London - There’s a scene in Dolly Parton’s latest film, Joyful Noise, where she and Queen Latifah indulge in a girly catfight. Faces are slapped, hair is pulled, until Dolly, her famously ample bosom heaving, attempts to call a truce.
“Listen, I am who I am,” she tells Latifah.
Casting an eye over Dolly’s surgically-enhanced features, the curvaceous Latifah replies: “Maybe you were… about five procedures ago!” At which point the catfight kicks off all over again.
This is pure Dolly Parton: get the joke in before anyone else does, and look fabulous while you’re doing it.
“I didn’t have a problem with that line about procedures,” she says. “I’ve always admitted to having nips and tucks here and there, and I told the director: ‘Let her dig me deep, but let me get back at her too.’
“So we included a line for Queen Latifah where I told her I had a good lipo doctor if she needed one. It was tit for tat, if you’ll pardon the expression,’ she giggles. ‘But I’ve been around a long time and I’m pretty open about everything. I may as well make fun of myself before anyone else does.”
How many other A-list stars could say the same thing? When Dolly worked with Burt Reynolds on the 1982 film The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, she joked: “Burt and I have a lot in common: we both have 40-inch chests, we both wear heels and we both wear wigs!” - a line which she admits made Reynolds “just about ready to kill me”.
But it’s that ability to laugh at herself - and at others - which only makes us love her even more.
And there’s a lot to love about Dolly Parton, from that extraordinary singing/songwriting career - which has produced hits such as Jolene and I Will Always Love You and led to eight Grammy Awards, two Oscar nominations and record sales of 174 million - to her acute business savvy.
She owns record and TV companies, a cosmetics line, several restaurants and even the Tennessee-based theme park, Dollywood, which attracts around two million visitors a year - all of which places her estimated net worth close to £650 million.
At 66 and after a few surgical procedures, she may not have the face she once did (“My husband says: ‘Why would I ever cheat on you? I get a new woman every three years!’”) but she clearly still has the body - a point not lost on the makers of the film Joyful Noise, who showcase it at every opportunity.
A kind of southern-style Glee, it tells the story of the Divinity Church Choir in recession-hit Pacashau, Georgia, where the townspeople are counting on it to win the annual Joyful Noise Competition and raise the town’s flagging spirits.
But when choir- master Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson) dies, the directorship passes to Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah), who refuses to shake up the choir’s staid vocal style.
She is opposed by Bernard’s widow G.G. Sparrow (Parton), who is helped by her rebellious grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan).
Dolly herself, in her first major role since Straight Talk with James Woods, is returning to the big screen after an absence of 20 years. Like most of her roles, Dolly essentially plays Dolly, making her possibly the only gospel singer in history to don a figure-hugging choir robe, five-inch heels and false nails.
Would she ever go all method-acting on us and put on weight for a part? “I could easily put it on, but I’d never be able to get it off again because I love my food so much,” she says.
“But to tell you the truth, I’m not a great actress and I have to do a part that’s close to me. I could probably be a better actress if I really dug deep and tore myself down, but I’m more confident on screen when I can wear my high heels and my big hair. I’d feel like I was naked otherwise.”
While filming the 1980 movie 9 To 5 with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, the story goes that Dolly would arrive on set in full make-up, and then go straight into make-up.
“Oh, I sure did,” she laughs. “But I do that with any project I’m working on. Anything could happen on the way to the studio - I could get a ticket, I could get arrested - so I’ve got to make sure my make-up’s on and my mugshot looks good. I’d rather people say: ‘Boy, she’s overdone’ than ‘Oh my God, look at that!’.”
As it turns out, 9 To 5 is making something of a comeback. In October, a stage show based on the film will come to the UK, beginning its run in Manchester before going on a nationwide tour. It follows on from the show’s Broadway run, which starred West Wing actress Allison Janney and Smash’s Megan Hilty as secretary Doralee Rhodes - the part made famous by Dolly.
The story, about three working women who overthrow their sexist, autocratic boss, couldn’t be more topical given these recession-fuelled times and the fact that bosses are now working their employees ever harder, safe in the knowledge that few can afford to quit their jobs.
“It’s perfect timing for the show,” says Dolly. “One of the reasons the movie did so well was because we were going through a recession at the time, and I think whatever business you’re in, everyone can relate to having a boss or a co-worker who’s mean and who they can’t stand.”
Dolly, who wrote the music and lyrics for the stage show (including the hit title song), says: “I’ve been more involved in the music side of the show, and was happy to re-write the songs for a British audience, but the producers wanted to keep things the same.
“I know that American humour is different to British humour, and that you’re a lot sharper and more cutting-edge, so I think they’ve tried to change some of the lines to suit that.”
Dolly was also involved in the actors’ auditions for the UK run. “They’ve almost finished casting, although I don’t know yet who’s playing who,” she says.
“I’ll be very curious to see how the Doralee character turns out, and if they keep her as a Southern girl or change her into your British version of a country girl. But I imagine if she’s not built up real good, they’ll give her a nice fake boob job!”
In the movie, the married Doralee spurns her boss’s advances, only for him to circulate a false rumour that they’re having an affair.
Given Dolly’s extraordinary looks and the fact that when she embarked on her musical career as a wholesome 18-year-old in Nashville, country music was a wholly male-dominated industry, she must have encountered similar pockets of sexism along the way?
“Well, I did, but I was always a little stronger than Doralee,” she insists. “I grew up with six brothers and lots of uncles and cousins - kind of chauvinist, redneck guys. But I loved men and knew how to deal with them, and I was never a victim.
“That’s not to say I haven’t been hit on a lot though,” she adds. “I’ve been made to feel very uncomfortable in certain situations, and I got jumped on at times. But when it got down to brass tacks, I’d say: ‘I think you’ve taken me for a fool. If I go to bed with someone, it’s because I want to, not because I have to’ - and I’d leave it at that. Sure, I’ve lost jobs because of it, but I always knew I could find another one.”
Those who have underestimated Dolly have done so at their peril. She may have grown up ‘dirt poor’ in Tennessee, but her ability to write songs and sing from an early age not only helped her stand out among her 11 siblings, but also propelled her to worldwide fame.
One song, I Will Always Love You, had been earmarked by Elvis Presley, who wanted to record the tune. But when Dolly was asked by Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker to hand over half the publishing rights, she refused. It was a decision later vindicated by the fact that Whitney Houston’s 1992 rendition went on to become one of the biggest-selling songs of all time, earning Parton more than £4 million in royalties to date.
Houston’s death in February - the result of an accidental drowning complicated by the effects of heart disease and cocaine use - came as a bitter shock to Dolly. “Although I did not know her personally, I always felt connected to her because of the song. When they played it at her funeral, it just shattered me.”
It has, in truth, not been a great year for Dolly. Her good friend Donna Summer also passed away this year from lung cancer, and Robin Gibb, who co-wrote Islands In The Stream, Dolly’s 1983 duet with Kenny Rogers, died just a few days later.
“Robin was one of the sweetest people I ever knew,” says Dolly, “and I’ll always be sorry we never got to sing a duet together. I always wanted to, because we both have that kind of quivery sadness to our voices.
“It makes you think of your own mortality . . . But when it’s your time, it’s your time, and hopefully I’ll go to a better place.”
If anything, though, such evidence of mortality has only spurred on Dolly’s work ethic, which was pretty ferocious to begin with.
“I’ll never retire - I don’t even understand the meaning of the word,” she says. ‘” wouldn’t stop working unless me or my husband get sick.”
Dolly’s husband, the enigmatic and rarely seen Carl Dean, has been by her side for the past 46 years. They met as Dolly arrived in Nashville to pursue her music career (outside the Wishy-Washy Laundromat no less) and have been together ever since.
To say that Dean, a former construction worker, maintains a low profile in the glare of his wife’s publicity is an understatement.
“No, he didn’t come to the Joyful Noise premiere – he’s too shy to be involved in all that,” she says. “When the movie came out in Nashville, though, he went to the cinema, bought a matinee ticket and watched it by himself.
“He said to me, ‘I liked the movie’, and I said, ‘What movie?’, and he went: ‘Your movie - Joyful Noise!’, so that was real sweet. He goes to my theme park and stands in line for tickets, even though he has free passes. He just can’t stand to be singled out.”
His low profile has led to rumours of Dolly’s supposed affairs with everyone from Burt Reynolds to Sylvester Stallone (her co-star in the 1984 film Rhinestone) and even to Judy Ogle, Dolly’s assistant and childhood friend.
“But Carl knows I’d never do anything to hurt him,” says Dolly, “and he doesn’t get jealous if I have to kiss someone on screen. I get more embarrassed about it than he does.
“But I am a flirt, and I do get younger men flirting with me too,” she giggles. “Jeremy Jordan, who plays my grandson in the film, was flirting with me and they told him: ‘Knock it off - she’s your grandmother.’ But it made me kind of happy, as you’re never too old to dream.”
She attributes the longevity of her marriage to “mutual respect, shared interests and the fact that I stay gone a long time!” - but admits that “not having children together, and not having money problems has probably helped.
“A lot of the pressures that cause couples trouble are just things we never had to go through.”
Dolly wrote a beautiful track for Joyful Noise, entitled From Here To The Moon And Back, which she sings on screen as a tribute to her recently-departed husband, played by Kris Kristofferson.
“But I absolutely wrote it for Carl, and I got really emotional writing it because I had to imagine what life would be like without him,” she says, her voice faltering for the first time during the interview. “I couldn’t even think about what that would be like. I just couldn’t bear it.”
Chances are that Mr Dean won’t be accompanying his wife to the UK when she helps launch the 9 To 5 musical, but Dolly herself is more than excited about returning to Britain, given the affinity she has for the UK.
Her father, an illiterate farm worker, was of English-Scottish ancestry, ‘”and I’ve always felt a real bond with the British people. They were devoted to me and my music even when other people weren’t, and I love the audiences because they’re so warm and welcoming.
“I’ve been coming to Britain for so long - I’ve been around as long as your Queen Elizabeth,” she says, before adding - in inimitable Dolly fashion - “And unfortunately for me, I’m talking about the first one!” -