From her sky-high hair to her huge personality, there's nothing small time about the legendary Dolly Parton. As one of 12 children, Dolly grew up dirt poor in the Smoky Mountains. Her family lived in a one-room cabin with no electricity or running water.
Still, this little girl had big dreams—and a big voice. By age 10, Dolly was a star on local television and radio. The day after this self-proclaimed "Backwoods Barbie" graduated high school, she moved to Nashville to pursue her dreams of performing.
In 1967, Dolly got her big break when she joined the popular The Porter Wagoner Show. From there, Dolly became a one-woman empire. She's written more than 3,000 songs, sold more than 100 million albums and topped the charts with 25 number one singles. She's also conquered television, movies and Broadway, and her Dollywood theme park has been thrilling fans for 25 years.
Dolly isn't only a music legend—she's a fashion icon. Though she admits she's not always dressed in sequins, Dolly says she never leaves the house without makeup. "Not unless my husband was dying and I was having to run get help," she says.
"The only way I'd be caught without makeup is if my radio fell in the bathtub while I was taking a bath and electrocuted me and I was in between makeup at home," she says. "I hope my husband would slap a little lipstick on me before he took me to the morgue."
Dolly and her husband, Carl, have been married 44 years."I met him the day I got to Nashville back in 1964," she says. "I wasn't a star then, so I've never had to worry that he loves me because I'm a star and I've got money or make money or whatever. I know he loves me for me, and that means a lot to me."
It's been rumored that Dolly and Carl have an open marriage, but Dolly says statements she's made in the past have been taken out of context. "That just means we let each other be who we are and how we are. But I'd kill him if I knew he was with somebody," she jokes. "We love people. He knows I'm a flirt and a tease, but it's harmless. I've never met the man that would take his place."
Dolly says respect for her husband's character is the reason Carl lives his life out of the spotlight. "Early on in my career, I'd won [Song of the Year] in 1966, and I asked him to go with me. ... He was so uncomfortable," she says. "He said: 'Now I want you to do everything you want to do. I want you to enjoy every minute of your life. But don't you ever ask me to go to another one of these things. Because I am not going.'"
Dolly says she never asked him to make another public appearance. "He's proud of me. He's just basically shy about things like that. He doesn't like crowds," she says. "And I respect his privacy. I respect the fact that he loves to be out of the limelight. That's one of the reasons I think we've lasted so long."
Dolly has the fame and fortune most can only dream of, but she says her upbringing taught her to take nothing for granted. "I get a lot of that from my dad. I never spend a dollar that I don't think about it," she says. "It's hard for me to spend like a huge amount on one outfit, like to go to Beverly Hills and say, 'Oh, there's a coat for $5,000.' I'd rather go to Wal-Mart and get a whole bunch of stuff."
Dolly says her spirituality also keeps her grounded. "My grandpa was a preacher. My grandmother was very religious, and she believed through God all things are possible," she says. "Every day I pray about all I do."
Dolly even has a special place to pray on her tour bus. "It keeps me strong," she says. "It's best to get outside yourself and it helps to keep some of the pressure off to give it back and ask for help, and I'm not ashamed or afraid to do that."
She's one of the most recognizable faces in the world, but Dolly admits she once lost a Dolly Parton lookalike contest in Santa Monica. "Lots of drag queens dress up on Halloween like Dolly, and that was back when everybody was dressing like Cher or like me. So I thought how fun would this be?" she says. "I just kind of over-exaggerated everything I am—bigger hair, bigger beauty mark, bigger boobs, if you can imagine."
Standing just over 5 feet without heels, Dolly says she was the smallest contestant there. "Here all these big drag queens are at least 6 feet tall with their high heels," she says. "I was kind of lost in the shuffle. They didn't take me serious at all."
Dolly ended up coming in second place. "I did it just for fun," she says. "It was just fun to tell the story."
Dolly's 150-acre theme park, Dollywood, is Tennessee's top tourist destination. When Dolly first bought property for the park near the Smoky Mountains, her financial advisers advised her against it. Now, the park is celebrating its 25th anniversary. "Needless to say, I don't have those business people anymore," she says.
Dollywood has also allowed Dolly to give back to causes she's passionate about. Proceeds from the park benefit the Dollywood Foundation, which in turn funds Dolly's Imagination Library. "It's a literacy program I started in my hometown many years ago," she says. "We started giving books to children from the time they're born, once a month, till they go to kindergarten. And then it started all over Tennessee. The government got involved, and now it's all over the United States."
One of the keys to Dolly's success is owning the rights to all her music. She's never given up the copyright to any song—even when Elvis Presley came calling.
Decades ago, Dolly says she learned Elvis wanted to record a version of "I Will Always Love You," which had already been a hit for Dolly. "I was so excited. I told everybody Elvis is singing 'I Will Always Love You'," she says. "So the day of the session they'd invited me down, [Elvis' manager] Colonel Tom calls me and says, 'You know we don't record any songs that we don't get half the publishing of.'"
Dolly's heart sank. "I thought, 'Oh, no, that's already been a hit and that's what I'm leaving for my family.' It had nothing to do with Elvis, because hopefully he was disappointed too," she says. "But I just wouldn't let him have the publishing."
In 1992, Whitney Houston's label agreed to her terms, and a new version of "I Will Always Love You" skyrocketed to the top of the charts. "I thought, 'Well, good, I'm glad I kept it,'" she says. "But I would have still loved to have heard Elvis sing it. Can you imagine?"