Becoming Céline Dion: Inside the Making of a Timeless Talent
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Few living performers embody the concept of timelessness quite like Céline Dion.
Her voice is one for the ages, that’s a given, big and booming out of your local Top 40 station for a quarter of a century. And yet while the five-time Grammy winner may have spent most of her career in the “adult contemporary” section, charming mellow-pop enthusiasts all over the world, she broke through in the States on a beloved Disney soundtrack and provided the background music for every teenager’s Leonardo DiCaprio-fueled fever dreams in the ’90s.
Meaning, Dion hasn’t just been for one crowd. She’s for all of us. She was then, she’s now, and she’ll still be, tomorrow.
“Did you see children? I saw a lot of children,” Dion noted to the Los Angeles Times in October, referring to the vast age range of her concertgoers. “For me, I’m very impressed about that. I always thought my crowd was going to mature with me, and then it would fade a little bit. But what happened? I planted cucumbers in my garden, and now I have cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, radish.”
And even though the singer’s ability to connect with millions of people in multiple languages has already ensured her a place in the forever column, she continues to put forth the impression of someone who’s still getting started, who hasn’t given up on exploring, striving and impressing.
“Life is short,” she told the Times. “Can we just have a good time?”
That may not have always been her motto, but it’s one she’s adopted forcefully over the past few years.
Like most entertainers, she didn’t reach cultural icon status unscathed. In 2016, her husband and partner of 30 years, René Angélil, died after a long battle with cancer, and her mother, Thérèse Tanguay Dion, died at 92 in January.
Dion put her usually sold-out Las Vegas residency on hold to care for Angélil, who was battling cancer, and she later acknowledged that watching him suffer for three years was more traumatic than anything.
But the almost defiantly strong Dion has only since doubled down on life, for herself and her three sons with Angélil, 19-year-old René-Charles and 9-year-old twins Nelson and Eddy.
That, of course, fits with the image of someone who on stage is determinedly alive, so much so that some of her signature songs read like a list of affirmations—”The Power of Love,” “A New Day,” “I’m Alive.” Which, ultimately, they are.
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The Quebecois singer, who got her start in the French-language music world, released her debut English-language album, Unison, in 1990 and had her first top-10 hit with “Where Does My Heart Beat Now.” The following year she broke through in a big way with her duet with Peabo Bryson on “Beauty and the Beast” off the soundtrack of the animated Disney classic. And then the hit singles and the platinum-selling albums just started piling up: “If You Asked Me To,” “When I Fall in Love,” “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” “Because You Loved Me.”
She declared her love for Angélil, who being 20 years her senior had encouraged her to keep their relationship under wraps for fear of bruising her image, in the liner notes of her 1993 album The Color of My Love. They married in 1994. Her next English-language album, Falling Into You, won the Album of the Year Grammy in 1997.
But none of that prepared Dion for the staying power of “My Heart Will Go On,” the James Horner-penned smash hit single with lyrics by Will Jennings that anchored Titanic and won Record of the Year at the Grammys and the 1998 Academy Award for Best Original Song, one of 11 Oscars the epic tear-jerker took home that night.
For starters, she didn’t even like it. The queen of the aching power ballad thought it was too… meh.
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“When I recorded it, I didn’t think about a movie; I didn’t think about radio,” Dion told Billboard in 2017 on the occasion of the much-parodied but still time-honored song’s 20th anniversary. “I thought, ‘Sing the song, then get the heck out of there.'”
As her manager since the inception of her career, it was Angélil who encouraged her to just cut the demo and see what happened. And what happened is that it kept the otherwise all-instrumental Titanic soundtrack atop the Billboard 200 for 16 weeks, helped Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love sell more than 30 million copies and became a staple at her live shows.
“I’m so glad that my husband said, ‘I really think that you should do that song,'” she recalled.
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Twelve weeks after the babies were born, Dion started to rehearse near their home in Palm Beach, Fla. She had tried to keep her voice occupied while she was pregnant, but vocal exercises put too much strain on her body so she had to keep quiet.
Even Angélil wasn’t sure she was going to be able to pull it together in time. “But the very first song she sang in the rehearsal,” he recalled in the behind-the-scenes special Celine: 3 Boys and a New Show, which aired on OWN, “you know, I was crying, actually, because I couldn’t believe how great she sounded. It was a special moment. It turned everything around, that rehearsal.”
Spoiler alert, Celine ran through June 2019.
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Meanwhile, she and Angélil had already been through hell and back together, with the IVF, the miscarriage and Angélil’s first battle with cancer in 1999. Forced to stay home while she finished a European tour, he arranged to watch every performance via satellite—and as she would do years later, Dion always acknowledged Angélil’s presence in spirit from the stage.
“It’s never part of your vocabulary,” Dion said about the big C-word in a Behind the Music interview. “It’s not for you.” She playfully scoffed, as if pushing the very idea away, “That’s for the others. I’m in show business, I’m alright.”
But, “you’re wrong. When it hits you, it changes your life forever. It changed René’s life. It changed mine.”
That’s when she rededicated herself to her goal of having a family and taking a break from her jam-packed career. “Everybody’s got a road to take, and maybe we’ll meet again,” she said, referring to her fans. “Hopefully.”
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Let’s just say, Dion and her fans reunited with a vengeance in Vegas in 2003 and were hardly ever apart again.
Sadly, Angélil was again diagnosed with cancer in 2013, and in August 2014 Dion canceled the remainder of her shows for the year. She wouldn’t perform again in Vegas for a year.
Angélil died on Jan. 14, 2016, and after a few weeks off, Dion returned to the stage with a show dedicated to her husband. And he remains by her side, albeit in a different way.
“It’s been a tough journey,” Dion told E! News in July 2016. “Like I say, many times, many people go through this, and you see your husband suffer for three years, and it’s not what you want to see. So now I know he is well, and we live with him in a different way. And I see him through the eyes of my children every single day.”
On Oct. 8, 2016, she played her 1,000th show in Vegas.
“Sometimes it feels like 1,000 shows when I see my kids grow so much, but sometimes it feels definitely not 1,000,” Dion told the Las Vegas Review-Journal‘s Robin Leach before her milestone performance. “I’m not quite sure what makes the difference. Some days its feels like 1,000 and I’ve been here forever, but I don’t count the numbers. None of the statistics. I don’t count the money, I don’t count the number of fans, I don’t count the years because if I start counting, I’m going to lose the essentials of the meaning of life itself.”
Noting how they were so crowded every night she sometimes thought people might jump off the balconies, she insisted she didn’t take a single fan for granted.
“I was always more than music and a song for them,” Dion said. “They felt that we knew each other like a sister, like a friend. They said I helped them so much with our songs.
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“I’m not going to tell you my life. You know it. My life has been such an open book. I lost René, and they felt for me. They want to be supporters like they’ve always been, and they feel like I need that support. Maybe that’s why I feel strong, and maybe that’s why I want to keep going. I feel their energy. I feel like they know me. I feel like I could tell them everything. I feel like the love is there more than ever.”
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Since then, Dion has added to her personal repertoire in new ways, attending her first-ever Met Gala and enjoying her time as one to watch in the style department while blogging for Vogue about Paris Fashion Week in 2017.
“I always loved fashion—it’s not something new,” she told the LA Times last year. “But my team and I decided it’s OK to go to fashion shows, then it made such an impact that they wanted me to be in the front row. And that turned out to be a big deal.”
She also, incidentally, posed nude, in between outfit changes in Paris. Naturally, as it turned out.
“Naked is very comfortable,” Dion told InStyle back in 1997. “But my mother told me that when you think of comfort, you’re getting old. Believe me, stilettos, push-up bras and tight skirts are not comfy. They make you think differently.”
Dion encountered a brief health setback that forced her to cancel shows in 2018 while she recovered from surgery for a middle-ear condition, but she was back in action as soon as was humanly possible.
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In Australia to perform that year, she pored over photos of herself at 14 during an interview with The Sunday Project, marveling over her retro eyeliner. “Wow, I still have my baby face,” Dion said proudly, adding that she wouldn’t change her perfectly unpolished teenage look for anything. And now…
“I’m vintage!” she declared. “I’m worth lots of money, so respect, huh?”
Dion is celebrating her 52nd birthday Monday—in low-key fashion, as she is also doing her part to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus that has shut down public gatherings around the world for the time being.
“I hope you are all taking good care of yourselves and each other during this very difficult time,” she wrote to fans on March 19, about a week after her own COVID-19 test came back negative. “I’m at home with my family, and we are taking all the necessary precautions to stay healthy and safe.
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“My thoughts and prayers go out to all of those who have lost loved ones, to those who are ill, as well as all who are facing hardships as a result of this drastic situation. I wish you strength and courage, and I hope that positive news and progress will return our lives back to normal sooner rather than later. Now more than ever, I hope you find music as a source of comfort, healing and peace.”
From her lips to our ears.
(Originally published March 30, 2018, at 5 a.m. PT)
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