Dolly Parton loves butterflies. Ever since she was a child in the mountains of Tennessee, she has been fascinated by them. “I used to get in trouble with my mom, ’cause they’d have to come find me and I’d be chasing a butterfly from one bush to another,” Parton, who is 75, told me on a sweltering summer day at her office complex in Nashville. Her voice had a kind of magical lilt, expressing joy in the telling of the story. She was wearing a skin-tight, champagne pink, custom-made gown covered with sequined butterflies fluttering across the beaded bodice. Parton is very small—barely five feet tall—but between her mile-high blonde wig and six-inch heels (which she wears at home as well as onstage), she looked as big as a billboard. And yet, wonderfully undercutting the perfection of her presence, Parton is simultaneously self-aware, self-deprecating, and completely engaging. So while you are dazzled, you are also charmed.
“Butterflies don’t sting, they don’t bite, and they are so beautiful,” Parton continued. “And I just kind of related to them with my own personality. I claimed them as my little symbol.” Throughout her career of more than 50 years, Parton has had butterflies everywhere: The logo for Dollywood, her theme park, features a butterfly; in 1974, Parton wrote a song called “Love Is Like a Butterfly,” which went to No. 1 on the country charts; and her perfume, called Dolly–Scent From Above, which launched this past July, comes in a bottle topped with a pink crystal butterfly. Parton has also had a butterfly or two inked on her body. “I have a few little tattoos here and there,” she told me. “Most of my tattoos came because I’m very fair and I have a tendency to scar when I get any kind of cut. I’ve had surgeries for different things, and if the scars didn’t heal properly, I just gotta put tattoos to take the sting out. I don’t have the real heavy, dark tattoos. Mine are all pastel. And I have more than one!”
As we were chatting, Parton was beckoned by Steve Summers, who has been her creative director for the past three decades. “We have to get to work,” he said enthusiastically. A tall man in a black shirt, gray pants, and silver shoes, Summers has bright blond hair and an equally electric personality. He is largely responsible for the Dolly Parton look: He designs 300 gowns a year for Parton, and does everything from embellishing her guitars with sequins to creating her costume jewels. Earlier in the day, I had helped Summers unpack his car, which was filled with 10 pairs of Parton’s size 5.5 mules, in various stages of bedazzlement; several gowns in bright colors; and a huge plastic bag stuffed with earrings, bracelets, and necklaces. “She used to wear real stuff,” Summers said, referring to the jewelry, as he dropped the bag on a counter in Parton’s makeup room. “But if someone told Dolly they liked her earrings, she’d take them off and hand them to that person!” he said, laughing. “I’d say, ‘Those were real diamonds!’ And Dolly would shrug. So now we always go for fakes.”
Summers held up a signature Dolly piece composed of multiple chains that were attached at the side and meant to be worn as a belt. One strand was lower than the rest and dipped down toward the crotch. “We call this vag swag,” Summers said, placing the chains next to his body. “Or belly swag, if we’re being polite.” He held up a red sequined shoe that he had recently decorated. “Look at this fabric,” he said. “I used girdle material on the toe box—it makes the shoe comfy, and holds her foot in place.” Every single thing that Parton wears is designed specifically for her, including what she calls her “baby clothes”—the cotton jersey outfits she wears at home. (Parton has said she sleeps in full makeup, in case there is a storm, an earthquake, or some other sort of emergency that might require her to be camera-ready.) “Dolly doesn’t do casual or sweatpants,” Summers said, shocked to even consider the thought. “I design all her home clothes to match her houses: For the lake, a soft jacket will have flamingos embroidered on it; for the townhouse, the colors will match the shades of the rooms. And, of course, her shoes will also be dyed to be the same as the clothes.”
Chanel jumpsuit; Chopard earrings, necklace, and rings; Tiffany & Co. bracelet.
Thirty-odd years ago, Summers, who is now 57, was a dancer at Dollywood, and noticed that the costumes he was wearing were made of fabrics that were ill-suited to movement. Parton got wind of his complaints through the dance captain, and offered to pay for Summers to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan for two years if he would agree to work for her for a year after graduation. Although Summers was not initially a major Parton fan, he was inspired by her belief in him, her work ethic, and her mix of glitz and glamour. Now, decades later, he does nearly everything related to visuals for Parton, whether it’s strategizing her overall appearance or helping her tape a TV show when Covid-19 restrictions made it impossible for a crew to be assembled.
“Let’s go!” Parton said, as she and Summers walked arm in arm down the hallway into the building’s soundstage. Wheeled in for the W shoot were three eight-foot-tall glass vitrines displaying some of her most memorable costumes, including a white leather coatdress with a huge gold zipper closure down the front, and blue, gold, and silver beads on the fringed hem. “Oh my!” Parton exclaimed, staring at the headless mannequin version of herself. “I sang ‘9 to 5’ in that one! I nearly passed out from the weight of all that leather, but I made it through. The show always goes on!”
It takes much more to sustain a 50-plus-year career than some great wigs and outfits. “Dolly has terrific intelligence and resilience,” Jane Fonda, her costar in 9 to 5, told me. “You underestimate her at your peril. I learned a lot from her about how to get things done.” Initially, Parton was seen by Nashville as only a songwriter; she would often get inspiration for songs by visiting graveyards. “I’d read somebody’s name on their stone or see the grave of a little kid and wonder what their story was,” she has said. But since 1959, when she was just 13 and her first hit song, “Puppy Love,” came out, Parton has been focused on success. She appeared on the Grand Ole Opry for the first time that same year. “I got an encore,” she told me, “but I only had the one song, so I sang it again! When I heard ‘Puppy Love’ on the radio for the first time, I about killed myself. I was sitting on the counter at my aunt’s house, and suddenly I heard my voice. I slid on the floor, ’cause she was mopping. I was trying to get to the radio. Even to this day, I’ve never had anything that was more exciting than the first time I heard myself on the radio.”
As a girl, Parton, who was one of 12 children, had many crushes. “I had a lot of boys in my life,” she recalled. “I love boys. I still do. In the early days, I had a big crush on Johnny Cash. He was young and skinny, and he just had that magnetism. The way he moved around—you know, so sexy. I found out later he was just having withdrawals from drugs, but it still touched me. He was so, so sexy.” In 1964, Parton moved to Nashville, and met a budding businessman named Carl Dean on her first day in the city. She had left two boyfriends back home, but she instantly fell for Dean. People told her not to get married, that it would be terrible for her career, but Parton didn’t listen. She tied the knot in a demure, knee-length white dress, low-heeled pumps, and a short, puffy veil.
Parton’s own custom dress by Steve Summers; Marc Jacobs sunglasses; Chopard earrings and rings; Tiffany & Co. necklace.
They have now been together for 55 years. Dean has never shared Parton’s interest in the limelight, but he has always supported her career. They never had children, and despite their long marriage, Parton has always appeared to the public as self-sufficient. Interestingly, her struggle to be an independent woman involved a different sort of marriage: her professional relationship with Porter Wagoner, who was, in the 1960s and ’70s, one of the biggest stars in country music. When Parton was 21 and still performing in conservative, long-sleeve, high-neck dresses, she was hired by Wagoner for his troupe and TV show. He took over her career, became her duet partner, and dramatically changed her appearance. The wigs became more elaborate, the costumes more formfitting and flashy. The shift suited Parton’s tastes, and the trashy-meets-glamorous look became her trademark.
Behind the scenes, Wagoner and Parton seldom saw eye to eye. “My husband and I don’t argue,” Parton told me, “but Porter and I did nothing but fight. It was a love-hate relationship.” When Parton said she wanted to go out on her own, Wagoner was furious. Eventually, Parton put her feelings into a song: “I Will Always Love You,” which was later made famous by Whitney Houston, was written about her decision to leave Wagoner’s employ. When she sang it for him, he said, “That’s the best song you ever wrote. And you can go, if I can produce that song.”
Before Parton left Wagoner’s show and stopped performing with him, she was already becoming the superstar that the world now adores. Between 1971 and ’75, she had five solo No. 1 hits, including the iconic “Jolene.” She branched out beyond country music, and by 1980, she was a movie star. To prepare for her role in 9 to 5, for which Fonda had suggested her, Parton, who was nervous about acting, memorized the entire script, including everyone else’s lines. While she was waiting for her scenes, Parton would click her long, painted acrylic nails. The sound, which resembled that of a typewriter, haunted her, and it became the backbone for the song “9 to 5,” which wound up winning two Grammy Awards and was nominated for an Oscar.
9 to 5 also cemented Parton’s unique persona: She was bigger and bolder than other celebrities. She was also a sharp businesswoman. When Elvis Presley wanted to record “I Will Always Love You,” his manager asked for half of Parton’s publishing rights for the song. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t give you the publishing.’ I wanted to hear Elvis sing it, and it broke my heart—I cried all night,” Parton said. “But I had to keep that copyright in my pocket. You have to take care of your business! Everybody’s going to use you if they can. These are my songs—they’re like my children. And I expect them to support me when I’m old!” She paused. “Priscilla, Elvis’s wife, told me that when she and Elvis divorced, Elvis sang my song to her. That touched me so deeply. And they also played the song at Whitney Houston’s funeral. After that, I thought, I bet they’ll play the same song when I go.” Parton smiled as she said this; there’s great pride in providing the soundtrack to the crucial moments in people’s lives.
The enduring success of “I Will Always Love You” is a testament to Parton’s staying power and genius as a songwriter. While other musical stars of her generation have faded from view, Parton is consistently relevant and inspiring. (“I’ve even done TikTok,” she said.) It wasn’t always easy, though. During the early ’80s, she went through a rough patch; she had financial problems to resolve. When Parton left The Porter Wagoner Show, Wagoner, despite having offered her his blessing to leave, sued her for a million dollars, and then again for $3 million a few years later. Parton was also plagued with health issues. Remarkably, she views that time as instructive. “I think God just smacked me down,” she said in her autobiography. “That was a hard time, but it made me understand other people a lot better.” By 1989, Parton was back on top, costarring in the hit film Steel Magnolias and hosting Saturday Night Live.
Louis Vuitton bodysuit, long shorts, and chunky gold-tone necklaces (worn as belt); Chopard earrings and rings; stylist’s own cuffs and multistrand chain belt; Parton’s own shoes. In vitrines, from left: A Robért Behar dress; a custom dress by Steve Summers; the Robért Behar dress Parton wore on “The Vintage Tour,” in 2005.
That tenacity seems to keep her youthful; she’s always pushing. I asked Parton whom she would like to play her in the inevitable movie about her life. “Well, there’s different phases,” she said. “We’d probably have to cast a little Dolly, a medium Dolly, and an older Dolly. I had two or three different people in mind, but they’re almost as old as I am now!” Parton laughed. “I could play myself. And I might! I’m whatever age I have to be. I always say, I’m as old as yesterday, but I’m as new as tomorrow.”
Back at the W shoot, Parton changed into a formfitting, black sequined Chanel jumpsuit. Much has been said about her figure, but it remains astounding. She is a true hourglass: large bust, tiny waist, rounded hips. (For her husband’s 79th birthday, this past July, Parton put on a Playboy Bunny uniform. It fit perfectly.)
“I dig this outfit,” Summers said. He was attaching a Tiffany diamond bracelet to Parton’s wrist. “We don’t like the real stuff!” Parton joked to the guard who was on set to protect the jewelry. She shook her wrist so that the diamonds caught the light, and the bracelet fell to the floor. “See what happens when I wear the real stuff?!” Parton joked, as everyone in sight scrambled to pick it up. “I’m a rhinestone girl!” Parton started singing a few bars of “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and the guard swooned. “You can drop my bracelet anytime,” he said.
Parton and Summers headed over to the tray of Chopard jewels and ogled a very large amethyst. “I can’t wear a jewel that small,” she said flirtatiously. “Do you have anything bigger?” She looked at Summers, who keeps her on schedule. After our shoot, they were photographing ads for the Dolly perfume for Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day. Summers had created extravagant looks for each photo, and his team was busy with a giant butterfly backdrop. There were workers everywhere—painting sets, sewing beads on dresses, organizing accessories. It was a happy hive of activity.
During the Covid lockdown, Parton did not slow down. She not only finished developing her perfume, but also gave a million dollars to Vanderbilt University Medical Center to help fund research for the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine. In February 2020, right before a global pandemic was declared, the best-selling writer James Patterson asked her to collaborate on a novel about a country singer who goes to Nashville to seek her fortune and escape her past. Two days after meeting with Patterson, Parton sent him notes on the plot, and lyrics for seven new songs that were inspired by his story. In March 2022, Run, Rose, Run, coauthored by Parton and Patterson, will be published, and an album of the same name will be released. The two of them worked on the novel while homebound, and managed to keep the project secret; simultaneously, Parton recorded the songs. She also won two Emmy awards for the Netflix film Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, in which she played an angel-like presence.
And so on: She simply doesn’t stop. “You have to keep going, but you have to be smart about your time and your choices,” Parton told me between setups. For the final photo, we presented her with several vintage Dolly Barbies from the ’70s. She loved them, but was curious about their price on eBay. “I always think about that sort of thing—the cost,” she said. “I can enjoy all this fun stuff, but I always say, when it comes to business, I look like a woman, but I think like a man. Over time, that has helped me a lot: I will tell you where to put it if I don’t like where you got it.”
Parton laughed. As always, her charisma won the day: She smiled at the Dolly Barbies, struck a pose, and lit up the room. Everyone applauded. “At moments like these, I do feel like a butterfly,” she said. “I just flap my wings and fly.”