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by Natalie Finn | Fri., Mar. 30, 2018 5:00 AM
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Few living performers embody the concept of timelessness quite like Céline Dion.
Her voice is one for the ages, that's a given, big and booming out of your local Top 40 station for the last 25 years. And yet while the five-time Grammy winner may have spent most of her career in the "adult contemporary" section, charming mellow-pop enthusiasts all over the world, she broke through in the States on a beloved Disney soundtrack and provided the background music for every teenager's Leonardo DiCaprio-fueled fever dreams in the '90s.
Meaning, Dion hasn't just been for one crowd. She's for all of us. She was then, she's now, and she'll still be, tomorrow.
The singer is also turning 50 today, and even though her ability to connect with millions of people in multiple languages has already ensured her a place in the forever column, she continues to put forth the impression of someone who's still getting started, who hasn't given up on exploring, striving and impressing.
She doesn't reach the milestone unscathed, having experienced the loss of her husband and partner of 30 years, René Angélil, in 2016. She put her Las Vegas residency on hold to care for Angélil, who was battling cancer, and she later acknowledged that watching him suffer for three years was more traumatic than anything.
But the almost defiantly strong Dion has only since doubled down on life, for herself and her three sons with Angélil, 17-year-old René-Charles and 7-year-old twins Nelson and Eddy.
That, of course, fits with the image of someone who on stage is determinedly alive, so much so that some of her signature songs read like a list of affirmations—"The Power of Love," "A New Day," "I'm Alive." Which, ultimately, they are.
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The Quebecois singer, who got her start in the French-language music world, released her debut English-language album, Unison, in 1990 and had her first top-10 hit with "Where Does My Heart Beat Now." The following year she broke through in a big way with her duet with Peabo Bryson on "Beauty and the Beast" off the soundtrack of the animated Disney classic. And then the hit singles and the platinum-selling albums just started piling up: "If You Asked Me To," "When I Fall in Love," "It's All Coming Back to Me Now," "Because You Loved Me."
She declared her love for Angélil, who being 20 years her senior had encouraged her to keep their relationship under wraps for fear of bruising her image, in the liner notes of her 1993 album The Color of My Love. They married in 1994. Her next English-language album, Falling Into You, won the Album of the Year Grammy in 1997.
But none of that prepared Dion for the staying power of "My Heart Will Go On," the James Horner-penned smash hit single with lyrics by Will Jennings that anchored Titanic and won Record of the Year at the Grammys and the 1998 Academy Award for Best Original Song, one of 11 Oscars the epic tear-jerker took home that night.
For starters, she didn't even like it. The queen of the aching power ballad thought it was too... meh.
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"When I recorded it, I didn't think about a movie; I didn't think about radio," Dion told Billboard last year on the occasion of the much-parodied but still time-honored song's 20th anniversary. "I thought, 'Sing the song, then get the heck out of there.'"
As her manager since the inception of her career, it was Angélil who encouraged her to just cut the demo and see what happened. And what happened is that it kept the otherwise all-instrumental Titanic soundtrack atop the Billboard 200 for 16 weeks, helped Dion's Let's Talk About Love sell more than 30 million copies and became a staple at her live shows.
"I'm so glad that my husband said, 'I really think that you should do that song,'" she recalled.
But as she racked up honor after honor and became one of the most successful recording artists in the business, Dion didn't have everything that she wanted until 2001 when, after six years of trying, she and Angélil welcomed René-Charles.
Wanting to stay close to home to be with her son, Dion helped pave the way for the now highly coveted modern-day Las Vegas residency when she signed a landmark, three-year deal with Caesars Palace worth a reported $45 million.
A New Day premiered in March 2003 and grossed more than $400 million over what turned into a five-year run.
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In 2008 Dion told Oprah Winfreythat she would love to have another child, but that René-Charles, having arrived after so much trying, was already their "miracle baby."
"I always keep a little window open and say, 'listen, I've been blessed so much in my life, if I do have a child, I'm lucky."
After a world tour and four rounds of IVF with no results, Dion, who also suffered a miscarriage during that time, announced in February 2010 that she would be returning to Vegas for a new residency.
The sixth round of IVF took, however, and, Nelson and Eddy were born on Oct. 23, 2010—barely five months before the premiere of her new show, Celine.
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Twelve weeks after the babies were born, Dion started to rehearse near their home in Palm Beach, Fla. She had tried to keep her voice occupied while she was pregnant, but vocal exercises put too much strain on her body so she had to keep quiet.
Even Angélil wasn't sure she was going to be able to pull it together in time. "But the very first song she sang in the rehearsal," he recalled in the behind-the-scenes special Celine: 3 Boys and a New Show, which aired on OWN, "you know, I was crying, actually, because I couldn't believe how great she sounded. It was a special moment. It turned everything around, that rehearsal."
Spoiler alert, Celine is still running (and she's contracted through 2019).
"We got back onstage, and we're still here," Dion told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2016, remembering those frenzied days before the premiere when she considered wearing a caftan because she wasn't sure she'd fit into any of her stage costumes. "As I said, I don't count and I'm amazed because sometimes I think that they're going to come to me and say that we've had enough of you and we have to move on to somebody else."
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Meanwhile, she and Angélil had already been through hell and back together, with the IVF, the miscarriage and Angélil's first battle with cancer in 1999. Forced to stay home while she finished a European tour, he arranged to watch every performance via satellite—and as she would do years later, Dion always acknowledged Angélil's presence in spirit from the stage.
"It's never part of your vocabulary," Dion said about the big C-word in a Behind the Music interview. "It's not for you." She playfully scoffed, as if pushing the very idea away, "That's for the others. I'm in show business, I'm alright."
But, "you're wrong. When it hits you, it changes your life forever. It changed René's life. It changed mine."
That's when she rededicated herself to her goal of having a family and taking a break from her jam-packed career. "Everybody's got a road to take, and maybe we'll meet again," she said, referring to her fans. "Hopefully."
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Let's just say, Dion and her fans reunited with a vengeance in Vegas in 2003 and were hardly ever apart again.
Sadly, Angélil was again diagnosed with cancer in 2013, and in August 2014 Dion canceled the remainder of her shows for the year. She wouldn't perform again in Vegas for a year.
Angélil died on Jan. 14, 2016, and after a few weeks off, Dion returned to the stage with a show dedicated to her husband. And he remains by her side, albeit in a different way.
"It's been a tough journey," Dion told E! News in July 2016. "Like I say, many times, many people go through this, and you see your husband suffer for three years, and it's not what you want to see. So now I know he is well, and we live with him in a different way. And I see him through the eyes of my children every single day."
On Oct. 8, 2016, she played her 1,000th show in Vegas.
"Sometimes it feels like 1,000 shows when I see my kids grow so much, but sometimes it feels definitely not 1,000,
Dion told the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Robin Leach before her milestone performance. "I'm not quite sure what makes the difference. Some days its feels like 1,000 and I've been here forever, but I don't count the numbers. None of the statistics. I don't count the money, I don't count the number of fans, I don't count the years because if I start counting, I'm going to lose the essentials of the meaning of life itself."
Noting how they were so crowded every night she sometimes thought people might jump off the balconies, she insisted she didn't take a single fan for granted.
"I was always more than music and a song for them," Dion said. "They felt that we knew each other like a sister, like a friend. They said I helped them so much with our songs.
"I'm not going to tell you my life. You know it. My life has been such an open book. I lost René, and they felt for me. They want to be supporters like they've always been, and they feel like I need that support. Maybe that's why I feel strong, and maybe that's why I want to keep going. I feel their energy. I feel like they know me. I feel like I could tell them everything. I feel like the love is there more than ever."
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Since then, Dion has added to her personal repertoire in new ways, attending her first-ever Met Gala last May and enjoying her time as one to watch in the style department while blogging for Vogue about Paris Fashion Week (and posing naked, no big deal) last summer.
But while she made such a sartorial splash, she also may have just been rediscovering something that was always within her.
"Naked is very comfortable," Dion told InStyle back in 1997. "But my mother told me that when you think of comfort, you're getting old. Believe me, stilettos, push-up bras and tight skirts are not comfy. They make you think differently."
Dion has encountered a brief health setback that forced her to cancel shows this month and next while she recovers from surgery for a middle-ear condition, but knowing her she'll be back in action as soon as is humanly possible.
In Australia to perform in February, she pored over photos of herself at 14 in an interview with The Sunday Project, marveling over her retro eyeliner. "Wow, I still have my baby face," Dion said proudly, adding that she wouldn't change her perfectly unpolished teenage look for anything. And now...
"I'm vintage!" she declared. "I'm worth lots of money, so respect, huh?"
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