NEW YORK (Billboard) - Since her first album at the age of 13, the French-Canadian chanteuse Celine Dion has released 37 full-length collections in French and English and has become one of the globe’s best-selling female singers, moving more than 200 million CDs, according to Sony Music Entertainment. In 2006 she celebrated 25 years as a hit recording artist, and in December 2007 she wrapped her four-and-a-half-year residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where she performed 717 sold-out shows.
On the eve of her 11th tour, which launches in mid-February and will take her to 100-plus cities during the next year, Dion reflects upon her early ambitions, her take on negative press and her love-hate relationship with singing.
Q: It has to feel utterly surreal to consider all that you have accomplished over time -- well more than two-thirds of your life.
Celine Dion: ”I can still see myself standing on the kitchen table at 5 years old singing in front of my family ... my mom writing my first song ... meeting when I was 12 with Rene (Angelil, her manager, whom she wed in 1994). It was all very intimidating to travel from my little suburb (in Charlemagne, Quebec) to Montreal to meet him. Taking the bus and the subway then was a wild adventure, riding in an elevator to go to an office where I sang for a man in a tie. There I was, about to meet the world.
“To finance my first album, Rene mortgaged his house, and because it was cheaper, we rented a studio from 10 at night to 6 in the morning. We recorded my first French album and a Christmas album at the same time. I still see it all so clearly. And I still prefer to record at night. That’s how I started my career, and now it’s hard to imagine doing it any other way.”
Q: After that first recording in 1981, you achieved great success singing in French, with nearly a dozen albums and 16 hits by the end of that decade. Why the decision to cross to the English-speaking world?
Dion: “I came from such a big family and grew up listening to so many English recording artists known around the world -- the Bee Gees, Stevie Wonder, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Beatles, Janis Joplin, the Eagles, Supertramp -- and it sets a standard. As a family, we sang in French; it’s in our blood and we’re made of that. But English is the universal language, and I always thought it was cool when my brothers and sisters would sing in English. To be able to cross the barriers, to sing to more people, artistically, it was just so powerful.”
Q: Your first U.S. single, “Where Does My Heart Beat Now,” was a top five hit in 1991. But it was “Beauty and the Beast” a year later that is often credited with connecting your voice to your name. Did you feel you had arrived?
Dion: “It was quite emotional. Everyone at the record label was so excited that I actually had a career at that point. They started a campaign, ‘Remember the name, because you’ll never forget the voice.’ I wasn’t scared, really, but it set the bar high for me. At least people started pronouncing my name correctly.” (laughs)
Q: And yet, along with popularity comes the inevitable backlash. This is the point when many critics began writing negative, if not cruel things about you. How did you react to the press?
Dion: “There were certainly more negatives than positives. Honestly, I was not really affected, because Rene said, ‘They can write what they want, but if we still sell out the shows, you know it’s a good sign.’ The only thing I cared about was to never disappoint the fans.”
Q: In the liner notes of the 1993 “The Colour of My Love,” album, you revealed to the public that you and Angelil were in love, writing, “Rene, for so many years I’ve kept our special dream locked away inside my heart. But now it’s too powerful to keep inside.” Were you concerned how people would react?
Dion: ”Over time, we realized that our feelings for each other were stronger than our dreams for my career. We loved each other. At first, we didn’t want to mix up the cards, but eventually, passion led our way. We kept a secret for a long time and didn’t want to have to hear them say, ‘Oh, my gosh, she’s so young and he’s been married twice.’
”But we decided, ‘Let’s not hide, because if we can’t walk hand in hand under the sky and scream to the world that we love each other -- which is the greatest thing in the world -- then we missed the boat, we missed it all. It’s not right, it’s not worth it.’
“Our success today as a couple is stronger than the success of our business. Someday, if somebody makes a movie about our life, that’s going to be the good part, the really good part.” (laughs)
Q: Through much of your career, you have been saddled with the “diva” label -- and yet those who know you recognize you as unpretentious and herald your sense of humor. This seldom seems to come through in your public persona.
Dion: “You know what? People think I share it all. Maybe I‘m not as much (of) an open book as they think I am. People think I‘m so dramatic, so black-and-white. Those who know me personally do say to me that I am funny. But let’s put it this way: It’s OK for some things to remain intimate. You don’t give everything to everybody.”
Q: What would people who think they know everything about you be surprised to learn?
Dion: “That I hate to sing as much as I love to sing. I love it when I have my full strength, my full happiness -- but I hate to sing when it takes me away from my family, when I‘m sick or not feeling good and can’t do my best vocally. I hate to do it, because I know how fun it can be. And it’s a struggle when you’re not having fun. Singing is not just the vocal cords; it’s your whole body, your soul. The night I lost my dad and had to sing, I tell you -- it hurt.”
Q: When in 2003 you began your four-and-a-half-year residency at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, one of the reasons the concept was so appealing to you is that it offered stability, a routine and the opportunity to focus on raising your child, Rene Charles. Now that it has been a couple of months since closing night, do you miss it?
Dion: “The hardest part is not seeing the people we worked with for so long. The last show (December 15) was emotional. But you have to know when to stop. You don’t want to leave after things start to fall down. So we were ready. It’s a great achievement, we’re very proud of it, but it’s time to move on to greater things.”
Q: What have you been doing between the Vegas finish and the launch of your world tour on February 15?
Dion: ”I‘m extremely tired, because we’re already working on the new tour. It’s very high-energy, very up-tempo. There are quick wardrobe changes, there are treadmills, so now, before that begins, I want to rest -- I need to rest my voice.
“We’re taking Rene Charles to Disney World, we’re going to see the whole family, and I can’t wait to see my mom. These are the things that make Rene, me and our family happy. We’re taking one day at a time in this new world. No one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, so I want to make today the best day. That is my greatest joy.”
Q: What have you not yet accomplished that you would like to?
Dion: “Acting. Some movies. I would love to play Maria Callas in a film.”
Q: Twenty-seven years in and counting, how would you sum up your life and career?
Dion: “I‘m extremely proud of the fact that the fans have come with me on this journey, that they have trusted me for so long. Do you know how fortunate I am to be able to sing for over 25 years, to have had hits, to have a career? ... If it ends tomorrow, I‘m OK with that, because look at what we have. Yes, I feel enormous pride for what I have accomplished after all these years. I have shared a part of my soul -- and I still love to do it.”