Celine Dion, who is among the most successful female recording artists on the planet, kindly gave me lunch in the gazebo of her estate on Jupiter Island, Florida, where her white mansion facing the Atlantic Ocean shimmers in the sun and all seems well with the world. The family butler, a Frenchman known as Mr. Jean-Jacques, served us lunch.
“This is a little bit different from the house you were raised in,” I suggested.
“A little bit, yes,” she replied. “I grew up in a very, very, very small house.”
Celine Marie Claudette Dion, who’s now 43, was raised in French-speaking Charlemagne, Quebec, the daughter of an accordionist. (She still speaks English with a slight French accent.) She’s the youngest of 14 siblings, all of them musical.
“Where did you all sleep?” I asked.
“My mum was brilliant enough to put a pillow in a drawer for a baby to sleep in. We were safe and warm and taken care of. Three or four of us in the same bed was normal to us. We weren’t poor, but we never had money. I don’t know if that makes sense. We were given love and affection and support. What else did we need?”
Mr. Jean-Jacques brought us cauliflower vichyssoise, to be followed by quiche and salad, fresh berries with sabayon, and coffee.
“Bon appétit!” said Celine.
“I hear you’re a bit of a shoe freak,” I mentioned over the quiche.
“Does that mean if you have, let’s say, 600 pairs of shoes, you’re considered a freak?”
“O.K. I have about 3,000 pairs.”
I practically fell into one of the two pools.
From the start of our lunch that pleasant day, Celine Dion struck me unexpectedly as a thoughtful, good-hearted goddess of pop. Family means everything to her. If she is a diva, she’s a chatty diva. But the lady is an open book. She cannot tell a fib.
“Some people do drugs,” she added, “and I buy shoes.”
The love of her life, it’s well known, is Rene Angelil, her longtime manager and husband, who discovered her when she was 12 years old and mortgaged his home to finance her first record. I reminded her that she’s always said that he’s “the first and only man of my life.”
“Yes, the first and only,” she confirmed, “unless you count the kiss I gave somebody else on the porch of my sister’s house.”
“How could you, Celine?”
“He was a very cute guy. He was definitely cuter than I thought I was, for sure. But for me to give a kiss was a big deal in those days. I was, like, 15, and I think it scared me. I didn’t even know what we were doing. His name was Sylvain.”
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know. I hope the best for him.”
Celine Dion reportedly has a three-year, $100 million contract with Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The Colosseum theater was built specially for her with another staggering investment, of $95 million. It’s as if she’s a one-woman stimulus package for the revival of the town’s flagging economy. Her appearances are planned around her 10-year-old son’s school vacations. The 90-minute shows, which charge Broadway ticket prices, regularly sell out.
The 4,300 seats in the Colosseum make it even bigger than New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. “We played the Stade de France arena in Paris, and it holds over 80,000 people,” she said evenly. “So to perform for 4,000 is really quite intimate.”
“Even the most accomplished performers still suffer from stage fright, and I wonder if you ever do.”
“Sometimes I do. It’s like making a high dive. I’m not scared to jump. The nerves come in the breath before you leap off the board.”
“Do you know that when Liberace came onstage in Las Vegas wearing an ankle-length chinchilla coat his adoring fans would roar with delight, and he’d say to them—”
“ ‘You paid for it!’ ” she leapt in. “My fans bought me this house. They bought my records. But, you know, I don’t just sing for free. It’s my work. You’re paid for what you do. And I work hard. But a lot of people work hard and they don’t have anything. I was very fortunate, and people have bought my albums year after year, and they come to see the shows, and it’s expensive, and they still come.”
Celine Dion well understands her vast following. (Her online fan club, TeamCeline, has about a million fans globally.) “It’s maybe difficult for some people to believe that even though I do have an extraordinary life,” she explained, “I am a normal person.”
Her remarkable, soaring voice and sentimental songs of love and yearning have proved enduringly popular. Near, far, wherever you are / I believe that the heart does go on. But she knows that her audience also connects emotionally to the true stories she tells about herself. With a record 27 appearances, she is Oprah Winfrey’s favorite celebrity guest, talking about such personal topics as her husband’s cancer scare and her struggle to give birth to their children through in-vitro fertilization. The giddy outcome is a lovefest in which legions of Dion fans bond with the reality behind the fairy tale they helped to create.
“Can I bring the boys?” she asked as lunch ended.
“Our eldest is at school,” explained her husband, who had ambled across the grounds to join us as she went to fetch the one-year-old twins, Nelson and Eddy. They emerged in stately, picture-perfect procession from the shimmering white manse in two identical white-and-beige baby carriages with their hoods raised to shield them from the sun. A Labrador came romping ahead.
“This is Nelson,” Celine said, introducing us. “Say bonjour monsieur!” Nelson seemed to be taking my measure, peering quizzically up at me. But his mom started to sing “Elmo’s World,” and he gave us a smile at last. “And this is Eddy.” And then Eddy started to sing, too, which made us all laugh. He was singing something at the top of his little voice.
“He’s singing like Stevie Wonder,” his mom explained. “He’s showing off for you! They’re show-business people.”
Moi, Je t'offrirais des perles de pluie, Venues de pays, Où il ne pleut pas
Merci Céline et René! xxx