Lookin' Swell, Dolly

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2006

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. When you're in Dolly Parton's presence, you can't help but become transfixed by her, um, abundance. It's her dominant trait, and it's particularly astounding when examined up close. From two feet away, for instance.

The country legend has invited you to sit down beside her on a couch, backstage at the theater that bears her name, in the Dollywood amusement park that celebrates her Smoky Mountain roots. She is saying something serious about Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, a decade-old program that sends free books to kids every month until they're 5. My dad couldn't read. I saw how cripplin' that can be, not gettin' an education . Started it for my own people, here in Sevier County. We've expanded to 42 states, and, now, Canada.

And then, the zone-out. Parton is still talking -- you can see those glossy, red lips moving at an incredibly rapid clip -- but you're not really hearing her. Instead, you're consumed by her immensity, spellbound by the natural wonderness of it all.

By this, of course, we mean Parton's huge . . . personality.

At 60, the performer remains an international icon, in large measure because of her mammoth personality. Parton, one of this year's five Kennedy Center honorees, is ebullient, boisterous, ferociously funny and endearing; and she's a good many other things, too -- fearless, sexy, cornpone, clever, candid, folksy, trashy, ditsy, brilliant, self-deprecating, animated, squeaky -- all of it adding up to a larger-than-life figure who oozes so much stardom that you can more or less swim in the wake of her celebrity. Though you might just as easily find yourself adrift in its overwhelming amplitude.

Where some performers have an uncomfortable relationship with their stardom, Parton embraces hers, celebrates it, magnifying her magnetism.

"Dolly takes up a big space," says Kenny Rogers, whose 1983 duet with Parton, "Islands in the Stream," was an enormous hit. "When she walks into a room, she changes the tenor of the whole room in such a great way. She has this spirit. But she also has an honesty that not many other people have."

By this, he means that Parton's personality isn't a put-on. While she certainly plays it up for the public -- which has adored her in varying amounts, and in various mediums, for most of the past 40 years -- it's rooted in reality. "Dolly is who she says she is," Rogers says from his Georgia home. "I've always said that if you like her on television, you'll love her in person because she's that and more. But if you don't like her on television, you won't like her in person because she's that and more."

Says Parton: "It's just my nature to be that way. I have a lot of love to give, and I want a lot of love back. "

It's the Dolly Parton paradox. So outsize is her image that her incredible talent is eclipsed by all the Dollyness: The infectious, goofball personality. The spangled outfits and high heels and platinum wigs. The synthetic nails and generous slatherings of makeup. And, yes, that cartoonishly proportioned body. (As Parton herself says, "I don't look real." Which, in truth, she isn't, at least not in certain areas: She readily admits to having had multiple cosmetic surgeries over the years, "to fix whatever's saggin', baggin' or draggin'.")

Revel in her presence, and it's easy to forget about her other great gifts, which she's been utilizing since she first started making music as a schoolgirl in nearby Locust Ridge. Not only is Parton a prolific songwriter with a knack for finding incredible emotional depth in lyrical simplicity, but she can flat-out sing, too, a trilly soprano with great purity and range. She's also made a mark in the movies, earning two Golden Globe nominations for best motion picture actress.

But Parton hardly minds that she's sometimes better known for image than artistry. Because, quite frankly, that she's known at all is something like a blessing for a girl who grew up in a run-down cabin in eastern Tennessee, where she fought for attention as the fourth of 12 kids.

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