after. She says she inherited her philosophy of life from her parents but also from the poor people she grew up around in Locust Ridge, Tennessee. "In the mountains," she says, "one of the ways you survive when you are as poor as we were is to have a sense of humour. You have to laugh about your own conditions and find all the humour in it -- or you would go mad. You'd go crazy or be depressed."
It was not always easy to get on in Locust Ridge, however, where Dolly's dress sense -- fastidiously modelled on the local town whore -- made her life troublesome. "I never gave up. I used to get whippings because I would wear my short skirts, my red finger nails, my bright lipstick and my high heels. I just couldn't help it. It was just who I wanted to be."
Can you help it any more now?
"No, I am who I am," she says with suitable Southern belle sass.
Her grandfather, Jake Owens, was a preacher who believed Dolly was Jezebel reborn, and, as such, nothing less than the fires of hell awaited her. In time, she says he saw that she was doing great work, and people were accepting her, not thinking she was as trashy as she looked. Seeing the goodness that was in her, he came around before he passed away. "He was very proud of me in the end."
Wasn't Bible Belt Southern religion and your sexuality a particularly explosive mix for you?
"It has always been for me, my spirituality and my sexuality, but I have always been comfortable with myself. I have always felt fine. I grew up Pentecostal. That's hellfire and brimstone. Women in the early days of the church were not even allowed to pluck their eyebrows or shave their legs. So you could well imagine what kind of a freak I was considered."
Throughout our time together, Dolly Parton never once stops smiling or holding eye contact. She is so petite she almost looks cartoonish or artificial, a rhinestone Barbie come to life on the squishy sofa at the Dorchester. This doesn't displease either. "People think that I am as artificial as I look. I'm not. I have a new album called Backwards Barbie and that's what it is about. It has lines like: 'I grew up poor and ragged, just a simple country girl.' I wanted to be pretty more than anything in the world, like Barbie and the models in the Frederick's catalogue. In my dreams, I could have it all. I have often been misunderstood because of how I look. But don't judge me by the cover because I'm a real good book. Read into me what you will but see me as I am."
And what are you, Dolly Parton?
"I'm just a country girl's idea of glam," she says. "So people sometimes look at me and maybe think that I'm completely tacky and artificial. But I love tacky. And if there is any magic about me through the years it is that I look totally artificial but I am totally real. I have always been more flamboyant from the inside than I was on the outside. I am just plain. I'm not a natural beauty. Little things that have always been negatives to me, I have made into positives. I just look at it like that and just go with it."
Nigella Lawson texts me to ask who her favourite writer is ("I'm so crazy for her!"). When I text back that Dolly adores Appalachian author Lee Smith, the domestic goddess harrumphs. "Pity. I wanted her to read Dostoevsky."
If she was lying on the couch opposite Sigmund Freud, what would she want to ask him?
"'What were you smoking when you came up with all that shit? What were you sniffing? What were you shooting in your veins when you had some of those thoughts?'"
Despite singing the feminist anthem Nine To Five, Dolly doesn't, surprisingly, consider herself a feminist. "No, I'm not. I just think I'm a woman who loves life and loves people for what they are. I love my work. I have always been a freak myself, an odd bird, and I figure if people will let me be me and allow me to be who I am then I can certainly accept them and not be judgemental."
Would her mother make her wash her mouth out with soap for using words like "freak" about herself?
"Yes, she would. Maybe freak is not the perfect word. I was an odd wad, certainly back where I grew up. I was so different then, wearing all the make-up and the hair and short skirts in a very religious family. They thought I was going to hell."
How does the multi-millionaire businesswoman stay connected to the dirt-poor girl who grew up in rural America? "I never lost her," she says. "I think a lot of it has to do with the songs I write. I always write about home. I think about home and I always remember those things from my childhood. So when I sing The Coat Of Many Colours and Tennessee Mountain Home it just keeps you anchored. Plus, it's a crazy world, no doubt about that -- but I try to keep my own personal world as sane as I possibly can. I do normal things. I read when I'm home. I do cooking."
Her culinary speciality is the food her mother always cooked for her: fried chicken and dumplings, meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Needless to say she doesn't eat fried chicken or mashed potatoes the way she used to growing up. "I do eat it, but not large amounts. I eat small portions because I am very short and I have a very big appetite. So if I eat the way I'd like to, I'd be big as a house -- and I have been!" she laughs.
She and her husband, Carl Dean, have been married 41 years "and we do very ordinary things".
How do they keep the relationship going? A show-business marriage lasting that long is a miracle.
"Well, it really is. But one thing, my husband is not in the business as well. Sometimes I think a lot of marriages don't work if both people are in show business because they have a conflict of interest. But my husband and I have a lot of things in common but a lot of things we don't have in common. And I think the lot of things we don't have in common makes it interesting because he enjoys hearing about things and I enjoy telling it. We're just very compatible. He's got a good heart. He's got a good sense of humour."
He would want to have a good sense of humour, given some of the articles that have been written about his marriage to Dolly Parton, some of which have alleged that it is an open relationship. "I'm always seeing things in the paper," she laughs, "and taking it home and saying: 'Here, you might want to read this! We're divorcing, you know!'"
When I met Dolly before, in 2002, I read to her what her biographer, Alanna Nash, wrote: "Dolly certainly acts and talks at times as though her marriage is an open one. She is a love junkie and needs constant comforting and approval."
"A crock of shit," she laughed then. "That is just another person's opinion of me. I love my husband; there is not a man that has been born that could take me away from my husband. I always say, 'Yes, I am married, but I am not dead and I am not blind'. It's not true that me and my husband sleep with other people any time we want to."
There were also tabloid allegations that the salty queen of country music had an affair with a 15-year-old boy when she was 25 and married -- to say nothing of flings with Burt Reynolds, James Woods and Sylvester Stallone. Has she ever sued over the open marriage allegations?
"No. But you know what, sometimes you think about that and by time that you go through all the process of suing somebody they'll be writing a new story the next week. It is not worth the trouble. So I just look at it and get my best comedy from the stuff they write about me. I look at it and think, 'How funny is that?'"
Ah, yes, time for a quick-fire round of funny questions before Parton has to depart. How do you stay upright with your proportions?
"I am used to it. With my high-heel shoes and my big boobs, sometimes when I'm walking down the stairs I have to be very careful because I could really topple over."
Do you ever get nervous on planes that your breast implants could explode?
"No, I don't get nervous on boats, either, because I know I have my own flotation devices, and my own airbags if I have an accident in a car."
The iconic queen of country music looks closer to 50 than 61, with a waist you could put your hand around, and says defiantly that the plastic surgery hasn't stopped for her. "No, I will do whatever I need to do," she says. "I'm one of those kind of people."
What if something went wrong?
"Well, anything can go wrong." The woman who has garnered as many headlines for her plastic surgery as the Bride of Wildenstein hoots with laughter.
"I don't say I'm not frightened when I do it. Anything can happen in life. You could pull a knife out now and stab me in the heart. So anybody can die anyway. I do what I need to do. That's how I live my life."
Dolly Parton will play Live at the Marquee in Cork on June 21, at Nowlan Park, Kilkenny on June 22 and the Odyssey Arena, Belfast on June 24. For Cork and Kilkenny, contact Ticketmaster (0818 719300; ww.ticketmaster.ie). For Belfast, call the box office (0489073 9074) or contact Ticketmaster (0870 243 4455; www.ticketmaster.ie)
Source: Irish Independent