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The irony of Twain's reluctance to write personal, revealing songs is that her history is filled with examples of courage. If Loretta Lynn and Charles Dickens met while under contract to the Lifetime network, they might come up with the grim frontier tale that is Twain's youth. She grew up in Timmins, Ont., a mining town in the heart of the Canadian bush. Her father ran off when she was 2. Her mother Sharon and her adoptive father Jerry Twain, a full-blooded Ojibwa Indian, continually struggled for work. The five Twain children considered themselves lucky to find a mustard sandwich in their school lunch boxes.
Twain's vocal talent was discovered when she was 4 and still called by her birth name, Eilleen. "I was singing along with the jukebox in a diner," she recalls. "These guys heard and asked my mom if I could sing louder. She put me up on the countertop, and from that moment on, she was convinced I was going to be a little performer." In need of cash, Sharon booked Twain in front of every open microphone in northern Ontario. If there were no talent shows or telethons, Sharon was not above hauling Twain out of bed in her pajamas to sing Dolly Parton covers before last call at a local bar.
In high school Twain balanced homework and a counter job at McDonald's--"I learned tons about the meaning of service there," she says enthusiastically with singing in an '80s-rock cover band. After high school she moved to Toronto and worked as a secretary while hopping from band to band. Three years later, Twain was still struggling for a break when she received a phone call saying her parents were dead. Their car had collided head-on with a logging truck.
Her older sister was married, so it fell to Twain to take care of the three youngest Twains. She got a job as a revue singer at a resort 300 miles from Timmins and moved the whole family to a cabin with no running water. Once the siblings were adults and out of the house, Twain says she felt "very old." With no idea of what she wanted from life, she nevertheless put together a demo tape, and in 1991 Mercury Nashville gave her a $20,000 advance and signed her to a contract.
After adopting the stage name Shania, an Ojibwa word meaning "I'm on my way," Twain released her self-titled debut. It sold a respectable 100,000 copies, although no one, not even Twain, seemed to like it. She had visions of being a songwriter, but only one of her compositions made the album. Then her manager got a message from a man calling himself Mutt, who said he had seen one of Twain's kittenish videos while exercising in his London home and was interested in writing songs with her. The manager sent Mutt an autographed photo with generic "Best wishes," unaware that Mutt was Robert John (Mutt) Lange, producer of seven of the 100 best-selling albums of all time. After the mistake was realized, Twain and Mutt started writing songs together over the phone. A few months later, they met in person at a Nashville, Tenn., music festival; a few months after that, they were married. Together they have co-written and produced two Twain albums, which together have sold 50 million copies worldwide.
The journey from poverty to stardom is all the more notable because Twain would have you believe she was never intent on taking it. "If I hadn't gotten signed, I would have done something else," she says. "I always wanted to be a veterinarian." In what must be a new achievement in both self-abnegation and repression, Twain swears that she harbors no resentment toward her mother: "My mother had a very difficult life, and when you're a parent and you can't feed your kids, it's gonna bum you out. So she had this dream. I did it. But it was never really my dream."
Twain and Lange now live in their chateau in Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, one of the more beautiful places in the world in which to bore yourself to tears. The food is great, the mountains are mountainous, and the people are impenetrable. "Hello" from a stranger is an embarrassing monologue. They moved there in part for tax purposes and in part because their 3,000-acre spread in upstate New York was no longer private enough. Twain has persuaded her record label not to promote her music in Switzerland. They really like their privacy.