Dolly Parton is known across the globe for her signature blonde hair, red nails, and show-stopping, sequin-covered outfits.
And of course, it’s long been her staple, tried and true look, though when she was first getting started in country music, some of her most trusted advisors and confidants told her she needed to change it.
On the premiere episode of What Would Dolly Do? Radio on Apple Music 1, her new radio show with Apple Music, Dolly dished about her favorite looks, fashion moments, and everything else related to her new book, Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones, which is available everywhere now.
Dolly told co-host Kelleigh Bannen that back in the day when the legendary Chet Akins was in charge at RCA Records early in her career, he pulled her to the side with good intentions, wanting to have a conversation because he really cared about her.
Chet told Dolly she needed to “tone down” her look, because he thought people wouldn’t take her seriously as a singer or songwriter with all of the extra, over-the-top “stuff.”
She told him she appreciated his advice and did consider it, though ultimately, she “juts got worse with it” over the years:
“One of my dear friends and one of the most beloved people in the whole business was Chet Atkins… he was running RCA at the time. And he pulled me over to the side because he really liked me.
He said, ‘Dolly, I really don’t believe that people are going to take you serious as a singer and songwriter unless you tone down your look. You’re a right pretty girl. You don’t need all that.’
And I said, ‘Well, okay, I’ll take that to heart, Mr. Atkins. Thank you for your advice.’ And of course, I just got worse with it.”
The best part is how the story ends, though, years after Dolly became a massive star, with Chet joking to her that she should be so glad she took his advice:
“And years later, after I became a star, he sidled up beside me and said, ‘Now, ain’t you glad you listened to my good advice?'”
It’s hard to even imagine Dolly without all the big blonde wigs and makeup, and I don’t want to. She wouldn’t be herself without all of it. There’s a reason you can’t go into a single story anymore without seeing her face on something.
“I really patterned my look after the town tramp in our hometown, the trollop.
The one that would kind of walk up and down the streets, get in a car, ride off for a few minutes, come back and get in another car.”
Being so young at the time, Dolly didn’t know much else about the women (or her explicit business transactions, if you will), other than that’s exactly what she wanted to look like when she got older:
“I didn’t know anything about that part then. I just knew she was beautiful. She had all this beautiful blonde hair, red lipstick and makeup, tight short skirts and high heel shoes.
I just thought she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen so I kind of patterned my look after that.”
Her grandfather, who was a preacher, believed that Satan had possessed Dolly after he saw her bleached hair, and hated that she wore so much makeup.
And her mom wholeheartedly agreed, asking God why she was being tested when her daughter moved to Nashville and started teasing her hair to high Heaven and painting her nails the brightest shade of red she could possibly find:
“The first time my Mama saw me all done up with blonde bleached hair all piled up, and my lips, cheeks and nails as red as I could get them, she screamed to the Lord, ‘Why are you testing me this way?’
And she told me the devil must have made me do it.”
Of course, Dolly, who has never been one to shy away from owning exactly who she is, set her momma straight:
‘Heck no,’ I told Mama. ‘Let’s give credit where it’s due: I did this all myself.’”
I wanna be Dolly Parton when I grow up.
Oh, and if you’re wondering if any of her feelings have changed on “toning down her look” since decades prior when Chet first suggested it, Dolly is even stronger in her convictions these days, saying:
“I’d say, ‘Go to hell. I ain’t doing it.”
Dolly Parton for President…
“My true belief with most things, you’ve got to really find out who you are, what makes you happy, what you’re comfortable in, and if you feel like you look your best, according to your rules, then you are going to do your best.
I really believe that. And I think everybody has their own little things they love. To me, that is what fashion is.”
Turn it up:
Dolly and Chet also recorded a song together called “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” which was written by Dolly and first released as a duet with Chet on his 1976 album The Best of Chet Atkins & Friends.
Dolly performed it solo live pretty often after that, and in 1982, she included an official solo version on her Heartbreak Express album.