Stella, left, and Dolly. Right, Stella on stage in 1980
Apart from being a successful singer in her own right Stella Parton is also an enthusiastic cook, taught by her mother and grandmother when she was growing up dirt-poor in the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee.
Music may have won out on a professional basis but Stella has gone on to produce three cookbooks for charity.
In one she shared recipes she invented for her five sisters. “There was Rachel’s Rhubarb Pie, Cassie’s Chicken Casserole and so on,” she says.
So what did she dream up for her famous sibling, music legend Dolly Parton?
I’ve always regarded cooking as therapeutic so it was strange to have to cook against the clock
“Dolly’s Dill Dumplings. The name made me smile and it did Dolly too. It’s a tomato dish which I’ve served to her many times. She loves it.”
Stella, 69, who cooks every day, is now putting her culinary skills to the test for the benefit of TV viewers. Next week will see her join Celebrity Masterchef alongside the likes of actress Lisa Maxwell and Strictly Come Dancing professional AJ Pritchard.
The experience was something of a mixed pleasure. “I’ve always regarded cooking as therapeutic so it was strange to have to cook against the clock,” she reveals.
“We were being judged but not necessarily appreciated which is the way I normally think of food. I found it quite stressful.”
AJ Pritchard, Stella Parton, Jay Blades, Clara Amfo, Lisa Maxwell
Stella is number six in a family of six boys and six girls although one brother Larry died after four days from a lung disorder contracted in the womb when his mother developed spinal meningitis during the pregnancy.
“I remember seeing him in his open coffin and touching his body. I’m not sure about asking that of a young child – I was five at the time – 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. 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 woodburning stove. The children bathed once a week on a Friday, the boys in a washtub in one room, the girls in a tub next door.
Dolly’s innate talent crept up on her gradually, says Stella. “But it became obvious that music made her happy. She was always more extrovert than me.”
Stella, (back middle), and Dolly, centre.
Aged 10 Dolly went to live with their aunt Estelle, 40 miles away to be nearer local TV and radio stations. “She’s never been without a pay cheque since.”
When Dolly moved on her own to Nashville aged 18 she missed her family dreadfully 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.”
If you believe half of what you read about Stella’s relationship with Dolly there have been many falling-outs over the years. “It’s just not true,” she insists.
“Those stories are pure gossip and they’ve offended me greatly. Dolly and I have always been close.”
But as Stella admits it hasn’t always been easy.
Parents Robert Lee and Avie, right
When she was starting out as a singer, an uncle who was handling Dolly’s career called Stella into his office and in front of Dolly suggested that she should change her surname because it might harm Dolly’s “brand”.
For a year she became known as Stella Carroll, her then husband’s middle name. “My daddy got real upset when I told him,” Stella reveals.
“He asked if I was ashamed of my family.” What did Dolly say? “She didn’t know what to think. But I never blamed her for what happened. We were both victims of other people’s blind ambition. Anyway I changed my name back to Parton after about a year and it was all quickly forgotten.”
Whichever way you slice it, Dolly, who is three years older than Stella, casts a considerable shadow. Does it never get on Stella’s nerves that people want to know all about her more famous sister when they discover who she is. “It most certainly does. It irritates me immensely. When people get too nosy about her I find it very rude.”
But make no mistake, Stella Parton is very much her own woman.
Stella Parton performs at Bush Hall on January 21, 2017 in London
“From my 20s onwards I learnt to compete only with myself and not to compare myself with Dolly. You get in your own lane. You run your own race. But we’re all close. I talk to Dolly at least once a week and I’m very close to my sisters Willadean and Rachel.”
Can it also be true that more than one person asked Stella whether she would entertain the of having a breast enlargement, presumably to mirror her famously well-stacked sister?
“Yes, two agents and one manager all made that suggestion.” All these years later it still makes her angry.
“I’m a mother and I saw my breasts as something to nourish a child, not as sex objects.” She sighs. “But that’s what happens if you’re the kid sister of an icon.”
Motherhood has been the driving force in Stella’s life since giving birth to her only child at 19.
Married two years earlier she concedes that she and her first husband Martin were “simply too young” to make it work and raising their son Tim single-handedly toughened her up.
When she needed to earn money Dolly offered her a job as a cleaner. Didn’t she find that demeaning? “That’s not how I saw it,” she insists.
“She gave me $45 a week and I was very grateful for it. She was trying to help me out at a difficult time. And she knew I was too proud, too independent to accept a handout. I certainly never saw it as an insult.”
She adds: “I find it exhausting that after all these years people are still looking for something mean to say about my relationship with Dolly. But I’ll always be her little sister and I’ll always be proud of her as she is of me. We have tremendous respect for one another.” Stella has been in the music business for 50 years so it seems apt that her latest album is entitled Survivor.
Ask her what she would have done if her life had taken another path and her answer is surprising. “I’d probably have been a full-time human rights activist,” she tells me.
“I do a lot of counselling, a lot of motivational speaking and I regularly work with women in shelters who’ve suffered domestic violence. Women and children, the elderly and animals – they’re the ones we’re supposed to protect but all too often they’re the ones who suffer.”
Stella knows only too well what it means to be a victim of violence. In her early 20s she agreed to give a well-known local politician, a friend of her father’s, a lift to a hotel. When they reached the garage he attacked her so ferociously he broke her nose. “There was blood everywhere but I fought him off,” she says.
At the time she never revealed publicly what had happened. “It would be different today, I’d 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. But I’m advocating justice not revenge.”
Stella has always been a great champion of the underdog. “At 24 I wrote a song called Ode To Olivia. Everyone in Nashville was upset because Olivia Newton-John won Female Vocalist of the Year. They said she wasn’t a proper country singer and that she came from Australia.
“So what? They were just jealous of her success. Funnily enough that song was the flipside of my first hit record. People turned it over and found I Want To Hold You In My Dreams Tonight which did very well for me. So that was my reward for speaking out, a kind of karma.”
Dolly Parton and Stella Parton attend the premiere of Warner Bros
Stella has been married four times but is in no rush to walk down the aisle again.
“All the relationships that resulted in marriage were fraudulent. The men turned out not to be the people they first presented to me which meant the marriages were shortlived. I’ve had pantyhose that lasted longer. But I don’t regard myself as a victim. I was the victor.”
Her last divorce was 20 years ago and Stella knows what she wants from any future relationships. “I’m still looking for a best friend although that’s not easy. I don’t want to be a cougar with such a young man that people laugh when we walk out the room. Nor do I want to be a caretaker. So my options are getting slimmer and slimmer.”
In the end it all comes back to family. “We didn’t have prestige or prosperity when we were growing up,” says Stella. “But what we did have was love. And there’s no price you can put on that.”
Stella Parton joins Celebrity Masterchef on BBC One on Thursday September 13 at 8pm Survivor is available to digitally download from the same day