The scene inside the Geneva Palexpo was glamorously befitting a high-society Swiss ball: ladies in evening gowns and men in black tie, flowing champagne, a high-roller charity auction and a mid-dinner fashion show. As the crowd of 850 dined on confit of lamb and chocolate mille-feuille on the evening of May 24, one of the event's most highly anticipated guests was noticeably absent from her spot at Table 7. "Shania's not coming," said Stéphane Lagonico, a member of the Swiss Red Cross Ball executive committee, referring to his friend, singer Shania Twain, who had attended the last three years and is the event committee's honorary president. "We are sorry she is not here, but we completely understand that she has other matters. She is going through a difficult time."
Is she ever. Nine days earlier, her publicist announced that Twain, 42, and her husband, producer-songwriter Robert "Mutt" Lange, 59, were separating after 14 years of marriage. Though no reason was given, sources pointed to Lange's alleged affair with the couple's longtime personal assistant, Marie-Anne Thiébaud, 37, who managed their château in Switzerland and whom Twain considered one of her best friends. It was, in fact, Thiébaud who two years earlier had been Twain's de facto date at the Red Cross ball, posing for photos alongside the singer in matching plunging necklines. While the country crossover superstar has sought refuge in her native Canada with her son Eja, 6, sources say Twain is still reeling from the disloyalty—times two. "It's a multiple betrayal because it involves all the people around her, the people she is closest to," says a friend of Twain's in Switzerland. "She is in absolute, total shock."
News of the separation has marked a messy public end for a musical power couple known as much for their ultra-private lifestyle as their successful professional collaboration, which has included three megaselling albums and five Grammys. Twain and Lange, who married in 1993, moved to Switzerland in 2000 and settled into a 46-room château (they wintered in New Zealand on a 61,000-acre spread). "It was important for [Mutt] to have privacy, to be out of the limelight," says a Twain pal of the famously reclusive Lange, who has worked with artists from AC/DC to Celine Dion. "It was important for him, so it was important for her."
The more isolated lifestyle took some adjusting for Twain: "She's very warm, she likes to socialize and have people around. She gave up everything for him," says an insider. But she too relished life away from the spotlight, in a country with gorgeous vistas and a high regard for privacy. While focusing on raising Eja ("She wanted to be there for him during these crucial years in his life," says the Twain pal), the singer grew to cherish a routine that included shopping in the high-end boutiques the next town over from her home in picturesque La Tour-de-Peilz, riding horses, skiing and hiking. "She found solitude in being out in nature," says Twain's friend. And with her husband, whether picking up chocolate and pastries from the local bakery or sharing romantic dinners at the three-star Bon Rivage hotel on Lake Geneva, "they were always holding hands," says the Twain insider, scoffing at reports he was a Svengali-like figure. "They were very much a couple."
Another staple of Twain's Swiss life: her friendship with Thiébaud. The two women's families (Thiébaud has a young child) would often spend vacations and holidays together. "[Twain] moved to Switzerland without knowing much about the community; she didn't know many people at all," says the friend in Switzerland. "And then Marie-Anne became her employee. They were a similar age and shared similar interests. They were very good friends." The two were so close, adds another source, that Twain would often do Thiébaud's makeup if they were going out to an event.
According to sources, Lange told Twain about a month ago that he wanted out of the marriage but didn't give a reason. It wasn't until a friend tipped her off that Twain learned of the alleged affair. "She was devastated," says a source. "This isn't just about her—it's her career, her life, her child, someone she thought was a close friend: Everything gets pulled out from underneath her."
Lange has denied the allegations, telling PEOPLE exclusively that an affair was "absolutely not the reason [for the breakup]," explaining, "It's literally just a growing apart, that's all." He also denied that he was in a romantic relationship with Thiébaud. Reached in Montreux, Switzerland, Thiébaud, who is herself in the process of divorcing after eight years of marriage, told PEOPLE of the alleged affair, "It's not true." Yet a source close to the situation confirms the relationship. "They are absolutely still together," says the source. "It was a big shock, completely unexpected. It's very difficult to be betrayed by people you love and trust."
Twain's heartache is the latest chapter in a fairy-tale life filled with both terrible hardship and wild success. Born Eilleen Regina Edwards and raised in an Ontario mining town by an Irish-Canadian mother and a stepfather who was a member of the Ojibwa tribe, Twain started helping support her family at age 4, when she sang along with a diner jukebox. "These guys heard and asked my mom if I could sing louder. She put me up on the countertop, and from that moment on, she was convinced I was going to be a little performer," Twain told Time
magazine in 2002. She continued to provide for her three younger siblings after her parents died in a head-on collision with a logging truck in 1987, when she was 21. "She's always taken care of other people," says the Twain insider.
After scoring a Nashville contract and adopting the stage name Shania ("I'm on my way" in Ojibwa), she met Lange, an über-successful producer living in London (he was born in the African country now known as Zambia and educated in South Africa). The two quickly forged a professional bond—she would sing to him over the phone—and married six months after they met. "He's intense and very bright ... and he's a caretaker. I think that was appealing," says a Twain source. Twain went on to sell more than 60 million albums worldwide, racking up hits like "You're Still the One" and "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!"
Her music—and her family—have been Twain's pillars as she copes with the breakup of her marriage. In Huntsville, Ont., where she owns a waterfront cottage, the singer has been keeping a low profile while playing tennis and riding horses, indulging in spa treatments and dining out with her sisters and her son, a "remarkably normal, well-behaved little boy" who seems to have picked up Mom's healthy eating habits, according to a Huntsville source: "He eats chickpeas like other kids eat candy." Eja (pronounced "Asia") is "the jewel in her crown. She just adores him," says a Twain insider. "That's what's helping her get through this: her son and writing." Sources say even without Lange, Twain is working on her music. "She's been constantly writing songs this entire time," says a friend. "I know it's very therapeutic for her."
Though Twain seemed to retreat from public life years ago, friends say she is no woman of mystery but a warm, funny, generous soul. "She's just real," says a Twain source. "She's charitable with her talents, her finances, her spirit." In New Zealand in March she opened a public hiking trail that cuts through her property. "She was wonderful, very charming," says local radio-station owner Ed Taylor, who spoke with Twain at the ceremony. In the program for the Red Cross ball she missed, Twain's personal message quoted Sir Winston Churchill: "'We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.' From the bottom of my heart, I encourage you to continue."
For the woman who once asked in song, "Is There Life After Love?" friends say the answer will be yes. As Lange told PEOPLE, "We're still very good friends, and that's the way that it'll remain." His sentiment may be overly hopeful for the time being, as pals say the sting of the breakup won't fade soon: "You can imagine the devastation of losing her husband and her best friend," says the Swiss insider. But in the long run, "Shania absolutely will get through this, just like she has every time she's faced adversity," says another friend. "She draws from an inner strength. She's very lucky to have it, and she knows that."
- With Sara Hammel/Switzerland,
- Dana Kennedy/Switzerland,
- Pete Norman/Switzerland,
- Alexandra Williams/Switzerland,
- Myndi Milliken/Huntsville,
- Dale Peacock/Huntsville,
- Mary Longmore/New Zealand,
- Hitha Prabhakar/New York City.