Celine Dion: The Queen of Las Vegas
by marco della cava
Here's an image you don’t conjure up every day: Celine Dion in a pair of pajamas, covered with baby food. It’s quite a contrast for the glamorous siren who storms the Colosseum stage at Caesars Palace in all manner of glittering gowns. And yet, loafing around her expansive desert home in PJs is precisely what makes the globally successful Canadian singer happiest.
“I wake up and help feed my 23-month-old twins, Eddy and Nelson, and soon I’m covered in yogurt, strawberries, cereal, you name it,” Dion, 44, says with a laugh. Although she confesses to having a weakness for great fashion designers, “I don’t think fashion would mean anything if I didn’t have happiness in my life. The kids set the mood for me.”
Dion knows all about setting a mood. Her otherworldly voice, which has spurred the sale of more than 200 million albums in both English and her native French, has the power to conjure images with emotion, much as she did with “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme track to James Cameron’s blockbuster Titanic. The song, which monopolized radios around the world when the film debuted, is the grand finale in Dion’s most recent Las Vegas show, Celine, which will return to the Colosseum next year after the fall release of her album Water and a Flame.
Of course the songstress is idolized around the globe, but she is especially revered locally because of her enormous impact on the entertainment climate of the Strip. Her 717 performances of A New Day at the Colosseum between 2003 and 2007 entertained nearly 3 million people and grossed roughly $400 million. More importantly though, the lucrative run re-popularized the Las Vegas “residency” as a desirable way for top artists to essentially tour in place, letting their fans come to them. Elton John, Bette Midler, Rod Stewart, and Cher have followed in Dion’s colossal wake.
“Her first show was such a hit that it only closed because she wanted a break,” says Gary Bongiovanni, president and editor-in-chief of Pollstar, a trade publication that follows the concert business. “Celine redefined what artists can do in Las Vegas, helping to make it arguably the busiest entertainment city in the world.”
Dion is pleased by her pioneering success, but she also remembers the initial skepticism that greeted her plan a decade ago.
“When we came here the first time, the vibes were negative—‘Oh my God, the Titanic is coming and it’s going to sink,’” she says in her clipped, fast-paced, slightly accented patter. “But a lot of people were willing to bet a lot of money on me and to take a chance. Is there any better place to take a chance than Vegas?”
This time around, no one is betting against her. In March 2011, Dion started a three-year residency back at the 4,300-seat Colosseum, and tickets have been predictably hot. The only glitch came when her vocal chords were struck by a virus last February, causing her to cancel the spring performances. Simple rest—and a week with absolutely no talking—brought her voice back by April, and in typical fashion, Dion immediately started rehearsing, resumed her show, and knocked out a pair of albums in English and French, due this fall.
“I hadn’t recorded in five or six years,” says Dion of Water and a Flame, which will feature six songs from her Colosseum show and six new pieces. “But you go into the studio and you try to capture the emotions of the songs, and make them go through the microphone to have an impact on the people.”
That sort of talk is classic Celine—direct, honest, and without embellishment. When asked what it is about her voice that seems to captivate a good portion of the globe, the singer interrupts.
“It’s not the voice, and I don’t think it’s the songs,” she says. “I don’t think it’s the presence. But it could be the stability of my life. The craziest thing I’ve done is cut my hair blonde and short a couple of years ago. And people reached out to me, saying, ‘Celine, you’re one of the most stable things we have in our lives. Don’t do that. We want you the way you are.’”
She stops for a moment, but clearly isn’t finished with the thought. “I’m an open book. When [husband and manager] René [Angélil] was sick [with throat cancer in 1999], I shared that. When I was having a hard time having kids [she underwent numerous in-vitro fertilization procedures, which produced the twins as well as René-Charles, 11], I shared it. We’re normal, we struggle to have what we want sometimes. We have ups and downs. Suddenly that singing has meaning.”
Actually, the reason Dion connects with her fans isn’t quite that simple. Much of her success has come the old-fashioned way: She’s earned it.
“I work with a lot of stars, but it’s rare for me to see someone who is so connected with their audience,” says Gary Selesner, president of Caesars Palace. “She’s never gotten jaded, that’s her magic. And she prepares like no one I’ve ever seen. There are countless rehearsals. She understands that many of her fans have saved up all year in order to come to Las Vegas to hear her sing.”
Selesner says that he’s witnessed a few classic Dion moments when slipping into a seat in the first 10 rows to check on the show. “Sometimes there will be a bride, or maybe a little girl, and either way she’ll make eye contact with them,” he says. “I’ve seen her see tears and become immediately affected.” The hotelier also isn’t shy about laying out Dion’s impact on his bottom line. He says successful residencies have a mission to pull visitors into casino restaurants, gaming areas, and shops year-round, “and Celine manages to sell out even in summer, which is traditionally a slower period for our town. So I’m incredibly grateful for her contributions.”
Dion’s own gratitude is plentiful, much of it aimed at her adopted Nevada home. Though she maintains a primary $20 million residence in Jupiter Island, Florida, and recently listed the family’s 24,000-square-foot island mansion in Québec for $29.3 million, her house in Henderson helps the singer feel grounded. “I have a regular house with a yard and a pool,” she says. “We don’t go out much. We play a lot of ping-pong. [The table] is now in the living room, and I think it’s going to end up in the kitchen.”
The fierce mother of three has no time for anyone who disparages Las Vegas as a mere playground for adults.
“Vegas, hah, people think that we raise our kids on the craps table,” she scoffs. “What are they thinking? People have families here, they have jobs, they go to work. Vegas has given our family stability. It feels cozy."
Could Dion actually be that rare breed—a working woman who has it all, a satisfying professional career mated to an enviable family life?
“My kids give me the balance to live right,” she says. “The hardest thing to find in life is balance. Especially the more success you have, the more you look to the other side of the gate. What do I need to stay grounded, in touch, in love, connected, emotionally balanced? Look within yourself. I think I am the luckiest woman. I have a wonderful husband, I have three amazing kids. What am I looking for? I’m passionate about my fans and my shows. But my biggest reward in the success that is my life are my husband and kids.”
When Dion isn’t on stage belting out romantic songs, she sleeps late (“usually until 10”) and makes sure she gets her caffeine in before the twins see her—“I go in my closet and have my coffee.” Then maybe it’s ping-pong, Monopoly, or pool time with René and the kids, and sometimes René and René-Charles will head to the golf course. “I try not to stay outside too much,” Dion says.
Perhaps most interesting of all, music is rarely pumped through the house. Listening to it, after all, is a bit of a busman’s holiday for the singer. “When I’m off, I want to hear my kids singing.”
That said, she does have a crush of sorts on one particular artist: Adele.
“Celine never buys albums,” René says, “but she made a point of asking me to get [Adele’s], and she does ‘Rolling in the Deep’ in her show.”
When I questioned Dion about Adele’s appeal, a rare and long silence preceded her almost giddy answer. “I love literally everything about her,” she says. “I love her extreme talent. I love her writing. Her songs come from the soul. She’s incredibly beautiful. And I think it’s very refreshing to see, and don’t get me wrong when I say this, somebody who is not looking extremely anorexic.”
Here, Dion really gets revved up, revealing that her adoration of Adele centers on not only her amazing pipes, but also how the plus-size British singer might be able to impact the self-image of girls everywhere.
“I know for a fact, as much as you do, that the music industry makes kids get sick,” she says. “So we’re not going to go further on that, but you know what I mean.” She pauses, then continues. “Her beauty is extremely sophisticated as well. Her nails, her jewelry, her makeup, her hair. She’s going to help us, she’s going to help the world.”
But this talented diva love-fest has never been consummated; Dion has never met Adele. “It’s going to be bad when I meet her,” she sighs. “I’m going to give her the biggest hug, I’m not kidding.”
If that rendezvous is going to happen though, it will be with Adele heading this way across the pond. For Celine, traveling anywhere beyond the Dion Triangle—Québec, Florida, and Nevada—is out of the question, at least for now. “My shows [at the Colosseum] never take away from my family,” she says. “The fact that I have the stability of my family, I’m a better singer. I can come here and perform and not worry.”
It’s late afternoon, but the summer sun is still high in a blue southern-Nevada sky. Time for Dion to ride down to the Strip and prepare for another sold-out performance. Then it’s back home to her husband, her boys, those fruit-covered pajamas, and the deep, satisfying feeling that life is rolling happily along.
photography by alix malka; styling by annie horth