Dolly Parton once said, famously, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.” With her peroxide blonde hair and rhinestones, the legendary country singer and gay icon evokes a particular brand of Americana that admirers and impostors alike have tried to imitate time and time again. At Dollypalooza, Dolly Parton fans gather every year in New York to celebrate her enduring legacy and distinct looks, much to the approval of Parton herself. “Some of [the drag queens] look more like me than I do!” she told the New York Times.
Dolly Faibyshev, a self-taught photographer who happens to share a first name with Parton, knows this world well. She started photographing Dollypalooza three years ago when she went along with a friend and was immediately attracted to the elaborate outfits and feel-good ambience. A year later, she went back to continue the photo project, this time to shoot behind the scenes, in the intimacy of the changing rooms where the artists get ready to perform.
“It’s a celebration of Dolly Parton,” Faibyshev explains, “but also, it’s a celebration of being the best version of yourself.” The evening includes burlesque shows, trivia games, and a costume contest that sees drag queens flaunt their best Dolly looks. At the silent auction, visitors can win tons of Parton paraphernalia and even a trip to Dollywood, the artist’s theme park in her native Tennessee. Dressing up in costume and participating in the performances and contests is encouraged.
“When I went the first year,” Faibyshev remembers, “I was wearing a Dolly Parton-esque dress and my friend made me get on stage. I didn’t win!”
Faibyshev says she had to get comfortable shooting documentary style photography at Dollypalooza. With time, she says, she learned how to blend into the background and be a fly on the wall: “You feel like an outsider but the more time you spend documenting it, the more you become comfortable with it.”
The drag queens and burlesque performers didn’t seem to mind her presence much. “When you’re backstage, they’re in the zone, they’re very much concerned with getting their look right,” Faibyshev says. “The second [the subjects] notice me and the camera, they start posing for pictures and that drives me crazy.”
Faibyshev's spontaneous stills let the viewer into the glittery, bizarre world of Dolly Parton fanatics. I ask her what it is about the country singer that provokes such fanaticism. “There’s something really inspiring and magnetic about Dolly Parton that draws people to her,” Faibyshev explains. “Performers—both women and men of all shapes and sizes—really just put in a lot of love and care into creating this Dolly Parton persona. It’s crazy what lengths they go to to look like Dolly Parton.” Chalk it up to an understandable love of glorious hair, dusty pink cowboy shirts, and good ol’ country hits of a five-foot-tall icon.