When you work for Dolly Parton, you stay busy.
The country music star and American icon, 76, has a lot going on. On this November day, it’s a movie premiering, a round of interviews, more Doggy Parton merchandise and an upcoming rock album — plus a New Year’s Eve special with goddaughter Miley Cyrus.
So her creative director, Steve Summers, does not have time for a formal interview. “We’ll do it on the go,” I was told before arriving in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I’m on the phone,” Summers, 58, whispers after he pulls up to the curb and I get into his car at the airport. “I’ve got a reporter for PEOPLE in the car now. Don’t say anything crazy — he’s writing a story about me,” he then jokes to his 22-year-old son Jaxx, who doesn’t miss a beat: “That’s a good story,” he says.
It is. Summers is in charge of anything involving Parton’s clothing and aesthetic — how she looks on tour, on magazine covers, at last month’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, on the Home Shopping Network selling perfume — falls under his purview. (Even her pajamas come from Summers’ studio. “It’s my job to always keep Dolly’s integrity,” he says. “She just wants to look appropriate.”)
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While Summers has spent 20 years dressing one of the biggest stars in the world, his own story is not really known. “It’s never about me,” he says as we pass a billboard for Dollywood. “I like it that way.”
Raised in Harriman, Tenn., he didn’t grow up a Parton fan. “I’m legally deaf — I wasn’t a fan of anyone’s music,” he deadpans.
Summers lost 75 percent of his hearing at age 2 as a result of the mumps. But despite this difficulty, he always had a gift for carrying a tune.
At age 26, Summers, who by then was married with a kid (daughter Jaden, now 33) and working in retail, went back to school to study English and music. (He’s also dad to daughter Farran, 28.)
At the time, Summers heard about opportunities to audition for performing gigs. “My mother said, ‘You have a pretty voice, go try out at Opryland and Dollywood,’ ” he recalls. Summers was offered jobs at both. “I took Dollywood,” he explains, “because they offered me $5 more a day.”
We pull up to the mall, as he needs to grab Parton some makeup. Continuing his story, Summers says he started at Dollywood as a singer and dancer, eventually acting as Parton’s onstage dance partner.
Four months in, she stepped onto a giant teetering drum prop to sing. “I held her hand and never let go,” Summers says. “I thought, ‘What if she falls?’ I’ve been protecting her ever since.”
Summers began making suggestions about his own costumes. “Why are these buttons real?” he says he’d ask. “I only had three seconds to get out of the outfit. They said, ‘If you think you can do better, we need a new costume for this.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ ” Soon, he was helping to set up Parton’s tour productions.
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We enter Sephora, and Summers’s phone rings. It’s Parton. “I have to take this,” he says, stepping away for the call. Moments later he returns to look for long-lasting eyeliner. “Does this have some sparkle in it?” he asks the salesperson, who nods. “Then we’ll take 12.”
In 2006 Parton asked Summers to join her full-time in Nashville. “She said, ‘You’re gonna be the creative director, and we’ll figure it out as we go,’ ” he remembers. “‘You don’t have to design everything — just make sure it’s right.’ ”
Now waiting for a pair of pants for himself at a boutique, Summers shares the Dolly design ethos: “Everything matters. What colors do I have to avoid? Can it wrinkle? Does it not wrinkle? How much time do we have to get into it? How much time do we have to get out of it?” He takes a deep breath. “She’s trained me,” he says. (There’s not a real signature, Summers adds, “but it’s always going to be nipped in at the waist. She’s a tiny thing!”)
Parton also paid for Summers to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. “It’s not like I just fell off a truck, and I’m out here winging it,” he says.
“It’s true I have a good sense of people,” Parton recalls of meeting Summers 30 years ago. “I watched him closely, and I saw him doing everything for everybody at Dollywood. He was dancing, he was singing, and he was choreographing. I saw that there was a lot more that he could do. I truly feel blessed to have Steve Summers in my life. He’s one of my dearest and most loyal friends.”
We drive to Brentwood, a wooded, suburban area outside Nashville where many stars, including Parton, live. Summers works in a guesthouse on her expansive property with a team of four.
We walk into a room crammed with sewing machines, life-size photos of Parton, glittering swatches and beaded butterflies. One closet contains only pajamas. There are three dry-erase boards with Summers’s sketches and four mannequins made to Parton’s exact proportions, each wearing a different bathrobe.
“They are never naked, out of respect,” he says. Respect seems to be Summers’s guiding principle. “The myth is not a myth,” he says. “She really is that genuine — that caring and loving and funny. I’d do anything for her, because she’d do anything for me.”
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As we leave through the front gates of Parton’s estate, Summers resumes telling his story.
He came out as gay when he was 44 and got divorced from his wife of 23 years. Still, she held his hand when he told his parents he was gay.
“They were not happy, to say the least,” he says. His father died last month, and he’s still learning how to be his authentic self around his mother. “I come from a very religious family,” he adds. “They are working toward acceptance. And I am too.”
In 2008 he met his now-husband, Mark Williams, who runs an architecture and interior design firm, after a Parton concert, naturally. “I was like, ‘Whoa, I must be dreaming,’ ” he says.
In fact, they have a Parton lyric — “I know I’m only dreaming” — tattooed on their arms. “My friends tease me all the time that designing dresses for Dolly Parton is the gayest job on earth,” he says with a grin. “I just quote her back to them: ‘Whatever you are, be that.’ ”