Dolly Parton

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Mario Anzuoni / Reuters / Corbis

Dolly Parton

No one would ever describe Dolly Parton as demure. With her sky-high hairdos, long red nails, memorable curves and naughty sense of humor, Parton is a textbook case of bodaciousness. After receiving an honorary doctorate last month at the University of Tennessee, Dolly exclaimed, "Just think, I am Dr. Dolly. When people say something about 'double D,' they will be talking of something entirely different!" But behind the scenes, Parton has quietly, without fanfare, been giving back big-time through her charitable activities. Her Imagination Library gives free books to children in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. — to the tune of some 20 million books a year. Parton has written her own children's book, I Am a Rainbow (Putnam), which will be part of that program as well. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs caught up with Parton at Dollywood, her theme park, in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

TIME: Why did you decide to write a children's book?
Parton: I wanted to write a book that talked about the emotions of children, which is the rainbow. We all have moods. We talk about being blue when we're sad, and being yellow when we're cowards, and when we're mad, we're red. It's really about us all having these colors, and it's O.K. to have them, but it's learning how to deal with them and what to do with them. It's a sweet little book done in rhyme. I hope to write lots and lots of children's books through the years.

Your 1995 autobiography, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, was a big best seller. Is it time for you to do another adult memoir?
I'm going to be doing a lot of that as time goes by. Right now I'm actually going to be working on my life story in a musical for Broadway.

When will that be?
Well, that will take some time. It took me 4½ years to work on [Tony-nominated musical] 9 to 5, which just now hit Broadway. We actually are working on a movie of my life, and that should be out within a couple of years.

Did you enjoy performing at the Tonys?
Yes, that was fun, an adventure. Just having that whole experience in that new world was fun. Walking the red carpet and seeing all those people from a different world than I'm from, but it was fun that they accepted me. It was a great compliment to get nominated.

Do you ever get tired of performing?
No, I love performing. I think that eventually I'll be doing a lot of work with the children's thing. I'm trying to develop a children's show, and hopefully that will be done out of Dollywood, and I will be doing lots of DVDs and a lot of children's CDs and that sort of thing. I'm really enjoying working on the kids' things. It kind of keeps you young. I still hope to make more records and do more movies if I get any good projects. I just kind of wake up with a new idea and new dreams every day, and I follow that dream, as they say.

It sounds like this is a turning point in your life, vis-à-vis children.
What a great way to go into your second childhood. Children have always responded to me because I have that cartoon-character look. I'm overexaggerated and my voice is small and my name is Dolly and I'm kind of like a Mother Goose character. So I think that it's going to be a fun thing.

You just gave the commencement speech at the University of Tennessee. What was that like?
Well, I was scared to death. I've never done that before. I can get up and sing all day, and I can get up and be silly and foolish and playful, but when you've got that many kids waiting for you to say something meaningful ... I really put a lot of thought and effort into what I needed and wanted to say. But it was an experience, that's for sure. I got my doctorate there. I got to be Dr. Dolly. So that was all wonderful. But I was a little bit scared. Speaking is a little different for me than performing. But they came to enjoy it and it went over well, and hopefully I said some meaningful things.

It turns out there are a lot of Dolly Parton impersonators. Have you gone to see any of them?
Oh, yes. I've seen tons of them. Many times, with different friends. Of course, there are a lot of drag queen Dollys too. I have a huge gay following, which I get a kick out of. Some of these guys look just like me except they're about 6 ft. 2 in. And with the high heels on, they're even taller. I get a kick out of that because I'm not very big. I'm a little old bitty thing. There are girls and boys that do the whole Dolly look-alike thing. I'm easy to look like. All you need is a padded bra and a big wig and lots of makeup.