Rita gets Personal

DAVE VEITCH

, Last Updated: 11:26 PM ET

Rita MacNeil is loved.

I realized how much yesterday morning, when I interviewed the Cape Breton singer in the lobby of the Palliser Hotel.

During our half-hour chat, countless people came up to MacNeil to tell her they, too, come from the Maritimes; to tell her they visited her Tea Room in Big Pond; to tell her how much they love her music; and to just say hello.

Seemingly not intimidated by her celebrity status, they treated MacNeil like a close friend and the singer reciprocated in kind.

It's strange, then, few people actually know MacNeil's story beyond the vague fact that she overcame personal hardship to become an international singing star.

The tragic and triumphant details of her colourful life have been largely unwritten and unspoken -- until now.

The soft-spoken, 54-year-old entertainer is surprisingly candid in her new autobiography, On a Personal Note.

"People have asked me so many questions over the years about different parts of my life," MacNeil said.

"I felt the book was my way of sharing my life."

The 270-page tome strikes a fine balance between the bitter and the sweet. There are fond remembrances of her childhood neighbourhood; humourous anecdotes about life on the road; and gut-wrenching personal confessions. Her parents drank too much and fought viciously; as a child, she was sexually molested by her uncle; as a young woman, she grappled with an unhappy marriage, depression, alcohol and low self-esteem.

She also writes about her involvement in the Catholic church and the women's movement, as well as her lean years, when she and her band would stay in insect-infested accommodations.

"It was emotional, sometimes painful (to write)," she said.

Yet she summoned the courage to reveal, for the first time, how her uncle used to undress and fondle her when she was about 10 years old.

"Now that it's out there, I think it might help others. It helped me, putting that in print.... It was therapeutic, although I don't think it'll ever be fully therapeutic. But we need to make this world where (abused children) can come forward."

MacNeil didn't live in such a world.

"No, you wouldn't dare talk about that. First of all, you didn't know what was happening and, second of all, children just didn't speak out in small places -- in most places."

MacNeil writes with great affection about her deceased parents, whose stormy union led to some traumatic childhood memories, such as the time her father tried to crush her mother's head in their hideaway bed. At the same time, they provided great support when daughter Rita got pregnant out of wedlock by the first man she ever loved -- a man who ditched Rita as soon as she refused to have an abortion.

"They didn't bat an eye," MacNeil says of her parents, who got married because of an unplanned pregnancy.

"They told me to keep my head up. They supported me. They looked after my daughter. That speaks volumes about the incredible people they were."

However, some members of the media just come across as incredible jerks in one chapter, where MacNeil writes about the snide, cutting remarks that have been made about her appearance -- sometimes right to her face.

"We all have to live in this world," MacNeil said.

"Hell knows, we all come in different forms and we only have a short time.... Life is too short to poke fun of people; to make somebody feel inadequate or unworthy. Nobody has that right."

Nowadays, the mother of two grown children -- son Wade is her manager and daughter Laura runs her Tea Room -- says she goes to church occasionally, but is no longer a practising Catholic (even though the book reveals, as a child, she harboured dreams of becoming a nun).

She stays in touch with her ex-husband, Wade's father, and relies on several close friends for support and companionship.

She laughs when asked if she'll marry again.

"Oh dear, I don't have the time," she answered.

"My life is pretty full."


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