Arts·QUEERIES

It's all coming back to us now: A queer celebration of our birthday queen Céline Dion

In honour of her 50th, we asked Canadians in the arts how their hearts will go on for Ms. Dion.

In honour of her 50th, we asked Canadians in the arts how their hearts will go on for Ms. Dion

Celine Dion performs "My Heart will Go On" at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards. (Chris Pizzello/Canadian Press)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

Is Céline Dion a queer icon? And if so, when and how exactly did that happen?

It's becoming increasingly difficult to dispute the former being true, though regarding the latter it really depends on who you ask. For Céline Dion means many different things to many different people, and there's definitely a sizeable contingent of LGBTQ folks who took some time to fully fall into Céline.

Personally, I can pinpoint the exact moment I was Célined. It was sometime in the summer of 2012, when I was living in Montreal and in a relationship with a Québécois boy. My French was awful, so social situations with his largely francophone friend group were always a bit of a challenge. During one such situation we were all sitting around one of their apartments and I was desperately trying to stay engaged in their largely French conversation. I knew they were talking about Céline Dion, but I couldn't figure out who this Ziggy person was they kept bringing up. So I practiced some very basic French: "Qui est Ziggy?"

"Connais-tu pas Ziggy?!?!"

They couldn't believe I didn't know, and quickly took out a laptop and showed me this music video:

I couldn't get over it. Mindblowingly campy, the video (and song) follows Céline as she obsesses over a hot gay soccer player (including by peaking into some antics in his locker room). And thus, a new day came for my appreciation for Dion, who previous to that I'd mostly been indifferent to (or — to be honest — quietly mocked). And my excitement bonded me with my boyfriend's friends, who led me down a path to more of Céline's French-language classics, like "Pour que tu m'aimes" and "Je sais pas" and "On ne change pas." I even learned (a little) more French thanks to Céline, causing un grand moment de bonheur for my boyfriend.

I now firmly believe that to anyone paying attention in 1993, it was "Ziggy" that made Céline a queer icon. On micro-levels, I know everyone has their own story — so I decided to ask a fabulous sampling of LGBTQ folks in the arts to share those stories as we all get ready to sing "bonne fête" to Queen Céline on March 30th.

"Aw, shucks! Thanks, CBC Arts!" (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press via Associated Press)

Robert Keller, actor, comedian and Céline Dion aficionado

I call myself a "Céline Dion aficionado," but the truth is, I am a Céline Dion fanatic! Completely and hopelessly obsessed. And I have been since I was 15 years old. (Pro-tip: if you're a teenage boy who is obsessed with Céline Dion, you're probably gay.)

I knew of Céline long before that, mind you. I grew up in Montreal, and my first Céline memory was hearing my fourth grade teacher (whose first name was also Céline, oddly enough), guitar in hand, singing an acoustic version of "Une Colombe," the impossibly schmaltzy French ballad that Céline Dion sang to Pope John Paul II at the Olympic Stadium in September 1984. (Can you EVEN?) Later, as a student at a French-language high school near Montreal's Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood, I remember hearing other French songs by Céline, like the embarrassingly awful and yet still catchy late 1980s rock-infused pop jam, "Incognito" — whose music video appears to be an ultra-low budget homage to James Bond, shot in the backroom storage area of a Le Château store.

But my true obsession with Céline began in 1990, the year she released her first English album: Unison. That summer, I lost count of how many times I listened to my "cassingle" of the remixed version of the title song from that album. An obsession was born! The fact that the mother of one of my BFF's in high school was Céline's Québec publicist only fuelled the fire: countless free CDs, invitations to promotional events and years later, even a near-backstage encounter in Paris, when Céline received the Légion d'Honneur from then-President Sarkozy of France (in May 2008), and I finally got to see her live in concert for the first time, and almost met her! (But didn't.)

All of this led me to my guiltiest pleasure as a comedic performer: my drag impersonation of Céline Dion. Sure, it's parody, but it's a loving parody. Because, to be honest, my obsession with Céline is really just a form of admiration for a supernaturally talented singer, who reinvented herself through the years, transforming before our eyes from a buck-toothed ugly-duckling teen into a sophisticated, international glamour-queen swan. (And didn't so many of us little gay boys dream of doing just that?) But here's the thing: through it all, she has never lost that over-the-top, campy and totally awkward manner that makes her so darn relatable — and adorable — especially to her LGBTQ fans.

Andrew Johnston, comedian

I think that straight Canadian men base a lot of their national pride on sports-related things, like the Blue Jays winning back-to-back World Series, or when that generously buttocked Sidney Crosby scored a goal that won some Olympic Hockey contest or something (I don't follow sports, but I do follow DAT ASS, THO)...but for the majority of Canadian gay men, Céline is our champion. She is our Gladiatrix on the world stage. I have never been more proud to be Canadian than watching our National Treasure Céline Dion go toe-to-toe with American National Treasure Aretha Franklin on the inaugural Divas Live '98. While Mariah stood by in a cloud of her own farts, Gloria tried not to smell them, Shania tried to stand upright in her heels and Carole King tried to figure out where she was, the erstwhile Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin was inhaled, FULL GULP, by the youngest-of-14-from-Charlemagne, Québec: Céline Motherfucking Dion. 

Cé​line is a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event. She is Freddie Mercury by way of Barbra Streisand. She is the reason any little Ontarian gay boy wanted to learn French, and she continues to be our role model, at least metabolically. Je t'aime Céline.

For the majority of Canadian gay men, Céline is our champion. She is our Gladiatrix on the world stage.- Andrew Johnston, comedian

Magali Simard, Film Sector Development Officer, City of Toronto 

Growing up, I thought Céline was tacky and for older people. But when the single and album A New Day Has Come came out in 2002, an avalanche of conflicting emotions occurred: I loved her, profoundly. A new day had come. I worked at a record store and the Gatineau customers were immediately treated to it on rotation (as they say, if you can change one life...). So were my parents, who were nice enough not to lodge official complaints against their daughter — although, when I moved to my first apartment in Toronto, neighbours did. I guess they were dead inside or something. It is disarming to succumb to something so big, so loud, so earnest! She's the fist pump and the high kick (imagine that, simultaneously) to my largest emotions. I think we all wish we were the Ziggy she loved so helplessly much. And as a Québécoise, this is as close to believing in royalty as I will ever get. GOD BLESS THE QUEEN.

Laura Landauer, actor, singer and comedian

You never know what path you will end up taking in life. Did I ever imagine that I would end up impersonating someone for over a decade? Nope. But...oh how thrilled I am that things turned out the way they did. Being Céline has enriched my life in so many ways. I have had the opportunity to meet incredible people from all over the world, I've developed my comedic writing through my shows and oddly enough, it was through my training to sing like Céline that I developed my operatic voice!

Laura Landauer as Celine. (Laura Landauer)

As an actor, there is no greater gift than to play a character of such immense personality. Céline's limitless talent, abounding energy, inclusivity and honesty are all qualities that I admire in her. The LGBTQ community has been a huge supporter of what I do from the very beginning and I am so thankful! Even though I've sung "My Heart Will Go On" 12,592 times I'm still not tired of it. Cue wind machine...

Guy Hermon (a.k.a. Crystal Slippers), drag performer

As an Israeli who came to Montreal five years ago, and who never really had any opinion about (or interest in) Céline Dion, getting to know the obsessive and almost mythical interest that the Quebecois gay scene has with Céline was pretty entertaining. Every drag performance bar that respects itself has a big poster (or several) of the Queen from Charlemagne. Her songs are anthems and everyone knows them by heart. There is no bigger icon — not even close.

Crystal Slippers as Celine Dion. (Crystal Slippers)

When I do Céline on stage (I lip sync her songs and interviews and imitate her look and mannerisms), I especially like to focus on the more crazy and kooky sides of her persona. Céline is a fun character to impersonate because she is not afraid to look bad — like biting a piece of a styrofoam and then spitting it out (for an international fashion campaign, no less) or giving a seven-minute, tear-filled monologue and then bursting into song (on national American television ). She is all big emotions, great tragedies and great victories. A once-in-a-generation voice and a self-proclaimed "open book." For a drag queen, she is heaven and she is god.

Crystal Slippers will be performing as Celine Dion in the cabaret show Saint Celine: A New, New Day at the Wiggle Room in Montreal March 29, 30 and April 5 in celebration of Dion's birthday.

Jacob MacInnis, actor

Growing up in the 1990s, where I was from, singing was considered a "girly" thing to do. And seeing how I was a (closeted) gay boy, and was already bullied for hanging out with only girls, I avoided doing anything more to draw the attention of schoolyard bullies. "But you have such a beautiful voice, Jacob! You should be taking lessons!" my parents would say. And try as they might to get me to stay in singing lessons or music clubs for longer than a week, I remained scared-silent. That is, until I discovered Céline Dion.

Of course, I had heard the iconic "My Heart Will Go On" when I was eight (yes, my parents let me watch Titanic at eight years old...I was emotionally mature for my age!) and had, like everyone else in the world, become obsessed with it. But the next Céline song I would hear would change the course of my life forever. When I was 10, my entire grade four class was asked to prepare a song for an assembly called "The Prayer" — whether we liked it or not. Before we learned the song, the teacher had us sit and listen through it once to get an idea of what we would be singing. And for an entire four minutes and 29 seconds, I was spellbound. I remember the sound of Céline's voice, how perfect and directly in pitch it was, and something within me bubbled to the point of explosion.

That night, I rushed home and begged my mom to get the CD that would allow me to listen to this song on repeat. So she took me to HMV and bought me These Are Special Times, Céline's Christmas album (it was nearly summer at the time). From that day on, in a funny way, Céline became my private voice teacher. I would sing in my bedroom on my own trying to mimic her vocal runs, the power of her belt and her unbelievable range — pause, play, rewind, pause, play, rewind, over and over and over (and I've collected every album of hers since then). Her voice was unlike any voice I had ever heard, or would ever hear again. I was HOOKED.

Because of that song, my urge to sing was too strong to keep quiet. After that fateful assembly performance of "The Prayer," step by step, talent show by talent show, my ability to sing — the thing I feared persecution for having —became the very thing I would become admired and respected for. It was Céline who inspired me to face my fears and use the voice that God had given me. Since then I have come out of the closet, become a respected professional actor/singer and have a massive community of friends who love and respect me for who I am. (Now if only I could just find a way to become her backup singer, even for one performance, my life's goal would be accomplished!) To this day, I credit Céline as being my vocal teacher — but in truth, Céline was my angel. 

It was  Céline  who inspired me to face my fears and use the voice that God had given me. Since then I have come out of the closet, become a respected professional actor/singer and have a massive community of friends who love and respect me for who I am.- Jacob  MacInnis , actor

Philip Villeneuve, DJ and editor

I started throwing a monthly French dance party called Tapette in Toronto seven years ago. In the early days, Céline was kind of a joke I would slide into sets because I wasn't a big fan and didn't feel like she did the dance floor any favours. Now, this many years later, I throw a yearly Céline Dion dance party.

I've come to love her with all my heart over the years. Something switched for Céline fans and non-fans alike a few years ago, and the central moment I can nail it down to is when "On Ne Change Pas" showed up on Xavier Dolan's Mommy soundtrack. It's like suddenly, a younger generation was allowed to like her. Her songs weren't all cheesy after all. They were heartfelt, beautiful, gut-wrenching and, most importantly, made you want to sing along.

I now get multiple Céline requests every time at every Tapette and am not afraid to play a soaring ballad in the middle of a set because Céline has the power to bring people together. They are joyous, fists-in-the-air anthems about hurt, loneliness, love and power — and thanks to these (and full-disclosure, her new stylist Law Roach) queer kids have come to fall in love with her. She's real, she's raw, she's ferocious and she knows how to laugh at herself. She's the ultimate Canadian diva and it's about time we all start recognizing it!

Matthew McInerney-Lacombe, screenwriter

It's so hard to say what Céline's impact on me has been, because for my entire pop culture life she has been there. One of my first albums was The Colour of My Love. She was famous before I even started actively listening to music. It feels like a lot of what I like musically is shaped by Céline. I love a sad-banger torch song, and I think that comes from her. Although my early love of Céline could come from being a melodrama person in general, it's hard to say what came first — but that's the point with my Céline relationship.

Even during the years Céline wasn't topping the charts, my love for treating sadness with expressive pop songs meant she has been in constant rotation. I just never questioned it. She was Céline. She does big ballads, and when I need those, they're there. I think the first time I really understood how much Céline meant to me personally was when I saw Mommy. The scene where the three leads sing passionately to "On Ne Change Pas" hit me incredibly hard. I knew Xavier Dolan was speaking my language as a gay man. She means something to these characters, she means something to this filmmaker and, I realized, she means something to me. Seeing Céline in a movie where she wasn't a punchline or viewed as this figure of high camp was really important to me.

When I saw that scene in Mommy, I really felt like what I loved about  Céline  felt valid. All those years of pretending I was listening to The Smashing Pumpkins when I was actually listening to 'My Heart Will Go On' weren't something to be ashamed of, but a part of my journey in coming to accept what I like and defending those preferences.- Matthew  McInerney-Lacombe , screenwriter

I think every gay man that listens to pop music probably feels at some point like his taste — the songs he listens to at home, in headphones — isn't as valid as other people who like serious, cannon-approved rock music. For most of my high school and university years, I had the music I liked in public — and the music I listened to on my own. I grew out of that after I came out, adopting the maxim of "there are no guilty pleasures." Or I thought I had. But, when I saw that scene in Mommy, I really felt like what I loved about Céline became valid. All those years of pretending I was listening to The Smashing Pumpkins when I was actually listening to "My Heart Will Go On" weren't something to be ashamed of, but a part of my journey in coming to accept what I like, and defending those preferences.

As the Céline renaissance has made her cool again, what a lot of people are saying (at least the people I know) is that we always loved her. People might have made fun of her, called her cheesy, minimized her achievements; but a lot of people (gay men and women in particular) always loved and turned to her. So I guess what Céline does is reflect my pop culture life — from the boy who listened to her in secret because he knew she signified his difference, to the man who had a Céline birthday cake for his 30th birthday.

Matthew McInerney-Lacombe's 30th birthday cake. (Matthew McInerney-Lacombe)

Tranna Wintour, comedian

I will never forget the outrage I felt when the teachers at my elementary school wanted Céline Dion's duet with R. Kelly, "I'm Your Angel," to be our graduation song. As a tween of refined musical taste (Spice Girls, Alanis Morissette, No Doubt), the selection of "I'm Your Angel" felt like a personal attack. (For my 10th birthday, a family friend got me a copy of Céline's Falling Into You album. I asked for the receipt and returned it.) I knew, even then, that my peers and I deserved more than the hollow, embarrassing, over-produced schmaltz of Céline Dion (to this day, I remain concerned for anyone that listens to Céline's music unironically). I decided to protest "I'm Your Angel," and I fought (and won) to have it changed to "I'll Remember" by Madonna. The kid who so staunchly hated Céline could never have guessed that one day she'd grow up to co-produce and star in a comedy cabaret show dedicated to the queen of Québec. That kid could never have guessed that Céline would consume so much of her adult life and that she would know more about Dion's life and career than most of her so-called die-hard fans. That kid would be so pissed off.

Tranna Wintour will also be performing in the cabaret show Saint Celine: A New, New Day at the Wiggle Room in Montreal March 29, 30 and April 5 in celebration of Dion's birthday. 

Thomas Leblanc and Tranna Wintour channel the art for Céline Dion's Let's Talk About Love. (Thomas Leblanc)

Jeremie Romain, artist

My relationship with Céline Dion is very closely intertwined with my love of lip sync. The oldest memory I have of her music is being eight years old at a talent competition in my hometown where a girl performed a lip sync rendition of Céline's French hit "Des mots qui sonnent."

I don't think I'd ever heard this song before that moment and the opening notes of it awoke something deep inside me I didn't know existed. My body wasn't prepared. It was an emotional vocal rollercoaster unlike any I'd ever been on before.

I'm still on that ride today.

My relationship to her music changed when I moved to Montreal at 17 and started seeing drag artists perform her music. Call me crazy but up to that point, the camp aspect of Céline's oeuvre had completely eluded me.

All this time, I'd been thinking of her as a serious artist, when it suddenly became clear to me: Céline is the ultimate drag performer! She doesn't take herself seriously, she's over the top, she'll always go for the laugh and she can wear almost anything and make it work.

Céline isn't just the perfect embodiment of drag — Céline IS drag! And that's why the gay community lives for her.

Céline is, in other words, more than just an honorary drag queen, camp diva or even a bear chaser par excellence. She is someone who has walked the lonely road of non-normative desire, and it is somehow through her own confessions that I have discovered my own identity as a gay man.- John Lohse , artist

Jon Lohse, artist

I had my first orgasm listening to Céline — alone in bed at 12, during a thunderstorm, as the sound of "Only One Road" washed over my body like a tidal wave. I had received a promotional copy of The Colour of My Love from my parents, who owned a local AM radio station and had received it in the mail from her record company, and then made the strange decision to re-gift it to their pre-teen son.

Over the course of the next year, this song became the focus of my own internal conflict regarding coming out as gay; "Only One Road," while on its face a rather traditional early 1990s ballad, can in fact be heard (quite transparently) as a coded, if not overtly strategic, celebration of Céline's own "coming out" process as the lover, and eventual partner, of her manager René Angelil. More than any other cultural artifact, this one song was so critically significant to my own process of self-discovery that I listened to it on repeat before coming out to my family a few years later. I remember reading and re-reading the liner notes from that album — where she famously writes, "René, for so many years I've kept our special dream locked away inside my heart...But now it's getting too powerful to keep this inside of me..." — in a moment of maudlin despair, and then thinking to myself: if Céline can do this, so can I.

While personal experience is never a good indication of the deeper motivations underlying cultural watersheds like the global success of Céline Dion, I happen to think it is neither her musical style, nor her peculiar and sometimes unfortunate approach to fashion, which has led to her elevation as a queer icon. Rather, it is the simple fact that she is, in her own way, one of us. Céline is a woman who was unashamed in her confession of a romantic desire which lay beyond the normalizing boundaries of the "ideal heterosexual relationship."

She rejected the fairytale image presented on her behalf through her music videos, where she was often seen in various imaginary couplings with young, incredibly attractive men, instead proclaiming at the pinnacle of her success a decidedly "queer" desire for an older, hairier and decidedly more complicated man — one who her parents, and the public, could never be expected to approve of. Céline's subsequent alienation by the media as the lover of her "creepy manager," and the rebellion against the normalizing expectations of both her family and society at large represented by her liner notes confession, seem to represent a basic truth of queer relationships: that "unnatural" relationships are not something to be hidden, but rather to be celebrated, as neither shameful desires nor pathological impulses, but rather as demonstrations of the basic universality of love.

Céline is, in other words, more than just an honorary drag queen, camp diva or even a bear chaser par excellence. She is someone who has walked the lonely road of non-normative desire, and it is somehow through her own confessions that I have discovered my own identity as a gay man.

Dion and Angelil are shown at the 83rd Academy Awards in Hollywood in 2011. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Thomas Leblanc, comedian and writer

Céline Dion is a spiritual force in my life. Like most Québécoise, I feel she is a family member whose kookiness and unbelievable vocal talent I tend to take for granted. Yes, she can be represented by the media as over-the-top bordering on ludicrous, and yes, some of her songs feel mediocre at best (she put out her best work between 1990 and 1995). But I love how political Céline is without ever trying to be; her fierce desire to live her life on her own terms is an inspiration as a queer person. I believe the way she manifested a dream to sing as often as possible is an achievement for anyone in the arts. The way she stayed truly Québécoise while embracing the world always fascinated me, being from a province where being a francophone choosing to express oneself in English can be seen as an act of cultural treason. But beyond everything, it's her admirable work ethic, her imperfect originality and her willingness to shed cynicism that make me the most proud of calling myself a Céline fan.

I never would have imagined that co-creating the multidisciplinary cabaret Sainte Céline in 2016 would create such catharsis, especially in fans who have never known a world without her. Francophone millenials, like myself, occupy a unique place in the Céline world, having been exposed to the American, French and of course Québécoise versions of her. We have been raised with her and her 1995 French record D'eux has become the rallying cry of our generation.

Thomas Leblanc will also be performing in the cabaret show Saint Celine: A New, New Day at the Wiggle Room in Montreal March 29, 30 and April 5 in celebration of Dion's birthday. 

We encourage you to share your own Céline stories in the comments!

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and playing integral roles in the launch and production of series The Filmmakers and Canada's a Drag. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also a stand-up comedian, the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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