Dolly Parton sitting down backstage - Credit: Art Streiber

Dolly Parton:“If something is bagging, or sagging, or dragging. I’ll tuck it, suck it, or pluck it.”

Country music icon Dolly Parton talks surgery, crazy rumours and reveals why her life would have taken a different course if she’d had children.

While most of us are recovering from the excesses, Dolly Parton rather comfortingly is still knee-deep in the festive season. Having done her bit as ‘Granny Claus’ for her great-nieces and great-nephews – riding down the lift in her home dressed in a Santa suit, dispensing gifts such as, ‘iPads, clothes, toys, whatever they want’ – she’s not finished just yet.

“I have a lot of family who live up in East Tennessee, which is miles away from my home in Nashville,” she says, “so between Christmas and New Year I do something special with them too.”

As someone who manages to keep her decorations up until after her birthday (which falls on 19 January), it will surprise absolutely no one that Dolly loves dressing up for the holidays.

“I wear sweaters that light up, earrings that light up. I even have bulbs in my hair that light up! I’m gaudy as hell,” she says, adding rather superfluously, “I’m real big on celebrating.”

It’s no surprise Dolly is big on celebrating because, well, she’s big on everything. There’s the hair, the clothes and, of course, the boobs, which by now are the stuff of legend.

A photo of Dolly meeting the Queen after a Royal Variety Performance in 1977 shows even the late monarch looking mesmerised.

“Oh, I was real happy to meet her,” says Dolly, “but I was so afraid I was going to make a mistake curtseying or saying the wrong thing. But she was so sweet and down-home – just very warm and very generous.”

Steel beneath the sparkle

It’s a description that could equally apply to Dolly, who despite nearly seven decades in the business and a net worth estimated at $650 million, thanks to hits such as 9 to 5 and Jolene, still exudes timeless country charm.

Yet there’s steel beneath the sparkle.

She famously turned down Elvis’s request to record her song, I Will Always Love You, as it would have meant handing over half the publishing rights to Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and was later vindicated when Whitney Houston’s rendition turned it into one of the best-selling singles of all time.

Having risen to the top of a male-dominated industry without sacrificing her soul – “I never slept with anybody to try to get to the top” – she’s spent a lifetime confounding expectations.

And she’s not done yet. Country music’s most famous star has come out with her very first rock album – at the tender age of 77.

Dolly – the rockstar

Called Rockstar, it features reworkings of classics such as Heart of Glass, performed with Debbie Harry, Wrecking Ball with her goddaughter Miley Cyrus, and Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me with Elton John.

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“Elton and I have been friends for years,” she says. “We’d appear separately on shows and then get together in the dressing room and sing, so I had to ask him to be on the album.”

She also recorded The Beatles’ Let It Be, “and I called Paul McCartney to see if he might sing on it and he said yes, so I thought, well maybe Ringo would play on it too.”

She tried to enlist Rolling Stone Mick Jagger as well, “but he didn’t want to sing Satisfaction, because I guess he’s just about wore out that song. But he said, ‘Find us another one’, so he’s willing. Maybe another time. I think people are going to be surprised when they hear me do rock’n’roll.”

Dolly was inducted into the Rock’n’roll Hall of Fame in 2022 but says, “I wasn’t sure I’d earned it.” So she set about making a rock album to justify her inclusion.

In addition, her husband Carl, rather surprisingly, prefers rock to country, “so I did a lot of the songs he loves. Years ago, I did a bluegrass version of Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin, his favourite group, and he wasn’t too happy about it, so I did it on the album as a rock song. He’s pretty proud of that.”

Keeping her marriage alive

While Dolly is recognised the world over (although she once entered a Dolly Parton lookalike contest… and lost), few would be able to pick Carl Dean, her husband of 57 years, out of a line-up.

Famously elusive, he met Dolly the day she arrived in Nashville as a fresh-faced 18-year-old keen to pursue a career in music and the couple married two years later.

She has attributed their longevity to mutual respect, “and the fact I stay gone a long time”. But when she does come home, Carl certainly reaps the benefits. For his 79th birthday two years ago, she donned a Playboy outfit, “and he just about fell out of his chair”.

It’s a reaction common to us all. Speaking from her home in Nashville, Dolly is resplendent in silver lamé lace-up trousers with matching low-cut vest and silver rhinestone shoes.

She often recalls how she modelled her look on the ‘town tramp’ who walked the streets of Sevierville, Tennessee, where she grew up (‘it costs a lot of money to look this cheap’ is one of her favourite Dolly-isms) and in her latest book, Behind the Seams, she takes readers on a trip through her dazzling decades-long wardrobe.

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It’s noticeable that Dolly’s most subdued outfit is in fact the dress she wore on her wedding day in May 1966 – a simple knee-length frock with cinched-in waist – due to the fact that her record company had been reluctant for her to marry, “but I finally got to have a big wedding when we were married again for our 50th anniversary.” It took place in the chapel of their home.

“I wore a beautiful flowing ivory gown and Carl was so handsome in his suit. I almost put some of the pictures in the book but I wanted to keep some things private.”

Those crazy rumours

Certainly, Dolly has been afforded little privacy during her storied career, “and I’ve heard so many crazy rumours about me through the years,” she admits.

“The worst stories were ones saying that my back was broke because my boobs were so heavy! And they’ve had me having an affair with everybody I’ve ever worked with.”

This has included Sylvester Stallone, her co-star in the 1984 film Rhinestone, and Burt Reynolds, with whom she starred two years earlier in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

At the time, Dolly and Carl had a pet Boston Terrier named Popeye, “and after there was something written about an affair with Burt Reynolds, Carl came in with this picture of Popeye that he’d got someone to make up and he said, ‘Here’s yours and Burt’s baby!’

“He’s always treated these things tongue-in-cheek and he’ll say, ‘Hell, I’d feel bad for any man that didn’t fall in love with her.’”

“I’d hate to be bringing a child into this world right now”

With such a long-lasting marriage, does she regret not having children?

“I haven’t missed it like I thought I might,” she admits. “When you’re a young couple, you think you’re going to have kids, but it just wasn’t one of those burning things for me. I had my career and my music and I was travelling.

“If I’d had kids, I’d have stayed home with them, I’m sure, and worried myself to death about them. With everything that’s going on, I’d hate to be bringing a child into this world right now.”

Instead, she started the Imagination Library, an initiative which has seen her give over 220 million books to children worldwide, including in the UK.

“I always say God didn’t let me have children so that all kids could be mine.”

She’s such a glass-half-full kind of person, it’s a shock to hear her speak of her darker moments, but in her 2017 book, Dolly on Dolly, she revealed there was a time around her mid-thirties when she contemplated taking her own life.

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Family issues and heartache were rife and as she says now, “I was going through the change of life and I had some female health issues too (she underwent a partial hysterectomy).”

In the book, she described the moment she briefly picked up the gun she kept in her bedside drawer in case of burglars, but when dog Popeye came padding into the room, the moment passed and she prayed for guidance instead.

“That was a very hard time,” she says. “Thank God I came out of that. I think it was something God meant for me to go through, so I’d have a better understanding of other people’s darker days.”

Popeye has since passed on, but perhaps grateful for his intervention that day, “his is the first picture I see when I pick up my phone every morning”.

It’s all about looking good…

It was a period, she admits, “when I had lost a lot of confidence because I had also gained weight and any time you don’t look good, you don’t feel as good about yourself. So, I finally said, ‘Get off your fat ass and do something about it!’”

It was Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone, who helped her, “and he’d tell me, ‘You’ve got to stop eating white bread and processed stuff’ and I’d say, ‘But I’m a country girl!’ I still eat those things, just not as often as I used to.

“I’m not much for exercise either and I do just enough to get by.” Contrary to rumour, she doesn’t exercise in high heels, “but,” she adds happily, “I have some high-heeled sneakers.”

She’s the rare celebrity who will admit to cosmetic enhancement – or as she more Doll-ily puts it: “If something is bagging, sagging or dragging, I’ll tuck it, suck it or pluck it.”

Has she ever regretted any procedures? “Every now and then you’ll get a haematoma, or sometimes with fillers and Botox you can get too much and have to wait till the swelling goes down to look normal again,” she says. “It means that instead of being back at work in two weeks, it’s a month.”

“I can’t ever imagine retiring at all”

Nothing will keep Dolly from her frantic schedule – not even the Princess of Wales. While in London last summer, she was invited to tea by Kate, but couldn’t make it.

“I only had one full day and I did not have a second to do anything else besides work. But make sure people know I didn’t turn the invitation down,” she says (when Dolly asks you to do something, you do it). “I was honoured and flattered that she even asked me.”

Both women share a passion for helping children (Kate has an Early Childhood initiative), “so maybe that’s what we can talk about when we do have tea. I think she’s adorable and I hope someday to be able to sit down and have a good conversation with her.”

Taking tea with royalty was something perhaps not even Dolly dreamed about while growing up “dirt-poor” in the Great Smoky Mountains as one of 12 children. And despite the fact she can now afford to retire to a private island and sip margaritas all day if she wanted, it’s something she’d never contemplate.

“First of all, I don’t like margaritas,” she giggles. “Also, I love creating things and making things happen.”

And much to the relief of everyone, she adds, “I can’t ever imagine retiring at all.”

Written by Lina Das