Image: Shania Twain
Singer Shania Twain performed at this year's Country Music Association Awards.
By
updated 12/9/2003 4:00:42 PM ET 2003-12-09T21:00:42

Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium has helped some of the biggest names in country music see their biggest dreams come true. One of them was a young singer from Timmins, Canada, called Shania Twain. She went on to record the best-selling album in country music history, “Come on Over,” which helped her cross over to international fame. It’s been a dizzying success story — one that Shania Twain simply walked away from three years ago. Now, as Katie Couric reports, she is walking right back into the spotlight.

Welcome to music city, Nashville, Tennessee — where country crooners sing of tears in their beers, walking the line and d-i-v-o-r-c-e. Then comes a girl from up north, such an outsider she’s not even from the states, who completely breaks the mold. Shania Twain became one of the hottest properties Nashville had ever seen or heard. And soon enough she set the entire music world on fire. Well now this 37-year-old powerhouse with a slightly split personality has come in from the cold.

“I’m not trying to be sexy or anything like that,” she says. “I blend in. I’m just so normal and average. I mean, there’s nothing special about me. I just ended up here.”

Shania Twain — you’ve got to be kidding. Those looks, that voice — can she really be that uncomfortable in her own skin? Especially, when she’s always showing it?

Katie Couric: You have to know that in some of these videos, when you’re caressing the tree, or whatever you’re doing that you know, moving in a certain way, I mean, you’ve got to know that you’re driving people crazy. Come on.”

Shania Twain:“Yes, oh, absolutely. Of course I want to look good on my videos. Shania is a fantasy. And Eileen is just a person. There’s a lot more to Eileen than there is to Shania.”

Eileen is Shania’s real name. And in many ways, Eileen is the real person beneath the pop-star persona of vinyl pants and lip gloss. But it’s Shania, with her seductive style and record-setting record sales, who’s been one of the most explosive acts of the last decade.

Katie Couric: “So do I call you Eileen or Shania?”

Shania Twain: “Now you’re confused.”

Katie Couric: “Very confused here.”

Clad in her K-Mart sweatshirt, Nike running shoes and baseball cap, it was Eileen who I met at her Canadian cottage in the snow-streaked mountains of northern Ontario. It was the calm before the storm, the last day of a three-year professional hiatus. The next day she’d be leaving for Nashville, back on the treadmill of publicity, promotion and performances to tout her first CD in five years.

Shania got herself some land, all right, and a chateau in Switzerland — where she’s been living with her husband and 15-month-old baby Aja. It’s off-limits to anyone and anything media.

Katie Couric: “Why did y’all decide — I’m talking like I’m from Nashville now. Why’d y’all...”

Shania Twain: “Why’d y’all? I was noticing that. I was going to point that out. No, that was one of the few places, without really isolating myself, where I felt that I could be normal and really just forget about the Shania thing.”

Katie Couric: “The Shania thing? That’s so funny to hear you say that.”

Shania Twain: “When I say, ‘the Shania thing,’ I think it’s just everything that surrounds that, which is fame. And I like to leave that behind when I go home.”

And her new home is where her heart is — and her fame isn’t. In Switzerland, she’s just a regular gal who gets to enjoy the cold weather and the hot chocolate.

Shania Twain: “You know, cause you cannot get hot chocolate all year round just anywhere. But Switzerland is one of those places that you can, just like Canada.”

Katie Couric: “What else do you do? I mean, what’s your day like there?”

Shania Twain: “Well if I’m not working in music, I ride my horses. We dabble in skiing. We’re not very good. But the skiing is so nice there that we do go and enjoy that. We mostly enjoy the hot chocolate, though.”

Katie Couric: “There’s that hot chocolate again.”

A CHILDHOOD WITH CHALLENGES

But as a little girl, horseback riding and skiing were two things Shania couldn’t afford to even dream of. Growing up in the small Canadian town of Timmins, she was the oldest of five children. Her stepfather, Jerry, (an Ojiway Indian) and mother, Sharon, did their best to support their family. But often, that wasn’t enough.

Shania Twain: “It’s very humiliating going to school not having a lunch and you’re hungry. You haven’t had breakfast. You might not even have had dinner the night before. And you’re watching everybody else have a wonderful lunch — yogurt and apple and nice, big, fat sandwich. And maybe even some cookies or something. And you’re hungry and you’re so desperate for someone to share that with you. And it’s a really bad feeling for a kid.”

Katie Couric: “Did anybody share their lunch with you? I feel so bad.”

Shania Twain: “No.”

Katie Couric: “If I had been at the lunch table, I would have given you half my sandwich.”

Shania Twain: “Well, I always lied and said I wasn’t hungry. Or I forgot my lunch at home and, no, it’s OK. I never did ever take. I was too embarrassed. I was too proud.”

But her mom had big dreams for her oldest daughter. Shania was a bleary-eyed third-grader by day and a pint-sized lounge singer by night.

Katie Couric: “I’ve read about you being awakened when you were 8 years old in the middle of the night and them taking you to a bar, pretty much propping you up on a stool, giving you a guitar. And you would sing sort of in the middle of the night for all these drunks.”

Shania Twain: “That was normal for me. That was my norm. And I didn’t like it. Because I never had the passion to be up on stage. I never had the passion to be in the spotlight. I really just wanted to be writing songs in my bedroom.”

She continued to sing into her teens and her early 20s. But on Nov. 1, 1987, her world was shattered. Both her parents were killed in a car accident, leaving her — at 22 — with four younger siblings to support and her life at a crossroads.

“I then had to make a decision,” she says. “Am I going on with music? Am I quitting altogether? What am I doing? I now have no parents. I don’t have the passion even, that my mother had. My mother had more passion for it than I did. That was gone now. So do I really want this anymore?”

Whether she wanted it or not, now she needed her music more than ever and began singing for her supper — literally. To make ends meet, Shania took a job performing at a resort called the Deerhurst, where cheesy numbers were featured prominently on the menu.

Believe it or not, a lawyer from Nashville was taking it in one night and whisked her away to the capital of country music. She changed her name from Eileen to Shania, an Ojiway Indian word for “on my way.” And was she ever.

But the transition from country crooner into pop diva would take more than a sexier wardrobe. And the man responsible for that transformation was a pure-bred producer with an impressive pop pedigree. And his name was Mutt.

Legendary producer Mutt Lange had already scored a truckload of hits for hard rockers like AC/DC, Foreigner and Bryan Adams. And after seeing her first music video, it wasn’t long before this mutt had his paws all over Shania Twain.

Katie Couric: “I know when he first called you, he wanted an autograph.”

Shania Twain: “Yes.”

Katie Couric: “And you didn’t even know if Mutt had one or two T’s.”

Shania Twain: “I know. I mean, of course it had two T’s. What was I thinking? I’m sure I only put M-U-T.”

She didn’t know it at the time, but Shania had just signed an autograph for her future husband.

Katie Couric: “Is it hard to say, ‘Oh, Mutt, I love you so much, Mutt?’”

Shania Twain: “That’s really cute. I don’t call him Mutt.”

Katie Couric: “Yes, you’re like ‘That’s really cute.’”

Shania Twain: “No, it is I’ve never actually called him Mutt to him.”

Katie Couric: “So what do you call him?”

Shania Twain: “I just call him ‘Love.’”

Katie Couric: “Oh.”

Shania Twain: “‘Lover, Lovie. Lovie, take the garbage out.’”

But “Lovie” apparently doesn’t love publicity. Talk about low profile, this guy is no-profile. He was a no-show at our shoot in Canada. And Shania wouldn’t even give us a picture. Come on, Mutt, throw us a bone. Oh well, maybe next time.

“When it comes to getting any type of exposure in front of a camera, or anything like that, he just isn’t interested,” Shania says. “He doesn’t want to be famous. He just wants to be good at what he does.”

And he is. They made beautiful and popular music together for her second album, “The Woman in Me.” Meanwhile, what was Nashville’s reaction? Country music purists couldn’t decide what they hated more — her music or her midriff.

“When I was knocked for baring my midriff and being, you know, too sexy or whatever, I was so surprised,” she says. “I grew up listening to Dolly Parton. I grew up listening to Willie Nelson. I grew up listening to country artists that drank themselves flat on the floor, who were divorced three or four times, had children with.... It’s just, I am squeaky clean compared to the country music I knew. If I’m already too daring for them, it leaves me nowhere to go.”

A SMASH HIT

So Shania just kept going. The girls went, the boys went, seems everybody went crazy over Shania’s third album, “Come on Over” — which spawned six hit singles, went platinum in 32 countries, and sold over 34 million copies worldwide, making it the biggest-selling album ever by a female artist.

Katie Couric: “That’s hard to top, isn’t it?”

Shania Twain: ” It is. Yes, sure, it really is. It hasn’t been my goal, or it isn’t my goal, to top it. I wanted to make a better record, of course. That will always be my goal. I’m always trying to write better songs. I’m always trying to be original.”

Sure enough, she’s come up with a pretty original idea. For the price of one, “Up!” features two CDs. Put in the red disc, and you’ve got pop versions of all the songs. Pop in the green one, you’ve got country.

Katie Couric: “Is this also a way to kind of satisfy some critics in country music who have said, ‘Ah, she’s sold out. She’s too pop.’ I mean, you’ve heard that story.”

Shania Twain: “It’s not like I am abandoning one to be the other. I am them, legitimately. I spent my whole youth singing in clubs, doing whatever music paid the bills. So, if there were rock bars hiring that year, I was a rock singer. If there were pop bars hiring that year, I was a top 40’s singer. If there were country bars hiring that year, I was a country singer. I’ve done them all. So I am real. And this is what I do.”

And just to prove her point, Shania took me back to where it all began — the Deerhurst Resort in Canada, to the same stage where someone named Eileen once flaunted big hair and supreme talent.

“In my career, there will always be another story to tell,” she says. “There will always be another subject to explore. There will just always be another song to write. So I don’t care if I win any other awards. I don’t care if I sell. I don’t have a number that I’m trying to sell as far as record sales. I don’t have a naturally competitive nature. So I don’t care if I do better than anyone else — at all. So why am I doing this anyway? No. I’m having fun. That’s why I’m doing it.”

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments