December 10, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Faith Hill cleans up real good, as they say in the South. Translated, she’s plainly gorgeous, with or without a coat of the Cover Girl cosmetics for which she’s recently become a spokesmodel. So it’s no wonder there are two dozen or so lucky radio programmers—all guys—lined up in the back room of a Nashville TV studio to have individual ”trade shots” taken with the girl who really can turn the world on with her smile. To promote today’s release of her fourth album, Breathe, Hill just wrapped an in-studio concert that was transmitted live to every Wal-Mart in the nation. Many of the radio honchos queued up for photo ops also come bearing the CD booklet for her to autograph; one opens it up to a specific layout he’d like inscribed.

”If you could just sign the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED shot,” he directs. If the singer minds the gauche joke, she doesn’t let on. The shot he’s referring to is of a come-hither Hill posed languorously in a grassy field, wearing a slinky black halter top and skirt, and revealing a fair amount of tanned flesh. Some of us with more refined tastes might prefer to call it ”the Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour shot.”

Any way you look at it, her image, which a few short years ago defined corn-fed wholesomeness, is getting sexier by the minute. With album packaging that reveals a hint of lingerie, and a revealing video for the single ”Breathe” that’s all bare legs and satin sheets, Hill may be inspiring a whole new level of breathing among her fans. The heavy kind.

By Mariah Carey standards, of course, she’s positively overdressed. But in the country community, such sexy imaging inevitably still sets off alarms, and not just because of Nashville’s increasing emphasis on conservative family values. Does it signal, after her crossover success last year with the irresistible top 10 smash ”This Kiss,” that she’s really going pop? Or maybe confirm the hunch that she’s got a Twain to catch?

Back in her dressing room, Hill isn’t about to apologize for preferring Gucci to gingham, maintaining that the new look is ”just having fun, celebrating womanhood. My husband makes me feel very sexy”—hubby being fellow superstar Tim McGraw. ”These pictures couldn’t have been in the package six years ago. I was a 25-year-old wanderer, trying to figure out who the hell I was. But now I’m a 32-year-old woman experiencing life. I feel very comfortable in my skin, and what you see is who I am.” Also, having borne daughters who are now 2 1/2 and 16 months, Hill’s new look is as much about regaining sveltehood as attaining selfhood. But she did feel compelled to call her mom before the ”Breathe” video aired. ”I told her that she probably was not going to like it, and she just said, ‘You don’t have to come to me for approval anymore. You do what you want to do.’ I said, ‘I wasn’t asking. I just wanted to warn you!”’

Hill gives potential rival Shania Twain credit for ”knocking down a lot of doors” for women in Nashville. ”I applaud the way she changed how videos are made,” Hill says. ”Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette and all those women were very sexy, but in country, there’s always been a problem with crossing the line and revealing too much of what you are. In pop music, it’s okay to be a woman—you know what I’m saying?”

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