Dolly Parton. She has that laugh and those sequined getups and that hair foam rollered up to the clouds and those, well, those.
But she also has a kind philanthropic spirit, all five feet of her standing up for the disadvantaged, and more talent – whether singing, writing, acting or joke-telling – than most of us. Perhaps because Dolly herself was once disadvantaged, she reminds us all what the American Dream is. (Or once was.) She grew up one of 12 children, in the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee, with no electricity or running water, bathing in the river, with soap she made herself.
Look at her now. She moved to Nashville the day after she graduated high school, in 1966, and hasn’t stopped working since. She is whip-smart and endlessly driven and has dedicated her life to helping the poor region that she grew up in. If that isn’t a hero, then I’m stumped.
Even now, she has no plans of slowing down. “I will never retire unless I have to,” she has said. “As long as I’m able to get up in the morning, get that makeup on and my high heels on, and even if I can’t wear high heels, I’m going to do like Mae West: I’m going to sit in a wheelchair with my high heels on.”
So today, on her 72nd birthday, let’s recap some life lessons the little spitfire has taught us.
She’s written approximately 5,000 songs.
Her first song? About a corn-cob doll, when she was seven years old. Unable to write yet, her mother had to copy the lyrics for her. She’s been writing non-stop ever since, still – to this day – writing a song every two or three days, and always making time to write on her birthday.
Lesson: Make time for what you love.
She once lost a Dolly look-alike contest.
Years ago in Santa Monica, Dolly strutted across a stage in a drag queen contest as herself. She lost.
“They had a bunch of Chers and Dollys that year, so I just over-exaggerated – made my beauty mark bigger, the eyes bigger, the hair bigger, everything,” she said. “All these beautiful drag queens had worked for weeks and months getting their clothes.”
“They just thought I was some little short gay guy. I got the least applause.”
Lesson: Sometimes others will think they know you better than you do.
Dollywood is the largest employer in the poor county where Dolly grew up.
Dollywood isn’t all fun and games. (Though it mostly is.) The theme park/museum hybrid in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, was intentionally developed to stimulate the job economy in the low-income area where Dolly grew up. It’s now the largest employer in the county and the largest source of fun.
Lesson: Remember where you came from.
She (maybe) has sleeves of tattoos.
It’s long been rumored that Dolly’s arms are covered in tattoos – that’s why you only see her in long sleeves – and that they’re only for her husband to see.
She’s partially admitted to it, but not fully, only saying, “I do have a few little tattoos, but they were mostly done to cover scars because I’m so fair.”
Lesson: Keep some things to yourself.
The KKK has threatened Dolly. She fought back.
In the mid-2000s, Dolly received death threats from the KKK in response to Dollywood’s annual “Gay Day” celebration. She doubled down on her beliefs.
“God tells us not to judge one another, no matter anyone’s sexual preference or if they’re black, brown or purple. And if someone doesn’t believe what I believe, tough shit.”
“I still get threats,” she’s said. “But like I said, I’m in business. I just don’t feel like I have to explain myself. I love everybody.”
In terms of gay marriage, Dolly has said, “I always say, ‘Sure – why can’t they get married? They should suffer like the rest of us do.’”
Lesson: Stick to your (loving) guns.
Through her literacy program, Dolly has sent nearly 100 million books to children worldwide – for free.
Started quietly in 1995, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library now encourages reading to over a million children around the world. In honor of her father, who was unable to read or write, the program mails one free, hand-selected book a month to every child registered, from birth through age five, no matter the family’s income. What started in her home county in Tennessee has spread nation- and worldwide, in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.
Dolly has said, “Even if you’re not able to afford to go to college, if you can read, you can find out about any subject that you’re interested in. And if a book is comin’ to the mailbox every month and it’s got your name on it, then you’re gonna find someone to help you read it to you.”
Lesson: Kids! Reading! Education! It’s the future. It’s freedom.
Dolly has stopped trying to disguise herself in public.
No matter what she wears, her voice gives her away.
“I remember once I was going Christmas shopping. I did my makeup completely different, with dark eyebrows, and wore a short black wig and wore different clothes than I would normally wear,” she’s said. “I said something, and this group of kids said, ‘You’re Dolly Parton in a black wig!’”
Lesson: Don’t hide who you are.
Her father paid the doctor who delivered Dolly with a sack of cornmeal.
Dolly was born the fourth of 12 (!) children, in extreme poverty, in the backwoods of Tennessee’s Great Smokey Mountains.
“You know they always talk about two rooms and a bath? We had two rooms and a path. We’d have running water when we’d run to get it. We didn’t have any electricity. If fireflies were out, we’d catch them in a mason jar and put them in our bedroom!”
When she was born her father, a sharecropper, didn’t have money to pay the doctor. So instead he gifted him a sack of cornmeal. Dolly jokes that she’s been “making dough ever since.”
Lesson: Work with what you have.
This May, Dolly and her husband Carl Dean will celebrate their 52nd wedding anniversary.
Dolly and Carl met in a Nashville laundromat when she was just 18. They married in 1966 – Dolly says, because, “I was getting pretty horny” – and have been happily in l-o-v-e ever since.
Lesson: True love does exist.
The first mammal to be cloned was named after Dolly.
Remember Dolly the sheep? In 1995, scientists successfully created the first cloned mammal, named after Ms. Parton because, says English embryologist Ian Wilmut, one of the project’s leading sciences, “Dolly [the sheep] is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn’t think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton’s.”
Lesson: Be the best at something. Whatever that is.
What a wonderful woman. Cheers to you, on your birthday and every day, Dolly!
Megan McCarty is a writer, editor, etc.-er who has written about life, travel and – shh, don’t tell her mother – s-e-x for Garance Doré, Apartment 34, Rue and more. She’s a firm believer in the zipper merge. Follow along with her adventures (and, well, misadventures) on Instagram.
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