I first met Celine Dion on the boiling hot rooftop of Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, just after watching her powerful, emotional stage show, complete with a raging real water storm for the Titanic number My Heart Will Go On.
I have always thought she is an odd mix, a diva who is totally humble. She has never been cool. She told me, ‘I don’t try to be, that’s not me.’ She’s never been edgy. Yet she’s sold over 200 million records worldwide, making her the best selling female artist ever. Her amazing multiple octave voice reaches across far expanses of the world.
When we met the album she played me was beautiful, perfect, but weeks before its release she decided to start again, to try to become the thing that she’d never been – cool.
‘The new album is half full of the songs I sing on stage, but the other half was because I started to be sent a lot of amazing songs, so we kept going to put them on the album.’
The new single, Loved Me Back To Life, is written by Sia, one of the hottest songwriters around. Other songwriters are taken from the cool pool of hitmakers like Ne Yo, Eg White, Tricky Stewart, and Babyface.
‘When all these amazing songs came in my 12-year-old said this is not possible that Sia and Ne Yo are sending you songs. I thought they wrote for Rihanna. They must have made a mistake.’
Her voice is also very different. It’s like a cat’s purr. ‘It’s very dry. Normally my voice would be blended. That’s been the recipe for it all my life, so I decided to modernise.’
These days she looks every inch a proper pop star in glamorous expensive designer slinky gowns. Yet her quirky rural French Canadian accent is still there when she speaks.
She is 44 and seems to have undergone the ageing process in reverse. She started off geeky looking and launched a thousand jokes of “Why the long face, Celine?” But she’s not only grown into her features, she is radiant. Lustrous hair, giant sparkly eyes, creamy skin.
When we are face to face the air conditioning isn’t working and it is 110 degrees outside at midnight and hotter inside. She doesn’t complain.
Maybe it’s happiness that has made her look better as she’s got older? ‘Maybe. I’ve worked hard for nearly 30 years and I feel like only now it’s paying off in terms of happiness. Emotionally I feel stable. So I do feel more beautiful. If I’d had 30 years of career and no children I would not have felt beautiful. I would have felt like I’d accomplished only part of a life.
‘I think motherhood has given me a stability and a strength. It’s given me a different approach to how I feel about myself.
determined not to commit until she was pregnant.
‘I don’t have to do any of this.’ She means performing and recording. ‘I do it because I love to sing. But the only reward that would mean anything to me is my children. There is nothing that can top being a mother. I’m 44 years old. I would like more but I don’t know if it could happen. I want the twins and I to have quality time. It’s selfish to keep wanting more, although I would love a girl. Imagine all the shopping, the jewellery, the shoes, the dresses I could give to her.’
Her twins came with a determination that is super human. Her first son René-Charles, now 11, was also an IVF baby and she had already had embryos frozen for future planning.
‘I did IVF six times one after the other (in 2010).’ Nobody does that. She shrugs. She must have been crazy with screaming hormones. She shrugs again. ‘I don’t know. You might have to ask René (Angélil, her husband) that. I was not over emotional, not even tired.
‘I did five years at Caesars Palace and went half a year around the world on tour, and it was finally time. I thought as long as my health permits me I’m going to go and on until I get pregnant. I told my doctor that unless he thought physically I couldn’t do it, I would go on until someone told me to stop.’
Six IVFs one on top of another are not only physically draining but mentally debilitating. I tell her about a friend of mine who has had four attempts over as many years. When she finally got pregnant she was in denial. She couldn’t believe or invest in the pregnancy because it was too important to her.
Did she suffer from anything like that? ‘No. Tell your friend to have coffee with heavy cream every morning and take it easy. Any pregnancy whether it’s in vitro or not you feel a danger. You have to remain positive and try to relax as much as possible. I always say that the first country my children own is inside of me, so I try to make it a good one and be healthy.’
Dion comes from a huge family. She’s the youngest of 14. She grew up in Charlemagne, Quebec. Her father was a lumberjack and they were extremely poor, but it wasn’t something she noticed. Did she always want to have a big family? ‘I never thought about it at first. I was on stage from being a child and I was busy professionally at twelve. I’d barely had a period.
‘I didn’t think about children in general but when love came into my life and I got married and I had money and success I was like, what’s missing? For a long time I thought that’s the price for me to pay for success. I’m from a big family. I now have a lot of money, I’m not going to be able to have children, you have to pay a price, you can’t have it all.
‘It was quite self-punishing. Then I thought I’m going to try to have it all. I’m going to try very hard, and it happened.’
She had René-Charles when she was 33. Getting pregnant at 42 was obviously going to be even harder. ‘So I had to deal with it. I was going to do whatever it took and of course there was a window of doubt. And I kept that window. I was 95 per cent positive, five per cent doubting. I didn’t want the doctor to call me and say, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not going to work and I would crash.
‘I needed to protect myself a little by saying I already have one child. I can’t make all my life, my spirituality, my strength, my happiness, dependent on the next pregnancy. What about my child now? I would say to him I hope you are going to have a brother or sister and when it didn’t work I told him it didn’t work, we’ll try again.’
How long did all this take? ‘We signed the contract to come back to Vegas and we had to postpone two or three times. If they’d said you want babies, we need a singer, I would have understood. I told René I can’t stop. I have to try and try and try all the way.
‘People stop because it’s very expensive but I kept on going and would only have stopped if I’d been told my health was in danger but I was not going to stop just because I had a contract for singing. I would have hated every song for the rest of my life, so I said try to postpone the Caesars Palace shows because it wasn’t a good enough reason for me not to try for a baby. A life or a contract? I couldn’t live with that.
‘If the doctor had said this is your last try, your health cannot go on any more, but he never said that. I was reacting better to the treatment as we went along.’
Cancelling a Vegas contract would have cost her millions of dollars but she already has millions of dollars. She is reputed to be worth £300 million.
She knew that IVF meant there was a good chance of a multiple pregnancy and when the test was finally positive, ‘I had three babies inside me. It was unbelievable. Every week I would go to the doctor and there would be three heartbeats. The doctor was freaking out because in your forties if you are expecting more than one baby there’s a high risk of Downs Syndrome, and also you’re more at risk from other things like high blood pressure. (You’re also at risk pre-eclampsia).
‘I went for ultra sound every week and saw baby A, baby B and baby C, but one week baby C was not moving. (Baby C had died). It was around three months into the pregnancy. The baby is tiny. It doesn’t even come out. It makes a dry patch on the placenta. That’s the only proof of a baby.
‘My husband and I shed a little tear. Then you reason to yourself that baby has passed, let go for a good reason. It was to give more strength to the other two babies. Who knows what might have gone wrong if three had remained. I didn’t have to make any decisions, any choices, I just focused on my two babies, and they got stronger and bigger. Nobody wants to have a 1lb baby.
‘When my twins were born they were 5lb 10oz and 5lb 4oz. almost 12lb of baby. I gained 60lb in all. That was just belly.
‘I had a C-section. I had one with my first child at the last minute and I was already dilating. That was hard but because it was twins they recommend the C-section and I wanted healthy babies. It wasn’t a fashion choice.
‘We scheduled it carefully. We wanted to wait till the babies were at least 5lb.’ She was 35 weeks pregnant when she gave birth to twins Eddy and Nelson in November 2010. They remained in a neo-natal intensive care unit for several days.
‘They were a little jaundiced at first so we had to stay in the hospital and we had a little bit of blood on their heels for a couple of days, but they were fine, more than fine.
‘We named Nelson after Nelson Mandela. You can’t have one child with the name of a hero and the other Bob the Builder. So I named Eddy after my other hero (Eddy Marnay), who wrote all my French songs for me at the beginning of my career.’ (He also wrote songs for Edith Piaf).
She says the twins now love to dress up and play with her clothes. ‘They have strong and very different personalities but both of them love to wake up first thing in the morning and go to their closet and decide what they will wear.’
Sometimes her Canadian French speaking is difficult to fathom because she speaks with a strange syntax. Sometimes it makes her speech poetic and heartfelt. ‘They told me one day I’d start dreaming in English and then speak it better. It didn’t happen. Although now I’m not sure what language I dream in. I like to sing in French because sometimes I connect better with the words. A table is not a table, it’s a feminine thing. But a chair is a masculine thing. It’s more precise, like Japanese, but Japanese is all about the emphasis.’
She starts singing in Japanese. I’ve no idea what she is saying. But even sat down in a suite at Caesars Palace her voice is astounding and overwhelmingly emotional.
Does she find it hard to juggle being a mother of three and performing every night” Isn’t it difficult to shift the focus?
‘I’m not sure there is a shift of focus. When I’m on stage my kids are with me. When I’m home my head sings songs. I don’t bring them with me because I don’t want to live that showbusiness life. I want to sleep, go home and get into my pjs.’
She has a house nearby. ‘After the last song I change very quickly and do a runner. I’m home at 10 o’clock to be with my babies and I leave at 4 o’clock, so I’m with them as much as possible.
‘In the morning one of my biggest pleasures is to have my kids round me and coffee with heavy cream, no sugar. I hold the cup like it’s a little bird nest. It comforts me. At night I go to bed and my kids are sleeping and I whisper I can’t wait for tomorrow to have my coffee and my kids. It’s the simple pleasures of life that make the most sense.
‘None of my children are good sleepers. My eleven-year-old, my big boy, likes to wait up for me to come home. My twins wake up constantly, but I don’t care. I have lots of help. My sisters and nannies make sure they are fine.’ She smiles in a kind of dreamy gratitude. She is very emotionally available and direct. If something moves her she cries. If she likes you she hugs you. She’s always waving her arms around on stage and off to express how she’s feeling.
‘I can’t believe I did this show for five years and then they wanted me to come back for 70 shows a year. We like to change the show and evolve it in case the same people come back. She likes to please people. She tries hard. She used to try even harder so her face would sometimes appear strained and tight. she dressed in trouser suits a lot, restricted. Now she loves the floaty, the drapey, the soft. Does she feel more sexy? ‘I feel more happy and sure of myself.’
I have read recent rumours that she is pregnant again. ‘No-o-o,’ she says emphatically, and goes into a small diatribe about the internet and she doesn’t even own a computer and assumes that’s where I’ve read it. She does add: ‘We did not really close the whole chapter on children, but right now I don’t have plans. I’m not pregnant. I’ll let you know if I am.’
There’s a wistfulness in her voice. She grew up as part of a huge family and would have liked to have something similar. She’s always claimed that her family were wonderful and loving, yet growing up was torture for her.
The song 17 by Janis Ian is particularly emotionally resonant for her. When she performs it in the show it brought much of the audience to tears because they identified with being ugly and rejected, which she felt at that age. Today she is a glamorous diva, but there is graciousness and humility that exudes from her, probably because she grew up tormented by her looks.
‘It was hard for me. I was not pretty. Going to school was hard for me. I was skinny and my teeth were really bad and we didn’t have the money to fix it with braces. I didn’t have these.’ She gestures to her now perfect formed and perfectly lined up sparkling whites.
‘When you’re the good looking little girl everyone wants to be friends with you and nobody wanted to be friends with me. I’ve never forgotten that. Of course I’ve emotionally grown. I’ve been a girlfriend, a wife, a mother. But when you’re ten years old, teeth right out there that are twisted, it’s cruel. I never wanted to go to school. I wanted to be home all the time because there I knew I was loved and would not be laughed at.
‘I don’t know if it’s normal that at eight you feel this way. I just know I love maturity and I never want to be eight or 25 again.’ Coincidentally at 26 she married Angélil, who was 52. ‘At 44 my life is getting better. Both parents gave me wonderful values of life, a foundation of love and support.
‘As soon as I hit showbusiness my mum was with me all the time. She didn’t trust anybody.’
Angélil became her manager when she was 12 and he was 38. At the time he had a bit of a bad boy reputation. He’d been married twice. ‘My mother didn’t trust him. She wrote to him to take care of me but she stayed with me till I was 18. I learnt a lot by meeting a lot of older people with experience. I would not change any of my journeys.
‘In my early 20s I fell in love with René but we were hiding it from the world because it was impossible to fall in love with a man who had three children and was married twice. It was a no, no, no with my mum.’
She bows her head and for the first time. She looks as if she is talking with difficulty when she remembers this. She shifts in her seat when she says it was deemed ‘inappropriate.’
‘When he first started managing me he was married. I was not involved with him but people imagine things. It was not proper, it was not the right thing to do.’
His marriage had been dissolved by the time she sang for Switzerland in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1988, aged 20. In the euphoria of winning the song contest she kissed him and has said that kiss was one of the greatest moments of her life. They married in 1994.
On the day she discovered she was pregnant with René-Charles her husband was declared in remission from skin cancer. ‘Imagine, we faced life and death in one day.’ She had put her career on hold to care for him through his cancer treatment.
Her love for Angélil is palpable and vice versa. He is now He was sat in front of me during her performance, hung on her every note, warmed to her every word, beamed with pride.
He carries himself with grace and confidence. His son Patrick from his first marriage is part of Celine’s management team and is equally gracious. Angélil was recently in a Quebecois movie called Omert where he played a Montreal mob boss. It topped the box office across Quebec. He got the part because in Canada people think of him as a kind of godfather-like character.
‘Sometimes I treat him as that character. They came to him because they know his personality. He is charismatic and low key. He’s a good poker player. He’s got the look.’
‘Today I feel more beautiful and more strong than I ever have. Next week my mum is coming to the show and then we’ll all move to Florida for a month where my son goes to school. She also has a house in Montreal.
‘I don’t want to be busier than busy. I don’t want my kids to feel I’m not there for them. I’ve wanted them for too long for that. I want to make the most of them. Now the simplest things make me happy. I’ve got a feeling the sky ‘s the limit. I don’t feel I can’t do this any more. I feel like I want to do everything; enjoy time with my children, enjoy the growth of my twins, and I also love to sing.’
She doesn’t just sing to her audience, she gets inside them, communicates joy, pain, everything she’s ever felt. ‘It proves to me that the world is still alive. If I cry it’s because I’m alive.’