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‘I’m artificial - but it comes from a sincere place

It's pathetic, everybody on our press trip to Nashville agrees beforehand, the way people always kick off interviews with Dolly Parton by mentioning her breasts.

But then you meet her, and bloody hell, how could you not? She's not so much dressed as upholstered, in clothes that can only be sewn on. "I have always admired natural beauties," she tells me, once we are settled in a corner of her Nashville compound that has been decked out, I suppose, to look like a boudoir. "But I am not one. Never have been."

"Oh come on," I start to say. "I've seen..." "You've seen worse?" Dolly hoots, and then guffaws. "Me too!"

"No," I tell her. "I was going to say I had seen photos of the young Dolly. If she wasn't a natural beauty she started making a hell of an effort very early on."

"I did," she says. "I started bleaching my hair as soon as I could get money to buy bleach. Before that it was that dishwater colour. I'd get the tar beat out of me for bleaching it, but I'd do it anyway. I just felt like a blonde. Don't even know what colour my hair is now. It's probably grey. Don't want to see, don't want to know."

Where does one start with the cult of Dolly Parton? She's 63 now, but her skin is both baby-soft and Jacko-pale. She's the richest country artist in history, she gave her name to the world's first cloned sheep and she's the biggest employer in a whole Tennessee town. She's a gay icon despite being from the red-blooded Deep South, and a feminist icon despite looking like Dolly Parton. I'm over here to talk about her new CD/DVD package of her 2008 shows at London's O2 Arena. Part concert, part love-in, part glorious rally of jubilant kitsch.

They don't often send men to interview her. When women do it they always go on about the hidden steel, the ruthless businesswoman beneath the sequins and suchlike. I'm not so interested in that. I'm after a bunch of puns about breasts, obviously, but I'm also interested in fake vs real. Not just with the breasts. With everything. The classic Parton publicity photograph will have her with flawless hair, perfect make-up and fingernails as long as her heels, lying casually in a messy bed of straw in a barn. I want to know if that's a joke. And if it is, I want to know if her fans get it.

"I'm artificial," she says. "But it comes from a sincere place. And I ain't telling people to look like me. I don't say, 'Oh, you need to have some big hair and big boobs and overdo your make-up and have 9in nails.' A lot of men think I'm just too artificial, but there are some good ol' boys out there who don't."

The look, she says, was based on that of the local prostitute in her home town. "She had red nails and toenails and the hair and all," Dolly says, "and I thought that's exactly how I feel." It was also influenced by Brigitte Bardot. "That's the look," she says. "If I was blonde. I mean, if I was really blonde."

It's odd. Throughout much of the above, I was convinced we were talking about plastic surgery. Dolly's is no secret. ("You've had great plastic surgery," Larry King told her on CNN last month. "Thanks, so have you," she fired back.) Only, when I came to listen back to my tape, I found that the words hadn't even passed my lips. I suppose I just didn't want to be rude. She's flirty and funny but she's also, in a funny sort of way, a bit like your grandma. Maybe it's a Southern thing. You wouldn't even want to swear in front of her.

What journalists usually want to find, I think, is a fake, plastic, commercial Dolly shielding something entirely different. I didn't get that. I think she wanted to turn herself into something, and she has done, and that's that.



HEARTACHE

"I remember every hurt I ever had," she says, when we talk about her writing. "It's like shelves in a great filing system. 'Oh, I'm in a funky mood today! I'm gonna write about heartache! So, which kinda heartache is it going to be? Is it heartache number one, two or three?'"

As to what these heartaches might have been, well, on that she's a little more coy. She married Carl Dean in 1966. He runs a road-surfacing firm and, for most of her career, has been all but invisible. Because of this, rumours abound that it's all a sham. Indeed, for many years there was a conspiracy theory that he didn't exist. He probably does, partly because she mentions him quite a lot. "I'll always put on a bit of make-up for my husband, 'cause he don't see me so much," she'll say. "My husband is tall and thin, like my father was," she'll say. "My husband agrees with me," she'll say, "that we didn't miss out on not having kids."

Dolly was born in Sevierville, Tennessee, the fourth of 12 children. Her early years have taken on an air of a rose-tinted myth. You'll find them documented in the album My Tennessee Mountain Home and in the song Coat of Many Colours. She performed as a child, on nearby radio stations, and spent her teenage years fending off familial disapproval about the way she was turning out.

"My grandaddy was a Pentecostal preacher," she says, "and that's a very strict holy-roller religion. They don't even believe a woman should shave her legs or pluck her eyebrows ... So they were afraid I was going to go to Hell in a handbasket. And they were more afraid that people in the street were going to look at me wrong." But looking like the town whore probably didn't help that.

After she graduated from high school she moved to Nashville and met Carl (so the story goes) on the same day. As much as his subsequent invisibility, it's the convenience of this that has always raised eyebrows.



RUMOURS

One repeated rumour maintains Dolly's real other half is her lifelong best friend and PA, Judy Ogle. But Dolly maintains otherwise. It's worth noting, even so, that homosexuality is one of the few areas in which Dolly will allow herself to stray into politics.

The fact that her Dollywood theme park has an annual Gay Day is no small deal in Tennessee and earned her the ire of, among others, the Ku Klux Klan. "I'm not a poster child for gay rights by any means," she says. "But I have so many gay and lesbian friends and they're just so pure and so true. That's not politics to me. That's human rights."

On other politics -- Obama, Iraq, whatever -- you'll get nothing. "Look at the poor Dixie Chicks," is all she'll say of the band that told an audience they were ashamed George W Bush came from Texas. "They were just trying to make a personal statement and it ruined them. So I stay away from that."

Dollywood is a big deal. It employs 3,000 people and is the 24th most visited attraction in the US. Among the many people she employs, a good many are family. It was the reaction of family that made her first realise what it meant for her to be so famous.

"Sometimes I fear that I'm looked at more like a company than a sister or a friend. Because they have to look to me for money . . . and if I have to sack them? You talk about heartache! But if they're not doing the job, if they get fired it's their fault, not mine."

There's a pause. "But no matter what the deal was," she says, "it wouldn't be their fault, but my fault. And then I'd be talked about bad. And all the others would take their side. Because they don't see my side! Because I'm not allowed to have a side!"

Are we talking about anybody in particular? "No," Dolly says. "I love my family and they honestly love me. It's just you worry about these things. That's what I think about, more than being a star."

That's the businesswoman for you. Steel, but angsty steel. It's the angst about Dolly that comes as a surprise. Perhaps it shouldn't. Until the mid-80s, when she collapsed on stage and had a partial hysterectomy, Dolly and Carl always intended having children. "We never did think of adopting," she says.

It was around this time that she got into philanthropy. Today, Dolly Parton's Imagination Library sends 2.5 million books a year to children. "You think that maybe God didn't want me to have children," she says. "So then everybody's kids could be mine." It's the sort of line that makes you feel guilty digging for dirt, and even for focusing on puns about her chest. No, Dolly isn't what I expected. I thought she'd be all front, and she isn't at all.

Live from London is out today


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