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Her rags-to-riches story seems like a fairy tale: Shania Twain has overcome countless tragedies and seemingly insurmountable obstacles to reign triumphantly as one of the country's hottest divas.

Shania Twain should have been ecstatic. The Canadian country-pop singing phenomenon was in the middle of her first major tour, which would eventually sell more than a million tickets worldwide; her third album was still dominating the charts two years after its release; and she was about to sign a big modeling deal with Revlon. But as the 14-month tour went on, she says, "I was really depressed. I felt so isolated, like I was in this little bubble. You have to give up on the fact that you don't have any freedom or it'll just drive you crazy. And it did, at first."

Away from her husband and musical collaborator, Robert John "Mutt" Lange, for stretches of three to ten weeks at a time - he was busy working with everyone from Def Leppard to the Backstreet Boys and supervising renovations on their recently acquired "mini-castle" in Switzerland - Twain was feeling very "disconnected," she says. "You're talking to this person on the phone who's not part of your everyday life. It's really awkward."

But Shania Twain has never been one to succumb to the blues. After spending most of her childhood poor and hungry, then raising three younger siblings after her parents were killed in a car crash, Twain, 34, willed herself to become not just one of the biggest-selling female country artists ever, but a crossover sensation, the first woman ever to have consecutive albums sell more than 10 million copies each in the United States (1995's The Woman In Me and 1997's Come On Over, now at 13 million and still selling).

To conquer her on-the-road funk, Twain played celebrity hooky: She'd leave the arena where she was rehearsing and walk around the streets by herself. "I didn't tell anybody where I was going, people didn't have tabs on me, no security," she says. A few times she even found herself forced to enter the concert hall alongside thousands of fans. "It was exciting," she says. "I thought, Wow, I'm right with these people, and I'm getting away with it."

And the next time she hits the road - after taping a TV special for CBS that will air on Thanksgiving Day, she's off for an impromptu two-or three-week mini-tour of the United States - she hopes to bring her husband along. "I feel much more connected with Mutt," she says. "Your partner is your - not your lifeline, I don't want to be that dramatic - but you base your life with your partner."

The love of her life

People have sniped at Twain's relationship with her husband from the get-go, suspicious of the whirlwind romance, the age difference (at 50, he's 16 years her senior), and the long separations, convinced she's merely Lange's music puppet. Her marriage-slash-partnership with him has become regular fodder for speculation in the supermarket tabloids. Most recently, a "Shania Twain Divorce Shocker" cover story in the National Enquirer reported that when she returned to her hometown of Timmins, Ontario, this past summer and saw a man she'd dated for five years when she was in her 20s, he fell back in love with her and suddenly deserted the mother of his children--and that Twain's marriage was sure to end.

"What bothers me the most is that people take [tabloids] seriously," Twain says. She admits that she did briefly see an ex-boyfriend the tabloid unearthed - and his girlfriend--when in Timmins and that the two did split up afterward. "But it had nothing to do with me," she insists. "It's not fair for innocent people to be exposed and harassed like that." As for Lange, Twain says he doesn't care about the insinuations about their marriage.

"It's not new," she says. "I think people don't want it to work, because we're so successful as a team, because of the age difference, because of the fact that we work together."

Twain has never had a conventional love life. "Growing up, I was serious about my career and my life," she says. "Men were always secondary. I never put a man first, ever." She only met her husband through what might be termed a very expensive video dating service: Lange saw her 1993 video for "What Made You Say That" and called her from England. During an extended phone courtship, he encouraged her to record more of her own songs. When they finally met in person, it didn't take long for them to fall in love. They spent their first six months together traveling around Europe and collaborating on what would become The Woman In Me, a sort of honeymoon album. They married in December 1993.

"We are definitely a good example of the saying 'opposites attract,'" says Twain. "We're one of those couples where, if my inclination is to turn right, his is to turn left. If we order water at a restaurant, he'll say 'avec gas' [with bubbles] and I'll say 'sans gas' [without]." But when they argue about, say, which single to release, "we just end up talking it through."

"Because he's more experienced, a lot of people had the opinion he was in control of the situation," says Danny Goldberg, former head of Mercury Records Group. "But after meeting them, I realized she's very much his equal. He's doing her bidding as much as she is doing his."

"It's a really healthy relationship," attests Luke Lewis, the president of Twain's label, Mercury Nashville. "They're both very forceful, bright people, and they respect each other." He believes Twain's biggest hit, "You're Still The One," is a thinly veiled reaffirmation of their love to the naysayers.

The key lyric about their relationship might be "I can't always be the rock that you see," from "The Woman In Me." Lange, says Twain, taught her how to be vulnerable. "There's something very settling about finding the person you're going to spend the rest of your life with," she says. "I became much more relaxed. The challenge of finding someone to understand me was over. When you're striving to become something in life, you have to be this liberated, strong woman. Now I don't have to be so independent to feel I'm worth something, and that's a big change."

Twain says she didn't feel fully comfortable in her relationship with Lange until she had achieved her own financial success. "There was no way I was going to enjoy life beyond my own personal means," she says. "He thought it was ridiculous. But I worked my butt off, and now I'm independent financially. I can help my family with my money, give to charity with my money."

During her last tour, some of the proceeds from every concert were donated to local charities that aid hungry kids. The connection is intensely personal. "I was that hungry kid," she explains. "My goal is to save kids the humiliation, the anguish of feeling inferior." And backstage after every two-hour-plus performance, Twain amiably worked her way through a line of dozens of well-wishers, including an autistic child and a jaundiced, dying man on a stretcher whose last wish was to meet her. "A lot of artists [wouldn't meet with a dying fan], and I can understand why," she says. "But I've been through enough in my life that I can relate to people very well. I'm not tough. I'm strong. And I think there's a very big difference."

From rags to riches

If Twain's life story were a TV movie no one would believe it. "We had a fairly unstable upbringing," she says, adding, " 'fairly' is probably a mild word." She was born Eilleen Regina Edwards on August 28, 1965, in Windsor, Ontario, the second of three daughters of Sharon and Clarence Edwards, a railroad engineer. Her parents divorced when Eilleen was a toddler; Sharon moved with her girls to Timmins, a woodsy mining town 500 miles north of Toronto, and married Jerry Twain, an Ojibwa Indian who scratched out a living as a forester and prospector. He adopted Eilleen and her sisters, and he and Sharon added two sons.

Twain grew up regarding Jerry as her father; even friends only learned of the existence of her biological father after the Timmins newspaper exposed it a few years ago. (The tabloids then implied she had kept her "real" father a secret to exploit her adopted father's Indian heritage.) When she was eventually offered a record deal, she decided to change her name to make it more business-y. "Shania" is an Ojibwa name that means "I'm on my way."

The road from Timmins to Nashville was, as a country singer might put it, paved with heartache. Jerry was regularly out of work but too proud to accept and form of public assistance; Sharon was often depressed.

"Most kids feel inferior if they don't have the right jeans on," says Twain. 'I was way beyond that. I was worried about what was in my lunch. Nobody knew we were hungry, and I did everything I could to hide it," often bringing a mustard sandwich to school. She remembers referring to the rich as "roast beef families." (Ironically, now that she can finally afford roast beef, turns out she's sworn off the stuff. Following Lange's lead, she's become a vegetarian. "Spiritually," she says, "I think there is something odd about eating another anything.")

Her older sister, Jill, left home at 14, making Eilleen, then 12, the oldest by default. "We were probably in the heart of our difficult times as a family," Twain recalls. "I had to take control and was really an anchor in keeping the family together."

Twain's talent proved the family's salvation. At 3, she would sing along with the local diner's jukebox. Her parents, especially her mother, encouraged her, dragging her out to perform in community centers, senior citizen homes, even local clubs. "Our mom had a lot of faith in her," says Twain's younger sister, Carrie-Ann Brown, 31. "She was always on the phone trying to book things, taking her to talent contests, traveling out of town to shows, getting her lessons. And Shania would always be singing - even just walking down the street. I'd be embarrassed."

By 8, Eilleen was making money by performing; by 10, she was writing her own songs. Her first two titles - "Is Love a Rose?" and "Just Like the Storybooks" - are evocative of a girl wondering whether the promises of songs could ever come true for her. She fantasized about being kidnapped by Frank Sinatra, who to her epitomized showbiz wealth. "I wanted to escape this life I had," Twain says, "and I knew the only honest way of doing it would be to be kidnapped. Because I'd have felt so guilty if I'd ever left my family willingly."

Since Sinatra never came, "I learned to be a survivor," she says. "You learn that you cannot depend on anybody else to make things happen for you." Through it all, she insists, she never resented her parents. "It's not like they were never there. They wanted things to be right. The fact that they sometimes couldn't feed us must have torn them to pieces."

On weekends during high school--where, she says, she was an average student who spent a lot of time locked in a music cubicle writing songs - and after graduation, she played in bar bands that covered top-40 and rock songs. The audiences were full of drunks, but she didn't mind. "There's something more moving about music than anything else in life for me," she says. "It's like a drug. I spent my teen years being high on music."

Music has seen her through hard times, and it remains a vital source of inner strength. She calls it her therapy. "I've never seen a shrink," Twain says, "even at times when I think maybe I should have. I don't want to sound weird, but music can do more for me than any person ever could."

Her life changed forever in 1987, when the car her parents were driving collided head-on with a logging truck. At first, 'I was kind of numb," Twain says. Though not a religious person, she says what helped keep her going was the belief that her parents "had gone to a better place." Since she was 21, custody of Carrie-Ann, then 18, and half-brothers Mark, 13, and Darryl, 14, fell to her. "I had practically raised them anyway," she says, but still, "it was a lot for me to deal with. It now seems like another lifetime - like I'm talking about another person."

There was some insurance money, and Twain landed a job performing regularly at Deerhurst, an Ontario resort that staged Vegas-style shows. She started earning about $ 30,000 a year, enough to buy a car and a small house. The plumbing didn't always work, but it was a definite step up. "We weren't starving," she says. "I actually look back at that time very fondly."

One recent tabloid article suggested that the man who ran Deerhurst paid for her teeth to be fixed and put her up in a condo. "It's completely false if they're insinuating I had an affair with him," Twain says. "What probably happened was that I needed a raise because I was getting my teeth done. But I certainly paid my own dental bills." As for the condo, she said, "My parents had just died, and until our house was ready, I was allowed to keep my family in one of the units there for a couple of weeks. [The tabloids] make it sound like I was the young mistress locked away in the penthouse!"

It was at Deerhurst that Twain was discovered, thanks to an old family friend who had a record business contact in Nashville. It's also where she confronted her long-standing shyness about her body and bared her navel for the first time: playing the Indian in the resort's Village People tribute.

"I went through a stage as a teenager where I resented the fact that there was a difference between men and women," Twain says. " I just wanted to be a person. I was very athletic, and I would always strap my breasts down so that when I was on the football field, the guys were watching me play, not watching me bounce. On a hot summer day, I'd wear something over my bathing suit, and the when I'd get into the lake up to my knees, I'd throw it off and dive in."

But being backstage at the resort, "I just got used to seeing people be so comfortable with themselves. Having to change in front of all these girls, I got forced into just getting over it."

To a point. She may now be a video and photo-shoot sex kitten with a navel-barring, leopard-print wardrobe (which recently helped land her on Peopl e magazine's worst-dressed list, alongside Mariah Carey and Madonna), but underneath, she's still something of a prude. In the video for "Man! I Feel Like A Woman!" she wore a short skirt - with bicycle shorts underneath. "I'm still very conservative when I'm not performing," she insists. "Like on the beach, I don't like people looking at my body."

Twain says she brings the same approach to her songwriting: Her songs, she insists, are not deeply personal or autobiographical. "I'm not that dramatic," she says. "I don't feel the nature to communicate my innermost feelings - and they wouldn't get it, so what's the point. I only want to release music that people relate to. That's my thrill."

It was Lange who extracted from her the most personal song she's recorded, the brief "God Bless the Child," the royalties from which Twain has pledged to children's charities. "Originally," she says, "that song was just 'Hallelujah, God bless the child who suffers.' I used to sing that line all the time when I was alone. I'd take long walks and just sing it out loud, let it echo. That pacified me."

"One day I was singing it, and Mutt heard it and said, 'That's such a beautiful melody, what is that?' and I said, 'It's nothing.' But eventually he convinced me to record it. After I did, I let go of it. I shared it, so I don't get the same thing out of it anymore."

So, she says, she is keeping most her other personal song snippets to herself. "There are some things I won't want to share."

Settling Down

Despite her unprecedented success, Twain seems remarkable clear-eyed, devoid of the extreme that tends to infect superstars. "I don't have a lot of highs and lows," she says. "Even when wonderful things happen in my career, I think to myself, 'What's the matter with you? You should be doing cartwheels.' But it doesn't really get me excited. I don't ever get into irrational states; I don't have angry explosions."

"She's so controlled and focused, it's spooky," says Mercury Nashville's Lewis. "It's probably a throwback to being a hungry kid and not wanted to ever be hungry again. It almost becomes a curse, because you don't sit back and enjoy your success."

Twain may finally do just that, now making a home of her own in her Swiss "freakin' château!" as she calls it. "I have privacy there," she says. "No one seems that interested in other people's business. I really like being normal, going to the grocery store. People know who I am, but they aren't interested in autographs."

She positively burbles about her new home's mix of bucolic - there are cows, sheep, and roosters nearby, and a stable she just fixed up for her five horses - and worldly. "I think a lot of Europe is like a time warp," she says. "They've managed to progress with the rest of the world, yet they've maintained a culture that they fight for. Kids still play freely in the streets her till dark."

Having all those rooms to fill in her new home has made her think about starting a family of her own. "It's certainly something I'm considering," she says. "This is a beautiful place to raise a kids." But it's not a decision that she's taking lightly. "I realize what's involved," she says, "and that it isn't all fun. There's a lot of heartache in having kids. You're lucky if they're healthy, first of all. And who knows what is to come after that?" She's also concerned that the demands of her career would interfere. "It's challenging when you're not settled. I know from my sisters how all-consuming having children is. They tell me all the time: 'Hey - you can never wait too long!' "

Next year she hopes to release another album, plus a Christmas album. "A lot of people think we have all these tricks up our sleeve," she says. "You know what? The trick is hits! If you have a hit song, then you have a career carpet to ride on. Without it, the carpet is just not gonna float."

Though she seems the most natural celebrity to write an autobiography, she says, "I'm not sure I ever will. I can't tell my story without revealing my family's, and I don't think that's really fair. My career has exposed them so much already. We're just so, I don't know if simple is the right word, but we're northern Ontario people, and I don't think we'll ever be accustomed to the Hollywood thing." Speaking of Hollywood, she's been offered many movie scripts, but so far she has shied away. "I'm kind of afraid to try acting," she admits, "because I don't know if I'd be good at it, and I don't like doing anything I'm not good at."

But given her determination, she'll likely end up being good at anything she sets her mind to. "She always knew what she wanted, and when she wanted it," says her sister Carrie-Ann. "She's always driving toward something, her mind is always going, it never stops. She's always been that way."

During her concert at the Winnipeg Arena in Manitoba, a quiet section of the audience was sitting down in their seats. Twain ran around the stage demanding they stand back up. "Come on!" she hollered. "No lazy butts allowed!" And as with everything else in her life, those 15,000 butts were soon doing exactly what Shania Twain wanted.

Priorities Magazine, Nov 1999

Shania Twain: Country's Boot-Kicking, Superstar Filly Rock-hard abs. Foxy smile. Devil-brown eyes. Chain saw tough. Soft and sultry as a Tennessee moon rising over Nashville.

Oh yeah, and did we mention that Shania Twain's record albums have sold more single copies than any female country singer in history-The Woman in Me busting through at more than 10 million and Come On Over sailing to well over 11 million. These monster back-to-back multi-platimum winners demolished the old record of six million by Patsy Cline that took over 40 years to reach!

Throw in chart-busting singles that send her songs soaring into the Top 10 week after week, the 1999 "Entertainer of the Year Award" from the Country Music Association, Grammys, Billboard Magazine Awards, Juno Awards and the cover of Cosmopolitan, People and Rolling Stone.

And Shania, is, well simply, boot-kicking en fuego. Being modelesque and talented can sometimes be mutually exclusive. Shania's got both.

It's not that the new queen of Country doesn't notice how her high energy, swivel-hip moves on stage send fans bonkers or that royalty checks mean she and Lange can indeed, live like royalty in a 19th century manor in Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland.

Shania came from the poor side of town and so far, fame, with its soul-crunching downside, hasn't damaged this singer/songwriter of uncommon proportions who is upbeat, abstains from drugs, cigarettes and alcohol and is a strict vegetarian. She believes so deeply in these things she hand-picked the backup band that just finished a 120-city world concert tour with her this summer. "I like a clean band. I don't like drugs. I don't like alcohol. I like to have clean-living people about me."

Ask Shania what the fast rush of success means, and she will tell you, "I don't really take myself very seriously." Or, to steal a line from her current hit single, "That don't impress me much." Maybe not, but the little gal from Windsor, Ontario, Canada, who was harmonizing with tunes on the radio at three and sang in cabarets, lounges and festivals as early as eight, has more than come a long way, baby. She has redefined country stardom for women. Maybe forever.

She's country, but doesn't sing the traditional love-sick, heartbreak, hard-luck ballads that defined Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. Lange's rock and roll background (he has produced hits for Def Leppard, Bryan Adams, Michael Bolton and the Back Street Boys) infused a new punch and sizzle to Twain's tunes, so much so that her popularity crosses the lines between country, pop, rockabilly and classic rock. Two years ago, music listeners that wouldn't give a hoot for country have "come on over" because of Shania's fresh sound.

Her tunes talk of love and life, working women coming home tired, guys getting jealous when their steady girl talks to other guys, girls' night out with "men's shirts, short skirts," and her own personal love anthem to Mutt in "You're Still the One." She's tackled social issues such as unfaithfulness, domestic violence and hunger.

She gives more advice than Dr. Ruth, the sexologist, who also gets a mention in one of her singles. Want to know how to reach the woman of your dreams? Shania says: "First you gotta learn to listen/To understand her deepest thoughts/She needs to know you can be friends/Before she'll give you all she's got."

And while her music style, dress and demeanor have turned the Grand Ole Opry on its ear, her journey from rural northern Canada to become the undisputed number one hillbilly filly is the stuff of novels.

Shania Twain was born Eilleen Regina Edwards in August 1965 to Clarence and Sharon Edwards. Her parents divorced when she was two, and she moved about 500 miles north of Toronto to Timmins with her two sisters and mom. In 1971, Sharon married Jerry Twain, an Ojibwa Indian. Together they had two sons, and Jerry adopted Shania and her sisters, extending full fellowship into his First Nations tribe. Up until the time Jerry Twain got a steady job in the reforestation business for paper companies-during Shania's later years in high school-the family struggled financially while Jerry was in and out of work, even moving to nearby Sudbury, Ontario, for a time.

Of those early years, Shania recalls "mustard" sandwiches-"just to have something between the bread"-or sometimes days with very little except bread, milk and sugar heated in a pot. If someone took an extra potato, someone else "didn't get a potato at all." A full glass of milk was out of the question. When there wasn't anything for breakfast, Shania's mom "didn't get out of bed. She didn't want to face that morning. And there were a lot of mornings like that."

She tried to hide her poverty from classmates and friends but realized that others had more. "I'd judge other kids' wealth by their lunches. If a kid had baked goods, that was like, oh, they must be rich."

Shania learned to shoot rabbit and moose with her father to supplement family meals. During summers she handled a chain saw and directed crews of forest workers. Looking back she says that "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."

Many times Shania would head outdoors and wander to a quiet solitary spot, sit down with her guitar and write songs. Her imagination led to dreams of a better life. She had three that she prayed for over and over again: live in a brick house and eat roast beef, be kidnapped by Frank Sinatra and be Stevie Wonder's backup singer.

At 10, Twain was deep into songwriting and performing her tunes with a local band on weekends, something she says was "very serious. I basically taught myself. I used to write out all of my chord charts to my original music." In her early teens she even appeared on The Tommy Hunter Show-Canada's version of the Grand Ole Opry. Back in Timmins at high school, Shania, who maintained B grades, joined a band called The Longshot and sang with them five nights a week. After graduation, Shania quit The Longshot and worked as a secretary in Toronto while singing in nightclubs.

Then tragedy struck. Her parents' car was hit head-on by a logging truck and both were killed. Suddenly Shania, at the young age of 22, became an instant mom as she hurried home to raise her younger sister Carrie-Ann (her older sister, Jill, was married) and brothers, Mark and Darryl, who were in their teens.

Her early resolve and toughness as an adolescent grew even stronger in the face of another round of adversity. She sold her parents' home and moved to a rented house in Huntsville that lacked running water. She did everything from lug containers of fresh water home in her truck so the kids could take baths and do laundry to cooking, cleaning, paying the bills, buying clothes and holding down a cabaret job at a local resort near Muskoka singing six nights a week. Washing clothes out in the local river because she couldn't afford the laundromat kept Shania humble. "That's a part of me I want to try and keep. I think it keeps things in perspective. It keeps you from expecting too much and being let down." She dropped her birth name Eilleen and became Shania, Obijway for "I'm on my way."

Her indefatigable spirit told her that somehow she and her family would pull through the tough times. She recalls, "I always had a feeling things would work out. I still feel that way about life."

She created a demo tape of original music, got the movers and shakers in Nashville to see her lounge act and landed her first record contract in 1991. Her heady sense of direction even bowled over Luke Lewis, the president of Mercury Records in Nashville, when she declared that someday she wanted to be as big as Garth Brooks.

But Nashville failed to understand Shania's real talent, and her first CD-a collection of songs by other writers-sold only 100,000 copies. That's when Mutt Lange discovered Shania after seeing her music video from the album. At first there was some confusion about Lange's interest. Shania and her manager Mary Bailey sent him an autographed picture of her, unaware of his professional portfolio. Persistent, Lange, who was in London, eventually got through directly to Shania, and they talked up a transatlantic storm over the phone almost daily. In the beginning it was strictly business, with each tossing ideas about lyrics and arrangements back and forth. When they finally met face to face in Nashville three months later, it was clear that this twosome was going to be one. They tied the knot at the same Ontario Resort Shania played before her Nashville discovery. Lange and Twain collaborated on her next album "The Woman in Me" producing 10 of the 12 songs-eight of which became hit singles.

A star was born, and Twain and Lange hit a gold mine again with Shania's third album "Come on Over."

This modern-day Rogers and Hammerstein duo have an uncanny way of feeding off each other's energy and ideas. Shania says she worked on a lot of the song themes that she collaborated with Lange on before they hooked up. But "when you get together with the right person, all the right things seem to start happening. He comes from the rock world, so he's got so much spunk to his music. But obviously, we have a much closer relationship than your average co-writers."

Lange did not make the same mistake that Nashville did in the beginning with Twain. He took her seriously as a songwriter and gave her the room and environment to develop her natural abilities. Shania notes. "I just think Mutt's been able to bring out the best in me. He's made me a much better writer."

Lange not only had an eye for talent-given the mega stars he has arranged songs for-he also saw Shania's attractiveness. Shania's first CD included a midrift shot of her now famous navel in the video of her song "What Made You Say That?"

Greg Haraldson, a program director at a Calgary country music station, said, "Part of the success of country music today is sex appeal. And Shania's incredibly sexy."

Shania's own personal taste in clothes is very conservative. "I'm very old-fashioned," she says, preferring white shirts and jeans. But she's in the entertainment business and there is a certain glitzy element to the whole scene. When she's on stage or filming for a video, she gets to step outside herself and "be this person that's just free and getting into the music and having fun. This is the midriff year. Who knows what it will be next year? I hate my legs, so I'll never have a leg year."

Mercury's Lewis acknowledges that Shania knew how to change country's dress code-kicking it up a notch without going over the edge. "She decided she could be sexier; she could show her belly button. She was the first one to figure that out."

Lange wasn't the only one to notice her moves. Sean Penn and John and Bo Derek have shot music videos for Shania. The Dereks helped produce Shania's "Any Man of Mine" video from her second album.

Shania's attraction to country music came naturally. As a performer, she says it's what she's most comfortable with and likes the fact that country really grew from the hearts and experiences of common people doing common things. "It's just not an eccentric world," she said.

One curious journalist asked how she could write and sing about adult relationships when she was just a kid and Shania responded that she may not have related to the story well, "but I would get into the emotion of singing, so it was quite convincing."

With her champagne-popping success, fans clamored for her to go on the road. She resisted until she had enough of her own material from two big-time albums under her 10-gallon hat. From mid-1998 through August of 1999, she was belting out tunes at concert halls, hockey rinks and amphitheaters across the U.S., Canada, England, Ireland and Australia.

The stage is where Shania likes to dance, prance and sing the most, reminding those who were getting itchy for her to launch a concert tour that the stage "is where I started." She loves the rush of being in front of a big audience and draws energy from a crowd. She's less at home in a studio or in front of TV cameras. Of her stage life, Shania says, "I'd be more nervous having a dinner party than I am entertaining 15,000 people a night."

The suggestion that she is the creation of Lange or anyone else makes her bristle. She has stated unequivocally, "I don't want to be a product of anything-whether it's a photographer, a makeup artist, a record label or even a producer." Even Lewis at Mercury said Twain has put her own special style and stamp on her country career. He disagreed that Shania was a "marketing-driven artist. It's been her vision from the beginning-all the clothes, all the looks, all the concepts."

While new songs and catchy lyrics come spinning out of Shania's brain like cosmic waves, she is quick to acknowledge those who fired her imagination. Elton John is "the single most important influence" in her songwriting. She idolizes Dolly Parton and listened to Stevie Wonder, the Mamas and the Papas and the Carpenters growing up.

Still, she can never escape the reality of her early years as a poor girl from a rural Canadian town. And that's why she feels so passionate about charitable causes that help feed the hungry. She donates a portion of every concert to the less fortunate.

"My childhood was difficult, but it's driven me on."

There was a time in her life when the sadness of her parents' death and her loneliness drove her to write "God Bless the Child" and play it over and over again. It was an autobiographical tribute to her personal tragedies. Later she acknowledged that the song was her way of "crying out. I sang it until I met Mutt. Now, I don't feel lost anymore."

Sorrow could fill her lyrics, but she said she's personally too upbeat to drag her fans and listening audience into a downward spiral of setbacks and hard-luck challenges. Her therapy for tough times has been her music-her gift to others-and her marriage to Mutt-a gift they nurture and cultivate together.

Shania is riding high in the saddle but there's little time to pause and soak in the accolades. This fall, she was splashed across TV ads and the pages of magazines promoting Revlon's new ColorStay Liquid Lip.

At home with Mutt in their Swiss mansion after a year on the road, Shania is back to home cooking and just hanging out. If you hear chain saws echoing through the Swiss countryside, better watch out, it could be Shania. Before kicking off her world tour, the host of TNN's Prime Time Country baited Shania into a chain saw log-cutting contest. She mockingly looked at her saw and growled, "This is kind of dinky. It's what men would call a woman's chain saw." The contest commenced and Shania blew through the log in seconds, leaving the TV jockey breathless and badly beaten. Nothing's going to stop this girl. Not now. She's "on her way."

Jan Hemming is a freelance writer and president of JKH and Associates, a public relations firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah

Judith Woods, Daily Telegraph, 2/11/99

Shania Twain is the best-selling female singer in the world. She also worries about her legs, she tells Judith Woods.

THE new face of Revlon is giving me her top skincare tip with earnest salesgirl enthusiasm. Since signing her million cosmetics deal, Shania Twain has joined the ranks of Madonna, Cindy Crawford and Liz Hurley as a blueprint of modern beauty - and she's keen to spread the news.

"Bag bomb!" she says, as though it were entirely obvious what we should all be using. "It's a sort of petroleum jelly that's used on cows' udders to keep them from getting sore when they're milked in the winter.

"When I've been flying a lot and my skin is really dry, I'll rub it over my face and on my hair and leave it there all day."

Hard worker: Twain was accused of being 'too sexy for country' by one American television station

This kind of folksy advice is not, perhaps, what one might expect from a woman who has been hired to endorse upmarket cosmetics. But Twain, despite being the biggest-selling female singer on the planet for the past two years, clings to what she regards as her down-home ordinariness.

"This business doesn't suit my personality at all," she says. "If I'm treated normally, that's fine. But if someone starts acting like I'm a star, I find it very intimidating and I don't respond.

"It's as a kid that you're most honest with yourself and, back then, my dream was to be a backing singer, not the centre of attention. I can't bear to see my picture in magazines. My cheekbones are good and I have a nice smile, but I'm not one of those people who look absolutely gorgeous photographed from any angle.

"I can be beautiful if I have to be, but there's cellulite on my legs - and they're not very long either."

Although she has a massive country and western following in America, in Britain her music has been strictly marketed as mainstream pop and judiciously remixed to play down the country twang. It is estimated that Twain and her notoriously reclusive record producer husband, Robert "Mutt" Lange, who write songs together, have made £60 million from her last two albums alone.

Mutt is based in Switzerland and doesn't appear to get out much. Meanwhile, his wife has been touring the world for the past year and a half and is mobbed in stadiums the length and breadth of North America. I get the feeling she envies him.

As a self-confessed "sensible person" - a non-smoking, teetotal vegan - she sets great store by punctuality and hard work (she cites a teenage job in McDonald's as an invaluable lesson in discipline). Indeed, she's so sensible that she is having a scrapbook kept of her career. The idea is that, when the bubble bursts, she can leaf through and enjoy the memories.

"I'll get a great kick out of looking at all the pictures and articles," she says, with such certainty that I find myself wondering if she has marked a date in her diary for this new phase of her life to begin.

Twain is probably best known for her raunchy, feminist anthem That Don't Impress Me Much. With its robust lyrics, roughly paraphrasable as "men who boast about their flashy cars and great jobs are usually emotional pygmies", the number doesn't go down too well in the sentiment-filled halls of Nashville.

Nor, for that matter, did Twain in the early days: country music diehards were thrown by a singer who came from Canada and bared her midriff. One television station was even prompted to run a thunderous item entitled "Shania Twain - is she too sexy for country?".

But her life provides ample material for a boxed set of tear-jerking ballads. Her father walked out on the family when Shania - then called Eileen - was two, after which her mother married an Ojibwa Indian forester. The family lived in a gold-mining town in Ontario in such poverty that others on the reservation would send them food parcels of moose and beaver meat.

"There was often no food in the house, and I would have no breakfast and nothing to eat at lunchtime," she says.

"I would be at school, just sitting there famished when everyone was opening up their ham sandwiches. It was humiliating - so I made up stories that I had eaten mine already, or forgotten it. I would almost get the sweats when it was lunchtime, so I would go to the music room and play." From the age of eight, Twain would be woken by her parents late at night to perform country and western classics for a gig. Dressed in hand-sewn deerskin outfits, she was smuggled into dingy, smoke-filled clubs to belt out the last set of the night. The family needed the money, but her mother was also determined to foster Twain's talent.

"I remember, one evening, we had barely enough gas in the car for my dad to get to work the next day, so he refused to let me go to a club. My mother got me to sneak out of the window and meet her outside and then we drove off. He was pretty angry when we got back."

Twain started writing music and was beginning to pursue a career as a songwriter when her parents were killed in a road accident. Immediately, she abandoned her plans and, for five years, took on the role of breadwinner to her three younger brothers, earning enough as a cabaret singer to take out a mortgage on a new family home.

She was in her mid-twenties before she embarked on a recording career. Having changed her name to Shania (pronounced Shan-eye-ah), which means "I'm on my way" in Ojibwa, she recorded her first album in 1993. A blend of bland country numbers penned by other people, it just about broke even. But one of her videos caught the eye of Mutt Lange, a South African record producer.

Lange, then 46 and twice divorced, contacted her and a lengthy courtship by telephone followed. They even wrote songs together down the line before meeting, eventually, four years ago.

She admits that she had expected an overweight muso with a greying ponytail, and was taken aback to see a "neat-looking guy" with curly blond hair.

Within six months, they were married and had written an album, The Woman in Me, that went on to sell 13 million copies. The difference in their ages - 16 years - looks huge, but Twain insists it doesn't matter.

"Life has been long for me," she says, flatly, steering just this side of self-pity. "I'm 34, but it feels much longer."

Her husband has always maintained a low profile. Even so, it came as a surprise to the press when he was conspicuously absent from pictures of his own wedding that were released to newspapers. I suggest to Twain that his insistence on staying out of the limelight veers towards the obsessive.

"He just doesn't want us to be a celebrity couple," she says, in reasonable tones. "He doesn't want to be in public places with me when I'm being filmed or photographed, and I respect that."

There have been reports recently that Mutt's perfectly natural desire for anonymity has extended to buying up the rights to most of the pictures ever taken of him. Twain is pink-cheeked as she springs to his defence.

"Is that retarded, or what? That would be mad," she says. "There's this perception that he never leaves the house - some people have said they wonder if he really exists, and there are always rumours that we're getting a divorce.

"But he comes on tour with me for two or three weeks at a time, and when I'm home, we go horse riding and to the movies and do lots of stuff together."

Twain has a house in Florida, but lives mostly in an 18th-century chateau in Switzerland, where the couple moved - no prizes for guessing - to get greater privacy. It's much bigger than they really need, she apologises, although its seven bedrooms seem modest compared with the lavish lifestyles of the rest of the rock aristocracy.

Their neighbours include Phil Collins, Tina Turner and Sophia Loren, but Twain prefers cross-country riding to socialising. "Horses are a passion in my life. If I had my way, I would bring home a horse every week."

Not that she does, of course, because she already has seven. Besides, even now, when she can easily afford a string of thoroughbreds, her formative years cast a long shadow. She gives a portion of her concert earnings to local food depots and to a charity that provides meals for children on welfare, and remains uneasy about conspicuous expenditure.

"I'm just not comfortable buying things I don't need," she says, with slight exasperation at herself. "I like Armani and Dolce & Gabbana, but I'm much more thrilled if I can find something that looks good and doesn't cost much. You know, sometimes I've bought really expensive clothes and they lose their shape and just don't last."

She awaits my shared opprobrium at this shocking waste. When I point out that fashion is supposed to be throwaway, she smiles in self-mockery.

"I'm much too practical," she says. "I used to think anyone who lived in a brick house and didn't have to cut coupons to go to the grocery store was rich. I think, deep down, I always have that anxiety that I might be poor again."

In the next few years, she wants to spend more time at home on the ranch, writing her music, free of any commercial pressures, she says, and she hopes to start a family. It all sounds so thoroughly low key and worthy, I find myself almost begging her to reveal a reckless streak.

"I'm very responsible," she sighs. "But yes, I do sometimes feel like breaking loose."

And what happens then? An unconscionable shopping frenzy, perhaps? Or a champagne-fuelled party binge? No, in Twain's ordered universe, anarchy is an altogether tamer beast.

"I'd love, just once, to not show up," she says. "I hear about people like Whitney Houston doing it, and I think to myself, why can't I do that?"

Why not, indeed. I have a feeling it might do her more good than she knows.