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Dolly Parton, one of the stars of "Steel Magnolias," is well aware that no one will confuse her with Meryl Streep.

Least of all Herbert Ross, who directed the $17 million-plus version of Robert Harling's 1987 Off-Broadway comedy-drama set in a beauty parlor in a small Louisiana town.Ross, Parton recalled in a recent interview at the Westbury Hotel in New York, was blunt in his low assessment of her talents.

"He was very hard on me. He told me I couldn't act, and I said, 'Well, hell, I know I can't act.' I said, 'That's your job. You're the director and you're supposed to help me with my acting. You hired me 'cause you thought I was going to make you a lot of money - now, earn it."

That is perhaps, more steel than Ross was looking for in a magnolia, but that's Dolly Parton - to the point - a refreshing quality that perhaps explains why she was the most popular woman on the set of "Steel Magnolias" with the universal assent of co-stars Sally Field, Shirley Field, Shirley McaLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah and Jilua Roberts.

"You do things like this, you almost get embarrassed, because it gets so mushy, like, `I luv ya luv ya luv ya luv ya, and we love each other, love each other love each other' - but it's true that we really did get along real well," she said.

"There were enough differences in our personalities to make it interesting, and we were all from different places - one bein' from here and one bein' from there, and Shirley bein' from way out there," Parton joked.

The good relations were essential, since the film is about a group of Southern women and their strong friendship. Parton plays Truvy Jones, a beautician in whose parlor the ladies meet to get gussied up and to gossip.

Parton said the role isn't much of a stretch for her. "Since I'm not an actress, and don't exactly know what all that even means - the technical end of it - I took on Truvy 'cause I knew she was close enough to me, where I could play her real well," Parton explained.

In fact, the part-time movie star and full-time country singer said she believes that had she not hit the big time, she'd probably be working in a shop not unlike Truvy's.

"I would have wanted to have a career in glamour, to be able to keep up my hair and nails and makeup, and have an excuse to do it - and to be able to get free bleach," she said, laughing.

On the subject of hair, one reporter at the interview wanted to know how long it took Parton to do her hair each day.

"Oh, honey, I don't know. I'm never there," she said, with a glance upward at her large, frosted wig.

Parton said that the line in "Steel Magnolias" which most rang true to her was one of Truvy's: "There is no such thing as natural beauty."

"There are a lot of beautiful women in the world, but I'm not one of them," she said. "That's why I believe what Minnie Pearl said: Any old barn looks better with a little red paint."

Or, even better, several coats. Parton is the first to admit that where the application of cosmetics is concerned, restraint is not her hallmark.

"I think the way I look came out of a country girl's innocent way of trying to look glamorous. I've often said it as a joke, but I mean it from the bottom of my heart, that I patterned my look after what they called `trash' in my hometown," she said.

Today, the look consists of an updated beehive, high-heeled black boots, black leather slacks and a matching jacket that's a good 10 inches short of being zippered up in the front - a reminder that Dolly Parton is more Nashville than Hollywood.

She has formed a new country music group - the Mighty Fine Band - and a new album called "White Limousine" that's already produced two No. 1 country singles. Parton, who's been writing songs since she was 4 and has published more than 3,000 of them says whe regards movies as a respite from singing and touring.

Because she can't spare much time for the movie, she's careful to choose roles that match her personality, as her parts in "9 to 5," "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and "Rhinestone" attest.

"There's lots of places in a lot of movies for a character like me," she said, a persona that Parton describes as "flamboyant."