Stella Parton, the country-singing sister of superstar Dolly, is a surprise contestant on this year’s Celebrity Masterchef. She opens up to Richard Barber about those rivalry rumours, their tough childhood and why cooking is more satisfying than marriage.
When Celebrity Masterchef debuted in 2006, its surprise winner was former rugby player Matt Dawson. Down the intervening years, comedian Ade Edmondson and actress Sophie Thompson have been among those carrying off the much-coveted trophy – all familiar names to a home-grown TV audience.
So it’s something of a surprise to find Stella Parton in this year’s line-up alongside celebrities including actor Keith Allen, cricketer Monty Panesar, The Only Way is Essex star Gemma Collins and Made in Chelsea’s Spencer Matthews. An American country singer, Stella is also well known as Dolly Parton’s kid sister. Admittedly, the US ex-Pussycat Dolls singer Kimberly Wyatt triumphed on the cooking contest in 2015 and her fellow countryman Jimmy Osmond got into the final the following year. But how on earth did Stella, 69, make the leap from Nashville into the bosom of so British an institution?
The man to thank, she says, is UK-based publicist Simon Whittam who wrote to praise her 2013 album Resurrection and ended up becoming her friend and now manager. Simon pitched the idea of this enthusiastic amateur cook being part of the 2018 Celebrity Masterchef line-up – it took the BBC less than 24 hours to give her the green light.
When we meet, she has already started the recording process. So how is she finding it? ‘I liked the format from the get-go,’ she says. She loved the other contestants in her first heat which include actress Lisa Maxwell and Strictly Come Dancing professional A J Pritchard. And she was thrilled with judges Gregg Wallace and John Torode. ‘They’re both as cute as they could be. They are real characters and they are supportive of all of us.’
She took it all pretty seriously. ‘I’ve long been a keen cook so of course I want to win. In my time, I’ve compiled three charity cookbooks featuring Southern country food with a healthy flair. For me, cooking is like theatre; it’s a celebration you lay on for your audience.’
She’s about to release her 40th album, so Stella’s career could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as disappointing. That said, it has sometimes been put in the shade by the extraordinary success of her sister Dolly, three years her senior at 72. Stella is having none of this. ‘You get in your own lane,’ she says. ‘You run your own race.’ The twinkly-eyed woman sitting opposite me in London’s Ivy Club is clearly at peace with herself. But then, like her myriad siblings, she is a graduate of the school of hard knocks.
She is number six in a family of six boys and six girls, although her brother Larry died at four days from a lung disorder contracted in the womb. ‘I remember seeing him in his open coffin. I’m not sure about asking that of a young child – I was five – but my parents were of the view that we should be exposed to life, both its beauty and its harshness.’
It was a loving but tough upbringing in the mountains of East Tennessee. The family home had no electricity until Stella was eight and no indoor plumbing until she was 15. Hot water came via kettles boiled on the wood-burning stove. Stella’s mother, Avie, was prone to seasonal affective disorder.
‘She’d spend months over the dreary winter with a pillow over her head. It was like having a parent who checked out every so often. So there is no doubt that, emotionally speaking, we were neglected. There were just too many of us.’ The result for Stella was that she became a de facto mother to the children younger than her, helping to cook for them from the age of seven. ‘I had to drag a chair up to the stove so I could reach to stir the pot. That taught me the art of being a survivor.’
The family had to make their own amusement. ‘Daddy was a good singer, my mother was a great one; he played the banjo, she played the guitar. We were storytellers and singers and songwriters who happened to grow up on a farm.’
Dolly’s talent crept up on her gradually, says Stella. ‘But it became obvious that music made her happy and that made us happy, too. And she was always more extroverted than me.’ Aged ten, Dolly went to live with their aunt Estelle, 40 miles away, to be nearer local TV and radio stations. ‘From then on, Dolly was never without a pay cheque.’ And she didn’t mind being away from home? ‘She loved it. She had a bathtub, indoor plumbing, electricity and a telephone. She was living the high life.’
When Dolly moved on her own to Nashville aged 18, she did miss her family so Stella and her younger sibling, Cassie, would go by coach to stay with her. ‘I called those sessions “sister fixes”. Dolly was our drug of choice and we were hers.’
For all that, if you believe half of what you read, there have been many fallings out down the years. ‘It’s just not true,’ Stella says with conviction. ‘Those stories are pure gossip and they have offended me greatly. Dolly and I have always been close.’
Not that Stella hasn’t been tested. At one point, when she was starting out as a singer, an uncle who was handling Dolly’s career suggested in front of her elder sister that Stella should change her surname because it might harm Dolly’s ‘brand’.
‘My daddy was really upset when I told him.’ But what did Dolly say? ‘She didn’t know what to think about it. But I never blamed her. To me, we were both victims of other people’s ambition. Anyway, I changed my name back from Carroll – my first husband’s middle name – to Parton after about a year and it was all quickly forgotten.’
Whichever way you slice it, Dolly casts a considerable shadow. Does it never get on Stella’s nerves that people often want to know all about her more famous sister. ‘It most certainly does. It irritates me immensely. I don’t blame Dolly, but when people get too nosy about her, I find it rude.’
Can it also be true that more than one person has asked Stella whether she would entertain the idea of a breast enlargement, presumably to emulate her well-stacked sister? ‘Yes, two agents and one manager all made that suggestion.’ All these years later, her anger is still palpable. ‘I’m a mother and I saw my breasts as something to nourish a child, not sex objects.’ She sighs. ‘But that’s what happens if you’re the kid sister of an icon.’
Stella has had a long, varied career but all of it has been secondary when placed beside her commitment to her son, Tim. She married at 17, gave birth to her only child at 19 and divorced two years later (‘we were simply too young’). ‘Tim is almost 50 now but he has always been the most important person in my life although he does have a rival.’ A beatific smile. ‘My grandson Liam by Tim’s wife, Sheena, was three on St Patrick’s Day. He’s the number-one man in my life now and he loves his yaya – that’s what he calls me. On his travels in Europe after college, Tim came across a lot of Greek women who were big on nurturing, big on cooking. They reminded him of me. And Greek children call their grandmothers Yaya. Hence my nickname.’
As it happens, Dolly and her husband Carl Thomas Dean, who have been married for more than 50 years, never had children. ‘I’ve always said that Dolly’s songs are her children.’ She has written more than 3,000, including global hits such as ‘Jolene’, ‘Coat of Many Colours’ and, of course, ‘I Will Always Love You’. ‘But she is a very nurturing person, a surrogate mother to her nephews and nieces and to their children, too. She gets clucky over all of them.’
Stella maintains that bringing up Tim single-handedly had a beneficial effect on her career. ‘I needed to earn money for the two of us. I wanted to give my son the life I had not been able to have because my parents were so poverty-stricken.’ At one stage, Stella even cleaned Dolly’s house for the extra cash. ‘I got $45 a week and I was grateful for it. She was helping me out.’
Stella has been married four times although she resists any request to identify her fourth husband. ‘The last three relationships that resulted in marriage,’ she says, ‘the men turned out not to be the people they presented to me which meant the marriages were short-lived. I’ve had pantyhose that have lasted longer. But I don’t regard myself as a victim. I was the victor.’
She knows of what she speaks. In her early 20s, she agreed to give a well-known local politician, a friend and contemporary of her father, a lift to a local hotel. When they reached the garage, he tried to rape her, attacking her so ferociously that he broke her nose. ‘There was blood everywhere but I fought him off.’ She never revealed publicly what had happened. ‘It would be different today; I would go straight to the police. That’s why I’m so happy about the #MeToo movement. I truly believe something good has come out of something bad.’ She pauses. ‘But I’m advocating justice not revenge.’
There have been plenty of good men in her life, too. ‘My daddy was a wonderful man and all my brothers are good men.’ She is also a big fan of Dolly’s husband Carl. ‘He’s good-hearted and has always been there for me if I’ve needed to be rescued from a situation. He is an intensely private man and has no time for showbusiness but, if that’s what makes the Old Lady – that’s what he calls Dolly – happy, then fine. She calls him Daddy. He thinks entertainers are strange people. But he and Dolly long ago found their level. He loves her very much indeed.’
There have been great tracts of time when Stella hasn’t seen her superstar sister for the very good reason that Dolly was travelling the world. ‘Oh, but I can read her face. If I see her on screen, I can tell if she is tired, upset or sad. I know if she needs a call. We were so emotionally dependent on one another as we were growing up – all of us were – that the bond couldn’t run any deeper.’
Back in the day, she and her younger sister Cassie used to sing the harmonies on Dolly’s records. In 2016, Stella released an album, Mountain Songbird, dedicated to Dolly’s songbook and including a duet, ‘More Power to Ya’, co-written with her sister. ‘I was pleased with the way the album came out. And Dolly was thrilled at the end result. I was so touched by her reaction.’ Stella has recently recorded a new album, Survivor, including eight new self-penned songs. It says much for Stella that she hasn’t lost sight of who she is.
‘I came into my own in my 50s when my personality finally caught up with my age. I’ve always been a serious-minded person. I like being an old battle-axe. And, as long as I’m happy, that’s fine, because I’m the only person I have to please.’ Her smile reaches all the way to her eyes. ‘You’re looking at a peaceful woman. Peace is contentment and I think that contentment,’ says the eminently sorted Stella Parton, ‘is rather underrated.’
DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN THREE WORDS: Independent, strong, honest.
SECRET AMBITION: To have my own cooking show and to appear in a West End musical.
STARSTRUCK MOMENT: Meeting James Garner when he was doing The Rockford Files. He was so handsome with those big brown eyes.
MOTTO: Do as you would be done by.
RECURRING DREAM: Since I was 15, I have dreamt about walking into an old house that needs some love and attention. The walls need painting; the floors need polishing. And I know what that means: I’m working on me all the time.
CELEBRITY CRUSH: Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits. I don’t like pretty men. I just love the way he sings and plays the guitar.
DREAM DINNER-PARTY GUESTS: My mother, my dad and my grandfather, the Reverend Jake Owens – he was the wisest person I’ve ever met. I’d also want Jesus and Gandhi.
FAVOURITE TIPPLE: A dry vodka martini, straight up, with two blue cheese-stuffed olives.
STYLE ICON: Me. I wear the clothes I like rather than let them wear me. Dolly has her own style that makes her happy, but it wouldn’t work for me.
Stella will appear on Celebrity Masterchef, which returns to BBC One later this month.