When you’re interviewing Celine Dion, especially for a fashion magazine, there’s one question that simply must be asked. It’s the backward white Dior elephant in the room: What was up with the suit she wore to the Oscars in 1999?
“The only thing I have to say about that is, if I had to do it again, I would do the exact same thing,” Dion states, defending the ensemble she wore when picking up an Academy Award for the little ditty “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic. “I’m very comfortable in my body, suit forward or backward. At the Oscars this year, I wanted to play a trick and wear the same suit forward. I did not.”
Indeed, that now iconic suit sparked an endless round of Dion-in-Dior jokes that snowballed. (It should be noted, however, that Suzy Menkes of The International Herald Tribune was a fan, and that Women’s Wear Daily, W’s sister publication, applauded Dion’s chutzpah, if not her actual look.) Since then, Dion has more often than not been mocked, like a predictable punch line, whenever she’s made that long, lonely red-carpet walk. True, she has cultivated the onstage image of a Las Vegas performer—a dramatic, chest-thumping diva with grand outfits, overcoiffed hair and heavy stage makeup. She donned a crazy tiaralike headdress and elaborately fussy gown for her 1994 wedding to her manager, René Angélil, and chose an extravagant gold Givenchy number for their 2000 vows renewal. But when she sits down for this interview, interrupting a brief family holiday, she looks refreshingly pretty and, yes, chic in a blue and white polkadot Balmain sundress.
This, one suspects, is probably an accurate portrait of the day-to-day Celine Dion, the off-duty girl, a polite, chatty woman who nevertheless counts the seconds till she can rush home to be with her six-year-old son, René Charles. Curled into a groovy red and white ball chair—at a business associate’s house that she has chosen as an interview site—Dion has pulled one tanned knee up to her chest and is determinedly picking at a patch of sunburn on her shin. “I’m very comfortable in my skin,” she reiterates, this time adding jokingly, “even though it’s peeling.” She’s clearly enjoying this little exercise, creating a tableau that is the complete antithesis of her usual public image. And well she should, since in this almost-natural state, she’s very attractive, with striking bone structure and an enviably long, lean body with great legs.
And then there’s her career. A bona fide singing supernova, Dion, 39, has sold more than 200 million records worldwide, a staggering number that suggests an enormous fan base. For the past four years, devotees have traveled to Las Vegas to see her glitzy show A New Day, performed five nights a week. It closes in December, but fans can still get their Celine fix with her next English-language album, The Woman in Me, due out in November. Her voice has won her countless awards, including five Grammys.
Yet despite the kind of God-given pipes that—drippy love songs aside—put her in a league with Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston, Dion questions why she made it at all. “When I look at myself in the past, I get very emotional,” she says. “I worked really hard, and I surpassed myself…. I didn’t have, visually, what it took. I was not pretty, I had teeth problems, and I was very skinny. I didn’t fit the mold.”
In fact, she says, if she had to start her career in 2007, she couldn’t and wouldn’t. “No, thank you,” she snaps. “What I’m saying is that a great voice is not enough.” So what does this mean for the next generation of songstresses? “Well, I feel bad for them, because they’re so image-oriented. They need to be pretty, they need to have good here and good there,” Dion says, grasping first her hips and then her breasts.
They also have to play ball with the press—even if they appear to not care. Dion’s relationship with the media has been her Achilles’ heel, and it goes beyond a few misguided dress choices. Her priority is always her vocal performance, so if it comes down to that or doing the dog and pony show on the red carpet or anywhere else, the latter will always lose, even if it means she will be portrayed as difficult. After the last Academy Awards, for instance, she informed Angélil that, going forward, she will bypass the arrivals hullabaloo at any event where she’s performing. After enduring the entrance cavalcade, screaming over the din of the hoi polloi down the reporters’ line and waiting in a frigid auditorium, she finds it too hard to turn in a spectacular performance for millions.
And it makes her wonder, “Am I in the wrong business? Maybe. I just want to do music and perform for people who want to see me performing. I don’t want people to say to me, ‘Are those diamonds yours? Did you borrow them?’” She continues, “I can pay for my own diamonds, and I don’t need to wear the necklace of the year. If everybody wants to fight for the dress, well, go fight then. I don’t need that s—, so I don’t want to walk on the red carpet. If nobody wants to dress me because they want publicity, well, I’m sorry.”
This is a moot point anyway, since, as it turns out, Dion is one of the few celebrities who prefer to acquire their fancy gowns and other accoutrements the old-fashioned way—by buying them. Gilles Mendel, designer of J. Mendel, insists that Dion has never even mentioned borrowing a dress from him, not even the pretty blush number she changed into for her performance at the Oscars. “It’s really rare,” he says of Dion’s buy-only policy. “It reveals a different personality. She is really classy. It creates an independence, so she doesn’t owe anything to anyone.”
Mendel is somewhat nonplussed by the criticism of Dion, especially the evergreen jabs about that Dior suit, which he thought was actually kind of cool. “I think it’s just momentum, and in fashion, it was a mad moment,” he says. “I can’t really tell why they were so hard on her for that outfit. Yes, it was very theatrical, but there have been many other actresses who’ve done things like that. Cher, hello?”
For the past three years, Mendel has fitted Dion for gowns, which she usually orders in three different colors, for her Vegas show. “She’s a really lovely person, very charismatic,” he says. And beyond that, he adds, “Her body? Amazing. Celine is a perfect hanger for my clothes. She’s a perfect size two.” The singer takes full advantage of both her fashion-ready physique and her deep pockets (thanks, in part, to a lucrative fragrance deal with Coty) and indulges in such labels as Alexander McQueen, Lanvin, Nina Ricci and Balmain. “I love beautiful things,” Dion says. “I’m not into art so much, like paintings. Maybe this is something I will discover later, but right now, it’s jewelry, shoes, clothes.” She estimates she owns somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 pairs of shoes, which she spreads out in a few houses.
She enjoys shopping, but with little spare time, she lets her longtime stylist, Annie Horth, do the legwork. Dion also admits that, while she likes rich-looking things, she’s timid when it comes to putting it all together. “My favorite thing is a dress—it’s one piece,” she says. “I love pencil skirts, but I’m always looking for a top. And then I’m afraid, by myself, to match, to try colors. When I wear a dress, I know the top matches the bottom. So I can’t make a mistake.” Being onstage, of course, is a whole different ball game. Dion’s outfits, makeup and hair are as well choreographed as her Vegas routines. “I’m pretty used to over-the-top types of things,” she says. “There’s a lot of structure to the makeup, the hair, the outfit and the accessories”—which she works on with Horth. And because of her trademark wide-open stance and big arm gestures while singing, she feels comfortable only in pants or jumpsuits for longer shows: “I don’t want to be concerned about it.”
Anytime she has an audience, Dion is the consummate performer. Put in front of a camera, she mugs and strikes goofy model poses. “I don’t know if the camera likes me, but I do like the camera,” she says.
Although Dion harbors doubts about her ability to style herself or to take a good picture, she is nothing if not supremely confident about where she is right now in her career. “In terms of music, I can try anything I want, even something that doesn’t work at all, because I’m not putting my career in jeopardy,” she says. “Ten or 15 years ago, I had to prove to myself that I could do it. I needed to prove to the industry and the people around me that I could do it, so I didn’t take too many chances. Today is different. I feel like I can be edgier, because if it’s too much, we can always do another [album].”
On the new record, the impeccable voice is still there, but this time Dion pushes it through rockier terrain. She worked with such noted artists as Dave Stewart from Eurythmics and Ne-Yo, who penned Beyoncé’s recent hit “Irreplaceable.” The album doesn’t necessarily reinvent the Dion sound so much as stretch her range, but it’s also not track after track of the weepy love songs she’s known for. “It’s edgy ballads,” she explains.
Still, there are those songs in Dion’s repertoire that will always follow her, like the ubiquitous “Beauty and the Beast” and “My Heart Will Go On,” both of which won Academy Awards. It turns out that she’s kind of sick of them too. “When I think about it, I’m like, Ugh, I don’t feel like singing them. But not only once in my life, but twice, I was part of a classic. So it’s a good problem to have. And when it starts, [the fans] give me the magic. They scream; they go for it.”
In January 2008 Dion plans to go on a world tour in support of the new album, her family in tow, and afterward, she plans to start trying for a second child with Angélil—which should fit in nicely with her homebody tendencies. “I’m not a party girl,” she says. “I’m very fortunate to have my husband—who’s 65—not only because I love him, but because it would not work to have a husband my age who wants to go out twice a week. I would go crazy.”
Indeed, if she could just perform and forgo all the gratuitous appearances, she would. “At least I can still bring some dreams to some people,” she says. “It’s still worth it for me to keep doing this.” But she can do without those whose-dress-are-you-wearing questions. “Don’t be so familiar and so much into the details,” says Dion. “Keep people dreaming. Close the window, and make them wonder.”