There are few celebrities who truly deserve the title of living legend.
It’s a label thrown around a lot, but very rarely to people whose lives fit the bill. There’s a short list of stars of a certain age whose careers have sustained long enough and whose personal lives have intrigued us deeply enough to earn them a spot. Cher, Robert Redford, Betty White and Barbra Streisand all come to mind. All have maintained illustriously long careers in the world of entertainment, earning them the sort of celebrity status that ensures they’ll always be newsworthy, but do any of them also have a handful of theme parks named after them? No, they don’t.
That distinction belongs, of course, to the one and only Dolly Parton, a bona fide living legend if ever there was one.
Over the past 50-plus years, the larger-than-life icon has made her indelible mark on the worlds of music—as both a country crooner and unparalleled songwriter—and film—starring in classics like Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5. She sits atop an empire that also includes Dollywood, the aforementioned theme parks, and a production company. And she’s a philanthropic force, championing causes near and dear to her heart. (Her literacy program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, earned her an honor from the Library of Congress in 2019, celebrating the “charity sending out its 100 millionth book.” And that’s not to mention the $1 million donation of hers that helped develop Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine!)
Called “unstoppable” by Rolling Stone all the way back in the ’80s, Parton—who celebrates her 75th birthday on Tuesday, Jan. 19—has only gone on to prove the publication right—and then some. But when it comes to her private life, it seems like the only thing that’s unstoppable are the questions surrounding it.
While Parton’s early years on the banks of the Little Pigeon River in Pittman Center, Tenn. have been the focus of both her early songs and a series of made-for-TV films on NBC in 2015 and 2016, it still comes as shock to read about those days she spent in that tiny one-room cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains with her five sisters and six brothers, raised by farmer Robert Lee Parton and his homemaker wife Avie Lee. “I grew up in a very poor family with no material things,” the singer told People in December 2018. “I had to claw and scratch my way through everything.” How poor were they? Her father famously had to pay the doctor who helped deliver her, his fourth-born child, in 1946 with a bag of cornmeal.
With no running water, Parton and her siblings would wash up in the river in the summer. As for when it got colder? “In the winter time, we just had a pan of water and we’d wash down as far as possible, and we’d wash up as far as possible,” she told Playboy in 1978. “Then, when somebody cleared the room, we’d wash ‘possible.’ That’s the way it was.”
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Space limited as it was, the children had to sleep crammed in one bed, which presented its own unique challenge for Parton. “The kids peed on me every night,” she admitted. “There were so many of us. We slept three and four in the bed. I would wash every night, and as soon as I go to bed, the kids would wet on me and I’d have to get up in the morning and do the same thing. [But] that was the only warm thing we knew in the winter time. That was almost a pleasure—to get peed on—because it was so cold. Lord. It was as cold in the room as it was outside.”
Music and the church quickly became important forces in her early life. She began performing in the Church of God, the Pentecostal Christian church where her grandfather Jake Robert Owens was the pastor, at age six and playing a homemade guitar at seven. By 13, she’d released her first single and appeared at the Grand Ole Opry. In 1964, the day after she became the first member of her family to graduate high school, she moved to Nashville. And while it’s there that her career as both a songwriter and recording artist eventually took off, that first day in the big city was also the day she met a man who’s remained in the shadows for over half a century, but been an irreplaceable part of her life nonetheless: Her husband of 54 years, Carl Thomas Dean.
Parton was just 18 years old when she met her mysterious husband outside the Wishy Washy Laundromat and despite the fact that, as her website claims, “falling in love and getting married were…the last things on [her] mind,” she found herself swept off her feet. “I was surprised and delighted that while talking to me, he looked at my face (a rare thing for me),” she said. “He seemed to be genuinely interested in finding out who I was and what I was about.”
“My first thought was I’m gonna marry that girl,” Dean said in his first interview ever, conducted in celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary in 2016, according to the Daily Mail. “My second thought was Lord she’s good lookin’ And that was the day my life began. I wouldn’t trade the last 50 years for nothing on this earth.”
What he has decided he could do without though? Anything that had to do with her dream of living in the limelight. In their now 54 years of marriage, the couple has rarely been photographed together. And he’s only seen his superstar wife perform live a very small number of times. “No, he doesn’t like to do that,” Parton told Ellen DeGeneres in 2011. “He gets nervous seeing me perform. It’s almost like seeing your kid in a recital. He’s afraid I’ll mess up. Actually, he has seen me a time or two and it did relax him a little. He saw that I do mess up and it’s OK because people are not gonna punish me for it.”
“My husband is a loner,” Parton told People in 2016 of Dean, who ran an asphalt-laying company before retiring. “He doesn’t particularly care about being around anybody but me. He’s just always asked me to leave him out of all this. He does not like all the hullabaloo.” That’s not to say he’s not proud of her every endeavor, however. “He’s always been supportive,” she added. “He’s like a brother and a father and a friend and a husband and a lover—all of those things to me.”
The secret to their lasting relationship? “I always joke and laugh when people ask me what’s the key to my long marriage and lasting love,” Parton told People. “I always say ‘Stay gone!’ and there’s a lot of truth to that. I travel a lot, but we really enjoy each other when we’re together and the little things we do.”
When they do have time together, they enjoy taking mini road trips in their RV and having picnic lunches in the Tennessee countryside. Date night involves low-key dinners at local Nashville restaurants. “He loves Mexican food, and he knows a few little places we can go without being bothered,” she told the magazine. “He only likes to go places where he can be comfortable!”
Though they’re celebrated their 54th anniversary and renewed their vows in an over-the-top ceremony held at their home four years ago—”I never really felt like I had the wedding that we wanted, so we decided to get married again,” Parton explained—they’ve certainly weathered their share of storms.
Abdominal bleeding in the early ’80s lead to a partial hysterectomy, meaning she’d never have kids. “God has a plan for everything,” she said in a 2017 Today show interview, putting that perfectly positive Parton perspective on the situation. “I think it probably was his plan for me not to have kids so everybody’s kids could be mine. And they are now.”
And as revealed in the 2017 book Dolly on Dolly: Interviews and Encounters With Dolly Parton, made up of magazine interviews given during her storied career, as well as interviews “which have never been previously available in print,” she’d admitted that the marriage was “totally open and free.” According to excerpts obtained by the Daily Mail. But that openness led to a secret “affair of the heart” and “it just about killed me.”
She wasn’t exaggerating, either. The heartbreak was so painful that Parton revealed she once contemplated taking her own life. “I was sitting upstairs in my bedroom one afternoon when I noticed in the nightstand drawer my gun that I keep for burglars. I looked at it a long time…Then, just as I picked it up, just to hold it and look at it for a moment, our little dog, Popeye, came running up the stairs,” she said, per the Daily Mail. “The tap-tap-tap of his paws jolted me back to reality. I suddenly froze. I put the gun down. Then I prayed. I kinda believe Popeye was a spiritual messenger from God.”
She continued, “I don’t think I’d have done it, killed myself, but I can’t say for sure. Now that I’ve gone through that terrible moment, I can certainly understand the possibilities even for someone solid like me if the pain gets bad enough.”
Aside from her mystery man, two rumors have dogged Parton throughout her career. The first, that she’s been embroiled in a lesbian relationship with her longtime friend Judy Ogle for years, likely persists because Dean has so thoroughly remained in the shadows over the course of her career. An early supporter of LGBTQ rights, Parton was eventually forced to quash the chatter that she was living a double life, telling PrideSource.com in 2014, “I am not gay, but if I were I would be the first one running out of the closet.” When the interviewer asked if she’d run into Ogle’s arms if she were, Parton joked, “Yeah, who knows! I might’ve said, ‘Judy, you wanna get something going with me?’ (Laughs) But our friendship is just a precious friendship.”
The other rumor has centered on whether or not Parton, who’s never not seen wearing shirts with sleeves that extend past her wrists, is secretly harboring full tattoo sleeves. Talk about the possibility of these secret tattoos began to spread in 2011 when Roseanne Barr, of all people, said in an interview, “Do you know who’s totally tattooed? I shouldn’t even tell this. Dolly Parton is totally tattooed…She showed me. She’s got all these awesome tattoos all over her body. No black or blue lines. All pastel, gorgeous bows all over everything.”
That comment, coupled with the curious shirts, was all it took for the idea that Parton was sporting some serious ink to become a thing of internet legend. And finally, in 2017, she decided to reveal the truth in an interview with E! News’ Jason Kennedy. “I have a few little tattoos. My tattoos were before they became a fad. I have a tendency to scar easy and I’m so fair-skinned that I stay purple around where I’ve had a scar, so I started having little pastel tattoos, little butterflies or little things to just cover scars. I don’t look like a biker chick or nothing, but if I was younger and could ride a bike, I might. All of mine are pastels. They’re just scattered here and there, where I need them, but they’re not the kind of thing to show on television usually. I can’t get naked, can I?”
Despite Parton’s well-earned status as a true living legend, she’s the first to tell you that she’s not done yet. And despite being in her 70s, she’s not ready to rest on her laurels. “I never think I’m good enough. I never think that I’ve accomplished everything I’m supposed to, so I’m out there working every day,” she told Elle in November 2018. “I still want to stand up, I still want to matter, and I’ve had a lot of my tears that’s been splattered, still being splattered. I’ve still got dreams. Sometimes they get crushed by other people, certain new dreams. You never get over that. If you continue to grow in the business, you’re going to get smacked around, it doesn’t matter how big a star you are—there’s some company or somebody that’s not gonna go for everything you want to do. And if it’s your dream, and someone ain’t seeing it, well then, hell—it hurts. So yeah, I’m still that girl.”
That said, she’s still remarkably proud of all she’s accomplished. “I am grateful that I am still here. So many people have more talent than I’ve ever dreamed of having that never get to see dreams come true,” she told People. “There’s a whole lot to be said for loving your work and having confidence in yourself. I never once thought of retiring.”
In fact, she’d only consider slowing down if the love of her life needed her by his side. “If my husband needed me, or someone in my family, I would put him first,” she said of Dean. “I’ve always put myself first and my career first, but if something were to happen to him, I would pull back on that.”
And when it’s her time to go, she’s got a uniquely Parton-esque idea about how she’d like it to happen.
“I just hope I fall dead in the middle of a song, hopefully one I wrote, right on stage,” she said “That’s the way I go!”
We’d expect nothing less.
(This story was originally published on December 7, 2018 at 3 a.m. PST.)