We Went There: Brooklyn’s Annual Valley of the Dolly Partons

Dolly Parton #2 is wearing a dress that looks exactly how “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” sounds. Dolly #6 dons a cowboy hat that doesn’t sparkle so much as glow from within—tiny lights lining the rim and flashing like cameras. Dolly #4 adjusts her “breasts” with shameless abandon, clutching at the left side of her chest for support that seems more emotional than anything else. This is no Dumplin’-induced fever dream. This, in the heart of Williamsburg, is the real Dolly Parton challenge. Part drag show, part beauty pageant, and part honest-to-goodness hoedown, the annual Dolly Parton Look-alike Contest at Mable’s Smokehouse is about more than just who wears their bottle blondeness with the most Parton-esque pizzaz. For example, when Dolly #2 chooses to perform an interpretative dance rather than try her luck at a name-that-tune, the tapping of her white boots across the stage in time to the Dolly cover band Doll Parts‘ instrumentation is interrupted by gentle protests. “Dolly would never dance!” someone in the crowd insists, nearly pained. “It would mess up her hair!”  

One gets the sense that this point is somewhat moot: There are a lot of things happening in Mable’s Smokehouse that Dolly Parton would never do. (I have never known Parton to shotgun a beer with as much speed or finesse as Dolly #3 displayed in the competition’s second round.) This year’s six contestants lined up under big golden D-O-L-L-Y balloons to clear a number of substantial hurdles Parton has surely never had to face. The judges—last year’s winner, Erica Doll, the fashion exec Shawn Buchanan, and the Dolly impersonator Miss Gay Beer—took stock of who could lipsync Jolene’s attributes most accurately (flaming locks of auburn hair: check, ivory skin: check); threw out on-the-fly Dolly trivia (test yourself: What’s Dolly’s favorite ride at Dollywood?); and heard each contestant’s most treasured Dolly memory. But the evening wasn’t only about expertise. It was also about leaning into an all-encompassing, shimmering mirage that somehow made a deep-voiced, pillow-breasted, bare-legged Dolly who introduced herself very seriously as “Sloane” one of the most convincing competitors in attendance. That is to say that this Dolly challenge kicked up its bejeweled bootheels on an assumption of, well, fakeness. 

Dolly Parton herself—Dolly #1, if you will—has long subsisted on giddy artifice. There’s a reason this extravaganza is called the Dolly Look-alike Contest and not the Dolly Drag Show, the Dolly Costume Party, or the Valley of the Dollys. There’s an assumption of gimmick so substantial that it circles back around to total sincerity. The person who looks the least like Dolly can look the most like Dolly just by virtue of their attempts to close that gap. And, yet, it’s about singularity, too: a Dolly Look-alike is no Dolly replica nor Dolly clone. Dolly herself crystallized that idea. When the MC of the night, the dry-witted actor Jimmy Ray Bennett, calls out, “Oh, it is hard to be a diamond…” with the call-and-response gusto of a cheerleader, the crowd revels in firing back with Dolly’s classic line: “In a rhinestone world!” 

But if Dolly is the diamond, what does that make the rest of us? By the rest of us, I mean those who are mournfully sipping on the last dregs of our tequila-heavy “9 to 5s” (Mable’s themed cocktails sweetly ran the songbook gamut: the “Jolene” was, obviously, pink) before heel-toeing back to the L train to return to our actual 9 to 5s. The answer should be bleak, but nothing about the evening is. The final three Dollys await the judges’ deliberation with a sense of genuine camaraderie—huddling and holding hands and helping each other apply lipstick until they resemble nothing more than Dolly’s own Linda-and-Emmylou trifecta. And when Dolly #6—whose friends have been coaching earnestly from the sidelines, calling out, “This is about dignity! And honor! And Dolly!”—wins the Parton Pageant, her tears are as real as anything. So is the ecstatic applause. Resplendent in pink fringe, last year’s winner situates the dime-store tiara in her blonde wig. There is absolutely nothing fake about the way it catches the light and sparkles

Oh—the Dollywood question was a trick one. Dolly would never ride the rides at Dollywood. It would, after all, mess up her hair.