Dolly Parton gives wretched excess a good name

September 29, 1994|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Washington--Spend 30 minutes with Dolly Parton, and two words come to mind: Too much.

Too much hair, too much makeup, too much cleavage, too much giggling, too much smiling, too much enthusiasm.

Too much Dolly.

Which is just fine with Ms. Parton, who has used her love of excess to become to country music what Liberace was to classical piano. Her voice alone probably would have earned her fame in Nashville, where she's been a staple for more than three decades. But it's the big hair, huge chest, gaudy clothes and acres-across smile that have moved her beyond pop-star status to pop icon.

They're all part of the Dolly Parton package -- one its creator insists is the real thing, at least in a sense.

"I think that I'm about the realest phony person you'll ever meet," says Ms. Parton, in town to sign copies of her new autobiography, "meaning that I'm totally artificial in looks, but I like to think where it really counts that I'm very real. I've often said that I like to think there's a heart beneath the boobs and a brain beneath the wig."

Both of those truths became obvious during an interview in her suite at Georgetown's Four Seasons Hotel. Ms. Parton, 48, knows what sets her apart, and revels in it. She's heard all the Dolly jokes and says she loves them more than anyone.

Poured into a one-piece black jumpsuit, her waist dominated by a huge silver-chrome belt buckle, she's self-deprecating to a fault and answers every question without blinking.

"I love it that people can laugh at my expense," she says, her blue-green eyes widening for emphasis. "I laugh at my expense. It's not like I have not left myself wide open for all this. This is part of who I am, part of who I want to be. My boobs, my hair, it's part of my image. Why would I get offended and upset for somebody to make jokes about the very thing that I laid right out there for them to make jokes about?

She mentions her appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman" Monday night and laughs at the Top-10 list he revealed the following evening: "Surprises in the Dolly Parton Autobiography." Number 10: At birth, doctor thought he was delivering triplets. Number 6: Went on world tour in early '70s with Dalai Lama in a show called "A Couple of Dollys." Number 1: Consulted on the Wonderbra project.

She is, in short, a person who even the sourest of cynics would have trouble not liking. She smiles constantly, is unhesitatingly polite and doesn't seem to have apretentious bone in her body.

"Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business," the autobiography she spent three years working on, is only one piece of a market blitz big enough to satisfy even the most ravenous of her fans.

She's also released a live album, "Heartsongs," that includes traditional tunes as well as such Parton standards as "Jolene," "Applejack" and "Smokey Mountain Memories." There's a children's book, "Coat of Many Colors," that illustrates her favorite song of all her hundreds of compositions. She's starring in a TV sitcom, "Heavens to Betsy," slated as a mid-season replacement on CBS.

There are even plans for lines of cosmetics and lingerie -- the obvious next steps for a woman who pretty much refuses to step out of the house until she is (sorry, the pun is irresistible) all dolled up.

"I would never go out in public looking awful," she says. "I mean, I guess I go out in public looking awful all the time, but I wouldn't go out without looking the way people expect Dolly Parton to look."

Her taste in clothes and makeup, however, didn't always meet with the approval of one important group of people -- her family.

"I was kind of an outcast," she says. "My grandpa was just sure that I was the reincarnation of Jezebel and that I was doomed . . . and that the devil had made me wear my hair like that. And I said, 'No offense Grandpa, but me and Miss Clairol did this all by ourselves.' "

But like most Dolly stories, there's a happy ending. "I'm totally accepted now, but I was certainly outrageous and outgoing as a kid, and found myself in a lot of hot water just because of my desire to be different -- only because I was."

Dolly was the fourth of 12 children born to Robert Lee and Avie Lee Parton. Her father was a sharecropper and struggled mightily to provide for his family. In fact, the most poignant sections of "Dolly" paint a touching picture of a poor family growing up in East Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains.

Ms. Parton recalls, without a hint of self-pity, her father riding his mule into town once a year to buy generally ill-fitting shoes for his family. She remembers making play furniture out of rocks and using moss to cover them with "fabric." And she tells the story of a strong and loving mother who could make one of her children feel special by cooking up a pot of "rock soup" -- placing the child's carefully selected stone in a pot of water, then adding vegetables and other ingredients.

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