TIME 100 Talks
May 28, 2020 1:55 PM EDT

What will life be like after the coronavirus pandemic? While it’s impossible to know for certain, Dolly Parton is optimistic.

“When life is good again, it’s going to be better than it ever was,” the ten-time Grammy-winning entertainment icon told TIME’s Editor-in-Chief Edward Felsenthal during a TIME100 Talks: Finding Hope conversation on Thursday. “I know I’ll be a better person. I can see a lot of things that I can do better than I did before.”

Parton has used her platform to help combat COVID-19 and comfort people amid the pandemic. In early April, she donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University Medical Center towards research on treating and preventing coronavirus.

“I know that I’m in a position to help,” she explained. “That’s why I try to do it in every way that I can.” Parton said her friend Dr. Naji Abumrad — who works at the medical center — had told her of the center’s advancements towards fighting COVID-19 and she felt drawn to make a donation. (Abumrad is also the father of journalist Jad Abumrad, who created the hit podcast Dolly Parton’s America.)

Since the pandemic began, Parton has also launched the YouTube seriesGoodnight with Dolly” through her non-profit Imagination Library, a book-gifting program that has donated nearly 140 million books to children. Every week Parton reads a different children’s book live; in its ninth week, the series already has over 700,000 streams.

“I wanted to try to help lift people up and throw a little fun in there,” she told Felsenthal. “And maybe the parents could enjoy it, too.”

The series represents just one of the many ways the decorated singer, songwriter, actress and businesswoman has remained a prominent, beloved figure in mainstream pop culture. In 2019, Parton executive produced the Netflix series Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, an anthology drama inspired by Parton’s biggest hits. That same year she released a song with Swedish electronic dance duo Galantis, and recently inspired the viral “Dolly Parton Challenge” on Instagram.

But while she has been viewed as a role model for women and girls around the world, Parton has been hesitant to call herself a feminist. When asked by Felsenthal to explain her stance, she responded that it was “kind of a tricky question.”

“I suppose I am a feminist if I believe that women should be able to do anything they want to,” she said. “And when I say a feminist, I just mean I don’t have to, for myself, get out and carry signs… I just really feel I can live my femininity and actually show that you can be a woman and you can still do whatever you want to do.”

Parton stressed that she’s “not ashamed” of the label, but that, “It’s just that there’s a group of people that kind of fit into that category more than me,” she said. “I just always say I don’t really go for titles or this or that,” she continued. “But I’m all for all our gals. I think everybody has the right to be who they are.”

Parton’s message of inclusion also appears in her new single “When Life Is Good Again,” the music video of which premiered during Thursday’s TIME100 Talks. Parton told Felsenthal that she’s turned to songwriting during the pandemic, as she often has during times of difficulty.

“I really try to write what I think everybody is going through right now,” she shared. “I try to create things that I think people would like to be able to express, because I’ve always been grateful that I’m a writer.”

“When Life Is Good Again” looks forward to a time when the pandemic has ended, and Parton’s message is far from hopeless: she’s sure this time will come. And when it does, the world might even be a kinder place; Parton told Felsenthal that she hopes the pandemic can serve as a catalyst for people to sit down and think about what truly matters to them, just as it has for her.

“I think we have to pull together a little better. I just think we’re just getting so scattered and so selfish,” Parton said, “and we’re just letting too many good things go by.”

“And we will get through it,” she added. “Everything has to pass.”

This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields sharing their ideas for navigating the pandemic. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.

Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com.

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