“There are very few people on the planet I admire more than @DollyParton – does that make me cheap or shallow?” tweeted the British broadcaster Stephen Fry, rising to the defence of the country superstar during the brouhaha over whether she mimed during her Metallica-dwarfing Glastonbury set. Fry’s comment highlights the contradictory nature of Parton’s phenomenal success. For while it’s easy to make fun of her delirious Dolly-bird image, the 68-year-old singer-songwriter – through a ferocious combination of talent, ambition, wit and indefatigable Southern Belle charm – has the public eating out of her hand. When it comes to blonde ambition, the world’s most-honoured female country artist (with over 100 million albums sold and eight Grammys under her rhinestone belt) has both the drive and decorations to rival Madonna. Having famously modelled her image on the ‘town tramp’ she idolised, with her pneumatic chest, platinum tresses and bejewelled togs, crowd-pleasing Parton is having the last laugh.

“I know people make fun of me. All these years, people think the joke has been on me but it’s actually been on the public. I know exactly what I’m doing … I make more jokes about myself than anybody,” said the straight-talking singer in an interview with Barbara Walters in 1977. “I’ve often made this statement that I would never stoop so low as to be fashionable, that’s the easiest thing in the world to do, so I just decided that I would do something that would at least get the attention,” she added. “Once they got past the shock of the ridiculous way I looked and all that then they would see there was parts of me to be appreciated. I’m very real where it counts, and that’s inside.”

At the time of the interview, Parton  had recently quit her popular TV double-act with country-music singer Porter Wagoner (for whom, as a parting gesture, she penned future Whitney Houston smash I Will Always Love You) and hired an agent to pursue inroads into mainstream pop and Hollywood. A focused Parton shares her aspirations for world domination, her piercing business sense cutting through the candyfloss exterior: all voluminous curly blonde wig fixed with a fake rose, full make-up and a flared baby-blue polyester pantsuit with lace trim.

Backwoods Barbie

Raised ‘dirt poor’ in Sevier County, Tennessee, the fourth of 12 children born to Robert Lee Parton, a tobacco farmer, and his wide Avie Lee, Parton and her rags-to-rhinestones life story have been well chronicled, not least in her own compositions. “I was born on the banks of the Little Pigeon River, in a one-room shack with nothing but a smile,” she sings in Chasing Rainbows. Coat Of Many Colors tells of the time her mother lovingly made her a garment from rags that served to make her an object of ridicule at school. “So with patches on my britches, holes in both my shoes, in my coat of many colors I hurried off to school, just to find the others laughing and making fun of me, in my coat of many colors my momma made for me,” she sings. Instead of discarding the coat – which today is displayed proudly in the Chasing Rainbows Museum in her Dollywood theme park – Parton has remained loyal to the image she was ridiculed for, a pattern she has carried through her entire life. 

The singer has always credited her hunger as a child for “pretty clothes, pretty things” as the driving force behind her desire for fame. And, having grown with a clothes full of holes and honed from sackcloth, the young Parton connected with the gaudy, heightened sense of femininity embodied by the aforementioned town tramp, with her “beautiful peroxide hair… piled on her head, red nails and high-heeled shoes”, as the ultimate direction for her future stage persona. “The way I look comes from a serious place, a country girl’s idea of glamour,” she explained to Michael Parkinson in a TV interview.

Speaking to George Stroumboulopoulos, she recalled creating lipstick out of pokeberry stains and using burnt matches to “make my eyebrows and beauty marks”. “I’m not a natural beauty and I have to make the most of everything I got. I dress how I dress and what I wear is how I feel the most comfortable and that’s when I do my best work,” she said. “It takes all of this to be me; this is how I think I look my best.”

Camping it up

Parton is always willing to send herself up, however. Her catchphrases include “Do you know how much it costs to look this cheap?”, and intentionally ironic titles for albums and singles include Dumb Blonde (“This dumb blonde ain’t nobody’s fool...”) and Backwoods Barbie. A promotional shot for the latter saw Parton posing on the porch of a rustic log cabin in skyscraper mules, a gingham mini-dress and red-chiffon belted robe.

The old-school entertainer – who has joked that, had she not been a girl, she would have been a drag queen – is always on duty. She famously keeps a wig hanging on a lamp next to her bed and says she sleeps in her make-up when staying at hotels “in case there’s a fire or earthquake”. “If I’m out in public, I want to be what people expect to see,” she told Parkinson. When asked more recently by Graham Norton if people don’t take her as seriously as they would if she looked a different way, she replied: “I don’t know about that, it is kind of a double-edged sword… but I have such a good time.” It sure looks like it.

Evolving from a classic backcombed look in the ‘60s to a vamped-up ‘80s parade of frothy chiffon, fitted pinstripe, fringed rodeo suede’n’denim ensembles and over-the-top wigs ranging from ‘poodle’ to ‘cockatoo’, Parton continues to camp it up, unashamedly tailoring her aging body, too. (“If I see something sagging, bagging, and dragging, I’m going to nip it, suck it and tuck it.”) While embracing the fake she’s all about keeping it real. She told a press conference in 2003 she hopes  “people see the brain underneath the wig and the heart beneath the boobs.” Her response to the Glastonbury gossip? More elegant than detractors might expect from the so-called Smoky Mountain songbird: “My boobs are fake, my hair’s fake but what is real is my voice and my heart.” On song, as ever.

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