Even in the back of a plush stretch limo, Céline Dion can't seem to relax. Spotting fans outside after a recent concert in Montreal, the slender chanteuse fumbles frantically for the button to lower the tinted window. "What if they can't see me wave back?" she frets.

Not to worry. Dion's fans seem as loyal as they are legion—no matter What she does. When la P'tite Qué-becoise (the little Quebecker), as Dion is affectionately know throughout her native Quebec, decided six years ago to take a crash course in English and seek a pop future in the U.S., critics predicted Dion's French-speaking audience would walk away in a huff. But after three top-selling English-language albums and a Grammy—for her 1992 duet with Peabo Bryson on "Beauty and the Beast"—Dion is more popular than ever at home. Her latest single, the pop ballad "The Power of Love," is a No. 1 hit in both the U.S. and Canada, and she recently sold out six bilingual concerts in Montreal. Gushed that city's La Presse newspaper: "Her success is our success.'

Nor did fans seem to mind when, in the liner notes of her latest Top 10 album, The Colour of My Love, Céline, 26, announced her five-year romance with her manager, René Angelil, 52. "I was afraid of what people would think," admits Angelil. But Céline was tired of the deception. "When you're in love, you want to scream it to the world," she explains.

With her secret out, the soulful singer is free to revel in the ever-increasing comparisons with Whitney Houston and Barbra Streisand and to settle into her newfound international fame. "I don't want people to know only my songs; I want them to know me," she says.

A native of the tiny Quebec town of Charlemagne (pop. 6,000), outside Montreal, Céline was the youngest of 14 children born to Odhemar Dion, a musician and restaurateur, and his wife, Thérèse. Everyone in the family performed, and Céline spent much of her childhood watching them. "I'd sleep on chairs in restaurants and bars while they sang," she says.

Naturally, it wasn't long before Céline was singing too, and the late hours quickly dulled her interest in school. "My mom would say, 'Céline, darling, you didn't go to school yesterday; you have to go today.' I'd say, 'Mom, I'm too tired,' " recalls Céline. "When I did go to school I was always dreaming and singing in my head."

Eventually, her brother Jacques sent a tape of the 12-year-old Céline to Angelil, a well-known music manager in Quebec who invited her to audition. "While I was singing he started to cry," says Céline. "I knew then I had done a good job." So good that Angelil mortgaged his house to finance her first album and took Dion, with her mother at her side, on the road throughout Canada, Japan and Europe. "I missed my family and my home, but I don't regret having lost my adolescence," says Céline, who dropped out of school at 14. "I had one dream: I wanted to be a singer."

As her career blossomed, so did her romance with René, who has three children (Patrick, 26, Jean-Pierre, 20, Anne-Marie, 16) from two previous marriages (the second ended in 1985). "The hugs just became better, and his kisses moved across my cheek," jokes Céline, who was 20 when the pair became involved.

While planning a 1995 wedding, Dion is also orchestrating a yearlong worldwide tour, fielding offers for acting jobs (she won raves for her role in a 1989 miniseries on French-Canadian TV) and keeping her music career on track. "A lot of my sisters and brothers hoped to be successful singers, and I've seen the effort and hard work that went into their unrealized dreams," she says wistfully. "If I'm successful, I do it for them and for me."

CYNTHIA SANZ
LISA KAY GREISSINGER in Montreal

  • Contributors:
  • Lisa Kay Greissinger.