When Dolly Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You,” she may well have been thinking about her fans. She’s determined never to let them down, which is why she’s still going so strong at 74. But in the end, she answers to a higher authority.
“I feel like God had told me early that I was supposed to go until he told me to stop,” Dolly confesses. “He ain’t said nothing yet about quitting, so I ain’t said nothing about retiring yet, ’cause I do believe that I can give something to this world.”
Dolly developed her work ethic early, as she grew up poverty-stricken in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains. “I was never ashamed of my upbringing, in fact, I’m proud of all that,” says Dolly, whose parents paid the doctor who delivered her in cornmeal. “We were very poor, but we were rich, as my mama said, in the things that matter: kindness and love and understanding. It just depends on what you call wealth and success.”
Her humble roots also inspired one of the causes that is closest to Dolly’s heart: the Imagination Library, a charity she founded that has sent more than 100 million free books to children until age 5. “My dad couldn’t read or write and that was kind of crippling to him,” says Dolly, whose organization is the subject of the upcoming documentary The Library That Dolly Built. She’s determined that others don’t suffer the same fate. Says Dolly, “Of all the things I’ve done in my life, and it’s been a lot because I’ve been around a long time, this is one of the most precious things and the proudest I’ve been of any program I’ve ever been involved in, working with these kids.
Dolly keeps pushing forward because she knows that many people depend on her. “She has a huge family of siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews that she supports,” an insider tells Closer of Dolly’s close-knit extended clan. As she puts it, “I really believe that if you’re lucky and fortunate enough to be in a position to help, you should help.”
She draws strength from being able to express herself. “Dolly has a sincere love for her artistry, her singing, composing, acting, all of it,” says the insider. “Her creative endeavors bring her sheer joy, and she will never give that up.”
Another thing she won’t give up: cosmetic procedures that keep her looking young. “I’ll never graduate from collagen, quips Dolly. “Pretty much that’s what I do now, I’ve had all the nips and tucks I could have without looking like a plastic doll.”
Not that she’d worry about that. “The good part with me is I have my own look, I’m kind of cartoonish, and cartoons don’t really age that much,” she says. “Even when I’m 90, I’ll still probably look about the same way, maybe a little thicker makeup and bigger hair.”
But before that happens, Dolly has another goal: She’d like to appear on Playboy’s cover for her 75th birthday next year. “I thought it’d be such a hoot if they’d go for it,” says Dolly, who sported bunny ears on the magazine’s cover in 1978. She’s even willing to wear the same costume: “I could probably use it. Boobs are still the same!”
One item that’s not on her bucket list, however, is running for president, despite her massive following: “Can you imagine anything worse than being the head of a country?” she asks with a laugh. “We’ve had enough boobs in the White House!”
Dolly would rather leave behind a much different kind of legacy. Says the insider, “She wants the world to remember that she was a kind, giving person, always trying to make the world, and the people in it, feel and be better.” And for that, we will always love her right back.