“Find out who you are. And do it on purpose.”
I find this to be one of the most inspirational quotes I have ever heard, and it comes from the inestimable Dolly Parton, who did exactly that.
A lot surprised me as I read about Dolly. I have always admired her without ever knowing much about her. I didn’t own any of her albums, and I had probably only seen a few clips of her in movies. I knew some of her most famous songs, like Jolene and I Will Always Love You.
I was baffled by her carefully constructed image. A woman who painted her face, wore thick wigs, and made herself known for her enormous breasts, which she definitely accentuated in her dress, a woman who compared herself to drag queens in style… yet somehow she cultivated a family friendly, down-home, comfortable around the kids personality. She embraced both gays and Christians, men and women, families of all kinds.
Dolly took her talents as a storyteller and a songwriter, her incredible and unique country voice, her savvy business sense, and her talent at drawing people into her as an icon, and she slowly and carefully built an empire up around herself. CDs, radio hits, albums, sheet music, concert tours, television appearances, movie deals, book deals, her own television show, and her own theme park. Dolly managed to make everyone who watched her feel as if they knew her, feel safe with her, while keeping her private life and politics and beliefs incredibly private at the same time.
As a kid, Dolly learned she liked being the center of attention. With nearly a dozen brothers and sisters running around in a rural Tennessee house, and between her dad’s affairs and her mom’s strict rules, she discovered she loved make-up and she loved boys and she loved people looking at her and she loved to sing. In the 1960s, when she went to the big city for the first time to find her fame, Dolly met Carl Dean when he noticed her exposed midriff at a laundromat and flirted with him. They married, and they have stayed married for decades, striking a seemingly perfect balance of having separate lives and careers, a lot of time for each other, and a whole lot of respect for each other. Carl stays out of photographs and interviews, and Dolly respects his privacy.
Dolly never had children. She made a career for herself working endless hours on tours, after years of concerts and radio performances. I watched some of her television interviews over the years and saw the grace at which she handled inappropriateness and invasiveness. When David Letterman said he’d give a year’s salary to see her naked breasts, she laughed it off, and she did the same when he said she was a pretty thing and that he’d like to see her all sweaty. She carefully balanced the ability to be objectified by men and seen as a sex symbol, yet stand for fidelity and morals at the same time.
Dolly cultivated this in her movies as well. In her two most famous films, she combined sexiness with feminism, career aspirations with family values. In 9 to 5, she played the sexy secretary who wore tight clothes and big hair to work, who stayed faithful to her husband, resisted the advances of her boss, and longed for the camaraderie of her female coworkers, hurt when she realized there were rumors about her. And in the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, she played the owner and operator of a whorehouse, a smart and savvy businesswoman who donated to local charities and stayed faithful and local to her boyfriend, the local sheriff.
One paragraph in the book highlighted how Dolly had the ability to be on a car in the middle of a crowded parade in Dollywood. She would wave and smile, wave and smile, wave and smile, and every once in a while she would choose a stranger in the crowd and get a bright smile on her face as she eagerly waved, as if she had seen a long-lost friend. This wave endeared everyone watching to her, making them feel safe with her, like she was their personal acquaintance. This, combined with her down-home country tales and her high-pitched laugh and her grace, has made her an incredible empress of her own little empire.
Perhaps the single fact that endears Dolly to me more than any other has been her ability to succeed in a man’s world with the odds stacked against her, on her own terms. When she “fails”, she learns her lesson and stands back up to fight. She has been unflinching as she has dedicated herself to the hard work it takes to build a name, slowly and carefully over years, and then to keep that name alive for decades. She is a household name, an unforgettable presence.
Dolly tells a story of once entering a “Dolly Parton lookalike contest” among drag queens who dressed as her. She dressed as a caricature of herself, and lost the contest. She tells this story with great delight. When asked about being a ‘gay icon’, she smiles and says she loves all people, and she speaks about everyone should be just who they are and never let anyone stop them.
Sound advice from a woman who has done just that.