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Dolly Parton x RuPaul

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‘We’re just like twins, except he’s about four feet taller!’ — the drag megastar and the country music queen go head to head, talking hair, happiness and what’s in their hearts

Taken from the 25th anniversary issue of Dazed: 

It’s hard to think of two artists more prized for their outsize personas than country-music legend Dolly Parton and drag megastar RuPaul. Dolly’s high and mighty hairdos are just as celebrated as her talent, from the much sung-along-to “Jolene” to her starring role in the film 9 to 5. Ru’s wigs have also played a central role in his career, whether he’s dishing out one‑liners on the show he created, RuPaul’s Drag Race, or unleashing another disco masterpiece upon the world (2011’s “Glamazon” being a prime example). It feels played out to call someone an icon, but if anyone can truly be said to deserve the accolade, it’s this pair.

But beneath the spangles and cantilevered cleavage, Dolly and Ru are essentially outsiders, despite their genre-conquering success. Dolly’s reluctance to stay quiet and cultivate a feminine, subservient image has put her at odds with the musical establishment, as has her message of acceptance for those outside the typically ‘country’ realm. At the other end of the spectrum, Ru’s concept of punk, gender and what it is to be LGBTQ has put him at odds with the gay establishment.

Dolly and Ru hold each other in high regard, having met just over ten years ago, but admired each other from afar for a time before that. They’re so ubiquitous, especially in gif-able internet culture, that it’s easy to forget how radical these two people are – not just in the way they look, but in what they say. If their many quips and catchphrases could be distilled into one super-concentrated message, it might be that image, however powerful, is an illusion; it’s what’s inside that counts.

Discussing hair, happiness, and what’s in their hearts: ladies and gentlemen, Dolly Parton and RuPaul.

Ru, what was your first impression of Dolly?

RuPaul: I was introduced to the music of Dolly Parton through my sister. I believe it was around 1972, and obviously I loved it because it’s so pure and so heartfelt. Later, after hearing the music, I saw her image, which of course immediately resonated with me, because I love all of the things that she loves – I love outrageous, extreme fashion. Outrageous looks, almost like caricatures. Dolly has said this many times, you know – she loved these sort of fast, loose women and she patterned her look after them. And it was the same thing with me – I patterned my look, and all the things I learned about fashion, from Soul Train and street-walkers.

What was it like when you finally met other?

RuPaul: We met at a radio station where Michelle Visage had a morning drive-time show.

Dolly Parton: I thought he was big and beautiful. We’re just like twins, except he’s about four feet taller!

Dolly’s country style is sort of the opposite of Soul Train, why did it resonate with you so deeply, Ru?

RuPaul: When it comes to Dolly there is first and foremost this talent – the beauty of her music and the true, heartfelt beauty of her songs and her incredible songwriting. The second aspect is the image, which is playful and fun, and that’s what drag is about. Drag says, ‘I don’t take myself too seriously.’ In fact, image is something to have fun with, and to play with, and that’s what her image does. She has never said, ‘I want to be taken seriously as a musician.’ She doesn’t have to, because her music speaks for itself. So she can have fun with her image. My image is two parts Diana Ross and Cher, one part David Bowie and three parts Dolly Parton, and that’s how I came up with my persona.

“My image is two parts Diana Ross and Cher, one part David Bowie and three parts Dolly Parton, and that’s how I came up with my persona” — RuPaul

What’s the best thing about country girls?

Dolly Parton: Well, I guess that the difference between a country kid and a city kid is… I mean, city kids have nannies, and country kids have nanny goats. (laughs)

RuPaul: Oh, there’s an earnestness. They’re not pretentious. I have always hated pretentious people. I cannot stand it. When you talk about people that come from outside the city limits there’s no room for being pretentious. They are what they are and they’re coming from their sweetness. That’s what I love. I think that sweetness and kindness are at the top of my list of human virtues.

Dolly Parton: They’re just pure and simple!

Both of you have been frank about dressing up and performing being something of a life-saver, in what ways do you think they have helped you?

Dolly Parton: Yes, I think dressing up has saved my life. I always said if I hadn’t been a woman I would have been a drag queen. For sure. And it’s been a joy to do this, because I was not born a natural beauty, nor was Ru, but I think we’re beautiful in our own way, and whatever makes you feel beautiful is what you should do. They always say that less is more, but I think that’s the biggest crock I ever heard.

“I always said if I hadn’t been a woman I would have been a drag queen. I was not born a natural beauty, nor was Ru, but I think we’re both beautiful in our own way” — Dolly Parton 

RuPaul: Absolutely. You know, this is the thing; when you are a sweet, sensitive soul and you feel everything, you see the world’s hypocrisy and the mediocrity, and you understand that the only way you’re going to get through this thing is to laugh. Because all these other sons of bitches are taking it all too seriously! And this life is meant to be enjoyed. So if I need colour and synthetic hair or acrylic nails or flared pants or a high-heeled shoe, then so be it! That’s the only way I can sustain myself in this hideous, horrendous, mediocre world. (laughs riotously)

Ru, if you had your own Dollywood theme park – a RuPaulywood – what would it be like?

RuPaul: If I had a full-on theme park, I would explore human experience. You know – the subconscious, the unconscious… I would probably make fun of people who take themselves too seriously. I would love to do that.

Maybe you need to test some of the rides at Dollywood. Which would you like to take Ru on, Dolly?

Dolly Parton: Maybe not ‘take’ him on, maybe I’d like to throw him on! On the fastest rollercoaster we got. He’s always trying to get his rocks off, so I think he would.

Both of you are famed wig enthusiasts. Could you tell us something about your wigs? How many do you each have, for instance? Do certain ones give you different feelings when you wear them?

Dolly Parton: Oh, I think that RuPaul would definitely agree that different wigs give you different feelings. In fact, Cheryl Riddle, my hairdresser, does such a wonderful job and she gives me such a variety of things. I don’t even know how many wigs I have – I wear one almost every day, just like RuPaul, so I must have at least 365. But, anyhow, I’ve got a wig for (everything) – you know, if I don’t like the one I put on, I’ve got such a good variety… But when I do my shows at night, there’s a mood for my clothes and a mood for my hair. In the afternoon I think, ‘I’m in the mood for white’ or ‘I’m in the mood for red,’ and then of course I think, ‘Well, am I in the mood for curly hair or an updo?’ So it all depends on my mood.

RuPaul: I have them all! But the thing is there aren’t as many as people might think. On the television show, there are about 15 wigs – I call them ‘girls’ – that are in rotation. And then we just got a new shipment of girls in, about 20 of them. What happens is that my hair and make-up artist styles a lot of the girls, then he takes them after they’ve been worn, washes them, conditions them and does them in a different style. So a lot of the girls are the same ones you’ve been seeing for years. Some of the girls are 20 years old!

Can heels and wigs ever be too high? 

RuPaul: Absolutely not: if you’re on stage and you’re a performer, you want to be noticed and you want things to happen. But there’s the golden ratio that you also want to adhere to, you want to abide by that because there’s a certain way the human eye sees things that you want to play with. You want to play with it and you want to complement it.

Dolly Parton: Not for me! I wish I could get heels as high as RuPaul. But it’s funny, all the Dolly drag queens are so big and then they put on those shoes anyway, and here I am, I ain’t as big as a bar of soap. Even with my highest heels. But, no, I wish I could get higher heels and still walk without breaking my neck.

You’ve both had your own television shows. What are some of the challenges that come with interviewing people? I can’t imagine anything worse…

RuPaul: I can tell you what’s worse than that – being interviewed by other people! No, no, you’re lovely. But being interviewed feels like you’re on the witness stand, it’s like you’re being asked to defend your life. So when I am interviewing people I like to put them at ease and make them feel like – you know, like I’m not trying to make them look bad or anything. The only difference on TV is that when you’re doing it in front of an audience it changes the pH balance of the exchange you’re getting.

Dolly Parton: For me, the hardest thing about having a TV show is all of the (industry) people that you have to listen to rather than getting to do what you want to do and what you feel is true to you.

“I love Adele, and I would love for us to get togehter sometime, write something, and maybe do a duet” — Dolly Parton 

Is there anyone you’d still love to do a duet with, or a musical number?

Dolly Parton: Oh, there’s lots of people I’d love to sing with. I wrote in my new album, ‘put on my lipstick pile my hair on my head, my lips red and my eyes like Adele’. I love Adele, and I would love for us to get together sometime, write something, and maybe do a duet. But there’s a lot of great people out there, I don’t have time to hardly even sing my own songs! I’d give anything if I had the time to sit down and write with other people. Maybe some time in the future.

RuPaul: Well, umm, yeah – Dolly Parton! I would love to do a duet with Dolly. If you’ve ever heard her sing on ‘Your Kisses Are Charity’ with Boy George and Culture Club – do you know that song? Add her to anything and it’s brilliant.

Ru, what do you consider to be your most subversive contribution to the world in your life as RuPaul?

RuPaul: Well, the most subversive thing I can think of is the fact that I’ve done all of this outside of the grid, outside of the status quo. I mean, drag is the most punk-rock thing that you can do, because it reminds culture to not take itself too seriously. Like I said earlier, I can’t stand pretentiousness, and drag says, ‘Woohoo, today I’m this, today I’m this.’ It’s about not being married to the image it says I am on my driver’s licence. Fuck that, I can be whatever the hell I want to be. That’s why drag will never be mainstream, because it’s the opposite of mainstream.

“Drag is the most punk-rock thing that you can do, because it reminds culture to not take itself too seriously... (It says), ‘Fuck that. I can be whatever the hell I want to be’” — RuPaul 

How would you say that Dolly has changed the status quo?

RuPaul: I think it’s the fact that she uses her image as something so fun and so light. The music and the talent is so deep and so rich, with heartfelt emotions. I think the dichotomy of such a superficial image with such real, deep, heartfelt talent and emotion – that juxtaposition – is what makes her so interesting.

Both of you have devoted fanbases, with many people from LGBTQ communities. Could you describe your relationship with those fans?

RuPaul: You know, honestly, I don’t really do anything for the fans. I do it because this is what I do to make this life entertaining for myself. I was doing this before I had fans. Fans come after. I have to do it, because this is what I like doing, and it keeps me entertained. I love the fact that people dig what I’m doing, but I dig what I’m doing first and foremost. I have to!

Dolly Parton: I love my fans, no matter who they are. I have so many gay and lesbian fans, and they accept me because I accept them. They’ve known all through the years that I’ve talked about not being accepted myself because of who I am and how I look. I’ve been crucified and persecuted for the things I believe in, and (for the way I) stand up for how I was brought up and who I am. I just never let anybody kick me down. And I don’t think they should, either – we all have a right to be ourselves, we have a right to love who we love, we are all God’s children, he made us all in his image. I think we’re not supposed to pass judgment on that sort of thing. So my heart is open and full of love, and I would just say, ‘You just be true to you and do your thing, and be proud of yourself.’