My illness forced Dolly Parton into retirement… but I’m back as Stevie Nicks

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A Co Down woman who was forced to quit as the UK and Ireland’s top Dolly Parton tribute act due to illness is making a return to the stage as Stevie Nicks.

fter receiving a life-changing diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Donna Stewart from Ballynahinch was left with no choice but to hang up her six-inch stilettos and retire from her beloved Dolly.

Donna (51) explained: “I was sent for an MRI scan of my brain where it was discovered I have an aneurysm. One in 5,000 people are born with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and many don’t get diagnosed for years as it’s such a complex illness.

“I’ve got faulty collagen which means all my bones, my body, my skin are affected, everything is slightly stretchier. This causes fatigue and debilitating exhaustion that can affect mobility, memory, concentration, speech and digestion.

“Symptom levels vary day to day and recovery from one gig can take days or even longer. I may look fine when I’m not. I need to organise my life a bit differently from others. Living with this is my normal.”

It was a heartbreaking decision to have to stop performing, but for the good of her mental health she sought out a new way to return to the stage.

“All my shows as Dolly were very fast paced, two-and-a-half hours of being Dolly is a lot of fun, but exhausting. I pride myself on attention to detail, so I wear real hair wigs, custom-made replica costumes and the trademark six-inch heels. Performing as Dolly happened organically. I wasn’t looking for it, it found me.

“I did contemplate doing Dolly in a lower heel and maybe boots on, but Dolly doesn’t wear those and I don’t want to be doing something that’s not completely perfect.

“Being without my creative outlet of singing and performing meant I became severely depressed, I gained five stone and I didn’t recognise myself. I knew that I had to make some big changes.

“When Covid came along, I decided I needed to find a way to get back on stage. I didn’t want to let my chronic illness or health conditions stop me from doing something I loved.” Donna had a lightbulb moment when she heard her friend Patricia Louise singing and realised her voice was really good, similar to that of Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie.

She said: “Myself and some good friends already knew we had a line-up similar to Fleetwood Mac, so when we heard Patricia Louise, we realised we had finally found the perfect final jigsaw piece to form a Fleetwood Mac tribute band.”

Donna is one of six people who make up Fleetwood Dreams, Northern Ireland’s answer to the British-American rockers.

She is hoping that her cherished Dolly fans come along with her on the new journey as Stevie Nicks performing classics including, Dreams, Go Your Own Way and Landslide.

Although Fleetwood Mac are known for their high-energy shows and being much more rock than Dolly, Donna knows the transition will ultimately be physically easier for her as she can rely on the whole band.

“I have a long-term illness which means chronic pain. The average lifespan for a person with Ehlers-Danlos is 48. I’m 51. I have a brain aneurysm, which I do worry about because I know it could burst and I could end up having to relearn to walk, talk or write,” she admitted.

Despite her condition’s daunting prognosis, Donna has remained determined to not let it consume her.

“Worst case is that I could lose my life, but I’m hopeful it will never burst. I get a brain scan every year to monitor it.

“My precarious health means I am grateful for each day. I have every intention of living my best life, illness has picked the wrong girl,” she added.

Even with her years of experience performing to sell-out crowds, Donna admits that her new adventure as part of Fleetwood Dreams is challenging her to adopt a new way of singing.

“I’m just learning every day, which is great. The guys that are around me will point out things to me because my voice is theatre trained. They would tell me to bring my voice back and see how I feel.

“There are so many intricate harmonies and we’ve got a musical director (Kevin Sage) that really knows his stuff. If you get it wrong you just keep going until it’s right. It’s like being back at school and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.”

After countless hours spent rehearsing and fine tuning, the Fleetwood Dreams family is gearing up for a jam-packed summer of bookings and events including an intimate cabaret bring-your-own-bottle event held at Belvoir Studio Theatre on Saturday, August 5, which has already sold almost half the tickets available.

To date, they have three gigs left this year and will also be touring throughout 2023. We are looking forward to getting out there and paying tribute to our favourite band,” added Donna. “We are working hard to do them justice. We know this particular band has fans who will be looking out for attention to detail.

“That’s what it’s really all about. We’ve all got individual talents and we’re just pulling them together to make people happy. People love Fleetwood Mac and luckily, so do we.”

Visit Fleetwood Dreams’ Facebook to keep up to date with shows or email [email protected] directly to book

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