THE DIVA NEXT DOOR by Dennis Hensley

Celine Dion isn’t afraid of much. Case in point: during a recent concert in Australia, she claims she felt more like a musclebound Starship Troopers-style warrior, than a sultry French-Canadian chanteuse with a five octave range.

“There was this huge cockroach on stage,” the 30 year-old singer recalls, “so big I was like, ‘Hey, the first row’s not here.’ When you sing, you cannot spend all your time thinking, ‘Oh, my God, it's coming towards me’ so in between breaths in the song, I turned around and I killed it. I saw everything coming out and it stayed on my foot and then I turned around and finished the song. At the end of the show, you could see the head on one part of the stage, a leg over there, honest to God. It was huge.”

Celine Dion knows from huge. In the last five years she has sold over 50 million albums and performed to sold-out houses throughout the world, sometimes taking on as many as 200 concerts a year. In 1997, she picked up Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and Best Pop Album for Falling Into You, the disc which spawned the number one smash “Because You Loved Me (Theme from Up Close and Personal)”. She performed that song--and filled in at the last minute on another song--on last year’s Academy Awards. It was a rush, she says, that ranks right up there her appearance at the Summer Olympics the year before, a performance that was seen by an estimated 3.5 billion people.

It’s a string of achievements that would seem nearly impossible to top, and many artists wouldn’t try. They’d buy an island or two and spend their days playing frisbee with their platinum records, but not Dion. Determined to make the most of her momentum, she went back into the studio and recorded her current album, Let’s Talk About Love. Though the disc features collaborations with many of her idols--Barbra Streisand, Carole King, Luciano Pavarotti and The BeeGees--it’s most universally-beloved track is Dion’s solo, “My Heart Will Go On.” The haunting Love the Theme from Titanic entered Billboard’s singles chart at number one and stayed there for months.

“Singing for Titanic and seeing the movie was a magic moment for me,” Dion says when asked what it’s like to be part of a bonafide phenomenon. “I don't even want to try thinking about how and why. It's like a beautiful ocean wave that everybody in the world is following.”

Following all the way back to the Oscars as it turns out.

It’s two days before the Academy Awards and Dion, who’s just arrived in L.A. from Europe, has agreed to be interviewed as she rides from the Beverly Hills Hotel to the official Oscar rehearsal at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium. With her long chestnut hair pulled into a pony-tail and dressed in a tan jacket and a pair of maroon and gold patterned pants with matching shoes and bag, Dion is the picture of casual elegance. She settles into the back on the limosine, then pops a couple aspirin, explaining she’s been trying to shake a jet-lag related headache all day. As the limo pulls onto the boulevard, Dion smiles warmly, then recalls the night she recorded the instant classic, “My Heart Will Go On.”

“James Horner (Titanic’s composer) talked to me about the movie and I saw the whole picture,” she remembers. “When I was ready sing the song, I had tears in my eyes and I could hear my knees shaking because I was getting very emotional. Or maybe I had too much coffee, I don't know.”

In a move that demonstrates her up-for-anything nature, Dion recorded the song without knowing if it would make it into the film, for at the time, director James Cameron was determined not to have any pop songs in Titanic. Horner commissioned lyrics and enlisted Dion to record the demo behind Cameron’s back.

“James Horner waited until the right moment, then presented the song and Cameron went for it,” Dion says happily. “The actual song that you hear is the demo that we did.”

Though it masy seem unusual for an artist as successful as Dion to take the time to demo a song that may never be heard, it’s not ususual for Dion.

“I don’t do something because I think it’s going to be successful,” she says. “I do something because I believe in it. I just went in a did my best and the whole thing worked.”

The svelte soprano seems remarkably calm for a woman who is less than 48 hours away from performing for a television audience of one billion people, not to mention a live crowd made up the biggest names in show business. It’s a prospect that makes the spotlight-hungry cockroach seem like child’s play.

“The Oscars are very chic and high class and you have one number to do and you can't miss it,” she admits. “But it's probably the TV show I love doing the most because it's the real Hollywood thing. Last year, I remember seeing Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman get closer together while I was singing "Because You Loved Me,” and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ You're on-stage and you look at all the people you admire. In your mind, you're five years-old and you can't believe you're there.”

Dion’s flair for dazzling large audiences goes way back. As the youngest of fourteen children born to working-class parents in Charlemagne, a small town near Montreal, Dion used to perform for her family on the kitchen table. At 12, a demo tape she recorded of a song that her mother wrote found its way into the hands of Quebec music entrepreneur, Rene Angelil. He was so taken with Dion’s voice that he mortgaged his house to finance the recording of her debut album. A number of successful French-language recordings followed earning her the nickname of ‘la p’tite Quebecoise.’

That success might have been enough for most teenagers, but not Dion. Ever ready to venture into new frontiers, Dion decided she would have to learn English if she wanted to conquer America.

“I went to school for two months every day, nine to five, five days a week,” says Dion, who had previously dropped out of high school to pursue her careeer full-time. “After a month, I started to dream in English but in life, I couldn't speak it. My teacher said, ‘It's coming, it's coming.’ The day after I went out of school, I had my first interview. Rene said to the reporter, ‘She just finished school yesterday, so you'll ask a question, we'll stop tape and she'll figure out what to say.’ And the interview started and I started to talk nonstop, and Rene couldn't believe it.”

In 1990, Dion released her first English-language album, Unison. It was such a breakthrough for her that she still remembers where she was the first time she heard herself sing in English on the radio.

“I was in New York in a Taxi and "Where Does My Heart Beat Now?” came on,” she recalls, referring to the album’s first single. “I kept looking in the mirror to see the driver's reaction. Is he going to say, ‘Oh my God, I hate that song,’ and change the channel or is he going to sing along?”

Needless to say the cabbie was enchanted. He wasn’t alone, for it was around this same time that Dion’s manager-artist relationship with Angelil took a romantic turn.

“It was in Dublin, and we were saying ‘Goodnight’,” Dion recalls wistfully, “and he kissed me. My whole body was shaking. I could have fallen on the floor. I was expecting it and at the same time not expecting it, but it was not rude. It was like a breeze, like you open a window. It was the kiss of my dreams.”

For Celine Dion, the kiss of her dreams led to the wedding of her dreams, in 1994, in Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica. For the woman who scored an Oscar-winning hit with Beauty and the Beast, it was fairy tale come true, complete with a 10 pound tiara, a 2,000 profiterole cake and a gown covered in pearls that reportedly took 1,000 hours to make.

“I didn't organize the wedding,” confesses Dion. “My friends did because they know me very well. They wanted my wedding to be at the level of my dreams. I dream big time and they really impressed me. It was even better than my dreams.”

Though Angelil is 26 years her senior, Dion claims their age difference rarely presents itself.

“I wouldn't change him for the world,” she gushes before turning serious. “The only thing is that I really don't want to lose him. I feel like I wish to get older faster than he's getting older.”

And what about children?

“I'd love to work on a little baby,” she says, “and if I get too nervous and work to much, I cannot get pregnant. But I'm working on it and rehearsal’s are going fantastically well. I don't know the future, but I'd love to have some space in between things; do a movie, have six months off, do a French and an English album, have a year off and then tour for a year. Because now it's hot and it’s happening, it's like one thing after another.”

Just because Celine Dion’s one of the hardest working women in show business doesn’t mean she doesn’t know how to have fun. A self-confessed shopoholic--she has over 1,000 pairs of shoes and a 300 square foot closet--she recently had a ball taking in the fashion shows in Paris. It was one of several footloose activities she got up to in the City of Lights.

“I smoked a cigar for the first time in my life,” she whispers as though confiding her naughtiest secret. “I loved it. My head was spinning. It was great because everybody gets away from me when they smoke and if there's too smoke, I don't go there. But I just finished recording my new French album and they said, "Tonight you're going out and you're getting wild!” I said, "Great!" I felt like it. So we went to the Buddha Bar and I said, "Let's go! Smoke, smoke, smoke!” and I was dancing and talking loud all night in this place where normally I would keep my voice shut off. I had a cigar, dipped it into cognac every one in a while, and I'd pretend like I was a great smoker. I didn't inhale, but I had a great time. It's simple things.”

Like golf, which another of Dion’s latest passions and one of the few sports the naturally-thin singer takes part in regularly. When it comes to dealing with the game’s inherent frustrations, Dion claims that, unlike her interviewer, she’s never hurled a 9-iron.

“If I do badly, I go back in the cart and I don't talk and you don’t talk to me,” the singer confesses. “But I would not throw a club. Like to me, if I sing wrong, I would never lose the respect for a microphone. If I hit wrong, it's not the club's problem, it's my problem.”

Dion admits that when it comes to fun, many of her most rollicking times occur when she’s on stage, a fact that anyone who’s caught her live can attest to.

“People are used to seeing me as the ballad singer who sings songs that make people cry,” she says, “but there's many personalities inside of me. Somebody in the audience once gave me a pair of cow slippers that were just huge and awful. So to make people laugh, I sat on the piano, took off my boots, and put those on and I started to dance to "Love Can Move Mountains" in my very tight leather jumpsuit with the cow slippers. It looked weird but I don't care. The fan who gave it to me was so happy.”

Which brings us to one of the most refreshing and inspiring things about Celine Dion; unlike some of our better-known divas, she genuinely loves to sing and share her gift with an audience. In fact, in order to be in her best voice for a show, she’s been known to go days without speaking. Does it ever feel like too much of a sacrifice?

“Never,” she says definitively. “To me, it's a normal thing. People are paying to hear me sing. If today I have a beautiful home in Florida, and I can buy myself some new clothes, they gave it to me. So the least I can do is to be in shape for my performance. For me to stop talking for two days, it's not like, ‘Oh, she's so great!’ No, no, no, no. It's normal. I enjoy the performance. I love being on-stage, wearing my favorite clothing and feeling sexy and strong and singing my favorite songs. When I get tired of doing that, I will retire.”

For Dion, her commitment to her fans doesn’t end when she saunters off the stage.

“When I was in Paris, I called a twelve year-old named Sean,” she says quietly. “He had a few days to live and he couldn’t talk. “Because You Loved Me” was his favorite song, so I sang it over the phone to him. It was a very difficult moment for me but I said to myself, ‘It must be so difficult for him and his parents so you can do that, it's nothing.’ Things like that make your life, and your career and your music worth it.”

Dion’s compassion was no doubt influenced by the loss of her own niece, Karine Menard, who, at 16, succumbed to cystic fibrosis and died in her aunt’s arms.

“I felt her whole body leaving me,” Dion recalls, “because I was supporting her back with my body. I was singing to her and I looked at everyone like, ‘She's going right now.’ I talked to her a couple of weeks before and she said she was not feeling so good and I let her know I was coming home and I felt she was kind of waiting for me. She had chosen me to escort her out which is a great, great compliment. I think of her a lot and I'm glad she's in paradise because she was suffering so much.”
Soon after her niece’s passing, Dion became a spokesperson for the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. At her wedding, in lieu of gifts, she and Angelil had well-wishers write checks to the organization to the tune of $200,000.

“We take air take for granted,” Dion says when asked how the loss changed her. “Every step we make, when we shake hands, when we talk, when we dream we take this for granted because it's like, ‘Hey, it's normal.’ It's not normal. When we’re happy, it’s so easy not to think about the luck we do have.”

Between her commitment to her fans, her charity work and her generally sunny attitude, one has to wonder if the superstar has ever thrown a star tantrum.

“What is that?” she asks sincerely.

When the concept is explained to her, in all its hissy-fit glory, Dion lets out a raucous laugh and says, “I'm not bossy at all. Every time I do an interview, I try to find something like that for people to go ‘Oh, my God, she did that? She's normal,’ but I cannot invent things. I like to be nice. I'm not forcing myself, but I'm like this. I love to be nice to people. If they're not nice to me, that's their problem. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of people who are happy in life, so when they meet somebody who is happy, they're going to say, ‘She's going out with this much older man, and they're rich and famous. They seem happy but something is wrong,’ because they want something wrong.”

As the limo pulls up to the Shrine’s back entrance and stops, Dion reflects on secret of her success.

“It was meant to be,” she says with a shrug. “I have no idea. Some people are very blessed, more than others. I was meant to be a singer. And I was meant to be surrounded with wonderful people who care about me and I care about them. Talent is not enough. My team is definitely the biggest part of my success.”

Still she admits dedication, hard work and good old fashioned daydreaming play a role as well.

“When I talk to young people, I always say don't let nobody take your dreams away from you,” she says the passion evident in ehr voice. “Talk about it. Let your friends know, your parents know, even if they say ‘Oh, it's impossible.’ Nothing is impossible. Keep dreaming and then try to work on it. Things happen.”

Just then, the limo door opens and Dion is informed that the time has come for her to rehearse “My Heart Will Go On.” As she steps out of the car, a genuine buzz of excitement seems to come over the behind-the scenes personnel milling around--one that says that in an evening full of mega-celebs with mega-needs, one of the most stellar, and yet down-to-earth stars around has just arrived on the scene.

Celine bids her questioner a fond farewell, then entertains one final query; if she could be completely anonymous for one day, where would she go and what would she do?

“I don't want to,” Dion says without missing a beat. “I have chosen my life. I have chosen to be here. If I wanted to be somewhere else, I would be there. Like right now, I don't want to have this headache but I'll take it because no day's perfect. I really want to be here.”

And with that, Celine Dion takes a deep satisfied breath, steps onto the red carpet and prepares to go on. And on.