As the opening bars of the iconic ballad I Will Always Love You filter through the air, eyes closed, I am transported to my own little Dollywood, basking in the glow of my private performance from country-singing powerhouse Dolly Parton.
Except… I’m actually in rural Hertfordshire and my entertainer for the afternoon – while at 5 ft in her stockinged feet the same height as the diminutive Dolly – is not peroxide blonde but quite clearly brunette.
Goodness, though, Kelly O’Brien doesn’t half sound like Dolly – and once she has been transformed by make-up, costumes and wigs, she looks extraordinarily like her, too.
So like her, in fact, that it’s her full-time job: repeatedly crowned the UK’s best Dolly tribute act, Kelly makes her living performing up and down the land – from Grimsby to Greenwich – with her one-woman show (plus band) where she channels the singer throughout her career, from ‘Sixties Dolly’ with bell-bottoms and enormous hair right through to ‘Glastonbury-era Dolly’ in white rhinestone-clad trouser suit.
Kelly O’Brien (pictured here as Dolly) doesn’t half sound like Dolly – and once she has been transformed by make-up, costumes and wigs, she looks extraordinarily like her, too
And very well she’s done out of it, too – until recently, when Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, shut the accounts of musical tribute acts (via which many interact with fans, promote their work and sell tickets) in a bid to clamp down on identity theft and fraud.
She told me herself that I looked amazing
Few could argue with the ethics, of course, but as Kelly, 48, points out, full-time impersonators don’t exactly fall into that category, given that they openly trade on the fact that they are paying tribute to their icons.
In Kelly’s case, she has even been given the rubber stamp of approval by the great woman herself after meeting her backstage at the O2 Arena in 2011 while dressed in full imitation Dolly regalia.
‘She told me I looked amazing and when I told her what I did for a living she said, ‘Oh my goodness, I love that’,’ Kelly says.
‘She mentioned another Dolly act in America that she loved, too. So she’s very on board with people being her.’
Not that this makes a difference to Meta; meaning all manner of tributes to Robbie Williams, Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue have lost their social media marketplace overnight.
Kelly (pictured) makes her living performing up and down the land – from Grimsby to Greenwich – with her one-woman show (plus band) where she channels the singer throughout her career
‘There’s huge numbers of us tribute acts that are suffering,’ says Kelly. ‘I’ve been contacted by so many people. There’s a Celine Dion tribute who spent £45,000 on Facebook ads and marketing, and it’s just gone, and Meta won’t reimburse her.
‘I’ve got a friend who does Neil Diamond who has spent three Mercedes’ worth of adverts on Facebook. If that gets taken away, he loses all that content and his followers at the press of a button.’
And so Kelly – with the kind of warrior spirit of which the redoubtable Dolly would certainly be proud – has come out fighting, determined to spread the word and get Meta to see the light.
‘I’m not letting this lie,’ she says. ‘They have to change the rules for impersonators because this is people’s livelihoods.’
The whole caboodle has certainly shone a light on the world of the professional impersonator, a sphere which requires the application of both dedicated fandom with the talent and dedication of musical theatre work.
The former can be found in Kelly’s ongoing study of her heroine’s every move, the latter in her rather brutal diet regime: in order to emulate Dolly’s tiny waist, Kelly doesn’t eat carbs or sugar.
Blonde on blonde: Kelly meeting the Dolly in 2011. In order to emulate Dolly’s tiny waist, Kelly doesn’t eat carbs or sugar
‘It’s murder,’ she says. ‘But it’s the only way I can guarantee keeping the weight off.’
We are meeting today in the kitchen of the Hertfordshire village home that Kelly shares with her husband Ben, also 48, who runs a communications company, and their 11-year-old daughter Amber. Kelly also has a son, Oscar, 19, a drama student in London.
Warm and cheerful, she looks every inch the groomed school-gate mum, the mode in which her husband prefers her.
‘He likes brunettes, but thinks I’m funnier as Dolly,’ she says. ‘He enjoys telling people what I do, though.’
Born the eldest of three daughters in rural South Australia, there’s little in the way of musical roots in Kelly’s family.
I’ve got through hundreds of wigs to be like her
Her dad Paul was in the army, while mum Deirdre was a tax accountant – although Dolly’s wistful country tunes provided some of the soundtrack to her upbringing.
‘My parents used to play Love Is Like A Butterfly at night when we went to sleep,’ she recalls.
Kelly traces her love of performing to early childhood. Often dispatched to her room after a misdemeanour, she would entertain herself by singing along to her cassettes.
But her beautiful voice remained something of a secret until around the age of ten when she was cast in a school play. ‘When I sang, it was a case of, ‘Oh, my goodness, listen to her.’ And from there I was just pretty driven to sing,’ she says.
She started entering karaoke competitions and by 14 had been anointed South Australian Country Vocalist of the Year.
But while Kelly had stars in her eyes, her parents had a more pragmatic outlook.
‘When I was 18, Dad told me I had to get a job, and I worked in the local abattoir for a year and a half,’ she says.
‘It was quite disgusting. The whole time I was thinking, ‘One day you’re going to be famous.’ ‘
By 20, she had moved away to ‘find fame and fortune’ working in musical theatre, although a version of Dolly sprang into being along the way, part of a musical impersonation repertoire that included Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears and Liza Minnelli.
Kelly traces her love of performing to early childhood. Often dispatched to her room after a misdemeanour, she would entertain herself by singing along to her cassettes
Even so, the idea of being a full-time Dolly was some way off.
Then, in 2002, aged 28, she was cast as country singer Dinah in a German production of the musical Starlight Express.
She moved to Europe and met her first husband, fellow performer Jean-Claude Pelletier, quickly becoming pregnant with Oscar.
Dolly’s a breath of fresh air in a chaotic world
In 2005, the family moved to London. Sadly, by 2007 Kelly and Jean-Claude separated, although they remain good friends. With her ex-husband away on tour with the musical Cats, it left Kelly juggling life as a single mum with that of a gigging performer.
‘I was working in restaurants, getting home at 5am, or doing pub gigs,’ she says. ‘I’d just bought a flat and I was totally skint, mattress-on-the-floor territory.’
Then, in early 2007, a friend asked if she would perform as Dolly at a friend’s birthday party in Scotland. ‘He was willing to pay £300,’ she says. ‘At this point I was doing gigs for £150. It was a no-brainer.’
Determined to do Dolly justice, Kelly embarked on the equivalent of a PhD in Dolly studies.
‘I literally studied her for about three months,’ she says.
‘I watched hours of videos, looking at how she talked, how she walked, how she chewed gum, everything. I learned sections of dialogue from her concerts off by heart, practising with my little Dictaphone.
‘It wasn’t easy. I’m a natural alto and she’s a soprano.’
Racked with nerves and clad in a ‘terrible wig’ and too-short dress purchased from eBay, Kelly now assesses that first Dolly performance as ‘needing improvement’. ‘I’ve listened back to my accent and it really needed work,’ she says.
‘Also, I was wearing short sleeves and that’s a big no-no: Dolly doesn’t show her arms because she has tattoos, but you learn as you go.’
Even so, Kelly/Dolly went down a storm and she was emboldened enough to set up a page on the now defunct social media site MySpace called The Dolly Show.
Bookings started and Kelly was on her way, with an ever more complex wardrobe of wigs and costumes, and a make-up regime that even now takes two hours.
‘I really have to change my face completely: Dolly’s got a much slimmer nose than me, her eyes are a different shape as are her eyebrows,’ she says.
Dolly’s hair is also ‘difficult’. ‘It took me years to get it right,’ Kelly says.
‘I’ve been through hundreds of wigs – human hair, synthetic hair, two wigs at a time, you name it.’
Once, while wearing one wig on top of the other in a bid to emulate Dolly’s bouffant style, one fell off while she was having photos taken with fans.
Then there’s Dolly’s pneumatic 32G boobs (Dolly once joked that she’s the only woman who left the Smoky Mountains and took them with her).
Kelly had already had a boob job in her 20s to boost her self-esteem after a bad break-up, taking her natural B cup to a D, and today makes up for the rest with corsetry and carefully positioned silicone ‘fillets’ that fit into a specially created chest mould under her costumes.
None of this comes cheap, of course: Dolly has famously joked that ‘it costs a lot of money to look this cheap’ and Kelly agrees. Maintaining Dolly’s wardrobe – not to mention a couple of ‘tweakments’ such as Botox to keep her looking her best – costs thousands a year.
‘Although it is at least a legitimate business expenditure,’ she says.
There is no doubt that Kelly loves being Dolly, even though on occasion it has meant being manhandled by over-enthusiastic punters. ‘Sometimes you’ve got to be careful, because people can get quite tactile; I’ve been lifted up and hugged and put on top of tables,’ she says. ‘They mean well – they see you as this tiny thing that they love – but now I always have to have a chaperone.’
Why is Dolly loved so much? Today, at 77, her fanbase remains about the broadest in the world, as Kelly can testify as they come to see her too.
‘She’s just a breath of fresh air in a world which is chaotic and messy,’ she says. ‘She’s the living embodiment of being plucky and optimistic. ‘She’s a huge philanthropist, she’s got the Dollywood Foundation and she helped fund the Moderna vaccine. So she’s this showbusiness powerhouse doing good in the world.’
She recalls being so starstruck when finally meeting her idol that she was almost speechless.
‘I went dressed as Dolly and then suddenly there she was, the real thing,’ she says. ‘There was so much I wanted to say to her. She told me I looked amazing.’
It’s one reason that Kelly is fuming about the actions of Meta, with whom she first had a run-in last September when the Silicon Valley giant took down her personal Facebook and Instagram pages for alleged infringement of copyright.
‘Obviously it had links to my Dolly website, but I pay for every song I use, like all artists, and everything else is my own material. I had all my memories there, too – marriage, babies being born, threads of messages from people all over the world. Suddenly, everything was just gone,’ she says.
‘It was really upsetting. I tried everything to sort it out. I must have written dozens of emails and tried to call every day but you could never get through to anyone. This is time I could be spending selling tickets and liaising with fans.’
Her one consolation was that her professional Dolly Facebook page – where she sells tickets for her shows – was untouched.
That was, until March 17, when that, too, disappeared overnight, taking her thousands of followers with it.
‘I was advertising tickets for my show on that platform, so that massively impacts my business,’ she says. ‘I normally get tagged dozens of times a day by people buying tickets. That’s all stopped.’
A Meta spokesman has said it had no policy banning tribute acts: ‘We do allow fan Facebook pages and Instagram accounts. However, in all cases we require the user to make it clear in their bio that they are not the authentic individual and are not ‘speaking in the voice of’ that individual.’
Still, Kelly believes Dolly is also riled by her situation. ‘She’s fan of the impersonators and she doesn’t like injustice,’ she says. ‘I’ve been told by a member of the Parton family that Dolly is in full support of the cause.’
She’s hoping that Dolly will intervene in her plight and that of her fellow tribute acts.
‘That’s the dream,’ she says. ‘Because I don’t think anyone – even Meta – would argue with Dolly Parton, would they?’