This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
This year marks the 50th anniversary since 68-year-old international icon Dolly Parton came to Nashville. The fourth of 12 siblings who shared a one-room cabin, the East Tennessee native was so poor growing up that her father paid the doctor who delivered her with a bag of cornmeal. The day after her high school graduation, Parton left the Smoky Mountains for Music City, where she shepherded her career from singing on The Porter Wagoner Show, a syndicated music-variety series that aired from 1960 to 1981, to winning seven Grammys and scoring 25 No. 1 songs on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart — a record for a female artist.
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On a recent fall afternoon at Nashville’s NorthStar Studios, Parton is an animated conversationalist, displaying a down-home, self-effacing charm that belies her status as the creative mastermind of an entertainment empire. Here, the self-described “Backwoods Barbie” opens up about the business, her often-criticised sense of style and “leaning in.”
How are you different now from the girl who came to Nashville in 1964?
I’m more successful now than I was then, but I still feel like the same girl. I’m just a working girl. I never think of myself as a star because, as somebody once said, “A star is nothing but a big ball of gas” — and I don’t want to be that.
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What do you think about how people revere you?
I’m sure there’s lots of people out there who’d like to smack my head off, but we won’t talk about them. (Laughs.) I’ve lived a lot and I’ve done a lot. I’ve been around so long that I think people just kind of feel like I’m a member of their family — like a favorite aunt or an older sister. People relate to me because I grew up poor and in a big family. They know I understand all the hardships.
Dollywood, your amusement park, attracts lots of church groups, but it also has become a draw for the LGBT community. What does that say about you?
It’s a place for entertainment, a place for all families, period. It’s for all that. But as far as the Christians, if people want to pass judgment, they’re already sinning. The sin of judging is just as bad as any other sin they might say somebody else is committing. I try to love everybody.
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You have a large gay following. To what do you attribute that?
They know that I completely love and accept them, as I do all people. I’ve struggled enough in my life to be appreciated and understood. I think everybody should be allowed to be who they are and to love who they love. I don’t think we should be judgmental. Lord, I’ve got enough problems of my own to pass judgment on somebody else.
Parton, in 2007, as Aunt Dolly on Hannah Montana with her real-life goddaughter, Miley Cyrus.
As a Southern woman, how do you speak your mind and take care of business but remain likable?
I’m open and I’m honest. I don’t dillydally. Sometimes if I get mad, I’ll throw out a few cuss words just to prove my point. I’ve often said I don’t lose my temper as much as I use it. I don’t do either unless I have to because I love peace and harmony, but when you step in my territory, I will call you on it. People say, “Oh, you just always seem so happy.” Well, that’s the Botox. (Laughs.)
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What advice do you give women going into business?
You need to really believe in what you’ve got to offer, what your talent is — and if you believe, that gives you strength. In my early days, I would go in, and I was always overmade, with my boobs sticking out, my clothes too tight, and so I really looked like easy prey to a lot of guys — just looked easy, period. But I would go in, and if they were not paying close attention to what I was saying, I always said, “I look like a woman, but I think like a man and you better pay attention or I’ll have your money and I’ll be gone.” (Laughs.)
Parton performed with Richie Sambora in front of 170,000 fans at the Glastonbury Music Festival in England in June.
Are you familiar with Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In?
What is it?
Lean In — it’s a book. Have you ever “leaned in”?
I’ve leaned over. (Laughs.) I’ve leaned forward. I don’t know what “leaned in” is. Lean in to God.
Do you have an office at home?
I have an office everywhere, but I usually work on the couch. I also work in the kitchen. I have all these offices — just like I have all these swimming pools, and I never swim. I have offices, but I just work wherever I’m at. I have files of my music in every house.
How many houses?
We have a place in [Los Angeles] and a couple places here [in Tennessee]: on the lake, then we have the office complex, and I have the old [East Tennessee] place up home. It’s investments. It’s not to say, “Hey, look at me.” I’d rather buy property than play the stock market.
What’s next on your agenda?
I’m still working on my musical [based on her own rise to stardom; she reportedly started writing it in 2011], and I’m hoping to do my life story as a movie. Eventually I will get into the cosmetics and the jewelry, but right now we’re just focused on music.
Parton got a Golden Globe nom for her role in the 1980 workplace comedy 9 to 5, which grossed $103 million.
What makes you happy?
I love to read. I love to cook. I love hanging out with my husband, riding around in our little RV. Even when I get off the road after traveling thousands of miles, I’ll say, “Get the camper; let’s go somewhere.” He’ll say, “Are you kidding? Ain’t you tired of riding?” “No, I’m a gypsy. I want to do that.” My life is fairly simple when I’m out of the limelight.
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What’s your biggest splurge?
My stage costumes. I don’t care about style. I don’t care about fashion. I know it costs a lot to have things designed for TV shows, but I’m still going to look cheap in them. (Laughs.) It doesn’t matter how much I spend because it’s like when they try to dress me for the Oscars — I won’t wear the kind of hair that they say goes with that dress. Or I won’t wear the kind of shoes that are supposed to go with that dress because I have to have my hair a certain way. I have to have my makeup a certain way. I have to be comfortable. That’s why I could never be fashionable.
When you go somewhere public like Cracker Barrel, do you go in full makeup or in disguise?
I hardly go out much anymore. I just send somebody after the stuff I like. But if I go anywhere, I go in full disguise. I’m afraid somebody will recognize me and say, “Oh, did you see Dolly? She looked like hell.” I’d rather them say, “Did you see Dolly? She’s so overdone.”