SURVIVAL AND STARDOM: how Shania Twain beat the odds to find fame and make her comeback tour
Singer Shania Twain became a huge star in the 1990s, but then her voice suddenly went quiet. Now she’s back and performing in New Zealand for the very first time. Emma Clifton looks at the extraordinary circumstances that preceded her return.
The saying “truth is stranger than fiction” could most definitely be applied to the life of singer Shania Twain; in fact, it’s a surprise her journey hasn’t yet been turned into a movie. Marked by tragedy and scandal, and also staggering success, the 53-year-old singer is an unexpected example of survival against the odds. Abuse, a fatal car crash, a crippling disease and one of the messiest celebrity divorce stories in recent years are all part of her story… yet she still shines.
This December, the country crossover star will perform her first ever concerts in New Zealand as part of her remarkable comeback tour, after she suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from the public stage in 2004.
She may not have performed here before, but Shania has a long history with New Zealand. Back in 2004 she and her then husband Robert “Mutt” Lange paid an eye-watering $21.5 million to buy Motatapu station, a 24,731ha piece of stunning land in the South Island. It became both a dream holiday destination and also a
future focus for Shania, somewhere she, Mutt and their son Eja would live once she had embraced a quieter life. “I started designing a homestead for us shortly after we bought it and began putting my heart, soul and dreams into the plans,” she wrote in her memoir From This Moment On. “Every year Mutt, Eja and I would go there for several months, living in a small caravan parked in one of the sheep paddocks... we enjoyed camping out while our home was being built.”
But the Kiwi dream took a devastating turn when Shania and Mutt split in 2008, with Mutt becoming the sole owner of the property, which has now become Mahu Whenua Luxury Lodge (where overnight rates start at $1850 a night).
It will surely be an emotional time for Shania to return to New Zealand all these years later as part of her 77-date global tour. But the Shania we get to experience is, in her mind, the strongest and luckiest Shania so far. The past two decades have been tumultuous, to say the least, but now she’s back on top – a new marriage, better health and a re-ignited career. “I’m 53, and I’m happy as ever to be my age,” she says. “Real is good. My career is more fun now than ever, and I’m enjoying life.”
For someone who once famously sung “The best thing about being a woman is the prerogative to have a little fun”, Shania’s life has, for a long period of time, been more about enduring rather than enjoying. Born Eilleen Regina Edwards, Shania never knew her biological father and grew up in a broke, troubled household of five kids: her mother suffered from chronic depression, her stepfather was a violent alcoholic who hit her mother. “I was worried about my father killing my mother,” she has said previously. “I thought they’d kill each other. My mum was quite violent too. Many nights I went to bed thinking, ‘Don’t go to sleep, don’t go to sleep, wait till they are sleeping.’ And I would wake up and make sure
“My career is more fun now than ever, and I’m enjoying life.”
everybody was breathing.”
When she was eight years old, Shania started writing songs as a form of escape from everything. “Violent home. Tensions. Nothing to eat. When you’re hungry, you can’t do anything about it but distract yourself from the hunger. And it really works. It’s therapeutic. A lot of kids play with dolls and I played with words and sounds,” she says. One of the first songs she wrote was called Won’t You Come Out and Play? – an ode to her depressed mother to get out of bed. It was at this age she also started singing at public gigs, bringing in much needed money for the family.
When she was 10, her stepfather started abusing her, both physically and sexually. In her memoir, she writes about trying to protect her mother from him by picking up a chair and hitting her stepfather on the back with it. He punched her in the jaw and she struck him back – she was 11 at the time.
Music continued to be a refuge that started paying off. Shania finished high school and was trying to make it as a singer-songwriter in Toronto when she got a devastating call: her parents had been killed in a car crash. The music career was paused indefinitely as she moved back home to look after her younger siblings. Eventually she needed to earn money to support the family, and started singing at a local resort, where she lived in a cabin with no running water and washed her clothes in a stream. As her siblings got older and moved out on their own, she was able to give more time to her music. She changed her name to Shania – believed to be an Ojibwe word that means “On my way” – then got a manager and put together a demo.
In 1993, her self-titled debut album came out and it garnered some interest. But the songs weren’t ones she’d written and she found them a bit toothless. Her country music icons were people like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson; they weren’t “cookie cutter people,” she says. “Some of them were really rugged.” The Nashville she came into, however, was a bit dull and prudish; her first music video was banned because one of the outfits showed her midriff.
Things improved for round two. Best-selling music producer and writer, Robert “Mutt” Lange, came on board for her second album, The Woman in Me, and singles from that not only cracked the Country Top 10, they also entered the Billboard Music Charts Top 40. It was also a good match personally – Mutt and Shania met in June 1993 and married just six months later.
It was her next album, Come on Over, which really saw Shania reach the stratosphere that very few pop music stars – let alone country music stars – ever get to. Come On Over remains the biggest-selling album of all time by a female musician and spawned such hits as From This Moment On; Man! I Feel Like a Woman!; That Don’t Impress Me Much; and You’re Still the One.
Shania’s ambition to cross over from country music to pop paved the way for a generation of female artists after her, including Taylor Swift. Her music videos became iconic – the head-to-toe slinky leopard print outfit of That Don’t Impress Me Much, the gender-bending suit of Man! I Feel Like a Woman! In the late 1990s, Shania was one of the biggest stars in the world – embarking on an 18-month tour in a customised bus worth $1million.
She took a two-year break after giving birth to her and Mutt’s only child, son Eja, in 2001. And then began a period that Shania would later refer to as “the madness”. While on tour for her fourth album, Up, in 2003, Shania was bitten by a tick and contracted Lyme disease, a serious, debilitating condition that can cause nerve damage, extreme fatigue and, in some severe cases, neurological
damage. In Shania, it caused the nerves connected to her vocal cords to atrophy, and she lost her voice. At the time, she thought it might be permanent, so in 2004 she released a Greatest Hits album and announced her retirement from music, without giving an official reason. “I did want a break,” she says now. “But I would never have stayed away 15 years. I was too embarrassed to tell anybody that I couldn’t sing. For a long time, I didn’t even know why I couldn’t sing.”
Shania retreated from the public eye and concentrated on healing her body and raising her son. But then, in 2008, the next news to come out of Shania’s team could have been lifted straight from the plot of a soap opera. It emerged that her husband Mutt had been having an affair with their secretary, Marie-Anne Theibaud – who also happened to be Shania’s best friend. “I was ready to die,” she wrote in her memoir. “To go to bed for ever and never wake up. Or to hurt someone.”
Over the years, Shania’s fury towards Mutt has dulled a bit – the two do share a child, and live near each other in order to co-parent – but her rage towards her former friend hasn’t shifted. “She’s the last person on the planet I want to run into. Ever,” Shania told The Guardian newspaper.
But, as the saying goes, living well is the best revenge. In the past few years, events have turned around for Shania. The first part is a twist of, well, country music proportions: in the aftermath of Mutt’s affair, Shania sought solace with Frederic Thiébaud, the husband of her former best friend. They eventually fell in love and were married in 2011. She kept writing songs, which she was still unable to sing, with the idea of giving them to other artists, but Frederic insisted that she save them, that she would sing again one day.
Years of vocal therapy helped return her voice back to health, and in 2012 she signed up to do a two-year residency in
Las Vegas at Caesars Palace. Slowly the Shania buzz started returning; last year she released another album, Now, and found the writing process cathartic. “I cried a lot when I wrote,” she says. “I never cried when I wrote a song ever before in my life. My songwriting is my diary, my best friend.”
Finally, after years both in and out of the spotlight, she has grown to not only enjoy her success but also feel that she is worthy of it. “How do you all of a sudden feel like you belong, if you grew up your whole life not belonging? It’s really tough to flick that switch – success doesn’t give that to you,” she says. “I spent most of my childhood embarrassed or feeling insecure or inadequate. That stays with you. That’s what that kind of life does to you. So yeah, I try to enjoy my success in different ways. I think I’m finally starting to do that now.”
“I did want a break, but I would never have stayed away 15 years.”
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: Shania at the 1999 Grammy Awards; with her first husband, Robert “Mutt” Lange; Shania and Frederic Thiébaud, who married in 2011 – their spouses’ affair brought them together. OPPOSITE PAGE: Back on stage in New York in July.