Queen Céline

The former child star from Quebec is conquering the world

E. KAYE FULTON June 1 1992

Queen Céline

The former child star from Quebec is conquering the world

E. KAYE FULTON June 1 1992

It was midnight in Manhattan as the limousine coasted through the rain-drenched streets of the deserted West Side. Exhausted after a 19-hour day of pleasantries and promotional appearances, Céline Dion was heading back to the lavish Rihga Royal Hotel. She slumped against the leathered luxury of her seat as the car stopped under an arc of streetlights outside the Sam Goody music store near Rockefeller Center. Lowering the window, Dion stared through the spring drizzle at a small but critical victory. A wistful young woman, rich brown hair spilling down her back and a long, cream-colored skirt open to her thigh, gazed dreamily from two life-size posters that framed the entrance to the flagship of the largest music retail chain in the United States. Caught in the act of savoring the sight of herself, the subject of the posters drew back into the darkness. “So,” she said, with a self-mocking smile, “la p’tite Quebecoise makes it in America.”

Success in America: by any measure but her own impossible standards, Céline Dion has made it where it seems to count most.

She is the undisputed star of a rejuvenated Quebec music industry—having led it for nearly half her life with a string of nine bestselling French albums in Quebec and Europe. At 24, she is poised to conquer the English-speaking world as well. Her first English album, Unison (1990), has sold 1.4 million copies on the international market. And six weeks after its release in the United States, Dion’s second English album, titled simply celine dion, was 51st on the May 23 Billboard list of the Top 200 albums. The former child star from Charlemagne, Que., 20 km east of Montreal, has vaulted from the crowded ranks of the unknown to New York’s “celebrity of the day,” as a city celebrity-tracking service designated her on April 10. The service declared her to be more noteworthy than the visiting British rock band Genesis or deposed Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Said Dion’s manager, René Angélil: “That girl has a star over her head—she’s that lucky.”

There is every indication that Dion has captured more than the fleeting interest of a capricious industry. Acclaim for her soaring five-octave voice, her flair for drama and her quintessential Canadian freshness convinced Sony Music Canada to re-negotiate Dion’s contract last fall, a $10-million deal for five albums in the next 10 years, before Sony’s American label, Epic Records, muscled her away. In two years, Dion has appeared on almost every major U.S. daytime talk show, often twice. The reclusive Michael Jackson sent her the black fedora that he wore on the video Billie Jean; Prince wrote With This Tear for Dion, then called to tell her she was “a smart singer.” Said Canadian-born composer and producer David Foster, who produced five of the songs on Dion’s Unison album: “Céline exceeds the boundaries of talent. I don't know if she will reach the heights of Barbra Streisand, but there’s nobody else in the race.”

The comparison to Streisand is a powerful elixir for Dion—and a red flag to critics back home who raise the inevitable Canadian gripe about selling out for stardom. Dion is disarmingly frank about her idolatry of the multitalented American actress and singer. Dion recalled that three bars into Beauty and the Beast at the Academy Awards on March 30, during a brief moment before two billion television viewers, she almost lost her breath when she opened her eyes and saw Streisand’s green eyes staring back at her from the audience. Declared Dion: “I don’t admire Streisand just because she’s American. Singers are members of one big family, like athletes and actors.”

Rich: Dion is just as candid about her determination to be rich and famous. With the same enthusiasm as a star-struck fan on a movie lot, she rattled down a list of high-fashion houses on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles that offered her free designer dresses for the Academy Awards and the number of movie icons she stood alongside backstage. Said Dion, citing her own acting experience in a French-language mini-series on Radio-Canada: “To sing a song 200 times—a story that didn’t even happen to you—you have to feel it. There’s an actress inside of me, for sure.” In a Toronto radio interview in April, veteran celebrity interviewer Brian Linehan asked Dion if she was planning a movie career. He cited singer Whitney Houston’s role in the movie The Bodyguard, currently in production. Said Linehan: “I could see her eyes working, as though she were thinking, ‘So, it’s possible, it’s possible.’ ”

Despite the strenuous effort to break into the English market, Dion remains the most popular singer in Quebec. In a poll last January in Le Journal de Montreal, she was voted the most popular Quebec female vocalist by a landslide vote. In fact, she also led the poll as the most accomplished Quebec public figure of 1991—the year after the collapse of the Meech Lake constitutional accord and the rebirth of Quebec nationalism—with twice as many votes as the combination of Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard and Premier Robert Bourassa. “In Quebec, it’s news when I have dinner in a restaurant,” said Dion. Her boyfriends, or lack of them, are a cause of endless speculation (Dion says that there is a significant man in her life). “According to Quebec newspapers,” she said with a laugh, “I’ve been pregnant twice when I didn’t even have a boyfriend.”

Dion's music is apolitical, but on two occasions she has been drawn into Quebec’s linguistic battle. In October, 1990, she refused to accept a Quebec music award as anglophone artist of the year. Choosing to make the dramatic declaration at the podium the night of the awards that she was “proud to be québécoise," Dion drew harsh criticism from the anglophone press for exploiting an embarrassing incident for its publicity value. In March, the Quebec anglophone media noted that the accent on Dion’s first name had been dropped from the covers of her two English albums. Said Dion: “What is the difference? It’s my name.”

Precocious: In Quebec, Dion is known as “lap’tite Quebecoisé’ with good reason. Quebecers have watched Dion grow up. Her life history is an integral part of the province’s lore. Original admirers were a small circle of local residents who frequented Le Vieux Baril, a piano bar and restaurant owned by her parents, Adhémar and Thérèse Dion, in the town of Charlemagne. There, a precocious five-year-old stood atop a table and belted out the the songs of Ginette Reno. Before long, customers called in advance to fashion their evening plans around the performances of “that little girl.”

Dion was the youngest in a brood of nine daughters and five sons brimming with music. Thérèse Dion played the violin, and her husband, the accordion; the children took turns singing and waiting on tables. A typical family gathering, with an assortment of instruments, was a jam session of traditional and contemporary songs. Recalled Dion: “I would run—running as fast as I can—home from school. I couldn’t wait to come back to the basement to hear them rehearse every day. When I was 12, I told my mom that all I dreamed about was singing.”

Thérèse Dion realized her daughter’s gift and accepted her dream. But she insisted that the child be managed professionally. First, the family recorded a demonstration tape in the basement of their home of the little girl singing a new song, Ce n ’était qu ’un reve (Nothing but a Dream), written by Dion’s mother and arranged by Dion and her brother Jacques. Thérèse wrapped up the tape, added a red ribbon and enclosed a note: “This is a 12-year-old with a fantastic voice. Please listen to her. We want her to be like Ginette Reno.” And they sent it to René Angélil.

Legend: That tape launched a Quebec show business legend. Angélil, a well-known Montreal impresario who had guided both Reno and child star René Simard to prominence, was unmoved by the note and depressed over a dispute with Reno that had ended their partnership. The package lay unopened on his desk for two weeks. Said Angélil: “Every kid of 12 in Quebec wanted to be either Ginette or René.” At the urging of another Dion, brother Michel, Angélil finally played the song and immediately asked to hear Dion in person.

The girl who arrived at the office the next day with her mother was shy and skinny, with conspicuously long incisors. Said Angélil: “You wouldn’t say she was a cute child. But she had these incredible brown eyes. I asked her to pretend she was in front of 2,000 people. When I handed her a pen to use as a microphone, she closed her eyes and she was there. I had goose bumps listening to that voice, so full of feeling, and older than her years.”

Angélil said that he insisted from the outset on having full control over the singer’s career. In fact, a common criticism of Dion is her apparent willingness to sacrifice her independence to achieve fame. Angélil arranged the contracts and selected the material for her early French albums. He set up a gruelling pace of performances and recording sessions. When she complained at the age of 18 of being locked in a little-girl image, he advised her to disappear from public view for a year.

During that time, she cut and permed her hair, had her front teeth capped, replaced her childish wardrobe with formfitting outfits and spiked heels—and plunged into a two-month English course. Said Linehan: “She has been alarmingly trained. Still, that’s not unusual in a celebrity world where Elizabeth Taylor has never been inside a supermarket.”

The degree of Dion’s dependence on her manager was evident in New York. Discovering in the hotel lobby that she had neither the number nor the key to her suite, she lamented: “I have never checked into a room myself. I don’t know how to even order room service.” Still, the resilience of their partnership surfaced on May 7 in Los Angeles when the workaholic Angélil suffered a heart attack. It was Dion who took control. She put him into a taxi and they went to a hospital.

That evening, she flew alone and in tears to New York and then to Europe to continue the promotional tour (Angélil is currently recuperating at home in Montreal). Interviewed in Paris by the Quebec weekly 7 Jours, Dion said: “I feel like a car without an engine. René is the engine of my life and, without him, there are things I simply can’t figure out.”

‘Pure’: Angélil carefully orchestrated Dion’s shift to the English market.

In doing so, both he and Dion have lost a measure of artistic control to Sony Canada, which is spending an estimated $1 million to promote its premier artist in the hope that she will pull the company out of a slump. And some critics have noted that, as Dion’s career burgeons, her music is becoming more contrived. Hugh Wyatt, popmusic critic for the New York Daily News, describes her sound as “natural and virtually pure.” But he and others contend that much of her English material is banal and overproduced. Dion recorded Unison when her command of spoken English was shaky, and she admits that she was intimidated by the reputations of her producers. Said Dion: “On the second album I said, ‘Well, I have the choice to be afraid one more time and not be 100 per cent happy, or not be afraid and be part of this album.’ This is my album. It’s OK to say I feel like doing it my own way.”

The transition from French to English was perhaps more painful than Dion first realized. Around the time of Unison’s release, she had the same nightmare on six consecutive nights. In the dream, Dion said, she was on the ledge of a highrise, with police cruisers and ambulances swirling below her. As a police officer closed in to grab her, Dion recalled, she jumped and felt herself falling through the air. She awoke just before she was about to hit the ground.

The Quebec singer still encounters some difficulty with English-speaking interviewers and members of the industry. Said Dion: “When people make  jokes in English, I laugh because I want to be nice. But sometimes I don’t understand everything, or else I really want to say something but it doesn’t come out as well as I want.” In her native language, Dion is known for her passion, wit and a rollicking sense of humour. Her French material tends to be more substantial, with fewer songs about love and loss. Indeed, her latest French album, Dion chante Plamondon (1991), features the complex, provocative lyrics of leading Québécois composer Luc Plamondon. She sprinkles her French concerts with devastating impersonations of Streisand and Jackson. The English concerts, by comparison, are frequently stilted by a rehearsed patter. Said Dion: “I have to pretend I am a strong person. But really I am so afraid of making a mistake.”

Plamondon (left), Dion: soaring voice, flair for drama

Of greater concern to the perfectionist is the fear of harming her voice. Exhausted by a series of performances that included a three-week U.S. tour in November, 1990, to promote Unison at record-retailer conventions, Dion lost her voice completely midway through a concert in Sherbrooke, Que. Famed New York throat specialist Wilbur Gould advised her to stop speaking for three weeks. She took him literally, sat on a beach in Aruba and communicated with Angélil and family members by sign language or notes scribbled on paper. The scare led to extraordinary precautions that Dion still employs. She rarely speaks on the day of a performance, always travels with two humidifiers, does vocal exercises for 35 minutes every day and abstains from tobacco and alcohol. Said Angélil: “When .Céline stopped singing for the sheer joy of it in the car, in the plane, wherever she was, I know she had what counted to be a star.” 

Pressure: Dion’s is a life of almost constant pressure, and at times the aggravations pile up. One day during the New York trip, she emerged from the ABC Good Morning America studio to discover that her limousine had been chased from its illegal parking spot. Her hair was frizzy from the humidity. And even worse, she was swept by a wave of homesickness. “When I feel like this, there are only two things that help,” she said, kicking along Broadway. “One is cleaning out my closet and throwing out everything I haven’t worn for a year.” She nodded hello to a city workman, then added: “The other is giving my mom or my sisters a facial and a manicure.” When not working, Dion retreats to the house in the Laurentian Mountains that she shares with her parents, a cat named Isis and two white doves.  Decorated by Dion entirely in white, the place overlooks the ski resort of Ste-Anne-du-Lac. It is a place where she can wipe off her makeup, put her hair into a ponytail and drive around in her Jeep Cherokee. There is a continuous flow of brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces, and there is even the occasional oldtime sing-along.

But Dion pushed those memories aside. She had a job to do and a record to push. “Maybe I'd feel better if I stopped traffic,” she said with a wicked smile. With that, she stepped into busy 54th Street. A truck braked in front of her. And, for a moment, it seemed that Céline Dion had stopped New York cold.

E. KAYE FULTON in New York City