Dolly Parton on Creating Her 'Flashy' Performance Persona: 'I Did Invent That Part of Me'
Dolly Parton has always been drawn to bright, flashy, gaudy clothes. Even when she was a young girl, her greatest fashion icon was “the town tramp.” So when it came time for her to start defining her stage presence, the “9 to 5” singer leaned into her attraction to gaudiness.
How Dolly Parton found her performance persona
A big part of Parton’s persona is her larger-than-life wig collection. In an interview she did with Rolling Stone back in 1977, she explained how she got into wearing wigs.
“I teased my own hair for years and years and it’s real damagin’ to your hair so about three years ago I started wearin’ wigs because it’s convenient,” she said, as recorded in the book Dolly on Dolly. “But people come to expect that of me and I come to expect it of myself, the flashy clothes and jewelry and all the gaudy appearance.”
The singer went on to speak about how her gaudy style preferences led to the invention of her performance persona.
“I guess I did invent that part of me,” she said. “I was always fascinated with fairytale images. Half of a show is the lighting and the shine and the sparkle. Stars are supposed to shine and maybe I just want to be a star.”
The character and the real Dolly Parton
Especially at the beginning of Parton’s career, she thought of who she was in the public eye as a “character” she played.
“I look one way and am another,” she told Cliff Jahr in Ladies’ Home Journal. “It makes for a good combination. I always think of ‘her,’ the Dolly image, like a ventriloquist does his dummy. I have fun with it. I think, what will I do with her this year to surprise people? What’ll she wear? What’ll she say?”
But as time went on, the line between Dolly Parton the character and Dolly Parton the person began to blur.
“A character never grows old,” she told biographer Alanna Nash. “A character lives forever, just like Mae West, like Zsa Zsa Gabor. Liberace. I guess I am a character only because I’m just totally what I am. I’m not afraid to be that and say what I want to, and just do what I want to do.”
The ‘Jolene’ singer isn’t worried about getting trapped in her carefully sculpted Dolly character
Parton’s Rolling Stone interviewer, Chet Flippo, asked the “When Life is Good Again” singer if she ever feared getting trapped in her “carefully sculpted” character.
“No,” she responded. “If I wanted to get out of it—you know how stubborn I am—if I get ready to quit it will be of my own choice and I’ll quit it in a minute. I love my audiences but I don’t fear the public. I do what makes me happy with it. So my music will stand on its own and in a while everybody will see what it is I am tryin’ to do.”
Flash forward to present time and Parton says that she “never wants to retire.” In fact, she hopes to drop dead while performing. And you know she’ll be covered in rhinestones and wearing a wig as voluminous as a freshly hair-dried poodle.
“I just hope I fall dead in the middle of a song, hopefully one I wrote, right on stage,” she told People in 2018. “That’s the way I go!”
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