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In her hometown of Timmins, Ont., Shania Twain is a national hero. A deity, almost, who has parkettes and flower gardens named after her, as well as a plaque on main street that declares her to be the mining city's No. 1 ambassador in the world of country music.

So proud is the city of 45,000 that, last year, it opened an $11-million Shania Twain Centre, a sparkling tourist destination filled with a mind-numbing array of Shania memorabilia, everything from handwritten songsheets, her wedding dress and pearl-drop earrings, congratulatory letters from Tipper Gore and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, even the singer's McDonald's Lifetime Achievement Award.

This year, a resourceful gang associated with the centre designed a Shania Twain float that will soon be rolled out for the Timmins Santa Claus parade. A recent item in The Timmins Daily Press reported that the float -- which features a very life-like Shania in one of her usual curve-hugging outfits -- won this year's best original float contest.

Unfortunately, the superstar singer, who is currently whizzing in and out of North American cities to promote her new album Up!, won't be able to squeeze in the trek to Timmins. "I would like to have," demurred Twain in an interview last week. "I just don't think I'm going to be able to go this trip."

The good folk of Timmins understand. "We were hoping, and we had talked to her management," says Tracy Hautanen, customerservice manager of the Shania Twain Centre. "But to be honest with you, we don't really want a rushed trip from her. We really want to make sure we can have a great visit, with meet-and-greet opportunities, and that wouldn't have happened this time. We know a visit from her will happen. And we'll have ample advance warning to do it up right."

Since the Shania Twain Centre opened in the summer of 2001, about 12,000 visitors have come through its doors. The community was banking on 50,000 people a year, but Hautanen says the fallout from Sept. 11 has hurt all tourist destinations.

No matter. Timmins, a good eight-hour drive north of Toronto along the Trans-Canada Highway, is still resolutely Shania-mad. The local radio station Moose FM has been inundated with calls from frantic fans dying to know more about her latest CD, which hits stores tomorrow. And the centre's Web site continues to fervently plug Shania hot spots, such as Don's Pizzeria (where the superstar -- then just Eileen Regina Edwards -- would order extra cheese and pepperoni) and Chez-Nous Take-Out, where one of the world's top-selling female recording artists apparently dined on poutine.

Last week, Twain gave some interviews in a sumptuous hotel room in Toronto (her handlers asked that it not be named for security reasons) with a grand view of the city. The disconnect between the small-town gal who grew up eating mayonnaise and mustard sandwiches with this creature sitting on a pearl-coloured sofa is, well, huge. Twain is gracious and easy to talk to. There are no airs or affectations. But she's still Shania, for god's sake, a singer of international renown, who like Madonna, is a one-name Billboard Chart wonder.

It's impossible, frankly, to imagine this sultry singer, all 110 tightly packaged pounds of her, licking gravy and cheese curds off fries.

These days, Twain lives in the 40-room Château de Sully in Switzerland with her 14-month-old baby Eja and record-producing husband Robert John (Mutt) Lange. The couple are devout spiritualists who practise something called Sant Mat, and they carry juicers everywhere. Name any kind of bean, Twain eats it, along with Mori-Nu Silken Style Soft Tofu. She might have grown up rough and rural, but Twain hasn't eaten anything with limbs in years. Not long ago, she was voted the Sexiest Vegetarian Alive by readers of PETA's Animal Times magazine.

In the nine years that she's had a major label contract, Twain has released three albums that have sold about 50 million records in total. Music pundits who have heard her latest 19-track pop-infused country CD Up! say those numbers are destined to soar.

Twain readily admits her life now is a planet removed from her Timmins days, but she insists she's still a small-town girl at heart. And always will be.

"I'm still who I was, and I'll never lose that," says Twain, whose voice, like her music, is easy on the ears and makes you want to tap your foot. "I love where I'm from. And I love everything about my history. And I wouldn't change it. And I actually appreciate the hardships that I went through. It's easier for me to say that now because I've left them behind me . . . and I'm sure some people think, 'Well, that's easy for you to say. You made it out of here.' Nevertheless, I feel like I've remained the same person because I've learned to appreciate it [the hardships] and I don't want to be different."

For the interview, the fabulous body, frankly, is pretty much engulfed in a designer-label black zip sweatshirt. There's no sign of the famous navel. No glimpse of black leather or leopard skin. Twain is wearing tight jeans and a tweedy golfer's tam, but she's not overly made up, and her nails are unpolished.

The only accoutrements that shout Shania-the-celebrity are the raven-haired tresses, cascading in perfect, long ringlets down to the small of her back, gobs of fabulous jewellery and, oh yes, those boots. Very funky, extremely expensive-looking six-inch stilettos with pointy toes. Shiny, plastic and in a riot of colours: red, pink, white, black, gold, brown, green.

"They're called garbage boots," explains Twain, hoisting her size-six foot so I can get a peek at the designer's name on the sole. (It looks like Lou Gaston). "They're made from trash," she says with girlish laugh. "They're trash boots!"

The footwear is a typical Twain touch. An I'm-the-kind-of-woman-who-can-kick-ass reminder that comes through so volubly in her music and her steamy videos.

Twain is sexy, but she's saucy too. Her trademark is playful songs like That Don't Impress Me Much; Man! I Feel Like a Woman; Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under? and lyrics such as "I can be late for a date that's fine/ But he better be on time." Her songs speak to empowered females and men who like to be teased.

"People ask me, 'Why do you think you sold 35 million copies of Come on Over,' " muses Twain on the break-out success of her third album. "And I don't know. You can't predict what mood people are in." The Windsor, Ont.-born singer adds, however, that she believes the appeal of country music has spread because there is now so much variety to it.

"The average person wants to hear a good, straight-ahead lyric. Music that is easy to listen to. And more people are going to country because they're not finding it in pop. At one time, especially when I was a kid, the Top 40 included all the best music in one place. It could easily have been John Denver, alongside Stevie Wonder and Led Zeppelin. Now pop would not play John Denver and that's the problem. I think there's a lot of people who still want to hear that type of music."

Her new album, Up!, is a please-the-masses double album that will be issued in two versions -- one with a country mix (green) and the other as more pop-flavoured "world" version (red). Twain said she chose the title, Up!, after much soul-searching post-Sept. 11.

"We'd already written the song, Up!, before the World Trade Center attack. But I really got down for a bit after that. It was only one month after I'd had Eja, and I was thinking, 'Wow, there's not really much future for this child.' And I even thought for a second, 'Why bother making music?'

"Then after a little more time, both Mutt and I thought, no, you know what people actually need? They need optimism. They need something to help them forget. A release, an escape. And so we sort of regained confidence, and the purpose behind something positive."

Twain has been called the Cinderella of country music because of the oft-told details of her hardscrabble upbringing -- the divorce of her parents Sharon and Clarence Edwards when she was 2, her mother's marriage to an Ojibwa named Jerry Twain, who adopted her and her two sisters, then her mother and stepfather's death in a head-on collision when she was in her 20s and already singing in a cabaret at Huntsville, Ont.'s Deerhurst Inn.

But all that was to change radically when a video of a single from her first album caught the eye of Lange, 16 years older than Twain. The two started collaborating on some songs and, six months later, were married, in December, 1993, in the pavilion at Deerhurst.

Two years later, The Woman in Me took the country and pop world by storm. Then sales of Come on Over, released in 1997, simply exploded.

When her newest album hits the shelves tomorrow, she's slated to appear on Letterman. Eventually Twain will weave her way back up to Canada, where she's agreed, next Sunday, to sing two songs from Up! at half-time during Edmonton's Grey Cup.

Asked what possessed her to say yes to singing outside in frigid temperatures for a football match? Twain explained she said, yes, for one simple reason: "We're already at this end of the world. It's an event that is a big thing for Canadians, so I figured, why not?"

She warned fans not to expect one of her typical glam, belly-button-baring garments. "I think I'm just going to wear a good old Canadian down coat or something. I want to be comfortable and warm."

In the meantime, her hometown will wait, patiently, for their favourite daughter to pay a visit. It's clear Twain feels bad that she's not hitting Timmins this stop. A piece of advice for the Shania Twain Centre's management? Ask for the Grey Cup parka. And those boots. They're worth the 800-kilometre journey from Toronto to see.

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