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She's Still The One

Crossover Sensation Shania Twain Sings Her Way to the Top
My boyfriend is New York born and bred, prone to switching radio stations at the first sound of a twangy country chord. During a road trip through the deep South, he punched away at the dashboard buttons like a champ. Which is why I was shocked to hear him singing cheerfully along to Shania Twain, his hoarse voice lifting to sing along with her unabashedly sentimental Top 40 smash, Your Still The One. "But just look at us holding on ...We're still together, going strong..."

Shania does that to people. She's a classic showbiz story, the crossover sensation - her music universal enough, her voice disarming enough, the emotions of her lyrics transparent enough to cross genres in the blink of an eye. Born Eileen, she changed her name to Shania ("I'm on my way" in Ojibway Indian) after a major tragedy changed the path of her life. And like other crossovers, she's an intriguing mess of contradictions: A Canadian star who wows 'em in Nashville; a squeaky-clean beauty queen from a painful, dirt-poor background; a shy and private woman with a sexy, flirtatious image; even a vegetarian who knows how to shoot a gun.

"Living in a brick house was my idea of rich," she says. "Now I can afford roast beef, but I'm a vegetarian. It's so ironic." Shania grew up in Timmons, Ontario with her mom Sharon and her adoptive stepdad, Jerry. There were tough times: Jerry barely made a living, and Sharon frequently took to her bed, too depressed to even get dressed. Shania often went hungry - hiding the mayo-and-mustard sandwiches she brought to school out of fear of social services catching wind. "I don't look at it as a bad thing at all," she says plainly, looking back. "I don't regret my childhood. Learning to make mustard sandwiches was something just to get me through the embarrassment, to help me avoid humiliation."

At night, she'd retreat to her room to play guitar and sing, influenced even as a child by both country and pop: "Waylon, Willie, Dolly, Tammy, all of them. But we also listened to the Mamas and the Papas, the Carpenters, the Supremes and Stevie Wonder." When Shania was eight, her mother began aggressively booking her daughter at community centers, senior citizen homes, and nightclubs - even dragging her out of bed after midnight to perform for smokey, late-night crowds. By her late teens, Shania was fully capable of making a living, soothing a drunken crowd, warbling Broadway, Vegas, pop, rock, and country, even wielding an axe and handling a chainsaw. (She spent the summers working with her stepdad's reforestation crew.) But when the singer was 21, her parents were killed in a tragic car accident - leaving her an orphan with three younger siblings to take care of. "I became very hard for quite a long time," she remembers. "I was so numb. Nothing penetrated. It was a very difficult time. But boy, oh, boy, did I ever get strong." By then, the ambition to make it as a star was in her own blood.

Making her way to Nashville with a demo tape, Shania was an instant hit, with her sweet warble, song-writing skills, and racy belly button-baring videos forming a potent commercial combination. (They also caught the attention of famed rock producer Jeff "Mutt" Lange, who pursued her romantically after catching her sultry video for "What Made You Say That." The two married in 1993.)

Shania's image as wild country sexpot isn't, says the singer, the real her. "I don't see anything in particular in the mirror," she says dismissively.

"Pretty plain. Pretty simple. I have good teeth. Strong teeth. I floss all the time, twice a day. My eyes are too small. Have good cheekbones. My legs are stumpy. A dented nose." She's reserved, too, when it comes to her body. "I'm very conservative, really. I'm not that physical. I mean I am with Mutt, of course, and with my dog. But beyond that, not even with my family. I'm just not one of these hug everybody people. I'm better now than I was. Used to be, I didn't even want my mother to hug me."

In her spare time, Shania craves privacy, retreating to her idyllic spread in rural upstate New York - to hike, camp, and go horseback riding. Even there, though, she complains that she is recognized by fans, a problem that troubles her enough that she's considered buying a place in Switzerland. "I know I'll get more privacy over there; it'll be nice to be able to get on a plane and get off and then be in a completely different world. Because of the type of person I am, I'll enjoy that."

Where did this intense self-protectiveness come from? Her adolescence, for one. "The guys see a girl who's developed up there, maybe they touch you up there, and you really feel very invaded," she points out. "And so, you know what? The easiest thing is to just cover them up, trying to get rid of the bounce factor. And that's what I did, I wore three shirts at a time. I tied myself in." There's a song on her album Shania says she's especially proud of: "If You Want to Touch, Ask!" "Well, it stems from that. I could have made it a much deeper, darker song. But that's not the way I go."

These dark corners are something Shania seems able to hide from when she's in the spotlight. And when she's up there, she knows, an enormous audience can be touched by her music without ever touching her. And for now, that's just fine.

"It's what I wanted," she says, "right from the start."
by Dee Hickmacher; Natural Living Today (cover), December 1998

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