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It’s a label thrown around a lot, but very rarely to people whose lives fit the bill. There’s a short list of stars of a certain age whose careers have sustained long enough and whose personal lives have intrigued us deeply enough to earn them a spot. Cher, Robert Redford, Betty White and Barbra Streisand all come to mind. All have maintained illustriously long careers in the world of entertainment, earning them the sort of celebrity status that ensures they’ll always be newsworthy, but do any of them also have a handful of theme parks named after them? No, they don’t.
That distinction belongs, of course, to the one and only Dolly Parton, a bona fide living legend if ever there was one.
Called “unstoppable” by Rolling Stone all the way back in the ’80s, Parton—who turns 73 on Saturday, Jan. 19—has only gone on to prove the publication right—and then some. But when it comes to her private life, it seems like the only thing that’s unstoppable are the questions surrounding it.
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With no running water, Parton and her siblings would wash up in the river in the summer. As for when it got colder? “In the winter time, we just had a pan of water and we’d wash down as far as possible, and we’d wash up as far as possible,” she told Playboy in 1978. “Then, when somebody cleared the room, we’d wash ‘possible.’ That’s the way it was.”
Music and the church quickly became important forces in her early life. She began performing in the Church of God, the Pentecostal Christian church where her grandfather Jake Robert Owens was the pastor, at age six and playing a homemade guitar at seven. By 13, she’d released her first single and appeared at the Grand Ole Opry. In 1964, the day after she became the first member of her family to graduate high school, she moved to Nashville. And while it’s there that her career as both a songwriter and recording artist eventually took off, that first day in the big city was also the day she met a man who’s remained in the shadows for the last 53 years, but been an irreplaceable part of her life nonetheless: Her husband of 52 years, Carl Thomas Dean.
“My first thought was I’m gonna marry that girl,” Dean said in his first interview ever, conducted in celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary in 2016, according to the Daily Mail. “My second thought was Lord she’s good lookin’ And that was the day my life began. I wouldn’t trade the last 50 years for nothing on this earth.”
What he has decided he could do without though? Anything that had to do with her dream of living in the limelight. In their now 52 years of marriage, the couple has rarely been photographed together. And he’s only seen his superstar wife perform live a very small number of times. “No, he doesn’t like to do that,” Parton told Ellen DeGeneres in 2011. “He gets nervous seeing me perform. It’s almost like seeing your kid in a recital. He’s afraid I’ll mess up. Actually, he has seen me a time or two and it did relax him a little. He saw that I do mess up and it’s OK because people are not gonna punish me for it.”
The secret to their lasting relationship? “I always joke and laugh when people ask me what’s the key to my long marriage and lasting love,” Parton told People this month. “I always say ‘Stay gone!’ and there’s a lot of truth to that. I travel a lot, but we really enjoy each other when we’re together and the little things we do.”
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Though they’re nearing on their 53rd anniversary and renewed their vows in an over-the-top ceremony held at their home two years ago—”I never really felt Like I had the wedding that we wanted, so we decided to get married again,” Parton explained—they’ve certainly weathered their share of storms.
Abdominal bleeding in the early ’80s lead to a partial hysterectomy, meaning she’d never have kids. “”God has a plan for everything,” she said in a 2017 Today show interview, putting that perfectly positive Parton perspective on the situation. “I think it probably was his plan for me not to have kids so everybody’s kids could be mine. And they are now.”
She wasn’t exaggerating, either. The heartbreak was so painful that Parton revealed she once contemplated taking her own life. “I was sitting upstairs in my bedroom one afternoon when I noticed in the nightstand drawer my gun that I keep for burglars. I looked at it a long time… Then, just as I picked it up, just to hold it and look at it for a moment, our little dog, Popeye, came running up the stairs,” she said, per the Daily Mail. “The tap-tap-tap of his paws jolted me back to reality. I suddenly froze. I put the gun down. Then I prayed. I kinda believe Popeye was a spiritual messenger from God.”
She continued, “I don’t think I’d have done it, killed myself, but I can’t say for sure. Now that I’ve gone through that terrible moment, I can certainly understand the possibilities even for someone solid like me if the pain gets bad enough.”
That comment, coupled with the curious shirts, was all it took for the idea that Parton was sporting some serious ink to become a thing of internet legend. And finally, in 2017, she decided to reveal the truth in an interview with E! News’ Jason Kennedy. “I have a few little tattoos. My tattoos were before they became a fad. I have a tendency to scar easy and I’m so fair-skinned that I stay purple around where I’ve had a scar, so I started having little pastel tattoos, little butterflies or little things to just cover scars. I don’t look like a biker chick or nothing, but if I was younger and could ride a bike, I might. All of mine are pastels. They’re just scattered here and there, where I need them, but they’re not the kind of thing to show on television usually. I can’t get naked, can I?”
That said, she’s still remarkably proud of all she’s accomplished. “I am grateful that I am still here. So many people have more talent than I’ve ever dreamed of having that never get to see dreams come true,” she told People. “There’s a whole lot to be said for loving your work and having confidence in yourself. I never once thought of retiring.”
And when it’s her time to go, she’s got a uniquely Parton-esque idea about how she’d like it to happen.
“I just hope I fall dead in the middle of a song, hopefully one I wrote, right on stage,” she said “That’s the way I go!”
We’d expect nothing less.
(This story was originally published on December 7, 2018 at 3 a.m. PST.)