Dolly Parton
McCalls
May 1992
What Dolly Wants Now!
By Joyce Maynard

She's known enough heartbreak to write a dozen country/western songs, yet she still considers her life "a Cinderella story" come true.

      Let's get this straight, right at the outset:  The most substantial thing about Dolly Parton is not her breasts.  Nevertheless, her breasts are the most obvious symbol of an essential fact about the woman:  She's a tiny person who thinks very big.  You know the moment you meet her that you're in the presence of an extraordinarily strong and powerful woman, but also a very softhearted and feminine one.  And in an odd way, although Dolly is strikingly attractive — even beautiful — her body comes across less as sexy than as wholesome, friendly, playful.  Her parents knew what they were doing, alright, when they named her Dolly. 
      We meet up in Hollywood, where she's just completed work on her latest movie, Straight Talk, with James Woods.  She's also writing songs, touring with her band, producing movies and keeping an eye, as always, on the Dollywood theme park she opened six years ago in Tennessee to honor her Smoky Mountain roots.  This is one busy woman.
      It's been close to ten years since the last time I talked to Parton — whose independence and unquenchable spirit (not to mention that heartbreaking voice) have made her one of my favorite women in the world — and she's looking good.  Better, actually, than ever.  She seems, finally, to have transcended emotional turbulence of the last few years, which included a brief, unsuccessful attempt at a network variety show a couple of season back and, before then, some major health problems that she's described, with uncharacteristic vagueness, as involving "female problems, family problems and heartbreak."  She'd put on a good deal of weight for a while there, but after years of going up and down the scale, she's been holding steady at a trim 110 pounds.
      As I turn on my tape recorder, I ask Parton if she'd say hello to my children, who are big fans of hers.  "Hi, Charlie, hi, Willy, hi, Audrey!" she says.  "This is Dolly Parton."  On a roll now, I ask if she'd tell them to please be good and always do exactly what I tell them.
      "I don't do anything my mama tells me," Parton says, with her trademark, almost musical, giggle.  "You just be who you are and treat your mama the best you can.  Be good to your mama, though.  Always be good to your mama."

      You can't spend much time with Dolly Parton and not talk about family.  The fourth of the 12 children of Robert and Avie Lee Parton, she grew up in a tiny cabin without running water or electricity in the hills of impoverished eastern Tennessee.  Parton's songs are full of stories about the old days (hard times, but plenty of love).  But as nostalgic as she is about those early times, Parton never intended to live out her days in Sevier County.
      "I certainly loved my mother and my aunts and sisters and all those people up there," she says.  "But I never had any intention of being like them when I grew up, living by those kind of rules.  I never planned on staying home with kids, devoted to one man.  And when I first started getting attention by being able to sing and play the guitar and people started responding — well, it was like I fell in love."  Her uncle, Bill Owens, brought her to Nashville when she was ten years old to sing on the radio, and from the first, she says matter-of-factly, "I knew that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.  I always knew I was going to be something special."
      If someone else were saying this, it might come across as pompous.  But when this particular woman sits in her manager's Grammy-filled Hollywood office in her skintight pants and low-cut sweater and tells you she's always "felt led by God to sing," all you can do is nod.  If angels have voices, it's hard to imagine them sounding any prettier than Dolly Parton's.  "I just kept walking toward that light," Parton explains.
      I point out that Parton must have been very different from other children — which surely carried its own burden.  She nods emphatically.  "That's very true," she says.  "I was just always this very alive, very high-burning, very passionate child.  Life can be very painful to a person like that, but pain is part of the creative process.  And pain is part of growing up, too.  It makes you strong and keeps you vulnerable.  It keeps you growing.  I've been through a lot and guess I chose to go through a lot, but I've often said I'd never harden my heart, and I never have.  My heart is very tender.  I just have strong muscles around it."
      Cinderella was her role model (not that she ever say the Disney version).  "If someone could be a pumpkin one minute and a fairy princess the next," she says, "you had to figure there was magic in the world."  Parton believed in what she called "my own personal magic" too.  She read the Bible but, ignoring the fire-and-brimstone stuff, concentrated on such phrases as, "Through God all things are possible...."
      Perhaps because her Cinderella book bore no illustrations, she found the model for her future look closer to home.  "There was this tramp that lived in our town," she remembers.  "I better not say her name, 'cause she's probably got kids and grandkids now.  But back then, she wore these bright-colored clothes and she had this peroxide yellow hair — yellow, not blonde — and she used to walk up and down the streets of our hometown and they always said, 'Oh, she's just trash, she's just a whore.'  But I thought she was beautiful."
      And was she really a prostitute, I ask?  Parton considers this for a moment.  "She didn't do it for money, I figure.  She did it for fun.  If she got paid for it, she would've bought a better grade of bleach.  But her clothes fit real tight and she looked real good in them, and so as soon as I got to where I could start wearing my clothes skintight, I did.  It went against our religion, and I got whipped for it, but I did it anyway.
      "I've always been flamboyant, and I've always believed in having fun," Parton adds thoughtfully.  But, she says firmly, "I also believe the God I love and know meant me to have fun and enjoy life.  That was how I was then, and that's the way I am now."
      There might seem to be two contradictory sides to Dolly Parton:  On the one hand, she's the down-home country girl who sings gospel songs and reads the Scriptures and built a chapel on her property, the woman who loves to sit around with her brothers and sisters and their kids singing old Appalachian tunes.  That Parton is about as natural as they come.  But then there's the star, the bleach blonde in the 4-inch heels and the rhinestone-studded, formfitting gowns.  And that Parton is about as natural as the Las Vegas skyline.
      All of which she cheerfully admits.  "Sure I look like a cartoon," Parton says.  "But you know, it started out very honest and sincere, and it still is, basically.  I don't mean to look trashy and whore-y, it's just that I don't think I do.  And even if I do look like a whore, I sure don't feel like one.  I just can't stand to look plain, 'cause that don't fit my personality.  I may be a very artificial-looking person," Parton continues, "but the good news is, I'm very real on the inside.  All the rest" — she gestures at her outfit, her hair, her jewelry — "is just like dressing up in your mama's clothes and playing with paints.  It makes me feel shiny and sparkly and new.  It just makes me want to get out and do things."
      In her new movie, Straight Talk, Parton plays a woman whose story and character bear a striking resemblance to her own:  "She's a small-town girl from Arkansas, working as a dance teacher, but she's always wanted more."  Parton's character heads for Chicago and, almost by accident, becomes a hugely successful radio talk-show host.
      "It's like the old Dolly versus the new Dolly," Parton says.  But the truth is, she adds, they're one and the same.  "I just look a little different, and I'm a little older — a little more worn, a little more sharpened, that's all.  But I still stay close to home, close to family, close to my true values and morals, such as they are."

      As soon as she finished high school, Parton boarded a bus for Nashville, just like so many women in the songs she's written, with the plan of becoming a star.  "Sure I was scared," she admits.  "But my desire to do things and know what's out there has always been greater than my fear.  I was more scared of staying home than I was of leaving it."
      During her first day in the big city, while walking out of a launderette, she met a man named Carl Dean — "one of those love-at-first-sight kind of things" — whom she married two years later.  "'I know this will sound funny to you,' I told him, 'but trust me, I'm going to be a star.'"
      Parton says she didn't hesitate to lay out her particular domestic ground rules right from the beginning.  "I love to cook, but I'm gonna make enough money for somebody else to cook," she told Dean.  "It's not gonna be my duty and it's not gonna be my job and I damn sure ain't gonna clean house and I'm not washing no dishes because I'm not ruining my fingernails.  I'm gonna write songs and I'm gonna sing.  I may be a good woman, but I'll be gone most of the time, and I am certainly not gonna be your average housewife."
      So Dean understood, right from the start, that Parton wasn't going to be around to cook his eggs for breakfast?  "He don't like eggs," she says flatly.  "He knew exactly what he was getting into."
      They've been married 25 years now, but if you add up the total number of days they've spent together — well, Parton once jokingly figured it at somewhere around six months.  That — coupled with Parton's open acknowledgment of attraction to other men and even references to "lovers" over the years — has led to plenty of speculation about her faithfulness.  She calls herself the queen of the tabloids, but she won't come right out and admit — or deny — anything they print about her.  "It could be worse," she giggles.  "They could tell the truth about me."
      I can't think of anyone quicker than Parton with a funny one-liner.  But there's no mistaking her sincerity when she speaks seriously either.  "Listen," she says, "my husband is not the type to hang onto my skirttail, trying to pull me back.  He doesn't want me in his face all the time, nor do I want to be in his.  We're both free to work and free to live.  If he hadn't married me, I think he would have been some old hermit somewhere, living up in the woods in a cabin, 'cause he don't care about seeing people.  He likes his privacy.  So I just do my socializing other places.
      "We never offend each other like a lot of married couples do," Parton continues.  "People say, 'You can't be in love and do that,' but if you ask me, maybe we've got the best handle on what love's all about.  To me, obligation is not love.  Letting someone be open and honest and free — that's love.  It's got to be natural and it's got to come real.  I'm not gonna live according to somebody else's rules.

      Dolly Parton has just turned 46 — a fact that anyone sitting across from her, as close as I am, would find hard to believe.  "I wish I could stay 21 forever," she admits.  "Don't we all?  But I won't ever be old in my heart or in my mind."
      Commenting on the subject of plastic surgery, Parton is (not surprisingly) as skillful as she is in discussing marital fidelity.  "All my life I've heard people say, 'If God had wanted us to be like this he would have made us this way,' and so on," she asserts.  "Well, God made us naked too.  I can't see what's wrong in doing a little something to make yourself look better so you can feel better about yourself."
      I mention the recent nationwide controversy over the safety of silicone breast implants.  Is she concerned for herself?
      Parton remains deliberately vague on that one.  "I've had my breasts lifted," she admits.  "And I had myself a few little nips and tucks here and there, but I'm not frightened about the work I had done.  Everything you do in life carries a risk to some degree, and you just have to decide if it's worth it.  Life's a gamble, isn't it?"
      Hearing Parton talk about the importance of looking good as a means of feeling good (or, at least, not letting how she looks get in the way of feeling good), I ask about her much-publicized weight gain (and dramatic weight loss) of a few years back.  There was a time, she has admitted, when her weight ballooned up to around 150 pounds.  In 1987 she trimmed herself back to 110 pounds and — unlike a lot of celebrity dieters — has kept her weight down ever since.  But not without constant vigilance.
      "Losing that weight was the hardest thing I ever did," Parton admits.  "The truth is, I'm a hog.  I love food, and I have a problem with it.  Love to cook it, love to eat it."  For years, she says, she'd been on one crazy diet after another, her weight constantly fluctuating.  "I'd want to go out somewhere and I couldn't find a damn thing to wear," she says.  "It was a terrible feeling for somebody like me.
      "I had to reach the point where my health was so bad I almost died before I took control of this thing," she says.  "For me, the answer was getting to eat everything I wanted, prepared the way I like it.  Just very small amounts."  True to her independent nature, though, she still likes to pile her plate full.  "I can't stand to think I can't have something.  I don't want anyone to dictate to me about me.  I have to feel that I can have it if I want to, but it's my choice to do without."
      By the looks of it, the method is working well.  But Parton adds that though she's gotten her eating under control, she will always remember how it feels to be addicted.  "I have the deepest sympathy for anybody with a weight problem with drugs or alcohol, but I've been a food-aholic.  I hit bottom."
      Parton's weight problem, which she struggled with during her late 30s, coincided with a crisis she describes as "female problems."  She doesn't get more specific than that, but one aspect of her troubles was her discovery that she couldn't have children.  "At the time, it was a very painful thing," she says.  "But now I just figure God knew what He was doing."  She and Dean have played a big role in raising Parton's younger brothers and sisters, and now their children call her Aunt Granny.  "I'm a great sister and a great aunt," Parton says.  "I've made my peace with not having kids of my own."

      Before we part company, there's one more question I burn to ask Parton — not only as a journalist but as a parent.  I tell her how much I love her song "Wildflowers," which describes the desire to be a free, wild flower instead of the fenced-in garden variety.  I tell Parton I can't think of anything I'd be happier to instill in my children than that kind of passion for life, that burning and fearless desire to go out into the world with a sense of joy and hopefulness and enthusiasm.  How does she think she got that way?  And how can a parent raise a child with her kind of spirit?
      "You just teach them they can't be afraid to try.  What's the worst that could happen?  You go out on a limb, you fall off, you just start all over again, climbing that tree."
      Parton gets up from her chair (all 5-foot-nothing of her) and gestures toward the bathroom.  "What do you say we take a pee break?" she asks, not sounding remotely like a fairy-tale princess.  And it occurs to me that just as Cinderella might have represented an ideal to that little girl growing up in a two-room cabin in Tennessee, Dolly Parton herself doubtless represents a similarly glamorous and romantic role model to plenty of little girls (and a few big ones) today.  The Dolly Parton who fashioned herself out of a patchwork of icons has now become an icon herself.
      "I guess you could say I created this person, this character," she reflects.  "And I like her.  I mean, the image is something I made up, but it's not like the image is separate from me.  I still know who the little girl from Sevier is.  I never lose sight of her."