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“If you can’t be yourself, what can you be?” Dolly Parton shares her inspiring life lessons

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If there’s one person who knows a thing or two about being authentic, it’s Dolly Parton. Stylist asked the inimitable icon to share the lessons she’s learned during her time in the spotlight

Words: Eva Wiseman

There are very few modern-day singers who achieve true icon status in their lifetime. Kate Bush has. The late David Bowie and Prince both did. And Dolly Parton has undoubtedly accomplished it, too.

Singer, songwriter, movie star, philanthropist, owner of a theme park with eight roller coasters and four water rides, Dolly is also one of the most complicated feminist idols of our time. In 1987, Gloria Steinem praised her as a woman who “has turned all the devalued symbols of womanliness to her own ends”. She’s been nominated for 46 Grammys – the record for a woman until Beyoncé overtook her in 2014 – and won seven. She’s recorded 43 studio albums, and been nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar twice: firstly for 9 To 5 in 1981 (she told Jane Fonda she’d appear in the film only if she could write the theme tune), and also for Travelin’ Thru, the song from 2005’s Transamerica, in which Felicity Huffman played a pre-op transsexual. Dolly has long championed gay marriage, quipping, “They should suffer like the rest of us do!” Now 70, she recently renewed her wedding vows with (rarely seen) husband Carl Dean to mark their 50th anniversary.

Dolly’s parents got married aged 15 and 17, and they brought up their 12 kids in a one-room cabin at the end of a rope bridge in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee. Famously, Dolly looked up to the local prostitutes for their lipstick and glamour, styling herself the same way (“It costs a lot to look this cheap,” goes her oft-quoted line), and in the Sixties she wrote songs about sexual double-standards. Hers are the karaoke favourites for the I Will Always Love You hen nights and the broken-hearted baths.

In 2016, Dolly is still Barbie-like but vital, touring 60 cities in North America with her new album Pure & Simple, and imparting her wisdom with a trademark chuckle, as she shares what she’s learned along the way about herself, about life and about the world around her…

Stay true to your word

“I’m a fanatic about being on time. If you’re having a meeting with me, I’ll be there. When people say they’re going to do a certain thing but then don’t do it, or people sell you goods that then don’t live up to it… You know, just lie? People being really irresponsible, that makes me aggravated.”

Don’t underestimate the importance of compatibility

“The secret to a happy marriage is to stay calm, and don’t talk about politics or religion. My husband and I get along good, we both have a great sense of humour, we laugh a lot, we’re very compatible with so many things, like the temperature in the room. In the evening I prefer to read, but I’ll sit with him while he watches his crazy old shows – gold mining and all the wild reality TV. My husband and I have a lot in common, but we’re not in the same business [Dean previously ran an asphalt-laying company]. So it helps a lot because that way we have real stuff to talk about. He likes show business, but he doesn’t like to be in it. He just likes to hear all about my escapades.

We renewed our vows to celebrate 50 years together. That’s a long time to do anything, especially be married, especially in this business. And one of the main reasons is that I didn’t get to have the big wedding when we first got married – I always wanted to wear a big, long wedding dress and a veil. So I got to do that. I’ve finally got a beautiful wedding album now that I didn’t get the first time. It was sweet and there was no pressure.”

Have faith in the future

“I’m not worried about the US election, because I have a lot of faith in America. I have a lot of faith in God. Besides, whoever winds up in the White House, they’ve got a lot of people to help them. I could never be a politician. That’d be the last thing I’d want to do. Oh my gosh, look at what’s going on – why would I want to put myself through that? You’re always gonna p*ss off half the people in the world. I’d rather have all the people love me. One person cannot make all the decisions, that’s why we have Senate and Congress. Sure, we may have to pray harder for some presidents than others, but we’ll be alright. We’re America, we’ve always been great and I believe we’ll always be great.”

Remember to take time out

“I love to read and I love to cook, and my husband and I have a little RV camper. We like to ride around locally, find little places to park and picnic. Behind the scenes, I’m a pretty casual girl.”

Money should never be your incentive

“I love to make money, but I don’t just work for money, I love what I do, I work for the art. I’ve always felt like money is like the ocean – it rolls in, it rolls out and you have to keep an open hand, an open mind, an open heart. But you have to keep your brain in gear. Money is good, but it’s not everything. I think if you do good work and keep your mind on your business, you’ll make enough. More importantly, if you know how to handle it, you’ll keep the money.”

As a rising star in the seventies, Dolly had already adopted her trademark look

As a rising star in the seventies, Dolly had already adopted her trademark look

Make the most of what you’ve got

“I wish I could stay young forever. I’m 70 now. The number is a little scary, but I’ve got a good attitude and I’m making the most of every year. If I live to 800, I’m going to be the best 800-year-old you’ll ever want to meet. I just want to make the most of the years I’ve got and fill them up with as much good, productive, creative stuff as I can, and I’m going to try to leave as much as I can for my family. So I’ll continue to work. But there’s no way to stop time – you just roll away with it.

Grow old with grace – your way

“Cosmetic surgery is a way of making people realise that you ain’t stopped. If I need a little nip and tuck here and there, I’ll do that. I’ll do whatever it takes to look as good as I can and I’ll try to take as good care of myself as I can. You know, time marches on and sometimes you feel like it marches right across your face, but if you can get rid of a few wrinkles or whatever, especially if your face is going to be stuck on a movie screen, if you have the desire to do it, if you have the money to do it and you got the nerve to do it – why not? To me, it’s part of growing old with grace. Well, I wonder what Grace would have done – if she had the money, she’d probably have had her face done, too.”

Connect with the people around you

“When I sing I try to think about what it is I’m saying and I try to tag that into the energy of my audience. I try to sell it, to make them feel the emotions that I’m feeling, drawing them into whatever that source is. There are times when my mind will wander to my plans for the next day, to family… But I try my best to be right there in the moment.”

Age doesn’t matter

“I have no intention of ever retiring. The only way I’d ever slow down is if my health fails, or if my husband was not well. But even then, if he was healthy enough to travel I’d just take him on the bus and have a nurse with me. I can take care of him and still do my work.”

Don’t judge a person by their body art

“Yes, I have tattoos. But I don’t have many. And they weren’t meant as a fashionable fad or statement. They are in pastel shades, and they were all done to cover scar tissues from surgeries. I have a tendency to scar real bad, I have what they call keloid scars. So instead of looking at purple scars, I’d put little tattoos in different places to cover them up, tiny little butterflies here and there, scattered around for decoration.”

If you can’t be yourself, what can you be?

“There’s this great old saying, ‘To thine own self be true.’ That’s the best piece of advice. That says so much because of how people are judging everyone these days, whether you’re gay, lesbian or transgender, or whatever your religion is. If you try to be someone else’s idea of what you should be, that’s never going to work. I’m not going to give a damn what anyone else is thinking, or else I can’t be productive, I can’t be happy, I can’t be successful. If I can be myself, I can be a lot of stuff for a lot of people.”

Dolly Parton’s new album Pure & Simple is out now

Photography: Rex