Shania Twain

The Making of a Superstar

Before she became a global phenomenon, Shania Twain was dreaming big in Toronto while flipping burgers, hawking jeans and fronting cover bands. Today, the queen of country pop is touring the world with a new album, but she’s still nostalgic about the city that made her

By Stéphanie Verge| Portrait by Beau Grealy / Trunk Archive
| June 19, 2023

Shania Twain has been famous—that stratospheric, no-need-for-a-last-name kind of famous—for almost 30 years. Certain details of her life, like her upbringing in northern Ontario, her domination of the country and pop charts, and the tabloid-fodder end of her marriage to music producer Mutt Lange, are so well known that they’ve reached near-mythic status. Less familiar is Twain’s connection to Toronto, where she moved in her teens to make it big.

Twain spent the first half of her 20s playing clubs in Toronto and performing in stage shows at Huntsville’s Deerhurst Resort before signing with a Nashville label. Three decades later, the 57-year-old is back in town touring Queen of Me, her sixth studio album. Here, a conversation about her attachment to Honest Ed’s, Toronto’s glamorous gay bars and a fateful phone call with Prince.


You grew up in northern Ontario and first moved to Toronto the summer you turned 14, with your mother and three younger siblings. You were trying to get away from your father, who was abusive. What do you remember of that time? Moving to the big city wasn’t glamorous—we initially lived in a shelter downtown.The family later relocated to a townhouse on John Garland Boulevard in north Etobicoke’s Jamestown neighbourhood. What I remember most was that it was very international. Even though it was a difficult time in our lives, I embraced how diverse and new everything was. We were given an allowance, and Honest Ed’s was the only store I knew for quite a while; you could find a lot of things for $1. I don’t know if it’s still there.

Actually, Honest Ed’s was torn down several years ago and turned into mixed-use housing. Oh, gosh! Those were my stomping grounds when we arrived. Being in Toronto was a real integration process for us, but it was great exposure, and I was inspired by it. Also, I learned how to play basketball there, across the street from the shelter. There were so many Toronto thingsShania Twain performing in her early yearsOn weekends, Twain sang at the Conception Bay Club at Queen and Dovercourt, which was owned by Newfoundland recording artist Harry Hibbs. Her mother, Sharon, worked in the kitchen. that were part of my growth.

Like taking classical voice lessons? When I was 11, a vocal teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Ian Garrett,"We lived in a shelter downtown, and Honest Ed’s was the only store I knew": Shania Twain on her years dreaming big in TorontoGarrett had been referred to her through the conservatory in Sudbury. Twain’s parents briefly took her out of school to study with him. offered me free vocal training, if my parents could get me to Toronto. It was very charitable of him.

He must have seen something in you. Definitely, he was impressed by my range. And he was curious about where my voice was going to go stylistically because I wasn’t interested in classical. I think he had a lot of compassion for me and knew I wouldn’t get access to that type of trainingIn her memoir, From This Moment On, Twain wrote that her family life was “a crazy, happy, sad, dysfunctional, destructive, loving, violent roller coaster ride.” They moved around constantly, so that by the time Twain graduated high school, she had attended 17 schools. otherwise. I guess he could see that I took singing very seriously.

It sounds like you took everything very seriously. I did. I didn’t have a choice. I was extremely focused because I knew I wasn’t going to make it otherwise, so there was no time to play around. There wasn’t much time to be a kid when I was a kid.

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When you were 16, your family returned north, to Timmins, and to your dad. Did you always plan to come back to Toronto as soon as possible? I didn’t even attend high school graduation. I wrote my exams early, gave my prom dress to a friend and hit the road with a rock band from Sudbury called Flirt. In the fall, I moved to Toronto, and I only went back to Timmins to work in the bush.Over the next couple of years, Twain spent May to October working for her parents’ tree-planting company, supervising crews.

What was the Toronto music scene like? There were a lot of bands. I picked up sporadic gigs with all-male bands because some clubs would only book bands that had female singers. I always had enough of a repertoire that I could join any band doing Top 40. I had a few different jobs: I sang on the weekends, and I worked at two McDonald’s (one on Yonge Street, across from the Eaton Centre, and one on Kipling) and at a jeans store in the Eaton Centre. I was also back studying with Ian Garrett—I would clean his house in exchange for voice lessons and the use of his piano room. Getting a record deal was my goal, so I was making demos and sending them to David Foster, to managers. No response. Eventually I decided to go to community college to learn some computer skills, in case I never made it and had to resort to singing part time. So I took a course in data entry and got my certificate—and right then my parents died.A young Shania Twain with her parentsSharon and Jerry Twain were killed in a collision with a logging truck in November 1987, when Shania was 22.

Did you believe that your music dreams were over? I moved back to Timmins to deal with all the responsibilities there, like my parents’ estate and my younger sister and underage brothers, who were 13 and 14. I didn’t think music was going to be part of my future anymore. That’s when my good friend Mary Bailey"We lived in a shelter downtown, and Honest Ed’s was the only store I knew": Shania Twain on her years dreaming big in TorontoThe Toronto-born Bailey became Twain’s manager and in 1991 helped secure her first recording contract, with Universal’s Mercury Records in Nashville. told me about a singing job at Deerhurst Resort that paid great. She also offered to work with me to get a record deal in the US because I wasn’t having any success in Canada. So I moved everyone to Huntsville.

At Deerhurst, you were in a musical production called Viva Vegas.Twenty-five years later, Twain would experience the real thing in Las Vegas, with the first of two residencies there. How did it compare with what you’d been doing up until then? When I was young, my performance education happened in bars, where things were impromptu and interactive. I learned how to manage the crowd and how to be consistent, whether there were five people watching or 200, whether it was a Monday night or a Friday night. I learned how to manage my output and energy, how not to lose my voice, how to sing with bad sound systems and with the drums playing right behind me all night. It was a gruelling training ground. Deerhurst was the complete opposite.

For one, you weren’t singing alone anymore. I was one of many singers. There were sound cues, lighting cues, technical rehearsals—nothing happened randomly, and everything had a purpose. I had costumes and quick changes, a look protocol. I had to wear high heels, foundation and lipstick, which was a first, and dresses I could barely breathe in. We were singing in genres that were new to me, like big band. Ultimately, this highly produced environmentShania Twain backstage in her dressing room in the 80sTwain’s contract required her to perform six nights a week in the main production, then sing in the piano lounge or the dance bar afterward. taught me what I would need to know later, for television, for bigger stage performances and for making videos. All those things, in combination, prepared me for being my own creative director. When I got my recording contract, I already knew how my body worked, including the way I moved and my facial expressions, and how I could use lighting.

Country music star Shania Twain performing during her first Las Vegas residency, which ran from 2012 to 2014
Twain during her first Las Vegas residency, which ran from 2012 to 2014. Photo by Denise Truscello / Getty Images

Your recent documentary, Not Just a Girl, kicks off with this quote: “The minute you depend on somebody else, you lose something. You lose the right to decide for yourself.” Is that as much about work as it is about life? A lot of people have asked me where my determination and resilience come from. My parents weren’t always reliable, so I learned very young that I had to depend on myself if I was going to get anywhere in life. In a way, I’m grateful that I learned so young to be independent and to not count on others for the most basic things, even survival, because I was more prepared for my career after that. I think the greatest thing, in anyone’s life or career adventures, is to find your independence.

There’s a detail in the doc that really speaks to that self-sufficiency. When you were a kid, roughly 10 years old, your mom would bring you out to sing in bars,Though local bars and festivals were Twain’s primary venues, she did perform on the CBC’s long-running Tommy Hunter Show in her early teens. and you tried to keep 100 songs in your repertoire at all times. How much of that prep was passion and how much of it was anxiety or a need to prepare for all eventualities? I’m not sure it was anxiety. I wanted to be taken seriously as a professional, because when you’re a little kid and you’re the only one around and you’re a girl, people go, “Oh, that guitar is bigger than she is.” I felt I had to work especially hard and have an arsenal ready to go, like all the other bar singers. Every bar band had a huge repertoire that they were able to play at any time, and they could take requests. I didn’t want to be the exception.

What were the most requested songs? People always wanted to hear Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette. Waylon Jennings was popular; Kenny Rogers was very popular.

You got a good schooling in the country classics. All classics. Though you have to take into consideration my age—that stuff was Top 40 at the time. Dolly Parton was one of my earliest teachers. I would study her songs, their harmonies. I was very attracted to her folky, bluegrass side. This was before Whitney Houston recorded “I Will Always Love You” and Dolly’s songwriting was taken seriously globally.

Dolly Parton has got a lot of attention over the years for her looks. She’s said that she knows all the best Dolly Parton jokes because she made them up before anyone else could. When you first arrived in Nashville,Upon her arrival, the record label insisted that Twain ditch her given name, Eilleen Regina. She opted for Shania, the name of a wardrobe mistress she’d met at Deerhurst. people made a big deal about your looks—how you showed off your midriff in videos, specifically. Did you ever wish they would just focus on the music? My work has been about the aesthetics and the visual expression of the music as much as it has been about the songwriting and record-making. It’s all one big thing. I didn’t want to just be the painter—I wanted to be the one who framed the painting and put the painting in the right light, in the right place on the wall, and presented it. I was doing it all, even if it may have seemed otherwise.

When your hit “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” came out in the late 1990s, I was working at a gay bar on Church Street, and the drag queens there loved performing your stuff. To this day, you have a big queer following. Why do you think that is? My music is for everyone. I’ve always been inclusive, and I think people can sense my sincerity and have gravitated toward it.

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I suspect your costuming and confidence also have something to do with it. In my late teens, when I was living in Toronto, I’d go to gay bars on the weekends with my friends. We’d dress up and be really creative and inventive with our fashion. I learned a lot about glamour from those clubs. There’s a sense of liberation in expressing yourself through fashion. Also, everything changed when I finally embraced that I am a woman with curves. I was almost 30 when my first videos came out, and I was still discovering that it was fun to play with fashion and that I loved my body. I tried so hard to hide it when I was younger, because having a female body got me the wrong kind of attention, but I finally stopped shying away from it. When the video for “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”Inspired in part by her nights out in Toronto’s gay bars, the song made headlines again last year, when Harry Styles invited her to sing it with him at Coachella. came out, that sense of liberation reverberated with a lot of other people, I think, regardless of their gender.

Shania Twain and Harry Styles performing "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" at Coachella in 2022.
Twain and Harry Styles performing “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" at Coachella in 2022. Photo by Kevin Mazur / Getty Images

Country singer Orville PeckShania Twain performing with Orville PeckTwain joined Peck on his 2020 song “Legends Never Die,” and he’ll be opening for her on the UK leg of her world tour in September. is an unabashed fan of yours. What do you think of Toronto’s masked cowboy? I love Orville for many reasons. Mainly because he’s such a gentleman and a really beautiful person. He’s respectful, he’s talented, he’s a fabulous dancer. He’s a producer, and he’s stylistically very strong, plus he’s an incredible songwriter with such a unique vocal style. He’s the real thing, you know? He’s got this old-fashioned essence that I love.

And yet he rubs some people in country the wrong way because he’s not old-fashioned enough. I think country music was more open to originality in previous generations than it is now. There are so many artists from my youth, my parents’ generation, who would be considered too hippy or too flamboyant now. Like Dolly, or even Barbara Mandrell. She was very glamorous and had a very Hollywood kind of performance style. Those sorts of artists were big. Now they would be considered too over the top.

You don’t agree. No, not at all. Of course Orville Peck belongs in country music. He’s a glamorous cowboy. He’s the Lone Ranger, man.

You have a deep and abiding love for country music, but you were always very clear about wanting to conquer pop. Your 1997 crossover album, Come on Over, had three Top 10 singles—one of them, “From This Moment On,” remains huge at weddings. Did you foresee its staying power? I would never have bet on my music having longevity. It’s impossible to know that. You might have some insight if you’re an industry person who studies those things, but I think you’re guessing. It’s all about whether you’re connecting with the audience, and the fact that I have for so long is the biggest compliment you could ever pay me. As far as crossing over, it was always my intention to be global. I never, ever intended to remain isolated or limited in any way. My music is for everyone, all over the world. I never felt there was any reason why it couldn’t reach as many people as possible.

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At 57, you’ve spent four decades in an industry not known for being particularly kind to aging women. Is it difficult to maintain a positive, celebratory attitude about yourself? I think I’m able to. I feel strongly about wearing my truth on my sleeve, with joy. Otherwise, you lose that moment. I spent so many years hiding my body instead of celebrating it, and what a waste that was. I should have been enjoying it! Time is the only thing that we have to lose—I’m only this age right now.

And by “this age,” you mean your wild wigs era? You’ve been showing up at awards, talk shows and on stage with fire-engine-red hair, bubblegum pink, platinum blonde… It’s a take on the “colour my hair, do what I dare” lyric from “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” and it’s so much fun. I realized recently that, while I am going to be totally silver-haired soon enough, I don’t need to wait for that raw palette to play with colour. So I’m taking this tour and these wigs as an opportunity to figure out what I like instead of trying to keep my natural colour. Fighting time is a losing battle.

Throughout the 2000s, life threw a lot at you. Your marriage to Mutt Lange,Twain and Lange, a renowned music producer, met and married in 1993. They were collaborators until 2008, when they split after he had an affair with her close friend. In an unexpected twist, Twain would later marry that friend’s ex-husband. with whom you have a son, fell apart. Also, you contracted Lyme disease, which had a profound effect on your voice, and you eventually had throat surgery. There was a point during that struggle to determine what was wrong with my voice when I thought I wouldn’t be able to carry on with a singing career. But I would never have quit the industry. I’m as much a songwriter as I am a singer, there’s no question about that. I would have continued to write songs, and I would have wanted other singers to carry the torch for me. So I wouldn’t have quit, but there were several years when I didn’t know whether I would ever find the solution.

Was it during this time that you missed out on making an album with Prince, another one-time Torontonian? Oh, Prince. He approached me about producing an albumPrince, who wanted Shania Twain to come to his Paisley Park studio and record a Fleetwood Mac–style breakup albumPrince wanted her to come to his Paisley Park studio and record a Fleetwood Mac–style breakup album, what Prince called “the next Rumours.” One rule: no swearing (a challenge for the four-letter-word-loving Twain). when I was in the middle of my separation. I still hadn’t gotten to the bottom of what was going on with my voice, and I wasn’t prepared to record anything. So I had to put Prince off until I was ready, but he died while I was trying to work everything out. That was very, very sad. Still, it was a huge compliment that he was such a fan—he even recorded his own version of “You’re Still the One.”

You’re currently on a world tour with your new album, Queen of Me. Will you make a stop at your family’s property near Huntsville when you’re performing in Toronto? I haven’t been up there for quite a long time now, mostly because of Covid. When restrictions started lifting, I had to fulfill my obligations in Vegas, where I was doing a second residency, and now there’s the tour. But, when work slows down, I’ll be back to visit my family. Ideally, we’ll spend our time sitting by the lake, listening to the loons.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Correction
June 5, 2024

A previous version of this story made an inaccurate reference to food stamps. That reference has since been removed.

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