Shania Twain: 'I forgive but can’t forget the horrible best friend who stole my husband ...it will haunt me forever'
Truth is stranger than fiction. Ask Shania Twain. Or indeed the elegant Swiss man sitting in the room adjoining her suite in a five-star hotel in Mayfair.
The Swiss man is Frederic Thiebaud, who Shania married in Puerto Rico on New Year's Day in 2011. Three years earlier, Shania separated from her husband of 14 years, her producer Robert 'Mutt' Lange, after he allegedly had an affair with Shania's best friend - and Frederic Thiebaud's wife - Marie-Anne Thiebaud. Shania and Mutt divorced in 2010.
"You let me go, you had to have her/You told me slow, I died faster", Shania sings on I'm Alright from the new album, Now, her first studio album in 15 years. "I still can't believe he'd leave me to love her," she sings on Poor Me.
The mournful song Who's Gonna Be Your Girl?, she explains, is "about not being loved back". And having to come to terms with the one you love the most, loving someone else.
"We leaned on one another through the ups and downs, taking turns holding each other. We've become closer and stronger through it all," Twain wrote on her website in 2009 of Frederic. "And having gone through the suffering of his family" - Frederic and Marie-Anne have a teenage daughter, Johanna - "splitting apart at the same time and under the same extreme circumstances, he understands me better than anyone."
Marie-Anne Thiebaud (37) was Mutt and Shania's long-time personal assistant; she managed their 46-room chateau in La Tour-de-Peilz in Switzerland. A friend of Twain's in Switzerland told People magazine in 2008: "It's a multiple betrayal because it involves all the people around her, the people she is closest to. She is in absolute, total shock. [Twain] moved to Switzerland without knowing much about the community; she didn't know many people at all. And then Marie-Anne became her employee. They were a similar age and shared similar interests. "They were very good friends," said the source, so close that Shania would often do Marie-Anne's make-up if they went to a social event together.
Worth an estimated $700m, being the top-selling female country singer of all time with over 60m albums sold, didn't lessen Shania's grief. "I was ready to die," she wrote in her 2010 memoir, From This Moment On. "I was disgusted that another woman's lust for a lifestyle upgrade was worth the devastation of my family." Shania even revealed in the book that she wrote a letter to Marie-Anne. It read, heartbreakingly: "I am so low, so broken-hearted I can't take it any more. I wish you love and happiness, but I am dying, and I can't take it any more. This is killing me. Have mercy. I loved him so much, and I can't cope any more. I don't want life or love any more. I just want peace."
Shania's first husband's betrayal also had a physical effect - there was the heartbreak of discovering her husband's affair the day after he asked for a divorce. Then the singer literally lost her voice - the nerves connected to her vocal cords seized up, when she contacted dysphonia as a consequence of Lyme disease during that dreadful period of her life.
Did she lose her voice from the stress of the divorce from Lange?
"No. I want to correct that. I lost my voice from Lyme disease. The stress of the divorce added to the dysphonia, which is a tension around the larynx. The divorce is part of it, but it wasn't the root of it," says Shania, who with her new album has - in more ways than the obvious - found her voice again.
"I never thought I would sing again," 52-year-old Shania says. "I never thought I would ever record again." What added to her anxiety levels was that acclaimed producer Mutt (his CV includes Def Leppard, AC/DC, and Celine Dion) also gave Shania the sound that made her mega-selling albums - The Woman In Me from 1995, Come On Over from 1997, and UP! from 2002 - such colossal hits internationally. (Clearly, he wouldn't be producing Shania's new album Now.)
"There were three albums and 15 years of our collaboration," she says. "So the fear was acute of not knowing where to begin after all that time, and knowing that the expectations would be high - because Mutt is a genius...
"There were a lot of moments when I was just too afraid to tackle it, thinking that it was too stressful and I didn't need the stress. Maybe I should just leave it where it was."
Shania went through a lot of soul-searching. In that process, she found, she says, "courage and took the leap of faith in myself. I took the risk because I decided it would be worth the risk".
Shania Twain was born with a very rusty spoon in her mouth in Windsor, Canada. Her childhood was lived not on but below the poverty line. "The perpetual undertow of financial instability took its toll in other ways, as it usually does, compromising my parents' love for each other at times and no doubt feeding my mother's recurrent bouts of depression," wrote Shania in her 2010 autobiography.
It was a tough life for Shania and it was to get tougher when on November 1, 1987, her mother Sharon and stepfather Jerry were killed in a car crash: a head-on collision with a logging truck on an Ontario highway. It was said that all Jerry and Sharon Twain could have heard was a horn.
Born Eileen Regina Edwards on August 28, 1965 in Windsor, Ontario, Shania began performing at eight years of age with the house band at Timmins' Mattagami Hotel, and wrote her first song (Mama Won't You Come Out to Play) when she was 10 years old. She appeared on Canadian television at 11. After her parents' death, 22-year-old Shania, who was singing in Toronto, put her musical career on hold and returned to Timmins, her hometown, to physically and financially look after her younger siblings - her two half-brothers, Mark, then 14, and Darryl (13), and her sister Carrie-Ann (17), singing in the local golf resort six nights a week.
There was another sister, Jill. (The family situation was a complicated one, as Shania told me in 2003 when I met her for lunch before her sold-out show in Nowlan Park in Kilkenny: "Then my mother and Jerry had another son several years later and then they adopted another child, my aunt's son. My aunt committed suicide and the child - my adopted brother - was only six months old. So there's four fathers in our family.")
Shania became their legal guardian and their mother-figure. In reality, this was the same role she had been playing since she was 10 years of age: looking after the younger kids while her mother Sharon coped unsuccessfully with her mental health.
Her mother started off her life on the wrong foot. Sharon's first husband died in a car crash, an ominous tragedy when you consider the grim fate that awaited Sharon and her third husband 25 years later.
"My mom ended up being a single mother from a very young age," Shania told me. "It all got very difficult after that." Her mother remarried, to Clarence Edwards, a railroad engineer with personal problems. The marriage didn't work. "It was a very dysfunctional relationship," Shania said of her father Clarence who allegedly abandoned the family when Shania was a baby. Sharon and Clarence's divorce came through when Shania was three. The family moved in with Shania's grandmother in Timmins.
Three years later, Sharon married Jerry Twain. It was a hand-to-mouth existence.
Five kids in three rooms, the Twains were so strapped for cash that sometimes they couldn't afford food, Shania remembered. She brought mustard sandwiches to school in her homemade lunch-box to avoid the humiliation of being seen to have nothing to eat. She lived in constant fear that her teachers would find out that her parents couldn't afford to feed her, and she'd be taken away by the social services.
"If we were to have been discovered somehow, at that time the authorities would step in and you got taken away by Children's Aid. And if there was a particularly bad week or whatever, it would be, like: 'Nobody bring anybody home from school. Don't bring your friends over this week'.
"It was very stressful," said the singer, looking back. "I spent a lot of those years really hiding all of that as much as I could. We were hungry a lot of the time, we couldn't pay our bills. We were struggling. Then I got married and I'm in love and my career takes off. It was all wonderful."
Did Shania feel she didn't deserve the fairytale her life became? "I felt guilty about the privilege all of a sudden, because I was so poor all my life, and my family was so poor. I felt I deserved the musical success because I worked hard since I was a child. That was not luck.
"It is not the worst life that anyone has lived. That is for sure. All that it has done for me is give me compassion for people that are suffering. I never knew my biological dad growing up. That is really bothering me now. I want to know why. My mother is gone and she can't explain why."
What answers would she want from her mother? "I would want to know why he didn't help us when we were starving. Why he didn't send us money. Why he didn't want to know if we were OK. Things like that."
Three years ago, in fact, Shania met her biological father. She was visiting a house the family used to live in, in Timmins. "I was 16 years of age when we lived there. We couldn't afford our own place. So we moved into my grandparents' basement. My grandparents were on welfare. They were was no toilet. Six of us lived there," Shania says.
So Shania went back to that house in Timmins to "reconnect". The woman recognised her from the television and magazines and let Shania look around. At the end of the impromptu tour, she told Shania that her husband used to work on the railroad with her father, Clarence.
Shania didn't react. It was only when the woman said, "And he still lives across the street", that Shania took a photograph of the license plates of the car in the driveway and asked the police to see if it was her father. When it was established it was her birth dad, Shania knocked on the door of the house. Her heart was "trembling", but he wasn't in.
Shania went back another day and met him "and asked him some questions. I never knew my father. So it was like meeting a stranger. I could see myself in him".
Did she ask him why did he leave them all those years ago? "I did. But you know what? I felt bad putting pressure on him. I never said, 'Why didn't you make sure we were OK?'"
There was no point in being angry, I say. "No. It was too long ago."
A positive, I say, was that he never asked her for money when he knew she had long since become rich and famous, in stark contrast to his own financial situation.
"He is not a bad man," she says. "That is what I am taking from it."
I ask Shania has she forgiven Mutt and Marie-Anne. "You know what? I definitely forgive. I just don't forget. This will haunt me forever. It is impossible to forget."
Did Shania blame herself? Did she feel she had a part to play in the break-up?
"You do feel that is part of it, for sure. I never thought it was entirely my fault. But I certainly felt that I obviously missed something. Where have I been! Hello? How dumb can one be!" she laughs. "In the moment, I just felt very stupid. I just felt like an idiot. Of course, not now. You put things in perspective over time." Asked how she did that, Shania says she "realised what deserved importance... and my parents' dying is by far the most devastating, the deepest grief, the greatest loss I have ever experienced. I lived through that".
Shania says she "appealed to the emotional evolution" and found, she says, "strength".
"So, I started comparing it," she says, referring to her mother and stepfather's tragic deaths and her husband's playing away from home with the woman she thought was her best friend. "And it empowered me. That was the perspective."
I say that some people might find it hard to believe that she is married to the husband of the woman who her husband had the affair with!
"I don't believe it either!" she roars with laughter. "We both can't believe it still. It's incredible. It is a beautifully incredible thing that is like a miracle. That, you know, I had to meet this horrible friend to ..."
I thought you forgave her, I say to Shania. "It doesn't make her any less horrible. Of course not! She is not, not horrible!" Shania explains, laughing. "It is not like, 'Oh, she is a really great person!'
"My point is, if you're a thief, you're a thief. 'I can't forgive you for stealing my... so I had to meet this horrible betraying friend in order to meet this extraordinary man. And I had to meet Mutt to have this child who is the absolute centre of my life," she says, meaning Eja (pronounced "Asia"), who was born on August 12, 2001.
Apropos of the title of her album, Now, Shania says she has learned "a healthy fear of rushing on to escape the past. You have to live. You don't know what tomorrow will bring. I didn't know that my parents would be killed in a car crash".
- Shania Twain's new album Now is released on September 29. Shania Twain plays the 3 Arena in Dublin on September 26, 2018, and the SSE Arena in Belfast on September 29, 2018. Tickets available from Ticketmaster nationwide from 9am this Friday