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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Lessons from a Country Star

I usually don't pay much attention to celebrities, and I find almost none of them to be good role models. But a 2-hour televised biography of country music star Dolly Parton has made me reconsider. Throughout the program, I was struck by her humble attitude, her generosity, her self-deprecating sense of humor and her gratitude for all that she has achieved. She is definitely not a typical 'star.'

She grew up, as she said, "dirt poor" in Tennessee, one of 12 children. Her singing career started when she was 10, and she gradually achieved more and more fame in the country music world. One of the things I admire about her is her insatiable desire to try new things. A hugely successful songwriter and musician, she branched out into acting and record producing. After her success as a country music star, she also met with considerable success in the pop music world.

She also is a very astute business woman. When Elvis Presley's manager called and said that Elvis wanted to record Dolly's song "I Will Always Love You" but insisted that Elvis would record it only if he owned half the rights to the song, Dolly refused. Not too many people would have stood their ground and refused to accede to Elvis' demands. Dolly did. That was a very wise decision. When Whitney Houston later recorded the song for the movie The Bodyguard, the song brought Dolly millions in royalties.

Things that I admire about Dolly Parton:
  • Her sense of humor: "I spend a lot of money to look this cheap." Explaining that she and her husband, to whom she has been married for 45 years, like to travel in their RV: "When you're a celebrity, you can't just stop at a gas station to go pee."
  • Her attitude: She said she wakes up every morning expecting it to be a good day. She looks for the joy in things. When the cast of the film Steel Magnolias was complaining about the heat and humidity of a particularly uncomfortable day, someone asked Dolly why she wasn't complaining. She explained that she had always wanted to be rich and famous, and she was, so she had no reason to complain.
  • Her generosity: Her Dollywood theme park has brought much-needed jobs and revenue to a very economically depressed area of Tennessee. Through her Dollywood Foundation, the Imagination Library supports childhood literacy by providing a new, age-appropriate book each month to every enrolled child under age 5. Although the program started in her home county in eastern Tennessee, it now provides books to children in 40 states and one U.S. territory, England and Canada. Her goal: to foster the love of reading in preschool children. Every enrolled child, regardless of family income, gets a new book each month.
By the end of 2009, nearly 1,100 communities were participating in the program, serving just under 561,000 children. More than 6.2 million books were distributed in 2009. Since the program began in 1996, just over 23 million books have been distributed.

Clearly, Dolly Parton isn't one of those celebrities who just shows up to 'help' when the cameras are rolling or for a photo op. Her commitment to helping is personal, it is sincere and it is on-going. Despite her fame and great wealth, she doesn't take herself seriously. She laughs at herself and her over-the-top appearance. More importantly, she recognizes her blessings and appreciates them.

I cringe whenever I hear somebody refer to some overpaid thug athlete or drug addict actor as a 'role model.' One person even referred to animal-killer Michael Vick as a 'role model' because "he makes a lot of money."

I generally don't like country music. But Dolly Parton is my idea of a celebrity role model. She rose from poverty to great wealth and fame, but she hasn't let celebrity and riches go to her head. She recognizes, and is grateful for, all she has. She uses her wealth and her fame to help others.

Now there is a true role model. Think how much better this world would be if more people emulated her generosity, upbeat attitude and sense of humor.