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Shania Revealed

Macleans cover 3/98 They are lining up to meet her in the flesh. Hundreds of broadcasters, delegates to a country radio conference, have gathered for a party at the new Planet Hollywood in Nashville. In a room ringed with buffet tables, some queue up for Cajun shrimp, but the major feeding frenzy is around Canadian country star Shania Twain. She is not singing; she is signing autographs and posing for snapshots while a video of her song Don't Be Stupid plays on the wall behind her. The broadcasters so eager to meet her are professional fans, fans with influence. And Twain greets them with professional warmth. A hundred handshakes. A hundred autographs. A hundred point-and-shoot smiles. And, with each click of the shutter, a hundred strange hands clasped around her famous midriff. Every so often, like a boxer rehydrating between rounds, Twain turns to her makeup artist, Daisy, who holds up a bottle of water for her to sip through a straw. Finally, after more than an hour, Twain's handlers whisk her upstairs. In the elevator, the star holds out her hands. Daisy, who knows the drill, produces some wet wipes and scrubs them clean.

Later, in a roped-off VIP area upstairs, Twain sits for a moment before resuming the "meet and greet" ritual with another echelon of fandom -- employees of her own record company. Does it not all start to seem absurd after a while? Twain fields the question with a puzzled look. "Not really," she says. "It's just part of it now. And people who want to meet you usually get some pleasure out it. It's nice. It's a nice exchange."

Nice. For the reigning queen of country music, playing the girl next door to throngs of strangers has become second nature. Country singers, like TV soap stars and politicians, are still expected to service the fan base in person. Up close, Shania Twain loses none of her radiance; she has the sort of star power that people expect from royalty. And part of the magic is a life story that reads like a fairy tale -- Cinderella meets Bambi in the Canadian bush. A country girl from Timmins, Ont., is raised dirt poor, starts performing in bars as a child, loses her parents at 22 when their car collides with a logging truck, sings to support her three teenage siblings, then finds her prince -- reclusive rock producer Robert John (Mutt) Lange -- who gives her a studio kiss of stardom and a 2.5-carat diamond.

It is a story that occasionally threatens to veer into melodrama. Twain has had to fend off media controversy over her adoptive native heritage, and early rumors of trouble in her marriage to Lange. But although their careers often keep them apart, producer and star now appear to be living happily ever after. They call home a 1,200-hectare retreat with a private lake in upstate New York. And last week, Twain told Maclean's that they are seriously thinking of moving to Europe. They have begun looking for a house in the Swiss countryside.

Eileen Regina Twain -- who rechristened herself Shania seven years ago -- has certainly fulfilled the promise of her name, which means "I'm on my way" in Ojibwa. Now 32, she has sold more albums than any female country singer in history. Breaking a record that it took Patsy Cline 40 years to set, her 1995 CD The Woman in Me has attained sales of 12 million copies worldwide -- two million of them in Canada alone. Twain's new album, Come on Over, which is nominated for three awards at this Sunday's Junos in Vancouver, has sold 4.2 million after just five months of release. And what is remarkable is that Twain has done it all without performing live. Instead, she has spent the past three years working as an indefatigable publicity machine -- parading through talk shows, shopping malls and radio stations from Alberta to Australia.

Now, however, Twain is finally ready to hit the stage. She has put together a nine-piece band, and plans to launch a tour of Canadian hockey arenas on May 29 with a two-night stand in Sudbury, Ont., followed by a swing through Edmonton, Saskatoon, Calgary and Vancouver in early June. After some U.S. dates on the West Coast, she plans to play Toronto and Montreal in August, then smaller Canadian centres in the fall. Twain hopes to be on the road for most of this year and next. And anyone watching her rehearse and perform with her band last month at a Nashville TV studio could see that this is no typical country act. It is a hip, urban-looking outfit with an aggressive three-piece fiddle section and the energy of a pop band. "Basically, the show will be a party," says Twain, "and I'm the hostess. It's not going to be that slick. Just high energy, great lights and great sound."

With her music, Twain has goosed the tired country format with a well-aimed kick of sexy common sense. Her songs, which she co-writes with Lange, range from domestic-bliss ballads to sassy rockers that taunt and tease. In Don't Be Stupid (You Know I Love You), she offers feisty reassurance to a jealous mate. In That Don't Impress Me Much, she sings, "OK, so you're Brad Pitt . . . so you've got the looks, but have you got the touch?" This is not hurtin' music, but painless pop. "Shania Twain has carved out her own place in country," says Chet Flippo, Nashville correspondent for Billboard. "Until she came along, there was no job description for what she is -- a pop femme fatale in country, for want of a better term. She's playing by her own rules. And she's changing the audience."

Twain, meanwhile, is spearheading a country music invasion from Canada that is rejuvenating an industry rooted in the American South. "She's only the tip of the iceberg," says Nashville music journalist Robert K. Oermann. "A lot of the freshest sounds in country music are coming from Canada. The industry is looking north, because that's where the authenticity is."

Along with CÚline Dion, Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLachlan, Twain also belongs to a brave new wave of Canadian women who have taken the U.S. music industry by storm. And judging by the current slate of Juno nominees, a new generation of talent, both male and female, is hot on their heels. If Dion is the pop diva, Morissette the angry young rocker and McLachlan the sensitive folkie, Twain is the no-nonsense sex symbol -- a take-charge woman line-dancing down the middle of the road, splitting the difference between feminine compliance and feminist effrontery.

Twain's voice has a melting twang, enough to conjure up country, yet more suggestive of the boudoir than the barn. Her songs are flavored with fiddle and steel guitar, but Lange -- who has put his studio stamp on Def Leppard, AC/DC and Bryan Adams -- upholsters the music with lush arrangements typical of rock. "There are a lot of country fans who wouldn't usually be interested in as progressive a sound," says Twain. "And by the same token a lot of pop people like my music who wouldn't usually be attracted to country." With the new album, Twain's image, along with the music, creeps closer to pop. On the poster for it, denim and cowboy chaps have given way to faux-leopard and black leather. And in the video for Don't Be Stupid, she is in black sequins, river-dancing across a flooded alley.

While there is no denying her talent as a singer and songwriter, image is an integral part of Twain's appeal. She is a country singer who looks like a supermodel. Hollywood has, predictably, taken notice -- the singer has turned down a stream of movie offers, including a role opposite Al Pacino. On camera, Twain projects a playful sexuality, an allure that is part come-on, part come-off-it. Like a PG version of Madonna, Twain promotes the flirtatious co-existence of glamor and self-empowerment. She is country's Cosmo-girl, a fantasy that works for both men and women. The video for her latest single, the ballad You're Still the One, unfolds like a Harlequin romance, with Twain on a moonlit beach in a silky robe, dreaming of a Calvin Klein hunk, who steps from the bath dripping wet and lets his towel fall to the floor as he slides into her bed.

No country singer has used video to promote herself with as much audacity as Twain. In fact, it was her very first video -- a sexy, midriff-baring number from her first album -- that hooked her most important fan. Lange saw it in 1993 and phoned her out of the blue. The same footage caught the eye of actor Sean Penn, who directed a video for her. John and Bo Derek (10) also took notice, and together they shot the first video from the second album, with Twain dancing on a diner countertop in a hot red dress.

Twain's style has drawn some flack from traditional quarters of country music. Guitarist Steve Earle once dismissed her as "the world's highest paid lap dancer." And some critics dwell on the fact that, since her breakthrough, she has never proven herself as a performer, except through a camera lens. Others suggest she is a studio Barbie created by a Svengal husband and a high-powered rock management (Twain is now handled out of Connecticut by Jon Laundau, who represents Bruce Springsteen). "A lot of people are accusing her of being packaged," concedes Luke Lewis, Nashville president of her Mercury label. "But I don't think this is a marketing-driven artist. It's been her vision from the beginning -- all the clothes, all the looks, all the concepts."

In person, Twain certainly seems self-possessed. Sitting down for an interview in a Nashville hotel suite, she extends a firm handshake. In black pants, a black leather vest and a white T-shirt showing a sliver of midriff, she looks perennially ready for her close-up. She does not drink or smoke. She keeps her five-foot, four-inch, 110-lb. frame fit with regular workouts. Her skin has the glow of a woman who rides horses to relax. But Twain's clear-eyed charisma also works as a mask. She never lets down her guard, which can be frustrating for a photographer or interviewer hoping to catch her in a candid moment. Still, for a woman who is so poised and put together, it is a relief to know that she finds fault with her body. "I don't like my legs," she says flatly when asked why she sings about short skirts but never wears them.

It is late afternoon, and Twain has spent the day doing nonstop interviews with country radio broadcasters, ending each one with a snapshot and an autograph. Over and over, she answered questions about the new ripple in her hair, explaining that it comes from a curling iron, not a perm. One unctuous radio host had an unusual request.

"If you wouldn't mind calling me Sweet Cheeks, maybe once," he said.

As the tape rolled, he introduced his guest. "Here we are in Shania Twain's hotel room . . ."

"And I'm with Sweet Cheeks," she said.

"See, Shania Twain does call me Sweet Cheeks . . . I'll pay you later."

"Just leave it on the dresser."

No wonder she is eager to start touring. "I want to do less talking and more singing," says Twain. Her tour bus is under construction. "It's not going to be opulent," she insists. "There's not going to be any marble or anything. I want it to feel like home, with a fairly big kitchen space because I'm going to cook a lot." She plans to tour with her dog, a German shepherd named Tim, and one of her five horses, an Andalusian purebred named Dancer. Dancer will get his own trailer.

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