Her life was the stuff of country songs: poverty and the death of her parents. But she got out and made it as Nashville's biggest superdiva. Inspired? We were. That's why Shania Twain is Cosmo's Fun, Fearless Female of the Year.
Shania Twain runs up onto the stage at the Cajundome in Lafayette, Louisiana, and grabs a huge yellow
spotlight. She shines it into the crowd of thousands, all screaming her name like a mantra - Sha-ni-a. Clad in skintight red velvet, Twain is swinging the lamp around, goosing up the ciowd's excitement, shouting at the top of her lungs: "Show me what ya got, Lafayette!" When Lafayette shouts hack, even louder than befor - Sha-ni-a - the 33-year-old singer with the world-famous navel runs to the middle of the stage, throws her arms up into the air, and laughs as fireworks explode all around her.
Okay, so this sexually charged spectacle isn't what you'd expect from a country music show. But Shania Twain, in only four short years, has given that Nashville style a wbole new look and sound. Abandoning the songs dwelling on broken hearts, broken homes, and well, just being broke, Shania's pop beats and uplifting messages have crossed her over, grabbing the attention of rock fans as well. Singing tunes from her two multiplatinum albums, 1995's The Woman In Me, and 1997'S Come On Over; the slender 5-foot-3 inch Shania really knows how to whip a crowd into a frenzy.
But Twain is also uniquely qualified to sing about overcoming life's obstacles - she's been there and done that. After all, the challenges of her past and how she got to where she is today is really the stuff of the saddest country ballads.
How She Healed Herself
Earlier the same day, Twain talked about how happy she has finally become. "It's like going to war and coming back," Twain says about her life. "Every once in a while, someone has to slap you and say, 'Hey! The war is over!'" That long, long war was her childhood.
Shania Twain grew up as Eilleen - (she changed her name in 1990 for professional reasons) in Timmins, Ontario, 500 miles north of Toronto. The second of five children, she was raised by her mother, Sharon, and her adoptive father, Jerry Twain. Shania never met her biological father and says simply, "Jerry's the only father I ever knew." The family had almost no money; Sharon struggled with episodes of depression, and Jerry; an Ojibway Indian, had trouble finding steady work. "When there wasn't anything to feed us for breakfast," she says, "my mother didn't get out of bed. She didn't want to face that morning. And there were a lot of mornings like that."
But the Twains had one incredible asset: a little girl who could belt out a tune like nobody's business. When Shania was only 3 her mother recognized her incredible tone and pitch even when singing the simplest nursery rhymes. By the time Shania was 8 years old, Jerry and Sharon began pushing her to perform. Since she was too young to play in clubs when liquor was being served, Shania's parents would wake her up at midnight to take her to nightclubs after last call, where slie would sing her heart out to make money for the family.
While some former child performers complain that their stage moms robbed them of their childhoods, Twain says she's glad she was pushed. "I think that at starting young was a good thing, because if I hadn't started young, I don't know if I ever would have gotten the courage to go on stage," she says. "By the time I was
a teenager, it was second nature."
Songwriting also became second nature to her. By the time Twain turned 10, she was penning her own songs and performing them with local bands on the weekends. "I wasn't just a kid trying to sing," Twain says. "I was actually a musician. I basically taught myself. I used to write out all of my chord charts to my original music. I was very senous."
But the problems at home were huge. There still wasn't enough money for food. When Shania and her older sister, Jill, were teenagers, they'd fix mustard sandwiches for lunch. "just to have something between the bread."
Despite all the hardship, Twain loved and respected her parents. She says, "They weren't alcoholics or druggies. They were just people who couldn't feed tbeir kids or pay their rent sometimes."
It wasn't until Twain was in high school that her father started a business that planted trees for paper companies and a little cash began to trickle in.
"No matter what we all went through, the bigger picture was always there: We were a family and we all cared about each other and we needed to stick together. I wasn't angry - I just dealt with it."
On the Road to Nashville
Twain left home after high school and spent four years touring around Toronto with her bar band. It finally seemed as though Shania - which in Ojibway means "I'm on my way" - was finally on her way. Then tragedy struck in 1987, when her parents were killed in a head-on collision. At the age of 21, Shania put her career on hold and became the surrogate mother to her younger sister, who was 18, and her 13- and 14-year-old brothers. To make ends meet, she stopped touring, found a steady job as a lounge singer at an Ontario resort, and bought a house nearby.
She didn't let her new role as a parent to three teenagers keep her down. She continued to write music and polish her now-killer peformance skills, "I was prepared to wait as long as I had to for my career. I was dedicated to my family," she says. Three years later, after her sister moved out and the boys graduated from high school, Twain was free again. She immediately began to work on a demo tape of original music, all influenced by the country sounds she had grown to love.
"When it was finished, I sent it to Nashville," she says. "I brought a guy up from Nashville to see my show at the resort, and he introduced me to a producer who introduced me to another record guy.. it was just a chain reaction." All of those years of performing in the middle of nowhere were finally paying off. "The show and the demo tape got me to Nashville and from there it just built." After Twain arrived in Nashville, she immediately landed a contract to produce her first CD. In 1993, her self-titled debut CD was released on Mercury Records.
It's clear that Twain's electrifying presence and determination are what paved the way to Nashville. Luke Lewis, president of Mercury Nashville, the record company that produced all three of Twain's albums, remembers one of the first meetings he had with her after tbey signed her on for her first albiun. "She told me she wanted to be 'as big as Garth' I looked into her eyes and knew she'd do it."
The Call That Changed It All
Even though Twain had finally cut an album with a major label, she still had some work to do. Although her demo tape had been all ber own songs, there was only one track written by Shania on the first CD. It was released to lukewarm reviews and sold only 100,000 copies.
Not long after Shania Tivain was released, she received a call from music producer Rohert John "Mutt" Lange. Known for working with artists like Def Leppard and Bryan Adams, he'd listened to her album and seen one of her very sexy videos. Friends have joked that he might have been more interested in her navel than her music.
Twain and Lange talked for hours during that first call. He told her it was time she released an album of her own music. She played some of what she was working on over the phone. After that, they spoke on the phone daily for a few weeks, tinkering with songs. In no time, Lange agreed to become Twain's producer, and six months later, she agreed to become his wife.
The fruits of that match are pretty clear: Twain's second album, ~ 95's The Womann In Me, which Lange produced, sold 11 million copies. This made Shania one of the few women - joining the likes of Whitney Houston and Alanis Morissette - to sell that many with a single album. Not only did The Woman In Me put Twain's high-heeled bootprint on the country-music radar screen, hut it pro-pelled her into the pop-rock mainstream.
She was also fearless about using her amazing body to her advantage. "She knew what other Nashville entertainers didn't: that people in middle America have become much more sophisticated," says Lewis. "So she decided she could be sexier; she could show her belly button. She was the first one to figure that out."
So she heated things up even more with Come On Over. In just over a year, it hit the seven-million mark in sales and took Twain even more into the mainstream: Her video for "You're Still the One" was nominated for Best Female Video at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards (and won Sexiest Video for VH1), and she made it onto the cover of Rolling Stone - a feat rarely achieved by country stars. (The last female country star on the cover was Dolly Parton in 1980). And in December, she was named 1998's Female Artist of tbe Year at the Billboard Music Awards.
Critics have speculated that Twain's career has been manufactnred by Lange; he shares writing credits - which is unusual for a producer - and he sings background vocals on both The Woman in Me and Come On Over. But Twain doesn't hide how much her husband helps.
"Writing's a pastime for us - something we like to do together; like playing tennis. We're very compatible that way and when you're in love with somebody, I guess you allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to be more creative."
Unfortunately for Twain, she doesn't see her husband as much as she'd like; She's currently in the middle of a yearlong international tour that will take her to more than 100 cities around the world and won't end until the middleof this year.
"When you have a career that's as consuming as this one, it pretty much becomes your life," she admits. While she and Lange will see each other occasionally, the couple will be apart for most of the tour, since his career is hotter than ever too: he's curreni working with Michael Bolton and the Backstreet Boys.
What She Still Really Wants
Twain can't wait for the day when her tour comes to an end and she and Lange can finally be together day in and day out.
"We were married five years ago, and then everything just exploded with my career - it was all the same year," she explains. Twain says that she did three straight years of international promotional touring, made a follow-up album, and at the same time, planned a concert tour. "I've spent the last five years being quite unsettled. I was on the road nonstop and never really lived anywhere."
So when the tour is over, the international recording star/sex symbol/Cosmo cover girl wants a "normal" life. "I never had a chance to play wife. I'm kind of old-fashionod like that. I like being at home and cooking," she says. But don't think she's shedding the spandex right away to become a mom. "We don't have enough time as it is," she laughs. "It wouldn't be fair to the child. Maybe we'll be ready someday, but not now."
After all, she has other things on her mind. "The follow-up album has been a terrific success," she says, "and no one can take that away from me now. What-ever happens from here on, it's irrelevant, in the sense of success or failure. I've succeeded as far as I'm concerned - I don't feel that I have any cliffs I could fall over any time soon. And I'm having more fun than I ever have had before."
By Trish Deitch Rolirer, Cosmopolitan, Feb/99 cover