One photographer's love letter to the power of Dolly Parton

One photographer's love letter to the power of Dolly Parton
After being infatuated with Dolly Parton for years, Alice Hawkins places the iconic country star at the centre of her latest project exploring constructs of character and the freedom to become whoever we want.

There are few looks as instantly recognisable as Dolly Parton’s. Even from behind, her bleach blonde bouffant and extreme hourglass figure are unmistakable. 

“I’m not offended by the dumb blonde jokes, because I know I’m not dumb – and I’m not blonde either,” the Tennessee-born singer-songwriter once famously quipped – a nod at many of the disparaging stereotypes often attached to her. Parton’s public persona is a vehicle for musical stardom, but it’s also one she uses to counter stereotypes of the air-headed, oversexed hillbilly, claiming humanity for the working-class women of the American South.

London-based photographer Alice Hawkins has found herself infatuated with Dolly Parton for decades. Recalling the moment she first saw the country star perform 23 years ago, Hawkins told Huck: “As soon as she stepped onto stage her radiance hit me, like stepping outside into a midday desert sun without my shades on. Her appearance bedazzles and disarms.”

Kelly O’Brien, The Dolly Parton Tribute, riding Harvey the horse, Aldbury, Hertfordshire 2021.

Claire Moore, in her bedroom, Peckham, London 2021.

This infatuation comes full circle in Hawkins’ new book, Dear Dolly, in which she travels the world in full Dolly attire, using the icon’s illustrious facade to probe at constructs of character and identifications of self. The project taps into the same rebellious spirit as Dolly Parton, who has been satirising the male gaze and encouraging women to accentuate their femininity and sexuality for six consecutive decades.

“I find great comfort in being a fan of Dolly,” says Hawkins. “She is totally real, with layers of depth, integrity, and extraordinary talent. She represents an apolitical space where people who are different can live in unity, which speaks to people, especially those who are increasingly living their truth and choosing not to hide who they are.”

Selected page from Hawkins’ sketchbook entries.

Self-portrait as Dolly Parton, Robert F. Thomas Chapel, Dollywood, Tennessee 2011.

Selected page from Hawkins’ sketchbook entries.

Self-portrait as Dolly Parton with my Dolly Parton doll, in my Great Smoky Mountains cabin rental kitchen, Tennessee 2011.

More than a vivacious homage to her favourite artist, Dear Dolly is a cosplay series of cinematic proportions that doubles up as an extended self-portraiture project. “By making this work I have physically and theatrically taken Dolly’s advice ‘to find out who you are, and to do it on purpose’,” reflects Hawkins. “In doing so I have become braver with my own identity, and I believe in myself more.”

For the final chapter of portraits in the book, the production is stripped back to foreground Hawkins herself, contemplatively posed and heavily pregnant with twins – naked, save for a perfectly permed Dolly hair-do. “I felt my identity was completely out of my control and that doing a Dolly project was a matter of urgency,” the photographer says. “I needed to feel something of myself, and I also thought, perhaps this would be my last ever chance to do anything as self-indulgent again. I waited until I was humongous and felt the least myself and the most terrified.” 

Self-portrait as Dolly Parton, with Trixie Malicious, in the park, London 2019.

Self-portrait as Dolly Parton whilst pregnant, Frinton, Essex 2015.

In Hawkins’ intimate series, the thin veil between fantasy and reality is experienced introspectively and seamlessly cast in affecting, honeyed scenes. In one image, West End star and Dolly tribute act Kelly O’Brien perches on the steps of a chapel altar with a guitar in her arms, eyes attending to the heavens. In another, Hawkins’ is seated onstage in a glitzy gown performing “Coat of Many Colours” at the Troubadours Karaoke in Nashville, Tennessee. 

“My aim is for my work to offer the promise of new realities: ones in which we might be free to be our finest selves – or selves we have not yet imagined,” Hawkins explains. “I aim to tell something of my subject’s story, who they really are, but naturally, in directing elements I know I’m ultimately portraying my own version of the truth. The reality gives an image its weight and the fantasy its flight.”

Kelly O’Brien, The Dolly Parton Tribute, Aldbury Church, St John the Baptist, Hertfordshire 2021.

Self-portrait as Dolly Parton, performing Coat of many Colors, Troubadours Karaoke, Nashville, Tennessee 2011.

Self-portrait as Dolly Parton, in a diner on Broadway, Nashville, Tennessee 2011.

Dear Dolly by Alice Hawkins is published by Baron Books and available for pre-order at baronbooks.co.uk. Its publication coincides with an exhibition of the work running from May until June at Have a Butchers Gallery, London.

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