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The Times Magazine - Sept 11th 1999
Twain Spotting -  Images scanned by Peter Lovell. Click HERE to view the photos.

Country singer Shania Twain needed an awful lot of talent and determination to get where she is today - and her animal magnetism helped, too, as she demonstrates here with this season's essential prints.

Shania Twain is Canadian and Canadians can be a bit strange. Their national emblem is a leaf, for a start. Other countries have eagles or women with tridents, and at least the Lebanese went for the whole tree, but the Canadians have a leaf. They think they're morally superior to the Americans because they're not as fat. And it's also worth bearing in mind that this is the country that gave us Bryan Adams and Ice Hockey.
So Twain is a bit of a conundrum. In the flesh, she is petite and slim, with a head that looks too big for her body, and pretty rather than the drop-dead stunner of her photos and videos. She is one of the few people to have won a Country Music Academy Award and still be well known in Europe, and her latest album, Come On Over, has put her in the same league as Whitney Houston and Alanis Morisette, selling more than 12 million copies.
Yet she arrives for the shoot dressed in old grey leggings, trainers and a faded pink sweatshirt that can only be describes as tatty. She doesn't have a personal trainer (in fact, she doesn't even work out); she doesn't bang on about creativity and musical integrity; and some of her most eloquent phrases are reserved for describing dill pickle-flavoured crisps. This is, of course, admirable. Give millions of dollars to many women with a background as deprived as Twain's and they'll be down the mall faster than you can say "they screwed up their life and ended in therapy". Twain appears normal.

"Ive had money for years now, but I haven't spent it at all" she explains. "I think you have to be born wealthy to be comfortable with spending $20,000 on a bracelet, or just so rich-happy that when you finally get rich you're stupid about it! But I don't think ill ever be that now," she adds. "I think if something's too expensive I wont buy it because I'm insulted by that."

She certainly wasn't born rich: the second of five children, her father left home when she was two and her mother married an Ojibway Indian called Jerry. Summers were spent helping him plant trees for a living; winters were more problematic. When the snares failed to catch any rabbits, Twain would take mustard sandwiches to school for lunch. 

By the age of eight she was literally singer for her supper in dodgy, smoky clubs. Then when she was 21, her parents were killed in a car crash and she single-handedly raised her teenage brothers. It wasn't until they left home that she sent a demo tape to a friend of a friend in Nashville, a deal was struck, her name was changed from Eilleen to Shania and her career appeared to have begun.

Except it hadn't. The men in Nashville wanted her to do cover versions and the album was a flop. But the influential producer Robert John "Mutt" Lang heard her story, called her up, helped her write new material and, six months later, married her. Her album, The Woman In Me, sold like hot cakes and now, aged 34, she lives in a house in Switzerland with a view of the Alps. The trouble is, not only is she hardly ever there, she's hardly ever anywhere long enough to see it properly.

"I just get little tastes of things when I go past in the car, and go, 'Oh wow, I'd really like to go into that'", she says. Rome and Cairo figure high on her must-go-back sometime list.

"Sometime" is in fact a phrase that looms large in her life. Some time she is going to have a "cottage" backing onto Lake Ontario. Some time she's gonna be able to spend time there. Some time she'll have a chance to go out shopping and spend some money. "Some time I'll really get to enjoy myself."

You could almost feel sorry for her, until you remember that its not a bad life, being driven around in air-conditioned Mercedes, having people fawning over you, knowing that you have a loving husband and enough money to be able to retire in considerable comfort any time you choose. To be able, as she says "To go into a shop and even though I could probably buy the whole lot, I don't" OK, so you lose your privacy, you don't get to bake cookies (which she claims to aspire to) and your life gets a little hectic, but hell - its better than working in McDonalds's.

Not unnaturally, it's this unrelenting schedule which seems to bother Twain the most. "You know what?" she asks, suddenly animated. "You can only take so much of not having a life! My husband doesn't travel with me much and it's always really difficult when you have been apart a month or six weeks - the whole coming and going thing is very awkward. So I'm looking forward to changing that."

That may prove difficult, as the next three years of her life are already mapped out for her. "It's stifling knowing that you're accounted for so far in advance," she says. "There's no spontaneity and it can feel very imprisoning. You know, I don't know how I'm going to feel six months from now on a particular day. What I know is that, sick or not, up to it or not, I'm doing it!"

She admits she's been lucky, that there are many hard-working, talented people out there who don't make it. But she also maintains that she would always have made a reasonable living out of her music, to support herself. "That" she says, "was always my goal."

And if she's lost her voice she had a fall-back position: to be a vet. It's unclear if she realizes quite how many A grades and years at university it takes to do this, as she bases her suitability for the job on an interest in the psychology of animals and the ability "to communicate very well with them".

Luckily she instead dons a skin-tight leopard skin print and gyrates across the desert for the video of her single, That Don't Impress Me Much. She sings feisty songs about dodgy men and lyrical ballads about the nicer ones. She says she's looking at "the battle of the sexes with a sense of humour"; the Americans, who take such things seriously, lambast her lack of political correctness but buy her records anyway.

Her family, she claims, get more pleasure out of her fame than she does because they get to use her name in restaurants and are given nice tables.

"All I know about being rich and famous," she says, "is that I have a lot of money that I haven't had the chance to spend. I'd never walk up to somebody and say, 'Hi, I'm Shania Twain, can I have a great table?' It would be pretty embarassing don't you think? Right now, I crave to be normal, and to be honest with you I'd rather wait in line or go some-place else. That's more me you know?"

Interview By Hilary Rose

(Thanks to Peter Lovell for sending me the article!) 

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