Stardom, Sex Appeal & Special Spell Shania

Back in 1981, Barbara Mandrell called on George Jones when she sang “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.” Almost 20 years later, Shania Twain’s anthem could possibly be “I’m Country And Pop — Even Cooler!” Perhaps fans of the country/pop crossover princess will be able to better decide for themselves after having seen her TV special, Shania Twain’s Winter Break, airing on TNN (Thursday, August 30, 8 p.m. ET/PT). And sorry, George — Shania opted for the Backstreet Boys and Elton John for help.

First off, don’t expect the special to flaunt the sultry, pussy-cat look and Madonna mania we all witnessed from her recent Grammy Awards performance. For 33-year-old Shania, who’s proven that performing live is as easy as selling albums, her first television special promises to be quite the plushless production, as well as one which unveils a wardrobe that at least chalks up a PG rating. Reeling in fans of all ages, however, is perhaps one of the most gratifying aspects of her entire career. That factor alone made for choosing the guest lineup and feeling comfortable in front of the TV cameras all the better.

“The thing that’s important for me is the type of fans that are at any of my concerts are all age groups and all types of people. I didn’t have to cater to the audience when I was choosing the guests. I could choose them based on who I really loved. And I knew my audience was going to like them because I have such a diverse audience anyway. So I didn’t have to worry about that.”

The “no-worries” came from demanding an at-home feel on stage and choosing her long-time influence Elton John and the groovin’ Backstreet Boys, whose music Shania plays to motivate herself prior to her own concerts.

“I have cameras on me every night during the live concerts, so I’m not nervous at the cameras at all,” she admits about doing the TV special. “But television makes me a little bit nervous because I don’t have the control that I usually do in the live concerts. There’s just a lot more freedom when you’re in your own environment. You can say what you want. You can be silly and goofy. I don’t know — whatever you’re in the mood to be in — the stuff that goes on onstage in this special as far as the band and me, running around. And who cares if my hair is a bit messy. I just wasn’t as particular on this special as maybe I would be on other television things that I would do. That made me more relaxed and feel more at ease. When you’re live, it’s okay when your hair is not right all the time and maybe your chin is shiny or whatever. I don’t really pay that much attention to myself in that regard when I do my live stuff. It’s the live Shania,” she continues to explain of the Winter Break special. “It wasn’t staged and that’s what is so great about it. On most television shows there is so much instruction that it makes you nervous, where with this, I just had free rein. It was my stage — the same stage I have every night in concert. So everything around me was very familiar. I didn’t have to edit any of my songs or do anything that was unfamiliar. So it was pretty much as good as you’re going to get as far as live performances go.

“Of course what makes it thrilling is having the guests that I had, because they are people that I’m truly sincere fans of — not people that I chose for any other reason than just the fact that I’m such a huge fan. I introduce them in ways that are very sincere. I really do listen to the Backstreet Boys before I go on stage at night. It pumps me up. I just listen to the whole album while I get ready. And Elton John is always in my CD player — one album or another of his. It was a dream come true to have him there.”

Shania met John a while back when the two were back-to-back guests at the same radio station. Elton was still on the air while Shania was listening in the car on her way to the show. She began to wonder if she would maybe meet him in the hallway. Luckily, he was leaving when she was showing up. “The first thing he did was he started singing ’You’re Still The One.’ I was just so flattered that he knew my song. It seemed like somewhat of a fantasy for someone like him to be singing my lyrics and my music.”

Shania’s wide array of musical interests and influences are undeniably the factors that create her own versatile sound — an issue that she repeatedly has to explain.

“I’ve never ever wanted to be boxed or restricted by what my audience expected of me, or the industry or anyone for that matter,” she ponders. “I would get quite bored if I had to do the same thing all the time. I like change, so if I couldn’t change my clothes, change my hair and change my music or whatever, I would be really bored. There are many songs on this album (Come On Over, now an 11-million-plus seller), and when you start having so much music on one album — it’s over an hour of music — boy, it would get quite boring song after song if it’s repetitive. So I really like to be diverse, and I like to change. Think about how long it takes to write an album like that. I mean I couldn’t spend that many months writing about the same things and the same moods. So to keep myself interested, I like to be diverse, and I do listen to so many different styles of music.”

Compared to Shania’s earlier years in Canada, where she first launched her career singing in local night clubs as early as the age of 8, the touring game has become quite different and diverse, too. Remember, it was only a short time ago that many industry insiders questioned if Shania would be as successful live on stage as she was via her hit recordings such as “You’re Still The One,” “From This Moment On,” “Don’t Be Stupid,” her latest single, “That Don’t Impress Me Much” and “Any Man Of Mine,” her first country No. 1. Last year’s tour, however, surprisingly reeled in $36 million.

“It’s actually been very fun,” she quickly points out. “Of course, my early days of touring before I was a recording artist, I was pushing amps around and traveling in vans — a very crude lifestyle. But I wouldn’t say it was that difficult, because I was young and having fun. The difference now is that it’s more comfortable. But I’m having fun still. I’ve always enjoyed live performance, so that’s nothing new. What’s more exciting now is that the people in the audience know the music and it’s my music. I’m not so sure if that’s anything I’ve learned. It’s just never tiring and boring doing my music over and over again. Other than that, it’s as wonderful as I thought it would be.”

When Shania first took the stage in Canada, however, she wasn’t so “in control.” It was both her parents, who were later killed in a automobile crash when Shania was 21, and nearby club owners who offered her such early opportunities. “When you’re a kid in Canada, you can’t go into a club, let alone get up on stage and sing,” she remembers. “When there was a good band in town, my parents would get permission and ask the club if they minded if I came in to sing. Lots of times the band would play past after they started closing the bar and they’d stop serving. But the band would usually play while everybody finished their last-call drinks. There’s about an hour there and the band would be tired then anyway and everybody was drunk,” she laughs. “So they were happy to have me come up and sing. I would do that quite often.”

Those early years of struggle and mustard sandwich-eating days have undoubtedly changed for the multi-Grammy Award-winning artist. In just over a year, her sophomore Mercury disc Come On Over, the follow-up to her also huge-selling The Woman In Me, passed the seven-million mark in sales and torpedoed Shania into the mainstream. She scored an MTV nomination; won the Sexiest Video award from VH-1; picked up Billboard’s Female Artist of the Year; and landed the cover of Rolling Stone. (The last female country star to take such cover honors was Dolly Parton in 1980.) Recently though, the mainstream for Shania has branched into a rolling river — garnering her such accolades as hits on the pop charts and being nominated for a whopping six Grammy Awards, three of which she won for not only her country success, but her crossover fame as well. Obviously, keeping it all in perspective is a daily chore for Cosmopolitan magazine’s Fun, Fearless Female of the Year.

“Oh yeah, it’s actually not that difficult to do,” she explains. “I’m working very hard and I take very little time to myself. So it’s not like I’m taking time off ever to play and enjoy the fruits of my labor, I guess. I’m really not getting all wrapped up in that. I’m not a big spender anyway, so if I go buy a horse now…yeah, I’ll probably buy an expensive one, but it’s not like anything has changed. I still love horses and love all the same things. I don’t like clothes shopping and I never will. It’s not like all of a sudden, it’s like I have all these new interests because I have money and I’m famous. I don’t expect to be treated any differently. As a matter of fact, I find it more annoying to be treated like a celebrity than to just be treated normally. I’d much rather be left alone and I don’t need to be catered to. I like my independence. I don’t know whether it’s because I came from something so basic,” she continues. “Our lifestyle was so basic when we were growing up. Now, as an adult, fame or no fame, wealth or no wealth, I am happy about where I came from. I learned a great deal at a very young age about how to appreciate what you get and what you earn. And I sincerely appreciate where I am.

“The biggest song of my career to date is “You’re Still The One,” and that was my crossover hit,” she further explains. “So it’s really cool to see it translating to something like the Grammy nominations. (Shania received three nods each in both the country and pop categories). I can honestly say that I would be disappointed if I wasn’t being recognized by the country world, because we’ve come such a long way together. It’s been such a time for both of us because my music has been so different for country and sometimes controversial for the industry. And it was the fans that just ruled all the way. I mean the industry didn’t control what happened to me, the fans did.”

Shania’s gratitude toward her fans and sterling success also falls hand in hand, however, with more appreciation for herself in the midst of what’s turned into an incredibly hectic lifestyle. The consideration of “slowing down” to a degree is not out of the question.

“I keep saying ’I am so tired,’ but it’s not like I’m physically tired,” she admits. “I’m not, because I’m young,and I’ve got energy. I’m a very energetic person, and there’s a lot of energy around me with the fans and everything like that. And I’m not complaining, because as many hardships as I’ve had, I’ve had at least equally the same amount of wonderful times, if not more. I guess I started at such a young age, I really feel old,” she laughs. “I just feel older than I am because I’ve lived such a full life already. My husband, Mutt, always says ’Don’t think about slowing down because you are so young. You’ll be bored stiff if you don’t keep things going.’ He’s very, very right.”