It’s hard to imagine a career as successful as that of Celine Dion. She inhabits the kind of stratospheric heights that very few artists ever attain — Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston. One might add a few other names, but it remains a very exclusive club and Dion certainly belongs there. When you’ve sold over 200 million albums, making you the top-selling female artist of all time, and are currently performing at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas at a salary of $33 million per annum, it’s hard to find new challenges. That’s why Dion regards her family as her most important achievement — her three boys, René-Charles, now 12, and twins Nelson and Eddy, who just turned 3. Now 45, Dion is very ambitious when it comes to adding to her brood. “I don’t have to do any of this,” Dion says, referring to performing and recording. “I do it because I love to sing. But the only reward that means anything to me is my children. There is nothing that can top being a mother. I would like more but I don’t know if it could happen. I want the twins and me to have quality time. It’s selfish to keep wanting more, although I would love a girl. Imagine all the shopping, the jewelry, the shoes, the dresses I could give to her.”
I caught up with Dion following her show at Caesars Palace where I watched her deliver a powerful, emotional performance, including a no-holds barred rendition of her fabled Titanic song, “My Heart Will Go On.” When we finally sat down for our chat, it was midnight in Las Vegas and the temperature was a sweltering 43 C outside. It turned out to be just as hot inside the hotel suite that had been reserved for us because the air conditioning had failed. Dion merely shrugged over the heat, uttering nary a complaint. A five-time Grammy Award winner, the French-Canadian chanteuse from Quebec is back with a new English-language album, Love Me Back to Life. Her first in six years, it’s both fresh and modern, ranking high on the list of Dion’s best work.
Q: Your new title track, “Loved Me Back to Life,” is written by Sia, one of the hottest songwriters in the business. Were you anxious to work with new writers for this album?
A: It came about at the last moment. I suddenly received a lot of amazing songs, and we kept working on the album so we could put them in. When all these amazing songs came in [including work from Ne-Yo, Eg White, Tricky Stewart and Babyface], 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!
Q: This is a pretty edgy mix of songs. Are you trying to cut a different image?
A: I don’t try to be cool. That’s not me. But for this album I decided to modernize. Normally my voice would be blended. That’s been the recipe for it all my life. This time it’s very dry.
Q: You still have a very youthful appearance and many people think you’re looking more beautiful than ever. Does happiness have anything to do with that?
A: (Smiles) 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.
Q: How has being a mother changed you?
A: Motherhood has given me a stability and a strength. It’s given me a different approach to how I feel about myself.
Q: You’ve been a professional singer from a very young age, and you waited until your 30s to have a baby. When did you really first begin thinking about starting a family?
A: 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, and 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 decided that I’m going to try to have it all. I’m going to try very hard, and it happened.
Q: You had already signed a contract to return to Las Vegas and perform when you decided to try for more children. That must have been complicated?
A: We signed the contract to come back to Vegas and we had to postpone it two or three times. If they’d said you want babies, but we need a singer, I would have understood. But I told René, “I can’t stop. I have to try and try and try all the way.” 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.
Q: Do you find it hard to juggle being a mother of three and performing every night? Is it hard to shift your focus back and forth?A: I’m not sure there is a shift of focus. When I’m on stage, my kids are with me. When I’m home, I’m singing songs inside my head. But I don’t bring my work home with me because I don’t want to live that show-business life. I want to sleep, go home and get into my PJs.
Q: What’s your daily routine like?
A: After the last song I change very quickly and do a runner. I’m home at 10 p.m. to be with my babies and I leave at 4 in the afternoon, so I’m with them as much as possible. In the morning one of my biggest pleasures is to have my kids around me. I start the day with 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.
Q: Your Caesars Palace show is an extraordinary success. How does it feel to be still performing in Las Vegas?
A: 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.
Q: Is performing any different for you today as opposed to 10 or 20 years ago?
A: I feel more happy and sure of myself. I like wearing different, sexier clothes. Growing up, though, 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 them with braces. I didn’t have these. (Gestures to her now perfectly formed and perfectly lined up sparkling whites)
Q: What kind of emotional scars does that kind of experience leave on you?
A: When you’re the good-looking little girl everyone wants to be friends with you. Nobody wanted to be friends with me. I’ve never forgotten that. Of course I’ve grown emotionally. I’ve been a girlfriend, a wife, a mother. But when you’re 10 years old, having teeth 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.
Q: Do those kinds of feelings about your appearance make a song like Janis Ian’s “17” all the more resonant for you when you perform it in your Vegas show?
A: I don’t know if it’s normal that at eight you feel [rejected] the way I did. I just know I love maturity, and I never want to be eight or 25 again.
Q: What kind of pressure did you experience after you became romantically involved with your husband, René Angélil?
A: I was in my early 20s when 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 mom. When he first started managing me, he was married. I was not involved with him but people imagine things.
Q: And then once you were together things were just as complicated?
A: It was not proper, it was not the right thing to do. It was inappropriate [for us to be together].
Q: Your husband recently acted in a Québécois film called Omerta, in which he played a mob boss. How do you view him?
A: 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.
Q: How are things today?
A: My life is getting better. Today I feel more beautiful and stronger than I ever have. But 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 anymore. 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.
Q: You still get so emotional each time you get on stage and perform. Why do you think that is?
A: It proves to me that the world is still alive. If I cry, it’s because I’m alive.