Over the past 50-plus years, Dolly Parton has gone from a chipper country starlet to a worldwide icon of music and movies whose fans consistently pack a theme park designed (and named) in her honor. Dolly Parton is loved, lauded, and larger than life, and she might just be the most charitable celebrity on the planet. But even Dolly's most devoted admirers might not know all there is to this Backwoods Barbie.
1. Dolly Parton’s family paid for the cost of her birth in an unconventional way.
Dolly Parton's family couldn’t afford to pay the medical bills for her birth with money, so her father—a construction worker and farmer—paid the doctor who delivered her with a sack of oatmeal.
2. Dolly Parton turned down an offer from Elvis Presley.
After Parton made her own hit out of "I Will Always Love You," Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reached out in hopes of having Presley cover it. But part of the deal demanded Parton surrender half of the publishing rights to the song. "Other people were saying, 'You're nuts. It's Elvis Presley. I'd give him all of it!'" Parton admitted, "But I said, 'I can't do that. Something in my heart says don't do that.' And I didn't do it and they didn't do it." It may have been for the best. Whitney Houston's cover for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992 was a massive hit that has paid off again and again for Parton.
3. Dolly Parton has had the same best friend since childhood.
Despite being married to the same man since 1966, tabloids have often tried to make something romantic out of Dolly Parton's close friendship with her childhood pal Judy Ogle. "Judy and I have been best friends for 64 years, since we were little kids," Parton told People in 2019, while dismissing yet another round of rumors about her sexuality. “Our parents knew each other, we grew up together, we were like sisters, became best friends. She was very quiet, I was very outgoing. So we made perfect friends. We went all through school together.”
4. You won't find Dolly Parton on a Dollywood roller coaster.
Her theme park Dollywood offers a wide variety of attractions for all ages. Though she's owned it for more than 30 years, Parton has declined to partake in any of its rides. "My daddy used to say, 'I could never be a sailor. I could never be a miner. I could never be a pilot,' I am the same way," she once explained. "I have motion sickness. I could never ride some of these rides. I used to get sick on the school bus."
5. Dolly Parton received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.
In the mid-2000s, Dollywood joined the ranks of family amusement parks participating in "Gay Days," a time when families with LGBTQ members are encouraged to celebrate together in a welcoming community environment. This riled the KKK, but their threats didn't scare Dolly. "I still get threats," she has admitted. "But like I said, I'm in business. I just don't feel like I have to explain myself. I love everybody."
6. “Jolene” was inspired by a real-life bank teller.
Like the Jolene in the song, the bank teller was a redhead, and constantly flirted with Parton’s husband, Carl Thomas Dean. "She got this terrible crush on my husband," Parton told NPR. "And he just loved going to the bank because she paid him so much attention. It was kinda like a running joke between us — when I was saying, 'Hell, you're spending a lot of time at the bank. I don't believe we've got that kind of money.' So it's really an innocent song all around, but sounds like a dreadful one."
7. Dolly Parton and her husband have been married for more than 50 years.
Dolly met her soon-to-be husband, Carl Thomas Dean, outside a Wishy Washy Laundromat on the first day she moved to Nashville. "My first thought was 'I'm gonna marry that girl,’” Dean told Entertainment Tonight in 2016. "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."
8. Legally, Dolly Parton goes by Dolly Parton Dean.
Though, professionally, she's always been Dolly Parton, the musician told The Guardian that she regularly goes by Dolly Parton Dean on official documents. When asked whether it was considered controversial that she didn't take her husband's name when they married in 1966, Parton replied that, “You know what, my passport is Dolly Parton Dean. I sign a lot of my contracts Dean. I didn’t change names [publicly] because I already had a record deal. It made no sense. He never asked me to.”
9. There's a statue of Dolly Parton in her hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee.
A stone's throw from Dollywood, Sevierville, Tennessee is where Parton grew up. Between stimulating tourism and her philanthropy, this proud native has given a lot back to her hometown. And Sevierville residents returned that appreciation with a life-sized bronze Dolly that sits barefoot, beaming, and cradling a guitar, just outside the county courthouse. The sculpture, made by local artist Jim Gray, was dedicated on May 3, 1987. Today it is the most popular stop on Sevierville's walking tour.
10. Dolly Parton spent a fortune to recreate her childhood home.
Parton and her 11 siblings were raised in a small house in the mountains of Tennessee that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. When Parton bought the place, she hired her brother Bobby to restore it to the way it looked when they were kids. "But we wanted it to be functional," she recounted on The Nate Berkus Show, "So I spent a couple million dollars making it look like I spent $50 on it! Even like in the bathroom, I made the bathroom so it looked like an outdoor toilet.” You do you, Dolly.
11. Dolly Parton wakes up at 3 a.m. to answer mail, make calls, and meditate.
“I do my little meditations, I do my little spiritual work,” Parton told TODAY in 2018. “I get more work done between 3 and 7 than most people all day, because it’s quiet and the energy’s all low-key, except mine.”
12. Dolly Parton once entered a Dolly Parton look-alike contest—and lost.
Apparently Parton doesn't do drag well. “At a Halloween contest years ago on Santa Monica Boulevard, where all the guys were dressed up like me, I just over-exaggerated my look and went in and just walked up on stage," she told ABC. "I didn’t win. I didn’t even come in close, I don’t think.”
13. Dolly Parton started her own "library" to promote literacy, and has given away more than 100 million books.
In 1995, the pop culture icon founded Dolly Parton's Imagination Library with the goal of encouraging literacy in her home state of Tennessee. Over the years, the program—built to mail children age-appropriate books—spread nationwide, as well as to Canada, the UK, and Australia. When word of the Imagination Library hit Reddit, the swarms of parents eager to sign their kids up crashed the Imagination Library site.
14. Dolly Parton is a major philanthropist.
As evidenced by her Imagination Library, Dolly Parton is a dedicated philanthropist. The Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes, Save the Music Foundation, and the Boot Campaign are just a few of the charities she has donated to over the years. In the late 1980s, she created the Buddy Up campaign in her home county in Tennessee, where the dropout rate typically hovered around 35 percent. Parton's program asked every seventh- and eighth-grader in the county to pair up with another student, and when both graduated high school, she gave them each $500 upon graduation. Thanks to Parton, the county's dropout rate declined to 6 percent.
Parton also pays close attention to current events. In an effort to help with the COVID-19 pandemic, she donated $1 million to aid in research with the Moderna vaccine.
15. Dolly Parton sleeps in her makeup.
When The New York Times asked Parton if she had any good skincare tips for traveling, she answered, “I clean my face in the mornings. You never know if you’re going to wreck the bus, you never know if you’re going to be somewhere in a hotel and there’s going to be a fire. So I leave my makeup on at night and clean my face in the morning.”
16. Dolly Parton is Miley Cyrus's godmother ... sort of.
"I'm her honorary godmother. I've known her since she was a baby," Parton told ABC of her close relationship with Miley Cyrus. "Her father (Billy Ray Cyrus) is a friend of mine. And when she was born, he said, 'You just have to be her godmother,' and I said, 'I accept.' We never did do a big ceremony, but I'm so proud of her, love her, and she's just like one of my own." Parton also played Aunt Dolly on Cyrus's series Hannah Montana.
17. Dolly Parton won't apologize for Rhinestone.
Parton is well-known for her hit movies Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, less so for the 1984 flop Rhinestone. The comedy musical about a country singer and a New York cabbie was critically reviled and fled from theaters in just four weeks. But while her co-star Sylvester Stallone has publicly regretted the vehicle, Parton declared in her autobiography My Life and Other Unfinished Business that she counts Rhinestone's soundtrack as some of her best work, especially "What a Heartache."
18. Dolly Parton has some hidden tattoos.
Parton told Smooth Radio: “I have a few tattoos on my body. They are not meant to be tattoos for the sake of tattoos. I’m very fair skinned, and when I have any kind of surgery or any kind of scarring, it discolors. When I first started getting a few little things done, I had a few little tattoos to cover up the scarring.” She went on to explain that they’re mostly delicate and pastel, mostly small butterflies and bows. “I’m not tattooed all over like a bikewoman or anything,” she said.
19. The cloned sheep Dolly was named after Dolly Parton.
In 1995 scientists successfully created a clone from an adult mammal's somatic cell. This game-changing breakthrough in biology was named Dolly. But what about Parton inspired this honor? Her own groundbreaking career? Some signature witticism or beloved lyric? Nope. It was her legendary bustline. English embryologist Ian Wilmut revealed, "Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn't think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton's."
20. In 2018, Dolly Parton earned two Guinness World Records.
Parton is no stranger to breaking records. And on January 17, 2018 it was announced that she holds not one but two spot in the Guinness World Records 2018 edition: One for Most Decades With a Top 20 Hit on the US Hot Country Songs Chart (she beat out George Jones, Reba McEntire, and Elvis Presley for the honor) and the other for Most Hits on US Hot Country Songs Chart By a Female Artist (with a total of 107). Parton said she was "humbled and blessed."
21. Dolly Parton has her own cookbook.
It’s called Dolly’s Dixie Fixin’s: Love, Laughter and Lots of Good Food and features more than 125 recipes for Southern favorites. There’s a catfish recipe, a cream of vegetable soup recipe, and even one for chicken and dumplings. In 2020, Parton even partnered with Williams Sonoma to launch a line of holiday-themed home goods.
22. Dolly Parton prefers birthday pie to birthday cake.
“I don’t eat much cake. I usually have pie on my birthday,” Parton told USA Today. “My favorite pie is chess pie. That is chess not CHEST pie. And on Pi Day 2017, she shared her recipe for walnut pie with Country Living.
23. Dolly Parton doesn’t think of herself as a star.
When, in 2014, Billboard asked Parton if she felt different now than when she first came to Nashville in 1964, she said, “I'm more successful now than I was then, but I still feel like the same girl. I'm just a working girl. I never think of myself as a star because, as somebody once said, ‘A star is nothing but a big ball of gas’—and I don't want to be that.”
This story has been updated for 2020.