The two faces of Dolly Parton
Daily Mail 1984
At seven she looked as sweet as pie. At 38 she's pure candyfloss. But, as the film and music moguls have discovered, beneath those blonde wigs lies a mind like a calculator. With shrewd investments and careful management she now heads an empire worth $300 million. Douglas Thompson meets the singer who is nobody's fool
The disguise is effective if preposterous: five-inch heels, blonde teased wigs, roller-coaster false eyelashes and make-up applied with the abandon of a Las Vegas chorus line. Twenty years ago, when she was an 18-year-old aspiring star just out of high school, the Country and Western crowd predicted Dolly Rebecca Parton would 'grow out' of her apparent desire to be the flashiest, trashiest clown queen of Nashville. Dolly - 'nobody calls me anythin' else honey’ - with her exaggerated figure, a day squeeze an hour-glass, simply grew more outrageous. She shamelessly promoted the runaway rhinestone image of the giant-sized Barbie doll with a voice and a remarkable pair of, er, lungs. She made fun - and millions of dollars. In Hollywood they believed they had found a bankable commodity.
They had - but on her terms. When they delved beyond Dolly Parton's candyfloss creation they found she could talk three-picture deals, percentage points, profit and loss accounts, financing, merchandising, song writing and recording royalties, and all the other deal-making boardroom gobbledygook as well as, and sometimes better than, the pin-striped executives.
“Sometimes,” says Dolly, “I would let them think they were getting away with something. Just for the fun of it, you know? People think I don’t have as much depth as I like to think I do. They judge me by the way I look – just a dumb hick.”
“Dolly,” says Sylvester Stallone with awe and the insight of another self starter, “is quite a businesswoman.” They co-starred in the critically lamentable but financially rewarding Rhinestone - 55 million of the budget went on their salaries - and Stallone, who has a reputation for getting his way, goes on: 'She is no one's fool, believe me. Everything is well planned. She's brilliant. We're just about the dumbest looking couple in Hollywood. How come we're doing so well?'
Well, ask Dolly. She is perched on a couch in an elegant suite in a Beverly Hills hotel, and looks good. After two years of ill health - 'I had female problems' - she has been taking care of herself. She slimmed two stone off her five-foot frame. Her measurements (they are guarded like a Pentagon secret to promote yet another Parton guessing game) have changed with her diet, but 40-22-36 would be an educated guess.
Dolly has never guessed or gambled about anything in her career. She is proud of it: 'I planned my whole life carefully, preparing for success.' It doesn't sound pompous in her high-pitched Tennessee twang. 'I never had a doubt I would make it. I knew I wanted to be a singer from the time I was seven or eight. I also wanted to be a star - the biggest in the world.
'I wanted pretty clothes and attention and to live in a big house and buy things for Mama and Daddy. Of course, I didn't have any better sense in those days. But as I got older I didn't lose track of those dreams. I just thought: "Well, why can't I do it all?" The secret was to take one step at a time. I've had bad times but a good outlook. I've had disappointments, but never so great that they blocked my vision of the future.'
At times the future must have looked bleak. She was born in 1946 into a dirt farmer's family. Home was a two-room shack in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. She was the fourth of 12 children; they slept three or four to a bed.
Things are different for Dolly now. After much success in her film debut 9 to 5 (her title song was a number one hit and nominated for an Oscar) with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, she was offered a three-picture deal with 20th Century-Fox.
A three-picture deal can mean as much as $50 million. In status terms it is worth much more. But shaking her bewigged head, businesswoman Dolly said: They never came up with a project for me and that was part of the deal. I wasn't going to do just anything. I'd rather work for less money and do projects I feel good about.' She was smart enough to see money and success teaming with Burt Reynolds in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas as well as the star-power package of working with Stallone in Rhinestone.
A present, Universal Studios are attempting to negotiate a multi-million dollar contract with her production company. When Las Vegas wanted her as a headline attraction she negotiated a complex deal with the bottom line giving her nine million dollars over three years. Her record sales, all gold or platinum, each year bring in several millions of dollars. Her concerts always sell out and have also resulted in lucrative cable television deals.
The Dolly lifestyle reflects her income and her business sense. A million-dollar Hawaii home, bought this year, was as much an investment as an indulgence. It is also somewhere for her husband Carl Dean, the man she married 18 years ago but keeps so much in the background that it was suggested he was imaginary, to go on holiday.
Dolly has plenty of hillbilly cuss words for those who cast doubt on her man or her marriage. A former asphalt worker whom she met on her first day in Nashville and married two years later, Dean has always been part of her retreat from her manufactured glitzy world. When she was sick, it was to him and their out-of-the-way home on 80 acres outside Nashville that she went. It is a two-storey building, red-roofed and white-painted, with 23 rooms, two of them crammed with her clothes, 410 wigs, 2,400 pairs of shoes. She says she doesn't let her hair down but takes it off.
She is arguably the most quotable entertainer around. She can ad-lib her way in and out of situations. As with Mae West, it's all in the delivery. But with Dolly she is so good at it you feel she's had a couple of hours practising in the mirror before she makes her entrance.
She denies that: 'It's just that I say what I think. Sometimes I open my mouth before I think. People say I'm ruthless - that I can even be cruel. That's not true.'
Later, over coffee, a German writer walks over and wants a few words. As always, she gets hers in first. Did he like Rhinestone? The German, who as a diplomat rates zero, says he doesn't know anyone in the world whom he would want to subject to such a film.
Now, at that point most stars would have called for, in order, their bodyguard, their manager, their publicity agents and their limousine. Dolly called for a cup of coffee for the German. She got up, hugged him and whispered in his ear: I’ll convert you yet.'
With shrewd investments, careful management and the knack of always making the next deal better than the last, Dolly has added it all up into an estimated $300 million empire. She has an idea to turn an area of the Smokey Mountains in East Tennessee into a Country-and-Western Disneyland, which she would call 'Dollywood'.
She is also writing a spy film which would reunite her with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. And she is working on a self-awareness book. Then she would like to do a film with Bette Midler, bosom buddies so to speak, and that would be gilt-edged box office.
And there is, of course, the music, where it all began. Dolly doesn't just sing the songs. She writes them and that is where the longevity in profit has always been. Singers fade, the right songs tend to stay around. Dolly sees a 'neat' way of having it all - establishing her own record label and recording on it.
Ten years ago Dolly Parton was a successful Country and Western singer with a faithful but minority following. With some acrimony on other people's parts she left her mentor, country veteran Porter Wagoner, and crossed over into pop music, which resulted in enthusiastic and much wider acclaim.
When asked what she will do next you could fill a library with her answer, but some of the reply tells a lot of the Dolly Parton story: 'I think I'd be real smart to stay with the Dolly personality. I could change my appearance but right now I think the fans want to see me like I am. I feel comfortable. If I had to wear short or dark hair. or flat shoes and no nails to do a serious part I would really have to have a great project.'
She was asked if she could run 20th Century Fox film studios. 'I can do that. I might one of these days.'
Dolly Parton's first Country hit was in 1967, titled 'Dumb Blonde'. Her lyric included: ‘Just because I'm blonde, don't think I'm dumb, 'cause this dumb blonde ain't nobody's fool.'
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