From country music to vaccines, movie stardom to philanthropy, Dolly Parton does it all. Her outrageous style, surgically enhanced proportions and signature blonde hair have made her a global icon. Her image that once drew harsh criticism for its feminine extravagance and labelled her a “blonde bimbo” is now hailed by a new generation as bold and empowering. Her persona appeals to those on both sides of the political spectrum and she is heralded as a benevolent philanthropist.
But how did Parton become the cross-community female legend that she is today? Growing up “dirt-poor” in Tennessee in the 1950s, Parton used her singing and song-writing talent to elevate herself and her family out of dire poverty. Achieving success in the country music charts with her first full-length album Hello, I’m Dolly, Parton joined country entertainer Porter Wagoner’s organisation and appeared weekly on The Porter Wagoner Show. But it was Parton’s departure from the company and the release of her single And I Will Always Love You that catapulted her into the global spotlight. As the single hit number one in the country charts, Elvis Presley expressed an interest in recording another version. Parton turned him down as it would mean signing over half of the publishing rights. Ahead of her time in protecting her right to her own music, Parton has earned millions throughout the years following royalties from the song. An independent, business-savvy woman from day one.
“It is safe to say she was ahead of her time in her unapologetically feminine look, paving the way for women like Cardi B and the Kardashians.”
As Parton gained notoriety, so did her outlandish style. Her sky-high bleach-blond hair and fabulously false assets have won her both adoration and scathing criticism. It is safe to say she was ahead of her time in her unapologetically feminine look, paving the way for women like Cardi B and the Kardashians. Features that once labelled her a “dumb blonde” now win her popularity amongst younger women. As Parton sang in her first country hit single, Dumb Blonde: “Just because I’m blonde, don’t think I’m dumb”. In 1976, having signed with new management, Parton began to transition from her country music roots to a more mainstream audience. This coincided with the beginning of her acting career when, in 1980, Parton landed the role of Doralee Rhodes in the iconic feminist movie-masterpiece 9 to 5. The film’s legendary theme song shot to number one in both the country and pop music charts and made Parton a household name.
Aside from her musical and acting talent, Parton’s philanthropy is what really earns her a spot on our list of inspiring women. From improving literacy to wildlife preservation, donations to medical centres and HIV/AIDS charities, Parton has not been ungenerous with her millions over the years. As part of the Dollywood Foundation, Parton founded her literacy program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Program, in the early 1980s. Children enrolled in the program receive one book a month from the time they are born until they go to school. The books reach over 800,000 children every month across several countries, including the Republic of Ireland.
Along with children’s literacy, animal welfare has always been a concern for Parton. In 2003, she received a partnership from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for her efforts to preserve the Bald Eagle. Parton had previously established the American Eagle Foundation’s sanctuary at Dollywood, a theme park she established in Tennessee. Her music has also been featured in an ad campaign by PETA, a society for the prevention of animal cruelty in the U.S.
“Who knows what impact her support for the vaccine will have in getting people vaccinated over the coming months.”
Parton has made considerable contributions to the medical field. In 2006, she pledged $500,000 to a proposed hospital and cancer centre near her hometown in Tennessee. Most recently, Parton made a donation of a whopping $1 million dollars to Vanderbilt University Medical Centre, who worked with Moderna to produce the Covid-19 vaccine. Previous donations aside, this incredible investment will literally save the lives of millions. While receiving her vaccine on camera, Parton sang a modified rendition of her hit song Jolene. Addressing those of her fans who might be sceptical about the vaccine, Parton pleaded with them: “Please don’t hesitate”. In the video, Parton remarked that she was “old enough” and “smart enough” to get it. Here we see Parton’s cross-cultural appeal at its most powerful. Who knows what impact her support for the vaccine will have in getting people vaccinated over the coming months.
“Having touched so many through her music and funding, her impact cannot be underestimated.”
Whatever Parton’s lasting legacy may be, it is safe to say she will continue to inspire and entertain for the foreseeable future. Her kickass career and admirable generosity serve as inspiration to the women who follow in her footsteps. Having touched so many through her music and funding, her impact cannot be underestimated. In a world divided by so much, one thing everyone can agree on is Dolly Parton.