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Photography Alice Hawkins

In pictures: a photographer’s 10-year obsession with Dolly Parton

‘Sexy, blonde, almighty’: Dear Dolly documents a decade of photographer Alice Hawkins’ elaborate self-portraits dressed as Dolly Parton

Photographer Alice Hawkins grew up idolising the glamorous yet indomitable blondes she encountered in the pages of magazines and on her television screen… Pamela Anderson, Anna Nicole Smith and Bet Lynch. Having experienced situations in which her own blonde hair – with all the complicated and contradictory connotations it carries – led people to seriously underestimate or shame her, Hawkins was drawn to women who “weren’t ashamed of their sexuality or femininity, and brazenly portrayed quite the opposite”. 

But her fascination with formidable female figures reached an apotheosis in the shape of Dolly Parton. She recalls: “I first witnessed Dolly’s performance on a stage in London, over 20 years ago, I’d never seen or felt anything like it. I left spellbound and I knew I had found my idol. Her persona and presence gave clarity to the notion that you can be radiant, sexy, blonde and almighty at the same time.”

Parton’s opposing combinations of gravity and levity, majesty and sincerity, have continued to exert a spell over Hawkins ever since. “The contradiction I find most alluring about Dolly is she is both artificial and authentic,” she explains. “She presents an image as a hyper-feminine ‘dumb blonde’ but is at the same time unpretentious, real, clever and full of wisdom. At first glance her gaudy glittering radiance bewilders and captivates, it is cartoon-like, but it’s no joke – it's an integral element of her persona, which she has controlled throughout her illustrious career. She uses it to attract and disarm and it is impossible to forget.” 

Over the past decade, the London-based photographer has paid homage to her heroine in a unique photo project, Dear Dolly (published by Baron Books and accompanied by a show at Dalston’s female-led exhibitions space Have A Butchers).

Emulating and appropriating the American icon’s distinctive image, Hawkins’ lovingly created photographs reimagine Parton in a luscious sequence of fantasy scenes. Throughout this series of portraits of herself, her friends, family members, and fellow Parton lovers and impersonators, Hawkins uses prosthetics, makeup and costume to embody her idol. In an un-ironic embrace of the irresistible kitsch integral to Dolly Parton’s larger-than-life persona, Hawkins’ project pays tribute to the beloved country and western queen of our hearts.

Visit the gallery above for a closer look at Alice Hawkins’ portraits. 

Dear Dolly is published by Baron Books and is available to pre-order here. The exhibition is at Have A Butchers in Dalston, London, and runs from May 5 until June 2 2023. The book launch and exhibition opening takes place on May 4. RSVP here to attend.

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