When Dolly Parton calls you, greeting you by name with her unmistakable Tennessee twang, it’s a good idea to immediately establish that the lady on the line is the actual legend herself.
“Am I talking to the real Dolly or is this an impersonator?” I ask, just to be sure.
Proving she’s as sharp as the icon she’s become over the last six decades – easily the most honored female country music artist of all time, inspiring drag queens galore – Parton is quick with her comeback: “Oh, there’s no such thing as a real Dolly. I’m as real as you’re gonna get!”
Very real, as it turns out. Currently promoting her 42nd studio album, “Blue Smoke,” Parton talked about the country music community evolving beyond labeling gay people “perverse,” addressed rumors of her recent lesbian wedding and dished tit tips to drag queens (more stuffing, girls).
Outside of the rhinestones and big platinum hair, why do gay people identify and empathize with you?
Did you say empathize or sympathize? (Laughs) I think there’s some of both! Actually, I’ve been around so long people just kind of feel like they know me. They’ve seen me enough. I’m more like a favorite aunt or an older sister or somethin’, so I just think people know so much about me they just feel like I’m part of them. I hope that’s what they think. That’s what it seems like!
I see you as our fairy godmother.
(Laughs) Yeah, I do look like the fairy godmother!
You’ve acknowledged that you felt like an outsider since you were a kid. “Coat of Many Colors” really is about feeling different. What role has that feeling of being an outsider played in the relationship that you have with the gay community?
Well, I do believe that I have a lot of gay fans because I think they do accept me as I am – the differences in me – and I think they know that I see that and love that in everybody else. I am not a judgmental person. I’m a very loving and accepting person. I try to see the good in everybody and I don’t care who people are as long as they’re themselves, whatever that is. That old saying “to thine own self be true” – no truer words were ever spoken, and I’m just honored and proud to be accepted.
It’s more than just you being non-judgmental. You said growing up you felt different, something many gay people can empathize with. Do you sense that relationship?
Yes, I do. I’ve always felt that. I’ve always felt that’s one of the things that’s drawn my gay fans to me. They do know that I do feel different, and all of my life I will be different. I always have been. But I enjoy and appreciate and respect that difference in myself just like I do in other people. God made me the way that I am and it’s my business to be true to that.
If everyone was free of judgment like you are, what might the world be like?
It’d be a lot better, I can tell you that. But people love to hate, and it’s just unfortunate but that’s the way it is. People like to judge, they like to condemn, they won’t accept anything they don’t understand – that’s just too bad. We have to work at those things anyway, but most people are not willing to. A lot of people are just blind and they’re not seeing through the spiritual eye, and we need to look that way and then we would be more forgiving, more loving and more accepting.
You were one of the first major country artists to advocate for gay rights. Why did you decide to take that step and stand up for LGBT equality?
Why wouldn’t I stand up for everybody, for all people? In the country field, we’re brought up in spiritual homes, we’re taught to “judge not lest you be judged,” and it’s always been a mystery to me how people jump all over things just to criticize, condemn and judge other people when that is so un-Christian – and they claim to be good Christians! We’re supposed to love one another. We’re supposed to accept and love one another. Whether we do or not, that’s a different story. But that’s what we’re supposed to do.
What are your thoughts on the progress the country music community has been making as a whole when it comes to embracing its gay listeners?
In defense of a lot of people, they didn’t have as true of an understanding as they do now. Now people really see that this is real, these are real people with real feelings, that this is who they really are. I think a lot of people, anytime you talked about gay people, thought “perverse.”
Now, they’re being more educated that this is who people really are. There’s just been so much made of (gay rights) in the last two or three years and it’s been brought to the front so people can really see it and be like, “Yeah, I guess there are a lot more gay people than we ever knew! I have a better understanding of it now. I know that these people are for real.” I think they’re getting that now.
I think it was just a lack of knowledge. And when you’re with someone, of course you should have your rights. You’re gonna be with who you’re gonna be with even if you starve to death and have no privileges and no rights. I think people understand that more now.
You’ve been such a wonderful ally to us … so much so that people have actually mistaken you as a lesbian yourself.
(Laughs) Well, you know what, it’s true. In fact, there was some story recently (in the National Enquirer) where I was supposedly marrying my longtime friend Judy (Ogle) and that my husband was OK with it! I thought, “Where did they come up with all this?” I am not gay, but if I were I would be the first one running out of the closet.
And right into Judy’s arms?
Yeah, who knows! I might’ve said, “Judy, you wanna get something going with me?” (Laughs) But our friendship is just a precious friendship.
What do you say to “From Here to the Moon and Back,” your love duet with Willie Nelson on “Blue Smoke,” being used for the first dance at a gay wedding?
I would be honored. That would be a beautiful wedding song, “From Here to the Moon and Back” – wow! People often use “I Will Always Love You” – I wrote “I Will Always Love You” as a wedding song too – and it really kind of speaks to that, but yeah, “From Here to the Moon and Back” would be a beautiful wedding song. If you get married, you can play it!
What is something about your life that people would be most surprised by?
I can’t imagine a thing that people don’t already know about me. I think people would be surprised at how really at-home I am. I look like a party doll but I’m very home-lovin’. I’m a homebody, and I’m family-oriented. I don’t get out much unless it’s a special occasion. So I guess people might be surprised at just how calm I really am.
When you look at yourself in the mirror, what do you see?
I see ways to improve myself. I’ve never been a true beauty and I’m always thinking, “I need to do this, or I could look better than that,” but I guess we all have that.
You’ve said that drag queens do you better than you. Have you learned anything about yourself from watching people impersonate you?
Most of the drag queens are about six feet tall already … and then they put on those high heels! I ain’t big as a minute, so I always think, what I’ve learned about myself is, I’m not tall. I’m definitely even shorter than I knew I was!
But actually, I am very honored when the drag queens all do their thing because I think it’s a big compliment. I get a big kick out of some of them. Some of them are really good! Some of them are … comical.
Some of them are so good you once lost a look-alike contest that you were in.
(Laughs) I entered one of the Dolly look-alike contests down on Santa Monica at one of the gay clubs down there – I lived right up the street – so I just kind of over exaggerated myself and went and joined the party and walked across the stage. I got less applause than anybody. It’s pretty bad when I lose a Dolly Parton look-alike contest!
If you were a drag queen, what would be your drag name?
P. Titty … like P. Diddy!
What tips do you have for drag queens who want to get your bust size just right?
Oh heavens … I’m so little is why my boobs look so big. But (drag queens) are already big! They’re gonna need to really do some paddin’! I’m larger than life, so just get them boobs the way that they fit into proportion to your body. Put it out there, whatever your imagination is of me.