Shania Twain emerges from her Swiss hideaway and swings back into action with a new CD, a new baby and a new attitude.
Shania Twain is not baring her belly. The temperature outside her pine cabin in Huntsville, Ont., is 24°F. A biting wind blows off nearby Lake of Bays, whose water is well on its way to becoming an ice block six feet deep. But pop music's multiplatinum-selling mistress of the midriff, hidden now, like the rest of her, beneath coat, boots, scarf and gloves, thinks it a perfect time to jump onto the tire swing hanging from a birch tree in her backyard, breathe in the crisp air and let her long locks blow in the (yup, still biting) wind. "I'm not cold at all," says Twain. "It's a friggin' beautiful day."
Behold the wonder of layering -- and an internal flame that seven years ago turned a big-haired kid from a little gold-mining town in Northern Ontario into one of the hottest female acts ever to hit the music world. With a rowdy pop-country appeal that sold upward of 10 million of her breakthrough 1995 CD, The Woman in Me -- and an unprecedented (for a female artist) 19 million copies of her 1997 CD Come On Over -- Twain, 37, has become what pal Wynonna Judd calls an "alpha" woman in the industry. And, having raised three siblings in a house without running water after her parents died in a car crash, Twain is pop's own triumph-over-tragedy poster girl. She won awards (including Best Country Album Grammy for Woman). She did Revlon ads. And belting out such ubiquitous hits as "That Don't Impress Me Much" and "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" she sent millions of fans at sold-out concerts into boot-stomping tizzies.
Then, five years after it all began, it . . . stopped. Poof, overnight. In early 2000, amid press reports that her seven-year marriage to record producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange was in trouble, Twain all but disappeared from public life, retreating to Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, and the 46-room château she and Lange, 54, bought in 1998. "I needed a break, physically and mentally," she explains of her move to Lake Geneva, where people are "calm and discreet. They might say hi or give me a smile, but they're not jumping up and down or shaking. I don't feel like a star there. I feel normal." Which was exactly the point. "I needed to leave behind the whole 'Shania' thing and be myself," says Twain. "I did a lot of hiking and cooking. I skied. I spent time with my horses. For the first time in my life, I was just resting."
And catching up on time, lost to work, with Mutt. "Our love has always been based on friendship and compatibility," says Twain of the man she married six months after meeting him -- though, as she admits, "we are very different." Most notably Lange has shunned the spotlight as intensely as she has sought it, buying up the rights to almost all the photos ever taken of him and refusing to give an interview for 30 years. But behind closed doors he is, says Twain, "not at all a recluse." The man Twain's sister Carrie-Ann calls a "walking encyclopedia" likes to chat about "history and world affairs and hockey." And mostly to be with his gal "Woody" (apet name derived from an old hairdo he says made Twain look like Woody Woodpecker). "It was so great to be together again," says Twain. "It was as if there was a time lapse from the time we got married to then, and we hadn't had a chance to get as close as we'd wanted until then. It was like being married for the first time, like a honeymoon period again. We can spend weeks together without any outside contact."
Their time together also produced both a 16-month-old son named Eja D'Angelo Lange -- and the 19-song CD Up!, released last month (800,000 units sold its first week out, a record for a female artist), which she began writing while she was pregnant. Of the two projects, she notes, creating a human life was easier. "I walked and did light weights all through my pregnancy," says Twain. "I had no problems, no cravings. Nothing changed. Oh, yeah -- I had a big belly! It's gone now, but I didn't care if I ended up with a million stretch marks and my stomach never went flat. Maybe I'd never show it again. But I thought, 'Been there, done that. I'm on to something else now.' "
She's not talking about the racy lace pantsuit she wore to November's CMA awards. While Up! is clearly a sign that Twain is once again ready to rock, the time she spent scrubbing the kitchen floor to the tunes of ABBA and Queen and stenciling animals on Eja's nursery walls also taught the singer something startling about herself: She doesn't much like the spotlight. "My personality isn't suited to what I ended up doing," says Twain. While she was always drawn to songwriting (she and Lange penned Britney Spears's "Don't Let Me Be the Last to Know" and Michael Bolton's "Only a Woman Like You"), it was her mother who urged her to perform, she says: "I wish my parents had spent more time worrying about my education than me being a star. When people try to treat me like a star, it makes me withdraw. Ten years from now, if I'm still in the limelight, I just can't imagine it."
Unless, of course, it's Eja (pronounced Asia) yelling for an encore. While she struggles with fame, Twain has taken effortlessly to motherhood, serenading her son with a ditty that goes, "Eja D, can you count to one, two, three? Is there anybody as lovely as my Eja D?" Says Twain: "I sing, and he copies me. He likes to dance and tap his foot."
Five years ago the thought of sprinting after a toddler who likes to eat as well as smell the roses was far from her mind, in part because the memories of her own childhood in rural Timmins, Ont., were too near. Her mother, Sharon, a homemaker, and stepfather, Jerry Twain, an Ojibwa Indian who worked as a forester, provided ample love to Eilleen (Shania's given name) and her siblings -- Jill, now 38; Carrie-Ann, 34; Mark, 30; and Darryl, 28 -- but money was scarce. There was often no electricity, and for food Eilleen would snare rabbits or hunt moose with Jerry. (Her mother was divorced from Twain's father, Clarence Edwards, when Shania was 2.) When her parents were killed in a head-on collision with a logging truck on an Ontario highway in 1987, Shania, then 21, took over the care of her three teenage siblings. (Jill, by that time, had her hands full raising her own family.) The change in her life was abrupt, and the responsibilities startling. "If I didn't get the groceries or do the laundry or pay the mortgage, nobody did," says Twain, who adopted the name Shania (which means "I'm on my way" in Ojibwa) at age 26. "I realized I needed to wait until later to have a baby. I needed to do it as stress-free as possible to enjoy it."
When in late 2000 Twain suspected good news, she and Carrie-Ann, a store manager visiting from Huntsville, rushed to a pharmacy in Tour-de-Peilz to find all the pregnancy test instructions in French. Though Twain speaks and reads the language well, she didn't want to make any mistakes. "So we did all of them," says Carrie-Ann, who, like the rest of the close-knit family, calls her sister Eilleen. "The one with the cross, the one that turns pink. "Five positive signs later, she says, "we all hugged and broke out the champagne."
Actually, nonalcoholic wine for Twain and Lange, both devotees of an Eastern religion called Sant Mat, which calls for daily meditation as well as abstinence from alcohol, drugs and premarital sex. While pregnant, Twain also refrained from flying, meaning that while writing Up! she and Lange spent a lot of time in trains and their Mercedes SUV, traveling to Italy, France, Austria and Germany in search of musicians -- and her muse. "At home I just want to watch a movie with some popcorn and talk to my sister all afternoon," says Twain. "It's very difficult for me to get creative."
Of course, the logistics of creativity became a bit more complicated after Eja was born. During the day a nanny helped when both Twain and Lange, who produced and cowrote Up!, were at work in the recording studio on their Tour-de-Peilz grounds. Since the new parents preferred to spend time with Eja during the day, throwing a ball or walking to a bistro for hot cocoa and french fries, they often worked at night. "I'd just put Eja to sleep in his stroller and wheel him over to the studio," says Twain. "Mutt would be in the booth, I'd be in the singing room, and the baby would be in his own little spot with a monitor. And every few hours I'd stop and nurse him."
Indeed, though Lange "is a very hands-on dad, bathing the baby and changing his diaper," says Carrie-Ann, feeding Eja has always been Mom's domain. A stickler for good nutrition, Twain prepares only fresh food -- beans, carrots, root vegetables, soy, tofu, soups, stews -- for Eja, who like his parents is a vegetarian. "These are kinds of comfort foods for us," Twain says. Though she occasionally allows herself the comfort of her favorite Canadian candy, Smarties, Eja is not so lucky. "He hasn't had any sweets yet," says Carrie-Ann. "Just crushed almonds and almond milk."
Eating right is not Twain's only no-nonsense habit. She shops sales racks and, after tours, has a tailor remake costumes into more wearable clothing. "I hate waste," she says. "I wear track pants and a sweatshirt I've had since we first came to Huntsville 15 years ago. Why get a new one if the old one still works? Why?" And she believes no one scrubs the oven as well as she can. Though she does have a part-time cleaning lady who helps in Switzerland, says Twain, "I try to do everything I can myself. I wash the dishes after I cook. If the floor needs a vacuum, I pull out the vacuum." When she visits her five horses -- Tango, Queenie, Chief, Slick and Shadow -- she notes proudly, "Eja likes to come with me and sweep the barn."
One part of Twain's life she will not urge Eja to share too early, however, is her career. "If music was his passion, I'd support it, "she says, "but I would not encourage it." Her own issue with life onstage was sometimes physical: Performing at bars as a teenager, she felt uneasy about the men who stared at her, and early on she covered her developing curves with baggy clothes. "Then I got to the point, at age 18, where I realized, 'Hey, clothes are your friend! Wow, I've been missing out!' " The self-professed feminist (though "not an angry feminist," she says) copped a new attitude: "If a man was looking at my breasts and not my face, it didn't bother me anymore. If he was interested more in my curves than what I was saying, it was his loss."
For Eja she fears the "drugs and the abuse of money" that can come with early fame, she says. But mostly, it seems, Twain fears fame itself, the "smothered" feeling, as she puts it, that made her feel ill at ease in L.A. and Nashville -- and at her high school reunion in Timmins last year. "I wasn't going to go at first, and then I thought, 'I can't miss out on everything normal in life,'" she says. So she and Carrie-Ann spent six hours in a car, "telling jokes and man-bashing and eating dill-pickle chips and listening to Journey and AC/DC," says Carrie-Ann.
Then they hit Timmins, and the normality ended. "We walked in, and it took only seconds before everyone realized it was her, and it turned into a photo-autograph lineup," says Carrie-Ann. "I kept saying, 'Enough!' But she kept saying, 'No, no, this is fine.' " The scene is not too different when she drops in a few times a year at the Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville, where she worked from 1988 to 1991. Back then, "she was driven, not much for idle chitchat," says musical director Glenn Bladon. "You could start off with 'How's the weather?' and pretty soon she'd be saying, 'Hey, I've got this tune to record.' " Nowadays, though, she longs for the easy banter that didn't interest her then -- and eluded her at her reunion: "I'm still glad I went, but it would have been more fun if it hadn't become this . . . Shania thing."
So while one part of her is focused on her Summer 2003 world tour, she is also concentrating on the other Shania: the one who calls fellow mom Celine Dion to talk, she says, "about the sleeping-through-the-night problem." The one, says pal Wynonna Judd, whose "eyes got really wide when I told her I home-schooled my kids." And the one who watches with some envy when Eja cries and only his daddy will do. Says Twain: "My husband can just magically soothe him."
After many years, Twain says she has learned to soothe herself. Though she once dreamed regularly about her parents, she says, she had her last dream about them a year ago. "They said to me, 'You're okay now. You don't need us anymore. We're fine, and we're happy with the way everything's turned out.' " And whether she chooses to flaunt her taut tummy onstage, write for others or stick to making bean stew, so is she.
Karen S. Schneider