Dolly Parton
New York Times
January 26, 2003
St. Dolly and Her Flock
By Michael Joseph Gross

Visitors to Chasing Rainbows, the museum devoted to Dolly Parton's life history at Dollywood, Ms. Parton's theme park here in her hometown, are greeted at the door by Thomasina Bicer, 52.  "Hi there!  Would you like a rainbow?"  She pats a rainbow sticker on the visitor's lapel and smiles:  "Now you can chase your dreams, just like Dolly."

Dollywood means the world to Ms. Bicer.  Nine years ago, when she first visited the park on a vacation from her home in Williamstown, N.J., she found a "peace haven" that changed her life, she said.  "I was on five different medications for high blood pressure and depression, and after I got back from here and listened to her records I went off them completely," she said.  "Doctors asked me what happened, and I said, 'Dolly did that to me.'"

Ms. Bicer visited the park six or seven times a year for the next seven years, then moved to east Tennessee two years ago and began working at the park.  "After I moved here I wrote her a thank you note," she said.  "I said that she was an angel to me.  I told her I feel that she saved my life.  If it wasn't for her making a peaceful, loving, godly place to calm me, I would have gotten sicker."  She mailed the letter but received no response.  "It's O.K.," Ms. Ricer said without resentment.  "She's a very busy person."

Ms. Ricer's experience is striking but not unique.  Many people who love Dolly Parton believe they have a special relationship with the star and not without reason.  Her fame is based on a paradox that encourages that conviction.  Ms. Parton's physical appearance is as spectacularly artificial as her emotional presence is accessibly authentic.  Though her flash and dazzle evoke the kind of awe usually reserved for Stars From Outer Space (Cher, Michael Jackson), her manner evokes the warmth and fellow-feeling reserved for Stars Like Us (Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks).

Dollywood itself sprang from another paradox of Ms. Parton's character.  In her autobiography, "My Life and Other Unfinished Business" (HarperCollins, 1994), she describes Dollywood as an expression of wild ambition: the first time Ms. Parton visited Los Angeles, she looked up at the Hollywood sign and thought, "I would like to change that 'H' into a 'D.'"  At the same time, she describes it as an offering of pure-hearted altruism:  "The theme park is much more about the mountains and the culture of the people who live there than it is about Dolly Parton....I saw Dollywood as a chance to honor them."

The product of these paradoxes, as observed during a recent visit to Dollywood, is an almost vertiginous brand of intimacy.  The singer's fans, residents of Pigeon Forge and Dollywood employees say they believe that Ms. Parton cares for them personally.  And yet they say they are so secure in her affections that, if she's too busy chasing rainbows to reciprocate in conventional ways, that's just fine.

Lori E. Seid, 43, an Emmy award-winning producer of "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" is producing a documentary about Dolly Parton fans called "For the Love of Dolly."  "People couldn't be happier for Dolly, for the growth of her celebrity and her success, as long as she seems to remember them personally, and where she came from which, impressively, she does quite well," Ms. Seid said.

The documentary's director, Tai Uhlman, 30, has interviewed dozens of fans around the world, ranging from the artist Larry Krone, whose installation inspired by the song "Coat of Many Colors" was exhibited at the Whitney at Phillip Morris in Manhattan last year, to Jeanette Williams, a Los Angeles woman who has Ms. Parton's signature tattooed on her body in three places.

For her most passionate fans, Ms. Uhlman said, "Dolly is an occasion to express love and compassion and joy and honesty."

"They can experience these things with a lot of freedom, " she said, "because they're focused on a kind of imaginary, mythic person.  The way they talk about her, she could be Our Lady of Guadalupe."

In a recent telephone interview, Ms. Parton, 57, invoked a less exalted maternal image to describe Dollywood's significance to her fans.  "It gave them somewhere to go, that they didn't have to hang on to me so much," she said.  "Almost like a mama.  I can't entertain 'em all the time.  I can send 'em to the playground, though, with fun people that I trust.  You know:  'Go.  Go, go, go play.  Go swing.  Go get on the seesaw.'  'Cause they feel like it's all me.  It's under that Dolly umbrella.  And I feel good that I've been able to give them something.  An extension of myself, so to speak."

In 1997, Ms. Parton disbanded her fan club and asked its former members to send their money to her favorite charities instead.  Patric Parkey, 45, and Harrell Gabeheart, 43, of Irving, Tex., took seriously her call to give.  Each year they attend charity auctions endorsed by Ms. Parton, where they bid on memorabilia to add to the collection that fills their 1,400 square-foot home "every room, floor to ceiling, wall to wall," Mr. Parkey said.  Among their greatest treasures: one of Ms. Parton's license plates, one of her wigs and a Dolly Parton pinball machine.  The men are considering moving their bedroom into the garage to make room for more.

Having photos of the star all over their house, Mr. Gabeheart said, "brings out the best in both of us."

"It's kind of hard to look at her all the time and not get closer to one another, because she teaches about family values and being supportive of one another," he added.

One weekend in December, when Ms. Parton gave three concerts at Dollywood to raise money for her nonprofit Imagination Library, which gives books to young children, Mr. Parkey and Mr. Gabeheart realized a long-held dream.  They had a private visit with Ms. Parton.  The meeting, which they won at a benefit auction for the Boys and Girls Club in Sevierville, Tenn., was scheduled to last five minutes but ran to about 20.  They said Ms. Parton had chatted on their cell phone with their hairdresser, signed one of the porcelain dolls they make in her image and looked at photographs from their collection.  "She told us, 'All you need is my panties and drawers,'" Mr. Gabeheart said.  "But we don't want that.  That's too personal."

Mr. Parkey said he wanted Ms. Parton to know that "we're fans, but we're not hysterical fans."  He added, "I didn't want her to think, 'Oh, God, there's two more crazies.'"

Mr. Gabeheart looks forward to seeing her again:  "I don't think we'll have a problem meeting her in the future.  Because the people that are around her know who we are now."

Another fan who's known by Ms. Parton and her people is David Schmidli, 33, of Huntsville, Ala.  For Mr. Schmidli, who has cerebral palsy, Ms. Parton is quite literally the alpha and omega: his mother, Jo Ann, 72, teaches him to spell by using words drawn from Ms. Parton's song titles and lyrics.  Each day he awakens at 3:30 a.m. to scour the Web for news of Ms. Parton, then feeds his German Shepherd, named Sparkles Dolly Parton, before going to his job as a tester at a computer manufacturing facility.  During the holidays, he invites his co-workers home to show them his Christmas tree covered with 400 homemade ornaments, each decorated with Ms. Parton's picture.

Mr. Schmidli also sharpens his dexterity by making needlepoint tissue box covers and fly swatter covers bearing Ms. Parton's image (with angel wings).  When he presents these items to her each April at the park's opening day, Mrs. Schmidli says, "She's as kind and as good as she can be."

"She looks down from on high on her float," Mrs. Schmidli said, "and she says, 'I love you, too, David.'"

Ms. Parton's status as an emblem of possibility is magnified in her hometown.  "She's as big as a star can get," explained Judge Gary R. Wade, 54, of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals.  He was two years behind Ms. Parton at Sevier County High School.  "If there's a kid who has any talent at all here in town," he continued, "you can point to Dolly Parton and say, 'She came from here, and that means anything can happen, to anyone who works for it."

Dave Anderson, 44, special events director at Dollywood, said that Ms. Parton's fame had a similar effect on employees of the theme park.  "It's exciting to say you work for Dollywood, for Dolly Parton," he said.  "I've never worked for anybody that's been on 'Letterman' to talk about me, even indirectly."

Most Dollywood employees have little personal contact with Ms. Parton.  She makes public appearances at the park twice a year and attends private business meetings there about four times a year.  But in December, for the first time since 1998, Ms. Parton posed for photographs with groups of employees.

On a rainy Friday morning, about a thousand Dollywood staffers gathered in the park's Showstreet Palace theater.  When Ms. Parton bounded to center stage in five-inch heels, they erupted in cheers and applause.  "What in the world you doin' out in the rain this time of mornin'?" she teased.  "I know!  You come out cause you're crazy."  She tossed her head and laughed, pulling strands of her wig from her mouth.  "And I got my hair caught in my lip gloss!  Just know that I love you and I appreciate you," she said.

She stood aside as a Dollywood employee told the crowd, "You know the drill: no coats, no cameras, no bags, nothin' to be autographed."  For the next hour, Ms. Parton walked back and forth between bleachers on either side of the stage, posing with groups of 10 to 30 employees at a time.  When the last picture had been taken, she hollered a down-home "Thank you!" and turned on her heel with queenly efficiency; an assistant covered her shoulders with a woolen cape that billowed as she strode offstage.

For Ms. Parton's admirers, the paradoxes of her persona artificial and authentic, ambitious and altruistic, distant and down-to-earth hang together.  And with her, they experience a kind of intimacy that is all the more powerful for being composed largely of illusion.

"A lot of times my fans don't come to see me be me," she said.  "They come to see me be them.  They come to hear me say what they want to hear, what they'd like to say themselves, or to say about them what they want to believe is true."

Ms. Parton evaluated these illusions in terms that were by turns critical, empathic and pragmatic:  "I've often wondered if it's healthy for some of these people to depend on me that much, to where people live through you and don't live their own lives.  It's like when people say, 'I'm in love,' when they're really in lust.  They call so many things love.  I spend a lot of time thinking about stuff like that in the wee hours.  But I think it's healthier for those people to have something to look forward to than to not.  If they've got a show to look forward to or a record to look forward to, it might keep them from doing something bad to themselves or to somebody else.  Or give 'em something more to do than just dwelling on themselves so much.  I don't know.  I just know I love the fans.  I appreciate 'em.  I love what I do.  So I guess we'll all be at it for a long time to come."