With two hit albums, three Grammy's and the most notorious belly button in the business, Shania Twain is on a nonstop track to the top.
Shania Twain is peeved. The Canadian country superstar with the most famous navel in music is standing onstage at the Corel Centre, just outside Ottawa, Ontario, and she's not happy with what she sees: 17,000 of her fans sitting down. "I see a lot of lazy butts out there," Twain chides into her microphone like a frustrated Richard Simmons, "and it's only the beginning of the show." Then one of today's most popular female singers gives the crowd an order: "From now on, for the rest of the night, when I sit, you sit, and when I stand, you stand." As her audience of men, women and even children roars its assent to this wish, and gets on its feet to shake along to her smashingly successfiil blend of country pop and rock, Twain breaks into a smile. And when the show finally ends an hour and a half later, the Twain faithful go out into the cool, Canadian night thoroughly entertained.
Making fans happy is something Shania Twain is good at. And over the course of four years, she's made a whole lot of them ecstatic. Her 1995 album, The Woman In Me (Mercry Records) sold 12 million copies worldwide, while 1997's Cone On Over has sold 10 million and shows no signs of stopping there. She's currently on a world tour that has sold well over a million tickets, and earlier this year she added two more Grammys to the one she picked up in 1996. There's simply no denying it: Twain has made it. Not had for a small-town girl whose dreams of success did not include becoming a world-famous superstar.
Yeah, every superstar says that - but with Shania Twain, you actually believe it. "I never thought, I want to be the next Diana Ross," says the 33-year-old. Despite her sexy appearance on last year's VH1 Divas Live, the woman sitting here in a downtown Ottawa hotel room looks like she might have just come in from the mall. Her reddish brown hair is in a ponytail, she wears barely any makeup, and her 5'3" frame is clad in flared jeans and an oatmeal-colored fieece pullover. "I never had those sort of fantasy dreams," she continues. "I was too much of a realist. I was somebody who wanted to make it so that I could survive." And for Twain, just surviving was no small feat.
Born in 1965, Twain grew up in Timmins, Ontario, an old gold-mining city 500 miles north of Toronto. The second oldest of five children, she was raised by her mother and stepfather; Sharon and Jerry Twain. (Her father left when Twain was two and she's had little contact with him since.) The Twains were a close family but financially they were hanging on by a thread. Jerry could rarely find steady work. As a result, Shania vividly recalls times when her parents "couldn't buy groceries and the heat would get turned off." She and her siblings often went to school hungry which caused their mom spells of debilitating depression.
Twain has told the story of her poverty-stricken upbringing dozens of times (including on her VH1 Behind the Music episode), but insists, "I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me, because I feel like I'm the lucky one." Growing up with a less-than-no-frills life, she found a luxurious refuge in music. When she was three, her mother first noticed her impressive voice, and by the time she was eight, she was performing all over Timmins. When she got to high school, she buckled down and worked at her music, playing the coronet in the school band and singing in rock groups at night. Music was her life. "I was never really a part of any crowd in high school," she recalls. "I was at band practice and working at nights and I didn't really get into social life at school. No one noticed me." Afrer graduation, she moved to Toronto, got a job as a secreatary and sang with a variety of groups at night. She was ready to make a go of it as a singer. Her life, she thought, was about to begin. Unfortunately, fate had other plans.
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In 1987, when she was 21, Twain's parents were killed when their car collided head-on with a logging truck. Her three younger siblings, still teenagers, were suddenly orphaned and alone. So Twain immediately settled her parents' affairs, packed up 18-year-old Carrie-Ann and her 13- and l4-year-old brothers, Mark and Darryl, and moved to Huntsville, Ontario, where she got a job at the Deerhurst Resort as a singer and dancer. For the next three years, the family lived out a real life Party of Five (or four - Twain's older sister, Jill, was married and raising her own family by then), with Twain working late at night and getting the kids off to school in the morning. The memories of that poverty still light a fire under her today. "There's this part of you that becomes desperate to succeed," she explains. "And I'm sure that [being poor] is what gave me the strength to succeed - the fact that I didn't want to live hungry for the rest of my life."
In 1990, Mark and Darryl both graduated from school and left home, leaving Twain free to pursue her career. With the help of her manager at the time, a demo tape of country songs she'd written and recorded made its way to right people in Nashville. According to Twain, when she sent the demo down south, stardom was not on her mind: Pursuing a contrcct was just the next "logical thing to do" for a budding singer-song-writer. But when Nashville called and offered her a record deal, she was thrilled. What she wasn't so thrilled with was her name. Oh, didn't we mention? Shania's real name was Eilleen Twain, a moniker that she and her manager agreed just didn't sound show businessy enough. She chose the name Shania from the language of her stepfather's Native American tribe, the Ojibwa. It means "I'm on my way." And as it turned out, she was.
Her first album, simply called Shania Twain, came out in 1993. A musical and commercial disappointment (at the time, it sold about 100,000 copies), it nonetheless became a minor cause celebre thanks to the video for the song "What Made You Say That," which marked the debut of her soon-to-be-world-famous belly button. One happy viewer was South African-born London rock producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange, who listened to Twain's album, called her up and asked to hear more songs she had written. (Only one Twain original appeared on her debut, a decision made by the album's producers.) More phone conversations ensued, until Twain and Lange, who's 16 years her senior, finally met in Nashville in June 1993. Soon they were cowriting songs for Twain's next album (which Lange was to produce). After a romantic trip through Europe, the couple tied the knot.
Their first collaboration, The Woman In Me, contained 12 songs, 10 written by Twain and Lange. "We're so compatible," she says of their working style, "that we combine our thoughts, taking pieces of his songs and pieces of mine and putting them together." Something has definitely worked. The album's current sales of 12 million put Shania in the company of only five other women artists who have broken the 10 million mark for a single album: Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey; Carole King and fellow Canadians Celine Dion and Alanis Morissette.
With the next album, 1997's Come On Over, Twain officially crossed over to a main-stream pop audience with the irresistibly romantic ballad "You're Still the One" and its sexy video. (Remember the cute guy in the steamy bathtub scene? That's it.) Not everybody in Nashville was ready to hop on the Twain train, though: Singer Steve Earle, a well-known name in country music, has called her "the world's highest-paid lap dancer." Others just thought her catchy music was too pop to be "real" country. "In the music industry, we're sort of inclined toward creating niches for people to fit into nicely," explains Mercury Records president Luke Lewis, who's overseen all three of Twain's albums. "But the major accomplishment that Shania's made is to have broken down those barriers. She's taking country music to a wider audience."
Asked why she thinks she's such a monster sales success, Twain says it's because she sings about male-female relations with a sense of humor. "I like it when men open my door," she says with an easy smile. "I like being treated like a lady. I don't find it demeaning at all. I find it respectil. I never found that it got you anywhere to be bitchy and defensive," she says. "And so this is what I've put into my music." Perfect example? Her lyrics from "Any Man of Mine": "Well any man of mine better disagree/When I say another woman's lookin'" better than me/And when I cook him dinner and I burn it black/He better say, mmmmm, I like it like that."
As for her image as Canada's sexiest export since Pamela Anderson - but without the surgical enhancements - "it's just a fun thing to slip in and out of," Twain says. She insists her videos show the side of her that likes "to play dress up every once in a while," but that "music is why I do what I do. I don't do it to be a model or some kind of beauty image." Still there's no denying that the girl's got one of the best bodies in music. How does she stay so, well, fit? Chalk it up to all the dancing she does onstage while on tour. During her down time, riding her horses and cleaning the stable are the only exercises she gets. "I don't like having a physical routine and regime," she admits. "If I ever get lazy, I'm afraid I will be one of those people who falls out of shape."
Laziness does not seem very Shania-esque. Twain and Lange, who is not on tour with her (he's working on the next Backstreet Boys album), are already making plans for her next release - a 1999 Christmas album. As for being separated from her husband for so long, Twain says, "it's terrible. I hate being away from him." But after the tour swings through the United States this summer, they'll head to their Florida home for a little R and R.
Despite her southern zip code, Twain is happiest when in her native country. "I always breathe a sigh of relief when I come into Canada," she says. As her tour winds its way west through the provinces, friends and family will be there to cheer her on. "Tomorrow night my sister is coming from our hometown," she says brightly. "And then I'll meet my niece and nephew in Toronto. You know, I'm going to get a cottage here. The family's here and I really feel like I have to get to Canada more often." How 'bout that? The world-famous superstar has small-town fantasies. Guess this express Twain is going to start making local stops again soon.
by Ian Landau, Glamour magazine, June/99 cover