By Louise Lague
September 04, 1995 12:00 PM

AT THE MOMENT, SHANIA TWAIN IS reveling in her newfound status as the hottest young female star in country music. Clad in jeans and sneakers, she surveys her estate in Upstate New York, which includes part of Cat Mountain, stables, a tennis court and—still under construction—a recording studio and a 12,000-square-foot house built in a style she calls “Mediterranean-meets-Adirondacks.” Twain owns it all with her husband, music producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange. “Our goal,” she says, “is to walk every inch of this property.” It won’t be a mere stroll: the estate covers 20 square miles.

This kind of splendor is brand-new to Twain, 29, who grew up in such poverty in Canada that she often went without lunch at school. She remembers pretending to teachers that she wasn’t hungry, for fear that welfare agencies might split up her family. “My parents were loving,” she says. “We just didn’t have any money.”

Now Shania is definitely living up to her name, which means “on her way” in Ojibway. Her second album, The Woman in Me, and the feisty single “Any Man of Mine” both hit No. 1 on the country charts. Critics too have swooned over Twain’s talents as a songwriter—”Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” is a title-of-the-year contender—and a singer whose “throaty intimacy,” TIME enthused, wins her “a free pass into the pantheon of thrushes.”

Though she’s been singing since she first picked up a guitar at the age of 8, what changed Twain’s life was joining forces with Lange, 46, who orchestrated Def Leppard’s multiplatinum rise to stardom in the 1980s before switching over—selling out, some rock purists would say—to work with mellower artists like Bryan Adams and Michael Bolton. Winner of a 1992 songwriting Grammy, Lange is obsessively reclusive, refusing to be interviewed or photographed, though a peek at Shania’s wedding photos shows him to be a tall blond hunk. “Mutt doesn’t want to be the star,” explains Twain. “He wants people to know him through his music.”

Even Twain didn’t lay eyes on Mutt for the first three months of their relationship. In 1993, upon hearing Shania Twain, her debut album, which had been released to lukewarm reviews in 1991, Mutt called her from London, where he was working, and they began talking and playing music to each other almost daily over the phone. (Mutt picked up the bill.) At first Shania thought they wouldn’t get romantically involved, but weeks after they finally met in Nashville in June 1993, she says, “we knew we wanted to be together for the rest of our lives.” They wed six months later in Huntsville, Ont., then continued working on Twain’s album, cowriting 10 of the album’s 12 songs.

For Twain, music has always been a means of escape. She grew up near the Temagami Reserve near Timmins, Ont.; her father, Jerry, an Ojibway, did odd jobs, while her Irish-Canadian mother, Sharon, often suffered bouts of debilitating depression. “I ironed Dad’s clothes and made porridge in the morning for the kids,” recalls Twain. To retreat, she sang and “played in my room, like a hermit” until her parents pushed her, at 8, to perform. Since she was too young to play in clubs while liquor was being served, “they would wake me at 1 a.m. to sing” after last call. Stardom was “their dream,” she says. “I dreamed about being a kid.”

When Twain was 22, both parents were killed in an auto accident, and she had to work to support three teenage siblings. (Her older sister Jill had left home 10 years earlier.) “It was like being thrown into the deep end of a pool and just having to swim,” she says. Twain got a job singing at the upscale Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville, where she rented a tiny house for her family and did the laundry in a stream when the well went dry. Recalls her youngest brother, Mark, now 22: “She was really strict with us. She was scared.” When Mark moved out four years later, Shania says, “I felt it was time to go for something.” With the help of her friend and agent Mary Bailey, Twain earned a contract to record Shania Twain—the album, as she puts it, that “got me to Mutt.”

Even now, as she oversees completion of her dream retreat, Twain says her happiness is tempered by painful past memories. One song on her album, “God Bless the Child,” an aching lullaby, was written after her parents’ tragic accident: “I felt totally lost, and that song was my crying out. I sang it until I met Mutt.” Now, she says, “I don’t feel lost anymore.”