Shania Twain: 'I would flatten my boobs until there was nothing girl about me'

Her incredible life story reads like one of her country songs. More than 85 million record sales later, she’s back with a new album, Queen of Me — and a new fanbase thanks to Harry Styles

The Sunday Times (Style magazine) - UK
By Sophie Heawood
December 4, 2022

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Shania Twain's Sunday routine

What karaoke fan among us hasn’t belted out a Shania Twain song about being a woman, being a girl, or what a woman needs from a man? The country singer, who is one of the world’s biggest-selling female recording artists in any genre, with crossover pop hits such as Man! I Feel Like a Woman!, That Don’t Impress Me Much and You’re Still the One has made it her life’s work to sing her bold take on womanhood. Her recent Netflix documentary is even called Shania Twain: Not Just a Girl. So it’s pretty gob-smacking, when I talk to her in London, to discover that she does all this because she grew up terrified to be a girl, that she has had the fight of her life to even be a woman at all. “I’m trying to be less apologetic about everything,” she says when we sit down to talk after Style’s cover shoot.

She grew up in poverty in Timmins, Ontario, Canada, one of five children with her mother, Sharon, and stepfather, Jerry Twain, who legally adopted the kids, giving them his surname. (Her real first name is Eilleen and her loved ones all use it; she took Shania when the record company demanded a change.) Her stepdad was a forester from the Ojibwa tribe and so she grew up close to indigenous culture. Trees and water provided her with solace, something they continue to do now she lives beside Lake Geneva in Switzerland with her second husband, Frédéric Thiébaud. Yet her home life today could not be further from that of her childhood.

When she was eight her mother would take her to sing on stage in bars, which couldn’t legally let her in until they stopped serving alcohol — at midnight. At which point the punters would stock up on multiple drinks, so Twain would go on stage, belting out country or rock hits through the waves of cigarette smoke. Her mum would get her out of bed to do it. Age 11, she was given a special permit and allowed on stage earlier in the night — yes, she knows how mind-boggling this sounds now, and no, she didn’t get paid. That came at age 14, when she got a job at McDonald’s, “my saving grace”, because she got a wage and could also eat the quarter pounders and stop dreaming about hunting for food in dustbins. “I did that job all through high school — McDonald’s after school, then I would go work in the bar at night. And then school during the day. I was exhausted — oh my God, every day in school I was half-asleep.”

Her stepdad was physically and sexually abusive. She remembers learning to fight back, throwing a chair at him, wondering if he was going to kill her or her mother. I ask where she got the courage. “I think a lot of that was anger, not courage. And it took a long time to manage that anger. You don’t want to be somebody that attacks me on the street,” she says, the sentiment sounding in opposition to the demure woman saying it. “Because I will fucking rip your head off if I get the chance,” she adds calmly. She is curious but wonders if this part of her is “learnt behaviour, or if I would have always been like that?”

Her pubescent body was a risk, she tells me. “And so I hid myself and I would flatten my boobs. I would wear bras that were too small for me, and I’d wear two, play it down until there was nothing girl about me. Make it easier to go unnoticed. Because, oh my gosh, it was terrible — you didn’t want to be a girl in my house.” She would sometimes go alone to the woods with her dog and a guitar to write songs, which is still her favourite thing to do — the creative act, in solitude. “But then you go into society and you’re a girl and you’re getting the normal other unpleasant stuff too, and that reinforces it. So then you think, ‘Oh, I guess it’s just shitty to be a girl. Oh, it’s so shitty to have boobs.’ I was ashamed of being a girl.”

By the time she was 22 she had thought she was finally free — only for her parents to be killed in a car crash. The second of the five kids, she now had to raise her younger siblings, wondering how to provide for her whole family. But someone told her about a singing job at a resort hotel; it paid well enough to take out a mortgage on a little house. She would rise with the dawn, chop logs for the wood-burner, get her siblings to school and then sing until late at night. But now there was no escaping certain expectations.

“All of a sudden it was like, well, what’s your problem? You know, you’re a woman and you have this beautiful body? What was so natural for other people was so scary for me. I felt exploited, but I didn’t have a choice now. I had to play the glamorous singer, had to wear my femininity more openly or more freely. And work out how I’m not gonna get groped, or raped by someone’s eyes, you know, and feel so degraded.”

She pulled it off and after the younger kids left home she sent a demo to record labels, getting signed by Mercury Nashville records in 1992 and releasing her debut album soon after. She then met Robert “Mutt” Lange, the hit producer who would become both her songwriting partner and her husband. (They eventually divorced when he left her for her friend Marie-Anne Thiébaud. Twain was heartbroken, but later found solace with her friend’s heartbroken husband, Frédéric, in a tale of two swapped marriages that the tabloids lapped up.)

In her mid-twenties she had found her confidence. “By the time I had my record contracts I was the kind of woman that . . . when I walked in the room, it’s like, don’t even get any closer. It was clear in my body language. And I think maybe what young girls can learn too is to exude that confidence.”

She had it nailed for the That Don’t Impress Me Much video, a twinkle in her eye as she paraded around the desert in a hooded leopard-print outfit. The look became iconic, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art refused her offer of the outfit to an exhibition it was holding about rock and pop style. “Oh, they were snobby, yes, but I was already too convinced of my vision! It was too late for them to bother me. If that’s your truth, you commit to your truth,” she says when I ask if it hurt. “It’s up to us as artists to drive the bus of culture.”

Drive it she has — she is about to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her third album, Come on Over, made with Lange but with Twain at the songwriting helm. It became the biggest-selling studio album by a solo female artist, the bestselling country album and the biggest Canadian album. And the younger generation of musicians know about it. Harry Styles recently asked Twain to duet with him at Coachella. “Harry is just the nicest person and people respond to that, he has earned that likeability, in addition to his talent,” she says, revealing that he insisted they sing two of her songs, even though she was keen to sing his. Taylor Swift posts swooning TikTok videos where she talks about how much she owes to Twain as her inspiration, the country-to-pop crossover star who came before her — along with Dolly Parton, of course. Is that credit gratifying?

“Oh God, I mean, I mean, Taylor’s an angel for doing that. She doesn’t have to do that! She doesn’t owe me anything. I think we all just get giddy over each other’s talent and I know how hard she worked to get there.” I mention Twain’s documentary, where she questions if working so hard was actually worth it, feeling as if she worked five or ten times harder than any of her male peers. Would she tell Swift not to kill herself working like she did? “I would but, ha, I actually haven’t talked to her for a little while, and actually I think you’ve just got to go through your own things, I don’t think you can really tell anybody that. I would n’t have listened to myself.”

Eja, her son with Lange, is 21 now and in LA trying to make it as a music producer — she would have loved him to choose a less complicated industry. Even her own stellar career hit turbulence in 2004 when she lost her voice. She would try to sing, it would falter, lose the note, not reach the right places. She could only sing a high falsetto, like Minnie Mouse.

She couldn’t even raise her voice to call to her beloved dogs on a walk. “I lost access to certain emotions, like the passion or expression that you want to put into something. You know, who wants to whisper ‘Fuck you!’? You have to have the satisfaction! It was really, really hard.”

She knew she had been bitten by a tick — it fell off her back when she reached around to scratch — and that it carried Lyme disease, which had made her ill with more common symptoms, such as a disorientation that nearly made her fall off stage. Yet no doctor connected her voice loss to the Lyme until seven years later, when she had risky open-throat surgery, which worked. I ask if her new album, Queen of Me, out in February (at the same time she becomes a judge on the ITV talent show Starstruck), feels like a comeback, but she says: “My laryngeal rehabilitation, that is a real comeback. When you’re at a point in your career when you believe that you will never perform again . . . I was absolutely certain that that was it for me, I was finished.”

But all your songs about being a girl, about being a woman, I say — it’s pretty wild to discover you sing about it so much because it was something you didn’t think you even wanted. “Exactly. Oh, but the authenticity in those lyrics,” she stresses. “Because I’m celebrating it now, in my songs, and in the fashion, and in the body language, the performance. I am celebrating escaping this horrible state of not wanting to be who I am. And I’m so confident. Now that I discovered that it’s OK to be a girl. I’m always looking for that place of, of, you know . . .” She pauses. “The unapologetic woman is a very powerful person indeed.”

Queen of Me is out on February 3. For tour dates and tickets, visit Starstruck returns to ITV in February

Hair: Neil Moodie at Bryant Artists using Pureology. Make-up: Terry Barber at David Artists using Mac. Nails: Sabrina Gayle using Elegant Touch, Dior and Herlum. Set design: Hana Al-Sayed. On-set production: Amelia Ellsworth. Thanks to Spring Studios