Dolly Parton and Angela Merkel: what’s the difference?

Comparing the Backwoods Barbie to the pastor’s daughter might seem a stretch, but they have a lot more in common than you’d think

After almost a decade in office Angela Merkel is both the most powerful and, perhaps, the most understated woman in the world.

With a huge 96.7 per cent of the vote, Merkel was this week re-elected leader of the Christian Democratic party, which she has headed since 2000. A year into her third term in Berlin she has a remarkable approval rating of about 75 per cent. Her officials attribute her political longevity to her style: apart from a limited makeover when she took office, they say, what you see with Merkel is what you get.

I'm not convinced. Merkel's relentlessly low-key public persona is the work of a mistress of image management, a role in which she has but one equal: Dolly Parton.

Comparing the German leader and the queen of country might seem a stretch, but only at first glance.


Last weekend Parton told the Guardian, "The magic with me is that I look completely false when I'm completely real." Merkel's success is the opposite: she reverse-engineers what Germans associate with genuineness and, very subtly, sells it back to them.

Behind their dissimilar public personas – gaudy Parton, sober Merkel – the two women have used similar means to achieve the same end.

Both slipped in the doors of male-dominated old boy’s clubs wearing the camouflage least likely to attract attention: busty and blonde for Dolly in Nashville, shy and retiring for Angela in the CDU.

Underestimated and taken for granted, they were plucked from obscurity by masters of their craft, Parton by the country singer Porter Wagoner, Merkel by the unity chancellor Helmut Kohl. Both watched and learned, then ditched their mentors when the time was right.

Parton secretly signed a solo recording contract before quitting Wagoner's television show, which had made her name, then wrote a song that, thanks to Whitney Houston, has become perhaps the most profitable farewell letter in history: I Will Always Love You. Kohl's "Mädchen" eventually knifed him in the back in a newspaper opinion piece on December 22nd, 1999. Happy Christmas, Helmut, I will always loathe you.

But the women’s greatest achievement, and where they most resemble each other, is the way they have stayed on top: by identifying lingering chauvinism and sexism in their fields and rewiring it for their own ends. Parton augments her appearance in public as “a Backwoods Barbie in a push-up bra and heels”. Yet her entire image is a sleight of hand – attracting and mocking sexism and, all the while, turning a profit.

It's the same idea, with a different strategy, for Merkel in Germany.

Germany is still a remarkably chauvinist place (think early rather than later episodes of Mad Men) where you don't get ahead as a woman by making yourself up; nor can you beat the boys by joining them.

Realising this, Merkel, in private a witty and charming woman, turns down the dimmer in public. And the sober image that helped her rise unnoticed through the ranks of the CDU works equally well with voters who are perpetually suspicious of political polish.

Parton’s sequinned dazzle achieves the same end in her world as Merkel’s buttoned-down sobriety does in hers: to trigger emotional appeal, deflect attention from what’s really going on and, all the while, guard her privacy.

Both are married, although their husbands are seldom seen; both wanted to have children but didn’t. Both steer massive liners yet run remarkably tight ships. Merkel has just two close confidantes in her inner circle, both women; Parton is so close to her longtime female assistant that gossip columns have even claimed they are lovers.

Parton’s outer-circle employees admit they don’t know who they work for; in Berlin, Merkel’s staff are fiercely loyal and tight-lipped. The more someone talks in public about Merkel here, the less they actually know.

Through careful management both Parton and Merkel play public and media prurience on their terms.

Parton sells tickets to her past in her Dollywood theme park, including a re-creation of her Tennessee mountain home.

As a cautious East German, it was only on Merkel’s third election campaign, last year, that she offered voters private photographs and anecdotes. Yet what looked like Proustian Madeleines were remarkably tasteless and unrevealing.

What keeps both women on top is trust in their own instincts over outside advice. Parton, after years in musical decline, signed to major record companies, putting herself back on top of the charts with her own label and a return to her bluegrass and country roots.

Merkel ignores traditional media rules and gives only occasional, forgettable interviews. Journalists, she realised once in office, need quotes and stories more badly than she does.

After taking Berlin, Merkel’s use of camouflage and control has steered her to dominance in Brussels. Across Europe, critics complain about how the German leader has convinced other leaders to adopt austerity-driven politics at odds with their convictions. Personalising the political criticism reveals another, subconscious message: why has this woman succeeded with her politics over the men?

Heading Europe’s largest country has, no doubt, helped Merkel get her way. But it doesn’t fully explain her long-term success.

Like the Tennessee-born queen of country, the East German pastor’s daughter owes her success to camouflage, control and hard work. That this provokes consternation is a telling glimpse into the chauvinist challenge that even powerful women face when they dare to be better than men.