Dolly Parton’s Risky Playboy Shoot – A Serious Gamble for her Wholesome Image

Helen Flatley
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Dolly Parton is best known for her powerful voice and clean, wholesome, family-friendly image as a country music star. It may come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that in 1978 she posed for the infamous men’s magazine, Playboy.

Playboy has a somewhat salacious reputation as a men’s lifestyle magazine that regularly features nude and semi-nude centerfolds of celebrity women. The very first issue of the magazine, in 1953, featured screen icon Marilyn Monroe.

Since then, hundreds of famous women have appeared on its covers and centerfolds, with many of them choosing to pose nude.

Dolly Parton accepting Applause Award for Dollywood, November 2010. Photo by Curtis Hilbun CC BY 3.0

Although it’s widely known as an important part of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Playboy has often come under attack as a result of its objectification of women and distinctly adult content. As a result, when wholesome country music star Dolly Parton decided to commit to a cover shoot, the entertainment industry was somewhat scandalized.

In October 1978, Parton posed for Playboy and appeared on the cover, dressed in the iconic Playboy bunny outfit. She did not, however, agree to a nude shoot, and instead the magazine featured a series of bizarre photographs of her posing alongside a rather sinister-looking rabbit..

Dolly Parton. Photo by Kingkongphoto CC BY-SA 2.0

According to Rappler, Parton was actually the first country singer ever to pose for a Playboy cover. She had been approached by the magazine several times, but had always refused. She was concerned that Playboy’s racy reputation would taint her wholesome image, and didn’t feel that she had the clout to refuse a nude shoot.

However, by 1978, Parton’s success meant that she was now in a position to dictate terms to Playboy, and she negotiated an appearance in the magazine that avoided any sort of nudity. According to the interview published in the October issue, she felt that a Playboy cover would be “a fun thing to do”.

Dolly Parton in 1977.

Although she was convinced enough to agree to the shoot, she was not, in her own words, prepared to compromise her principles and do the “whole dirty deal.” As a result, the Dolly Parton issue of Playboy stands out as a somewhat strange episode in the magazine’s history. Take a deeper look with the following video:

 

Parton was dressed in a provocative bunny outfit, but the alluring effect was offset by the presence of a man posing alongside her in a full-body rabbit suit. This made the images funny rather than sexy, and they appear to have been carefully crafted to ensure that Parton’s wholesome image was not tainted.

Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton in 1969.

Parton’s reasons for refusing a nude shoot were very sensible. Even in the 1970s, posing nude for a magazine could be a career-ending mistake for someone like her, who had a considerable amount of support from relatively conservative sections of American society. The Playboy shoot was, therefore, a gamble, and needed to be pitched carefully.

At this time, Parton was already an established and successful artist in the country music scene, with a reputation for her powerful, striking voice. However, she wanted to break into mainstream pop and market herself to a broader audience. The Playboy shoot and interview can be seen, in this context, as a way for Parton to raise her profile and make her big break as a mainstream country-pop artist.

With Carol Burnett, 1980.

The strategy was overwhelmingly successful. In the years after the shoot, Parton rocketed to the top of the charts with numbers such as “9 to 5” and “Islands in the Stream.” Her acting career flourished and she became a global sensation.

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Dolly Parton was asked to pose once again for Playboy in 2014. However, this time she refused. According to her website, she didn’t think that a Playboy shoot would be appropriate for her image, or compatible with the work that she now does with children and families. It just goes to show that even in the 21st century, Playboy still has the capacity to raise eyebrows.