Located at the foothills of the great Smoky Mountains lies a city called Sevierville, Tennessee. Now home to a host of tourist attractions like a Titanic museum and a constellation of chain restaurants, it’s greatest claim to fame is that it birthed the iconic Dolly Parton, a fact solidified by a bronze statue of the singer erected in front of the town courthouse. A proud mountain woman at heart, Parton has immortalized the love of her birthplace in many a song, her fine-grit voice and signature vibrato melodically recanting simpler times in a simple town—before an outlet mall broke ground. But much like her remodeled roots, Parton has grown into a multitude of paradoxes: flashy yet pure, wealthy yet humble, godly yet God-fearing. It’s the dichotomy of playing the role of both a revered superstar and down-home woman of the people that’s built her a 54-year career punctuated by 39 awards and countless nominations, a lucrative acting résumé, a namesake theme park, and various awards for her commendable philanthropic work.
At the heart of all of Parton’s projects is a commitment to self. “Making a quick buck” isn’t part of her lexicon, nor is cashing in on a project she doesn’t believe in—she famously denied Elvis Presley the rights to record her smash hit, "I Will Always Love You," after his manager requested half the publishing, which she intended to leave to her family. In fact, at 75, she is only just now dipping her toes in the lifestyle sector with her first branded product, a perfume called Scent From Above launching exclusively with HSN. Even so, this business venture was a passion project for Parton: After years of mixing her own bespoke scent at home and constantly being asked which fragrance she was wearing, she decided to bottle it up for everyone to enjoy.
“I've always wanted to have a line of perfumes, but I also knew that it's a process like everything else,” she tells me over Zoom. “So I took a lot of the smells and bath oils and powders and perfumes and things that I had loved through the years and got with the perfumers to see if we could come up with the exact scent that I would be happy with—we worked over two years trying to come up with the exact smell—and I wanted it to be soft and I wanted it to be lasting. I didn't want it to be overwhelming. I wanted it to be one of those things that you could wear around like a soft blanket or a soft robe or, you know, like a scarf or something that you just smell it off and on all day, but you're not overpowering people with it. And you want people to follow you around and say, [sniffs] ‘What are you wearing?’ and you’ll say, 'I’m wearing Dolly, Scent from Above.'" She lets out her classic hearty giggle.
I don't ever try to outdo anyone else or compete with anyone else. I am my own competition, and I just try to make and break my own records.
Perhaps more iconic than her music is Parton’s image, one that’s exaggerated with gravity-defying peroxide-blonde wigs and equally stratospheric high heels; rhinestones; and of course, her signature shapely silhouette. It only felt natural, then, that on the coattails of her fragrance, she would expand into a beauty line of makeup and wigs, one she tells me she plans to make universally accessible. I press her for all of the details. “I think the makeup that we would have, you can apply it however you want,” she offers. “You know, you’ll hopefully have beautiful colors and beautiful shades, as far as the makeup and good foundations and all. Everybody don't wanna look like me, but you can make yourself look like a clown if you want to. We'll have good stuff where you can wear it sparingly and in good taste. Or you can go overboard like I often do. So hopefully we'll have something where everybody can just use it in their own way. But it'll be a wonderful product and hopefully affordable. And I hope one day to have the wigs and the hairpieces and all that stuff, so that's something I can identify with and enjoy talking about… and even modeling some of the makeup and the hair, that would be fun for me too.”
I’m stuck on the “clown” epithet, although it certainly wouldn’t be the first time she’s made a self-deprecating comment. Throughout her career, Parton has diminished herself before the tabloids could, likening herself to a “cartoon character” and making quips like, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.” I ask her with a genuine curiosity why it is that she, a country music legend, engages in such negative self-talk. “I poke fun at myself because I'm able to do that, because I know that I'm not a natural beauty,” she exhales. “And I know that I don't follow any guidelines. So I try to dress and wear my makeup according to how I feel the best. And I know that that's not always the right way to do it. So it's easy for me to make jokes, or to talk about myself because that's how I honestly feel. And I know exactly, you know, what I'm doing. And I don't know that… I guess we're all insecure about the things that are our flaws or the things that, you know, I mean, we all have that. And so I just always say I'm always out to try to make positives out of negatives. So I just try to work around all the problems that I have and try to make it look as good as I can.” I feel compelled to insist that she is, in fact, a natural beauty, to which she laughs off, “Trust me, I’m not.”
There certainly isn’t an ounce of Parton that’s capable of repelling; her magnetic personality could spin the earth out of orbit. Thankfully, she’s aware of the breadth of her heart, one that founded a literacy program for young children—the Imagination Library—and has raised a large sum of money for the American Red Cross and HIV/AIDS-related charities, among many other organizations. “I'd like to think I'm a natural beauty on the inside,” she resolves, “because I have a good heart and I have good intentions. And I want things to be good. I've got a lot of love in my heart and I'd like for everything to be perfect, and it will be when we get to heaven. It's probably not going to happen in this world, no matter how hard we try, but I tried to be my best self and I have a lot of confidence in people. I have a lot of confidence in myself and I just feel like I have a lot to offer, and I try to channel that in the proper ways. But I think it's true that beauty comes from within—but it's nice to have some stuff on the outside as well. It makes it easier to look at while you're trying to get your message across,” she laughs.
Despite penning the titular revenge reverie female power anthem for the film, 9 to 5, for which she also starred in, Parton remains fairly impartial to social policy—at least publicly—decidedly refraining from identifying as a feminist, though she insists she’s “all for gals.” It’s a camp she’s planted her feet firmly in for decades, being careful not to alienate herself from her massive fanbase, many of which are Southern conservatives. So how is it that a “backwoods Barbie” from Tennessee can also beckon a large gay and liberal following? It's simple: An unrelenting love for the human race. “I would like to think that people see my heart and they know that I love all people,” she asserts. “I think we're all God's children. Don't make any difference. It’s not my place to judge. I am not God, I'm just one of His children. So I love people. I don't think it's right for us to judge. I mean, I think people accept that in me, because I know what it's like to be bullied, or to be treated certain ways because of being brought up poor or being whatever. But I’ve just always loved people, I don't care if you're straight, or gay, or Black, or white, or green, or blue, or alien—great. I love the soul and the godlike in people. And I always look for that, because we all have it. And so I think people just know that I accept them. And if you're somebody that's going to judge and criticize me for loving people, then that's not fair. If you can't love and accept people for who they are, that's God's business, if there's judgment to be made.”
They say the early bird gets the worm—I get up so early, I have to wake up the worm.
While the pandemic catalyzed a record-scratch this past year, forcing a widespread pause and reset, Parton hasn’t skipped a beat. She famously donated one million dollars toward COVID-19 research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which partially helped fund the Moderna vaccine. She also released a song, “When Life Is Good Again” to help do what Parton does best: lift spirits. Having been in the business for over five decades, finally slowing down seems requisite, but Parton isn’t interested in taking it easy. “I'm always up by 3 a.m.,” she insists. “I get up and do my little meditation, my little spiritual work and my readings, and plan what my day might be and pray about all that, and I get up, do my coffee, and do my makeup, and do my little notes, and make my calls and, you know, get all that in motion. So I just have a good, easy morning. I love the wee hours when everything else is calm and everybody else is asleep.” She ends her thought with a trademark Dolly-ism: “They say the early bird gets the worm—I get up so early, I have to wake up the worm.”
Superhuman may be too hyperbolic of an explanation for Parton's self-inflicted early call time and unwavering stamina, but upon further prodding, it's evident she defies biology. "Well, I've just been one of those people," she answers when I ask how she physically runs on such minute slumber. "I think I've been blessed with that, because it's why I get so much done—because I don't require a lot of sleep. But I sleep well when I sleep. I just am not one of those people that can sleep for hours on end. I can't wait to get up. I mean, I love my sleep, I love going to sleep. But I love it when I wake up. I can't wait to get started again. I'm refreshed, I get just enough sleep for what I need. That's just how my body is. I'm just an early riser. And I work hard. And I love what I do. So that's what keeps me kind of vital and more on track than a lot of people my age might be. But I don't have any particular diet, I just kind of eat what I feel like I want to eat. Well, I kind of watch—if I'm on tour— I pretty much stay on a low-carb diet so I can stay in my clothes, because there's no way to get those clothes altered when you're out on tour. So I try to kind of stay with that. But for the most part, I just kind of, you know… I'm not heavy into exercise, but I do my little praise-and-glory kind of stuff. I have my own little routine that I do for my physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual [well-being].
Whatever Parton is doing, it's working, and she has no intention of changing course, either. After all, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. "I think I am who I am, and I can expand and I can do more," she says, firmly. "I try to always improve. I don't ever try to outdo anyone else or compete with anyone else. I am my own competition, and I just try to make and break my own records. I'm not concerned about what other people do, I just do what I do best and what I feel in my heart that I need to be doing. I've never thought about having to try to stay on top. I just continually work, I love what I do. And I'm not scratching and a-pullin’ and thinking, Oh, I'm this many years old and I better do this or do that. I'm just going to work until I fall over. And I'll never retire. I don't even know what that word means. I wouldn't know the first thing about what to do if [I] retired. I mean, for me not to wake up with new thoughts and new dreams and get out… and not only the new dreams I have, but really to do whatever I can to keep the dreams that I've seen come true, to keep them alive and support all that. So I'll never run out of things to do. I'll run out of time someday, but hopefully, it won't be anytime soon."