12/05/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
Shania Twain is not baring her belly. The temperature outside her pine cabin in Huntsville, Ont., is 24Â°F. A biting wind blows off nearby Lake of Bays, whose water is well on its way to becoming an ice block six feet deep. But pop music's multiplatinum-selling mistress of the midriff, hidden now, like the rest of her, beneath coat, boots, scarf and gloves, thinks it a perfect time to jump onto the tire swing hanging from a birch tree in her backyard, breathe in the crisp air and let her long locks blow in the (yup, still biting) wind. "I'm not cold at all," says Twain. "It's a friggin' beautiful day."
Behold the wonder of layering -- and an internal flame that seven years ago turned a big-haired kid from a little gold-mining town in Northern Ontario into one of the hottest female acts ever to hit the music world. With a rowdy pop-country appeal that sold upward of 10 million of her breakthrough 1995 CD, The Woman in Me -- and an unprecedented (for a female artist) 19 million copies of her 1997 CD Come On Over -- Twain, 37, has become what pal Wynonna Judd calls an "alpha" woman in the industry. And, having raised three siblings in a house without running water after her parents died in a car crash, Twain is pop's own triumph-over-tragedy poster girl. She won awards (including Best Country Album Grammy for Woman). She did Revlon ads. And belting out such ubiquitous hits as "That Don't Impress Me Much" and "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" she sent millions of fans at sold-out concerts into boot-stomping tizzies.
Then, five years after it all began, it . . . stopped. Poof, overnight. In early 2000, amid press reports that her seven-year marriage to record producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange was in trouble, Twain all but disappeared from public life, retreating to Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, and the 46-room château she and Lange, 54, bought in 1998. "I needed a break, physically and mentally," she explains of her move to Lake Geneva, where people are "calm and discreet. They might say hi or give me a smile, but they're not jumping up and down or shaking. I don't feel like a star there. I feel normal." Which was exactly the point. "I needed to leave behind the whole 'Shania' thing and be myself," says Twain. "I did a lot of hiking and cooking. I skied. I spent time with my horses. For the first time in my life, I was just resting."