“I always understood men, and I never was intimidated by men; I was always strong in my own self and knew who I was.”

Dolly Parton - decorated songwriter, actress, writer, producer, successful businesswoman, and committed humanitarian - is the ultimate symbol of female empowerment.

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It’s a bright, crisp mid-February Saturday morning, and I’m furiously navigating some back streets on the wrong side of the Thames in an attempt to reroute back into Central London. Traffic isn’t bad, but road closures around Embankment have prevented my direct course to the luxury hotel I was aiming for, and this diversion has added time on to my journey. This all wouldn’t be so bad to my usually punctual self had my interview with Dolly Parton - the Queen of Country - not just been brought forward 20 minutes. Because, as everyone knows: you don’t keep royalty waiting.

With minutes to spare, my trusty Golf is abandoned at the hotel’s front door and entrusted to the valet, then I’m ascending the opulent floors, trying my best not to break a sweat under this oversized vintage Stetson I’m expertly balancing on my head in an attempt to prove my country credentials. Finally entering her hallowed suite, I’m immediately put at ease by her court, who dutifully show me to my seat, which teasingly overlooks that bastarding river that threatened my allocated audience today.

Presently, the Queen arrives. I duly stand to welcome her, and - without any hint of exaggeration - I’m temporarily stunned and speechless. Dolly is immaculate. She glows with perfection, radiates confidence. She flashes a brilliant white smile and laughs, the sound of which is comfortingly familiar. Despite her tiny frame (hence the name of her TV company, Dixie Pixie Productions), she heartily fills the room. Dolly is not the ‘Little Bird’ of which she sings; even at 73, her size cannot contain her enormous personality and abundant energy, which is instantly engaging and calming.

Eventually, then, I’m able to talk, and as soon as we sit down, she unleashes the full force of that authentic downhome Southern charm that turned this self-confessed ‘Backwoods Barbie’ into one of the world’s biggest and most powerful stars. “Ask away,” she permits, “and I’ll tell you what I know.”

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Tonight, Dolly will attend the West End premiere of 9 To 5: The Musical, a revamp of the original US production based on the groundbreaking 1980 film, which starred Dolly alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as three office workers who overthrow their misogynistic boss. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, she says, the time felt right to shine the spotlight again on the plight for equal opportunities, and so, in addition to the revival of this stage production, a big screen sequel (in which the original cast play mentors to a new generation of working women) is finally in production.

“Being a woman in showbusiness is like being a bird dog in heat,” Dolly noted in her 1994 autobiography. “If you stand still they screw you, and if you run, they bite you in the ass.” How has she endured so successfully, I ask, in a male-dominated industry?

“Because I love men,” she answers. “I’ve known more good men than I’ve known bad ones. But I’ve always done well, because what people don’t realise is that I grew up in a family of 12 children, and six of them were brothers. So I have these six brothers, my dad, all my uncles that I was very close to, and my Grandpa, who I loved, so I really know and love men. And I have a great husband that I have been with for 53 years come May. I always understood men, and I never was intimidated by men; I was always strong in my own self and knew who I was.”

“If we wanna be respected as women,” she continues, “we have to respect ourselves as well. We can’t just dress a certain way or look a certain way and take it to a point to where we can maneuver these men, and then once it gets past a point we don’t want to go there. You know, we have to be mindful of how we act and how we react, so I think sometimes we put ourselves in a bad spot. But I do think that some of us get put in a bad spot, and I’m all for women being treated with great respect and being recognised for who and what we are, but we have to be mindful of who we are as well.”

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Dolly set her eyes on betterment from a very early age. The outlook from the isolated and rural farm on which she grew up in Locust Ridge, Tennessee, deep in the Great Smoky Mountains, was bleak; career options were limited for the poor - more so for women. Her mother had married at 15, but Dolly’s fate was being shaped by an inherent inquisitiveness much too big for her homestead.

“I just knew I was never going to be trapped in the mountains,” she says. “I make a joke saying where I’m from there are two kinds of women: the kind who get married and have a bunch of kids, and the kind that stay single and have a bunch of kids. I didn’t want to be either one of them.”

Music was her calling, her saviour.

“I knew that God had given me a talent, and it was a way out,” she explains. “I didn’t want to escape my family, I just wanted more! I just didn’t want to get married and have a bunch of kids. I wanted to see what was outside the Smoky Mountains. I knew there was a big ol’ world out there, and my personality was curious - I always said that my desire to do things was always greater to do things than my fear of it, so I thought, ‘Well, what’s the worst that can happen if I go to Nashville? We couldn’t be any poorer than we are now, and I can always go home.’ But I just thought, ‘Well, I’m going to go for it.’ And I did.”

Accompanied and encouraged by her Uncle Bill Owens, Dolly toured the local area as a child, singing for local radio and TV stations. In 1959, at the age of 13, she made her first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, country music’s most esteemed institution. The acceptance of the Nashville establishment and their audience was all the confirmation young Dolly required to commit to answering her calling. “That was my dream,” she recalls, “and to have people applaud and accept me like that was a great thing, and I knew that that was what I wanted to do.” The day after graduating high school, Dolly lit out for Nashville, and never looked back.

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Shortly after releasing her debut album in 1967, Dolly’s ascent was bolstered by the invitation from country star Porter Wagoner to appear regularly on his national TV show. Recognising a good opportunity, she accepted, and thus began a seven-year platonic partnership, in which her ambitions and creative development were often stifled by the dominant Wagoner, that she’d describe has the “hardest” yet “most prosperous” period of her life.

“Porter and I, we had a great, strong relationship, but it was a love/hate relationship,” she reveals. “I loved him as much as I hated him at times. We would just go at it, because we were very similar: very stubborn. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew exactly what he wanted from me, but I knew what I wanted from me, and I was willing to compromise - and said so, right when I first became a member of his show. But I had come to Nashville to be my own star, to start my own band, and to have my own career.”

The pair scored a string of hits, which overshadowed Dolly’s solo releases, and while she railed against his “strict, stern” methods, pretty soon it became clear that she wasn’t going to allow her own boundless aspirations to be suffocated further. “We fought a lot,” she adds. “But even that, though, was a career-building and a character-building thing for me: to learn as much what to do and how to be as how to not be.”

One day in early-1974, Dolly finally told Porter she was going it alone. Driving home from his office afterwards, an emotional Dolly began piecing together a new song. “I was just crying and crying and crying,” she remembers. “It was raining when I left, and I didn’t even know what I was writing about, and then when the clouds cleared and the sun came through, I thought: ‘Now, that is God talking to me.’ I saw the light of a clear blue morning.”

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Although not released until 1977, ‘Light Of A Clear Blue Morning’ was a defiant declaration of independence. “I am strong and I can prove it,” it goes, “And I got my dreams to see me through / It’s just a mountain, I can move it / And with faith enough there’s nothing I can’t do.”

“I was just born with that drive to keep going,” she says of her steely determination. “Early on, I felt like that spirit, that higher wisdom, told me to just go until He said stop. And I’m still going. He ain’t said a word to me about stopping yet. And so I’m gonna go until that time comes.”

“But I try to be as good about it as I can,” she insists. “I don’t ever want any trouble with anybody. All I want is for you to just let me be me, let me do what I’ve gotta do. I’m not gonna tell you how to live your life, and don’t tell me how to live mine.”

Dolly’s dauntless solo career was kickstarted by the number one single, ‘Jolene’, taken from the album of the same name, which also featured her parting gift to Porter, ‘I Will Always Love You’, and thus began the pioneering ascent of a strong and self-determining artist who instinctively championed women’s rights with honest and authentic songwriting that perfectly portrayed the female perspective in capable, confident ways - some of which would regrettably fall victim to the level of standards of men in the media at that time.

‘Touch Your Woman’, a song that encouraged men to improve their efforts with physical romance, was banned by radio stations in 1972 for being too suggestive, while ‘Eagle When She Flies’ suffered the same fate in 1991 after being deemed too feminist. Confronted by an industry that was equally offended by sexiness and suffragettes, how could Dolly win?

“You can’t win,” she firmly shrugs. “I don’t even care. I’m not a feminist - whatever that means. I guess I am if it just means I’m for women and for women to be treated with respect, but I think all people should be treated with respect. I don’t care if you’re a woman or a man, if you’re black, you’re white, you’re gay, lesbian, or transgender. I don’t care. I think people should be loved and respected for who they are, and treated with respect. I just write these songs and let them fall where they may. They’re based on what I’m feeling. I’m not making statements - I’m not political… I write them, and if they touch somebody, that’s all I can ask for.”

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She’d triumph, of course, by continuing to buck Nashville customs - even as her popularity waned with the rise of new country in the early-’90s - until the genre caught up with her again later in the decade, by which time she’d wrestled full control of her empire and output to ensure that henceforth she’d only make music that truly represented and indulged her creative impulses. (1999’s ‘The Grass Is Blue’, for example, saw Dolly return to her bluegrass roots, something she’d previously been advised would be commercial suicide. “I had to get rich in order to sound like I was poor,” she later quipped.)

Consequently, she reigns supreme as a paragon of ambition who lets nothing stand in her way. She tells me she has never encountered an unconquerable challenge - although the last year, she says, in which she lost a brother and niece in close succession, and she and her husband faced serious health problems while trying to deliver a number of work projects including this musical and the soundtrack to Netflix’s Jennifer Aniston-produced Dumplin’, came close to breaking her.

For her sheer persistence, for her irrepressible drive, for her timeless songs that have inspired so many, for her fierce (and proudly paid-for) body confidence and flamboyant sex appeal, for every small victory against discrimination she’s fought for, and for a lifetime of “service and devotion,” Dolly Parton is a consummate role model for our times.

During the 2016 US presidential campaign, Dolly told Vogue that America just needed “to be brought together”. Given that the race’s subsequent winner has far from accomplished that, I ask Dolly as I’m warned to wrap things up, wouldn’t she be the prime candidate for inspiring unity in the nation?

“They always say ‘Dolly for President’,” and I say we’ve had enough boobs in the White House!” she laughs. “But there’s no way that I would want to be in politics.”

“But I don’t think it’s just our country that needs to come together,” she concludes, “this world needs to come together. There needs to be a lot more acceptance, a lot more understanding, and a lot more willingness to try to work together as humanity. And accept people for who and what they are, and just stop trying to be political - it’s this party, that party - and let’s just have a party and celebrate love!”

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Words: Simon Harper
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
Custom Artwork: Mat Maitland
Special thanks to the Dollywood Archives, Tennessee

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