The rebirth of Celine Dion: ‘Life is short. Can we just have a good time?’
Quebec City – Celine Dion warned me not to sit on the couch.
An hour or so after strutting offstage to finish the first concert of her new world tour, the pop superstar had just opened the door to her dressing room in the Videotron Centre arena here, not far from where she was born in tiny Charlemagne. The airy, suite-like space was amply appointed with fresh flowers and exercise equipment – perfect for either a hockey team or a lung-busting power balladeer with nearly a dozen platinum albums to her name. But among the many seating options, a boxy gray sofa seemed the most natural spot for a post-show interview.
“Oh, not there,” Dion said as I went to take a seat. “This is the hardest couch I’ve ever sat on in my life. Well, give it a try. It’s so bad. Am I being a diva? No, right? Do you agree with me?” She wasn’t being a diva; the sofa felt like a bus-stop bench. So instead we settled into two chairs next to a Pilates machine and a shriveled-up rubber ball.
What do you do with that? I asked Dion, who was dressed not at all casually in a black mesh top over a zebra-print skirt. When it’s inflated, “you lay on it and it helps you to open the chest,” she said. “It can also go at the bottom of your coccyx, if I may say.”
And that stretching is good for singing?
“It’s good for living,” she replied with a grin.
You can understand why Dion, 51, has well-being in mind. The Courage tour – scheduled to run through late 2020 and named after a new album she plans to release Nov. 15 – marks the French Canadian singer’s return to the road following the death of her husband and manager, Rene Angelil, who died of throat cancer in 2016. It also comes after the conclusion earlier this year of Dion’s looong-term engagement at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where she began performing in 2003 (well before Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez came to town).
Not unlike Vegas, which Dion helped rid of its musty Wayne Newton vibe, pop music has changed immeasurably since then; Dion’s brand of ultra-polished uplift – as heard in chart-topping anthems like “The Power of Love,” “Because You Loved Me” and the Oscar- and Grammy-winning “My Heart Will Go On,” from “Titanic” – feels even further from today’s gloomy, hip-hop-attuned Top 40 than it did from the chipper late-’90s era of Hanson and the Spice Girls.
Yet something unexpected happened on this veteran entertainer’s path toward pastured irrelevance: Dion was reborn as a proudly avant-garde style icon known for flaunting audacious outfits on Instagram and at highly photographed events like May’s Met Gala in New York, where she was seen (and seen again) in an elaborate Oscar de la Renta get-up involving sequins, a feathered headpiece and what one fashion critic described as “sleeves draped in 3,000 strands of floor-length fringe made from micro-cut glass bugle beads.”
The Dionaissance, it’s been called, a phrase Dion herself approves of, even if she claims not to know precisely how it originated. “I always loved fashion – it’s not something new,” she said. “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.”
Now that sense of rejuvenation – a sort of living-her-best-life quality – is creeping into her music. You can hear her having a great time on “Courage,” her first English-language album since 2013’s low-key “Loved Me Back to Life”; it’s full of glittery, happily melodramatic songs in which she’s embracing her fabulousness with refreshed vigor. And onstage in Quebec City, she seemed to lean into the outsize idea of Celine Dion. There were adventurous outfits, of course, including one that paired crisp tuxedo pants with a silky blouse whose enormous sleeves billowed just so when she pointed skyward to accentuate a big note in “Beauty and the Beast.” But she also joked easily with the audience and did a killer medley of old classics by David Bowie, Labelle, Prince and Tina Turner.
“She’s in a really good place,” said Stephan Moccio, a songwriter and producer from Ontario, Canada, who’s known Dion for years and worked on “Courage.” “The love of her life is gone, but I think she’s found this unique confidence – this kind of emotional wisdom – that we’ve never seen before.”
In her dressing room, Dion said she worried at first that songwriters, knowing she’d lost her husband, would send her only “sad song after sad song after sad song.”
“The loss of my husband is still in me,” she said of Angelil, whom she married in 1994 (after he discovered her when she was 12) and with whom she had three sons. “I will grieve that for the rest of my life. And I see him through the eyes of my children every day.” Musically, though, it was the bigger, more theatrical material – disco-inflected songs in which she could display both her voice and her wit – that captured the feeling she wanted to put across in her show.
“I love the spotlight – I love to be looked at,” she told me as she smoothed her hair, which was knotted in a low bun at the back of her head. “I’m in show business. You show your butt or your back or your shoulder and you go, ‘Voulez-vous coucher avec moi.’
“Life is short,” she added. “Can we just have a good time?”
Before the concert, I’d walked around the arena to get a sense of who comes to a Celine Dion concert in 2019 – to find out, in other words, whether her rediscovery by young people online has translated to the real world. The answer, at least in her home province, seemed to be that it had: For every two middle-aged couples who’d probably been with Dion since the outset of her French-language career in the ‘80s, I glimpsed somebody in their 20s or younger, which seemed to please Dion when I told her later.
“Did you see children? I saw a lot of children,” she said. “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.”
Yet even the new fans want to hear the old songs, none more so than “My Heart Will Go On,” which drove the “Titanic” soundtrack to sales of more than 11 million copies. Dion said she didn’t like the song initially but agreed to record a demo at Angelil’s request; according to pop legend, the smash hit was built around that original vocal take, a story Dion stands by today. “If I’m going to do a demo, I’m going to sell the s–,” she said, lowering her voice as she swore.
Decades later, she’s come around to the song. “When I die and my children can say their mom sang ‘Titanic,’ it’s good for their heritage,” she said. But sometimes she dreams of opening a concert with the tune just to get it over with; on her new tour – it will stop at Staples Center on April 2 and 3 – she’s doing “My Heart Will Go On” next to last in the set, which she said Angelil always opposed because he thought it would be anticlimactic.
“I hope Rene will not haunt me tonight,” she said, laughing. She clearly hears the words of her late husband, who was 26 years older than Dion, echoing in her head. When we met, she thanked me for coming to see her perform, whether or not I was a fan. “A lot of journalists, they sit down and – I’m not even onstage – they’re negative already,” she said. “My husband told me a long time ago that they send people that don’t really like you.”
Perhaps that was true in the past, I pointed out. But recently Dion has been nothing but adored, as she surely noticed amid the breathless coverage of the Met Gala. “I guess so,” she said, adding that the fancy party probably looked more fun from outside than it was inside. Getting ready, making a big entrance – that she always enjoys. After the red carpet, though, it was just “talking to people around a big table that I don’t know.”
“But then we went to a club after and had a great time,” she added. At the club she ran into RuPaul, who told her she was the best-dressed person at the ball – an accomplishment, given that the event’s theme, camp, was tricky for even native English speakers to define.
“I thought I was going to go with my sleeping bag,” Dion said. “What is camp? I still don’t understand it. But I won.”
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