Céline Dion: 25 fascinating facts about the Canadian music icon
When did she first appear on TV? Why did she disappear for months? And which smash hit almost didn't happen?
Her story is the stuff of fairy tales: a little girl growing up in tiny town decides she wants to be a singer, and gets discovered by a big-name producer who puts everything on the line to make her a star.
But even by fairy tale standards, Canadian music icon Céline Dion's story is exceptional. From the humblest beginnings, she has risen to become one of the biggest and most beloved vocalists of all time — not only in Canada but around the globe.
This Friday, q will feature a special two-part interview with Dion — but until then, here are 25 fascinating facts about the Canadian music icon.
She is from Charlemagne, Quebec
Dion was born in Charlemagne, Quebec, a suburb that's roughly 30 kilometres from downtown Montreal. As of 2016, the town had a population of 5,913 and is predominantly French-speaking. (In the 2016 Census, French was the first language for 5,500 respondents, whereas English was the first language for just 85.)
The town council named one of its main streets after Dion — although the Quebec government wouldn't officially recognize the name because the singer is still living. The town also erected a giant globe with the name "Céline" written across the front, but it was eventually taken down.
She grew up in a very large family
Dion was the youngest of 14 children. Her father Adhémar was a butcher, and her mother Thérèse (née Tanguay) was a homemaker. Music was a big part of the Dion household, and Céline was reportedly named after the song Céline by French singer Hugues Aufray.
She always knew she wanted to be a singer
From a very young age, Dion knew exactly what she wanted to be: a singer. Her first public performance came at five years old when she sang at her brother Michel's wedding; the 14 brothers and sisters would also sing at the family's restaurant near Repentigny. By age 12, Dion composed her first song, Ce n'etait qu'un rêve (It was nothing but a dream), with her mother and brother Jacques.
"The only dream I ever had was to be famous and to sing all my life and travel all over the world performing," she told the Montreal Gazette in 1991. "And this is my dream come true."
That song changed her life forever
Dion's mother sent a recording of Ce n'etait qu'un rêve to renowned music manager René Angélil, who saw the singer's potential and invited her to his office.
Then she started singing into a pencil, pretending it was a microphone. And what I heard was enough to make me cry. I heard a special voice like I had never heard before.- Dion's late husband and manager René Angélil
"She was this homely little kid named Céline Dion. The mother did all the talking, and the girl never said a word," Angélil told the Gazette. "Then she started singing into a pencil, pretending it was a microphone. And what I heard was enough to make me cry. I heard a special voice like I had never heard before."
Angélil believed so strongly in Dion's talent that, when he couldn't raise the money to fund her first album, he mortgaged his own house and started a record label. Released on LP and cassette, that first album was called La voix du bon Dieu, and it featured Ce n'etait qu'un rêve.
Her first TV appearance was almost 40 years ago
On June 19, 1981, when she was just 13 years old, Dion had her first TV performance, on a Québec TV show hosted by Michel Jasmin. When Jasmin asked her what her ultimate ambition was, she could barely answer. In a 2000 interview, she admitted she didn't understand the question.
"I didn't know what to say," remembered Dion with a laugh. "I didn't understand what you were asking me."
She performed for the Pope
On September 11, 1984, when she was just 16 years old, Dion sang Une colombe in front 60,000 people at Montreal's Olympic stadium in honour of Pope John Paul II's visit to Canada. The song was from her album Mélanie, and became a French-language hit, winning two Félix Awards for bestselling single and pop song of the year.
Dion disappeared for a year and a half
In 1986, when Dion was 18 years old, she and Angélil decided it was time to transform her from teen star to adult contemporary artist, and they pulled her from view for 18 months. When she returned her teeth were capped, her hair was shorter and permed, she wore glitzier clothes, and she was more fully bilingual. She had also taken voice classes and dance lessons. Meanwhile, Angélil was courting record execs and talk shows.
"The day she appeared on the Johnny Carson show for the first time, her records were all over the shelves across the continent," Angélil told the Gazette. "All the pieces of the puzzle had fallen together perfectly."
At the time Dion had no idea she would soon fall head over heels for Angélil. "You can't have everything. I'd love to have a boyfriend, or a husband and a family — but all that will have to wait," she said at 23. "There's a lot of work to do when you are making your dream come true."
She won the Eurovision Song Contest – for Switzerland
In 1988, Dion won the popular Eurovision Song Contest, catapulting her to international fame. But she didn't win the prize for Canada, she won it on behalf of Switzerland. (The original song was by Swiss composer Atilla Şereftuğ and singer-songwriter Nella Martinetti.) In the introductory video, Dion can be seen riding heavy farm equipment before singing Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi — or Don't Leave Without Me.
She released her first English-language album in 1990
By the time she was just 22 years old, Dion had already released eight studio albums — but her ninth, titled Unison, marked another significant turning point because it was her first English-language offering. Produced by industry heavyweights including David Foster and Christopher Neil, the album included a mix of upbeat tracks and ballads, among them the megahit Where Does My Heart Beat Now, which reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100.
Unison went on to sell over three million copies worldwide, and Dion performed on The Tonight Show, Good Morning America and Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, among other high-profile U.S. programs. In 1991, the album won the Juno for album of the year. Dion also won for female vocalist.
"That's great, really. It's a real surprise," she said as she accepted the album of the year award. "I'm very happy."
Dion refused a Félix Award
Dion's album Unison won many awards, including one in her home province that she refused to accept. The Félix Awards are named after Québécois songwriter Félix Leclerc, and Dion has won more than any other recording artist — but in 1990, she sparked controversy when she refused an award for Anglophone artist of the year.
Said Dion, "I am not an anglophone artist and the public understands that. Everywhere I go in the world, I say that I'm proud to be Québécoise."
The controversy captured headlines at the time, and the media reaction even became the subject of a lengthy study in the Canadian Journal of Communication.
A sinking ship led her to new career heights
The theme song for Disney's animated Beauty and the Beast — which Dion recorded with Peabo Bryson — gave the singer one of her first huge hits in 1991, and her first Grammy. Her 1995 album D'eux became one of the bestselling French-language albums of all time.
But her international career seriously skyrocketed with the arrival of the 1997 James Cameron blockbuster Titanic. Performed by Dion, the theme song My Heart Will Go On was threaded through the entire film and not only became her signature song, but won an Oscar for best original song, swept the Grammy awards, picked up a Golden Globe, and became one of the best-selling music singles of all time.
But at first she didn't like the song
As huge as My Heart Will Go On would become, Dion admits that the first time she heard the song, she didn't like it, and she was concerned about recording yet another soundtrack theme. Cameron was also against the idea of ending his film with a pop song.
The track was written by composer James Horner (who later died in a plane crash) and lyricist Will Jennings, and Dion recorded the vocals in a single take.
When I recorded it, I didn't think about the movie, I didn't think about radio. I thought, 'Sing the song, then get the heck out of there.'- Céline Dion
"When I recorded it, I didn't think about the movie, I didn't think about radio," she told Billboard. "I thought, 'Sing the song, then get the heck out of there.'"
She married her manager
Dion and her manager René Angélil got engaged in 1991, but kept their romantic relationship hidden at first; the singer eventually shared the news in the liner notes of her bestselling 1994 album, The Colour of My Love. Dion and Angelil, then 26 and 52, were married later that year in a lavish ceremony at Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal; Dion called it "the ceremony of my dreams, what I had always hoped for. It was magic."
After Angélil died from cancer in 2016, his high-profile funeral was also held at the Montreal's Notre-Dame Basilica.
She used in-vitro fertilization to have children
After years of trying to conceive, in 2000 Dion and Angélil opted to use in-vitro fertilization. Their son René-Charles Angélil was born the following January, and in 2010, Angélil announced that Dion was pregnant with twins. The fraternal twins are named Eddy and Nelson after French songwriter Eddy Marnay and anti-Apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.
She is known for her sense of humour
While many of Dion's songs are serious, she is known for her sense of humour — and one that is distinctly Québecois. She has always been a hit on the late-night talk show circuit, including in this clip from 2002, when Tonight Show host Jay Leno had to hilariously wrestle back control over his own show.
This year, Dion also hammed it up on James Cordon's Carpool Karaoke.
She wanted to raise her kids without gender stereotypes
Dion is passionate about raising her kids without gender stereotypes — and when they went to Disneyland and her twin boys wanted Barbie dolls over action figures, she was inspired to launch her own gender-neutral clothing line for kids.
"If you're a boy you wear blue? Because you're a girl you wear pink? What is that? What people feel inside is not about a colour, it's how you feel. We have to give the children the opportunity to be who they are," she said in an interview.
"Because later on — if it accumulates — they won't be able to communicate freely, then they're going to have problems. So let the children speak and wear what they want — embrace that."
When her husband fell ill, she put her career on hold
Dion has always been tightly focused on her career — but when doctors discovered that her husband had a cancerous tumour, she put her career on hold indefinitely.
"I want to devote every ounce of my strength and energy to my husband's healing, and to do so, it's important for me to dedicate this time to him and to our children," she said in a statement. "I also want to apologize to all my fans everywhere, for inconveniencing them, and I thank them so much for their love and support."
Before his death, Angélil encouraged Dion to resume her Las Vegas performances, ensuring that, even in his absence, her career would be back on track.
René Angélil died on January 14, 2016, in Herderson, Nevada. Just two days later, Dion also lost her brother Daniel to cancer.
"I faced the death of my husband, my manager, my best friend and my partner," said Dion on the loss of Angélil in an interview with Katie Couric. "Even though you expect it, you're never ready for it."
Dion holds a replica of her late husband's hand before each performance
Two years after her husband's death, Dion's husband was still very much a part of her pre-concert ritual, and she said she held a bronze replica of his hand before each and every live performance.
"I shake my husband's hand and knock on wood with him every night before every show," she told the Daily Telegraph's magazine Stellar. "Even after he's gone, I still talk to him."
I shake my husband's hand and knock on wood with him every night before every show. Even after he's gone, I still talk to him.- Céline Dion
During her Las Vegas residency, she also kept Angélil's seat at the sound mixing board empty in his honour. "He gave me his all. He mortgaged his house to pay for my first album. I guess before he left he wanted to make sure I was fine. I'm trying to prove to him every day I'm fine," she said. "Our kids are growing, we feel strong. We're good."
Her Las Vegas residencies were incredibly successful
When Dion began her residency at the Colosseum in Las Vegas, she thought it would last a few months — but it went on for 12 years, first with her show A New Day, which ran from 2003 until 2007, and then with Céline, which wowed fans from 2011 to 2019.
The 4,000-seat venue at Caesars Palace was designed especially for Dion, and she performed for a total of 4.5 million people, earning a whopping $500,000 a show. Ticket sales reportedly added up to nearly $700 million U.S. The Las Vegas residencies remain the highest-grossing and best-selling of all time.
She is a champion for cystic fibrosis charities
Dion has long been involved with charitable causes, but cystic fibrosis is especially close to her heart, because she lost her 16-year-old niece Karine to the disease. The singer vowed to continue the fight on her behalf, and for three decades, has donated money, performed at fundraisers and appeared in public service announcements to help further the cause. She was also named Cystic Fibrosis Canada's Celebrity Patron.
She sings in many languages
Dion grew up speaking French, and also speaks in English, but many don't realize that she has also sung in languages including Spanish, Italian, German, Latin, Japanese and Mandarin.
She does a mean Cher impersonation
Dion is often the object of musical impersonations, but when called on to imitate her high-profile peers, she can certainly hold her own — especially when it comes to impersonating single-named superstars Cher and Sia, as she did on The Tonight Show.
Dion owns multiple businesses
By all measures, Dion has achieved massive success as an artist — but she is also a successful businessperson. Over the course of her career, the singer has owned an artist management company in Laval, the Nickels Restaurant food chain (she is no longer involved), Le Mirage Golf Club in Terrebonne, the legendary Schwartz's Deli, and a Las Vegas nightclub called Pure that she co-owned with tennis stars Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf and basketball great Shaquille O'Neal.
She also has a perfume line called Céline Dion Parfums, and more recently unveiled a handbag and accessories line called Céline Dion Collection — as well as her kids clothing collection Celinununu.
She has become a fashion icon
Now 51 years old, Dion is enjoying a different type of icon status — this time in the fashion realm. The Canadian diva has long been known for her cinematic style, she recently became the new face of L'oréal Paris, was the toast of Paris Fashion Week, and when she stepped into this year's Met Gala wearing a Ziegfeld Follies-inspired gown draped with 3,000 strands of bugle beads and a show-ready headpiece, all eyes — and cameras — were on her.
"A generation too young to have known her megahits has discovered her anew as a kooky and ubiquitous YouTube presence prancing and posing and vamping across social media wearing couture finery in videos like the brief but addictive one she shot in Paris for Vogue in 2017 — a clip that even The Fader suggested expanding into a feature film," wrote a New York Times style writer.
"Ms. Dion clearly enjoys toying with her new status; poking fun at her position as a freshly minted meme queen while professing not to know the meaning of the term; reveling in an ability to take irony to Susan Sontag levels when she stepped out in a Titanic sweatshirt from Vetements; out-camping camp by striking poses against the Bangkok skyline in an acid-yellow suit from Maison Rabih Kayrouz; attesting in Vogue to that cardinal rule of fashion: Never put comfort first."
Said Dion, "The day you start thinking about comfort, you're getting old."
She has earned a whole lot
According to Billboard, Dion grossed nearly $80 million from 1990 to 1999, but it was her move to Sin City that seriously upped her income. Now the superstar's career gross income is nearly $1.1 billion, making her one of just a handful of artists to cross the billion-dollar threshold.
"AEG Presents/Concerts West has operated the Colosseum at Caesars Palace and produced and promoted the thousands of shows there for nearly two decades. The success that Céline delivered at the debut of the show in 2003 and in those early years initially defied a lot of skeptics," said John Nelson, senior vp at AEG Presents, in a statement to Billboard.
"Now, the strength of her business that has carried through and continues to grow stronger, goes much further: it defies expectations, it defies the rules of the business, it almost defies explanation! It's humbling and invigorating to work with such a powerful force."
Her new album and tour are titled Courage
Earlier this year, Dion wrapped up her lengthy residency in Las Vegas and announced she was hitting the road with her aptly-named new release, Courage, which she says involved new writers, producers and musical approaches.
"The courage word for me is exactly the way I feel. For three years it's been tough to talk to the children, raise the children, the loss of my husband, am I going to sing again, L'Oreal, Celinununu. I mean, can we add more? So much stuff. And at the same time I feel like I'm in charge of my life," said Dion, who kicked off her tour in Québec City, in a CBC interview.
"And most of the people that I still work with, we've been working together forever, so I feel so safe. So the only thing I can do is be the best of myself."
Listen to q Friday for Tom Power's full-length interview with Céline Dion. Below are four songs from her new album, Courage.