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Shania Twain - USA Weekend

usaweekend cover When her parents died, she began entertaining to support three younger siblings. Today, the woman whose midriff shocked Nashville has six Grammy nominations and a new home in Switzerland.

As a young girl, Eilleen Regina Twain had a recurring nightmare. "My biggest fear, as a child, was that I would lose my voice. I had awful nightmares about getting hit in the throat. My voice was the only real thing that I had."

In a rural northern Ontario home where peanut butter was a luxury and thrift-store hand-me-downs were worn until threadbare, Twain - up for six Grammy awards this week - knew her voice would someday be her passport out of poverty. "I would do anything I had to to make sure I never had to suffer again. That's how I feel now."

She began singing professionally at age 8. Talent shows, mostly. And a Canadian telethon. Strumming her guitar and warbling Country Roads, she was cute and sassy and had a voice like a honky-tonk angel. After midnight her parents would wake her from her bed and drive her to bars where - as a minor - she earned $25 by entertaining patrons after liquor had stopped being served.

"I can't say I honestly thought I was good," she says now, drinking a protein shake before a recent concert in Albuquerque. "But I knew I loved it. I never thought I would become a good performer, because I was so petrified. I used to get sick [before a talent show]. In the bars, I felt more comfortable - although it wasn't a great environment."

Which, she says, brings up the biggest misconception about her: "that I'm this little puppet that's been created, and I have no experience, and I'm only a studio creation. People assume the stage was new to me. I've been onstage since I was 8."

In person, Twain, 33, is tinier than her mega-star persona. Her sienna-colored hair is shoulder-length, and her eyes are olive green. She refuses to wear miniskirts because "I hate my legs" but shocked Nashville when she dared to bare her belly button. She's a strict vegetarian and a lover of horses, suffers from low blood sugar, doesn't drink (alcohol makes her faint) and won't wear leather or fur. The object of many a male fantasy, she seems far removed from the teasin', squeezin' country music sex symbol, and devoid of diva-like behavior. "I'm definitely strong-willed," she says. "It's very much my personality to be ambitious. But I'm not the tantrum type."

She's been on tour for the past eight months, promoting her third album, Come on Over, which has sold more than 6 million copies and made Twain a certified pop idol. And although her detractors in Nashville said she refused to tour because she couldn't sing outside the studio, Twain says she waited until she had enough original material for her two-hour show, which grossed $34 million in 1998.

"Part of the new audience she is bringing to country music is teenage girls," says Chet Flippo, Billboard magazine's Nashville bureau chief. "Her message is female empowerment without male-bashing."

Focused and determined, Twain has been waiting for this moment her entire life. But she's driven by the music, not the money. She also hates having to hang around for hours every night signing autographs and schmoozing with fans, but she knows she has to do it. And she and her reclusive husband, music producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange, 49, sold their 3,000-acre ranch in the Adirondacks and have bought a house outside Geneva, Switzerland, where they also moved their recording studio. One of their most recent transatlantic telephone arguments was about buying a car. Ever frugal, she suggested a secondhand one. "He said, 'Are you out of your mind? Why in the world, with all we have, would we buy a car that could break down a week after we buy it?' "

As for being one of the new "divas," she says, "I take great pride in it." Her sex-kitten image? "I don't really think I'm pretty. I can look good in pictures." She dons a hairpiece for performances because it's so easy. "I'm on stage in 20 minutes. ... Whatever I have on during the day, I just add black liner on my lids and a bit of blush and I go. I work too hard out there. I don't want to stop and worry whether my makeup is running."

The second of five children, Twain grew up in Timmins, Ontario, where her adoptive father, Jerry, an Ojibwa Indian, and her mother, Sharon, struggled to make ends meet. "I called my mother my 'little angel.' She was very vulnerable. As a kid, I was angry at times: 'Why can't you go grocery shopping? We're hungry, for crying out loud!' There were times I would be at the end of my rope. The heat would go off in the middle of winter. For her not to have done something really drastic took a lot of courage."

In 1987, her mother and stepfather were killed in a car accident and 21-year-old Twain (who had minimal contact with her birth father) took in her younger siblings, Carrie-Ann, 18, Darryl, 14, and Mark, 13. She bought a house in Huntsville, Ontario - when the well went dry, they bathed in the river - and got a job as a showgirl at the Deerhurst Resort. "It was so over the top for me. The glitter! The fishnet stockings! The girls actually took turns showing me how to walk and dance in these clothes. They resented me. I wasn't ever going to be Liza Minnelli."

"What amazes me is how she handled so much responsibility in her private life," says Lynn Foster, director of entertainment at the resort. Raising her siblings "kept her very focused on her career. There wasn't time for her to goof around."

Three years later, Twain moved to Nashville and changed her name to Shania (shuh-NY-uh), which means "on my way" in Ojibwa. She recorded an album of cover songs, which flopped. But her voice was heard by rock producer Lange (Def Leppard, Foreigner, Bryan Adams), who called her from London.

They married in 1993 and began a professional collaboration that resulted in 1995's The Woman in Me. It sold 6.6 million copies and made Twain a crossover sensation. As for another collaboration, Twain says she and Lange are considering a family. But she's candid about her career coming first. "I'd like to have a child, but I don't know when. Adoption is something we might consider." Raising her siblings gave her a taste. "I know what I'm in for. The anxiety!"

And what if someday her childhood nightmare came true - what if she ever did lose her voice? "I'd start writing other things. I don't necessarily need to be a star my whole life to be content. I didn't have to become rich and famous to have a happy ending. I have enough food, and a house. That's success."

By Stephanie Mansfield; USA Weekend, Feb 19/99 cover

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