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Ask Celine Dion if she's a pop diva and she'll modestly answer no, even though she happens to be the bestselling singer in America just now. "Diva," says Dion, "makes me think of the old, glorious movie stars." But she has to admit, "It sounds good to me. I love it. Diva."

After all, diva, Italian for "goddess," has long been associated with heavenly songbirds, golden throats and exotic plumage. None was more spellbinding than the imperious Greek soprano Maria Callas, who dominated opera stages in the '50s and cowed everyone around her with terrifying temper tantrums. Then came pop music's pampered princesses, a new class of American diva—brassy, indomitable and weighted with foot-long false eyelashes. There was Diana Ross with her slinky sexiness and bright-tinsel voice; the all-powerful Barbra Streisand, who, like every other singer of her time, recorded "Send in the Clowns," but only after asking Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim to rewrite the lyrics to suit her; and soul queen Aretha Franklin, who concluded last April's VH1 Divas Live concert by stretching out a gospel number to 17 minutes. (The producers eventually turned off the cameras.) Of course, diva can be shorthand for pain in the neck. "But you should take it as a compliment," says Franklin, now 56. "Being a diva comprises musicality, a theatrical element and a certain carriage."

By that definition, say hello to the latest wave of pop divas: Celine Dion, 30; Whitney Houston, 35; Mariah Carey, 29; Madonna, the old-timer at 40; Janet Jackson, 32; Shania Twain, 33; and Jewel, 24—with divas-in-waiting Brandy, 19; Monica, 18; and LeAnn Rimes, 16, warbling in the wings. All certainly have the requisite lung power. Houston, whose Top 20 album My Love Is Your Love marks her first studio release in eight years, can rattle roof beams, Carey skips octaves with the ease of a kindergartner at jump rope, and Dion (who, like Carey and Twain, sang with Franklin on VH1) belts out "My Heart Will Go On," the Oscar-winning Titanic theme, with chest-thumping majesty. And, with all due R-E-S-P-E-C-T to Aretha and company, these superdivas are richer and wield more power. True, some of their pre-MTV forebears dabbled in movies, but were they also best-selling authors a la Jewel? Did they, like Madonna, run their own record labels? Even divette Brandy has her own TV show.

Beyond having industrial-strength lungs, today's pop divas can be as demanding as they are pampered and—with their vast earnings—indulgent. (Celine keeps 500 pairs of shoes in a 300-square-foot closet.) The public worships them: Together, these divas have sold some 210 million albums in the United States alone, astonishing by anyone's standards. (Dion sold 60 million albums worldwide in only 30 months.) Last November, Jewel's Spirit debuted at No. 3, with Carey's greatest-hits package #1's and Dion's These Are Special Times just behind. The Grammy nominations, announced Jan. 5, give the divas their due: six for Twain, five for Madonna and four for Dion (Houston and Jewel's new albums were released too late for consideration).

So how do these rags-to-riches sirens spend their time? What do they splurge on? What do they think of each other? And by the way, how are their love lives?

In Celine Dion's case, no album title was ever more fitting than These Are Special Times. She grew up one of 14 children in a small town in Quebec, but scrimping is a thing of the past. "I don't drink," says Dion. "I don't smoke. I shop." She and her husband, manager Rene Angelil, who's in his mid-50s, recently built a $10 million, 10-bedroom turreted mansion in Jupiter, Fla., equipped with fountains, waterfalls and 33 television sets. They also plan to build an English-style manor on a golf club they bought recently near Montreal, retaining two 18-hole courses to help them unwind (she has a 24 handicap). When Dion told David Letterman last November that she had a personal putting green, he howled, "Oh, stop! When I go bowling, I've got to rent shoes."

Jewel, who in 1996 bought a reportedly $1.3 million, four-bedroom house in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., with the proceeds of her first album, is still adjusting to the concept of living so large. "Being a homeowner, especially a nice homeowner, that's pretty weird," says the singer, who grew up Jewel Kilcher in a homestead, toiletless cabin in Homer, Alaska. She's come a long way. Because she hates to buy clothes ("If I only have six hours off, why on earth would I drag myself to a mall?"), she retains a personal shopper to keep her in precious Prada and Gucci. For her acting debut in the Civil War movie Ride with the Devil, due this fall, she learned to rope cattle. She has also corralled her share of heartthrobs, including Sean Penn (before he married Robin Wright in '96) and now actor Christopher Douglas. But at heart, Jewel is a flower child and poet (her collection, A Night Without Armor, remains a bestseller after eight months). Last fall at a benefit in New York she charmed many in the audience when, realizing her nails were too long to strum her guitar, she asked if anyone could lend her a nail clipper. (Someone did.) Told by a reporter she was part of a story for PEOPLE that included Dion and Carey, she marveled, "Wow, I'm in that group?"

Welcome to the club, only don't expect a lotta lunch dates. Jewel has met Celine, whom she describes as "one of the nicest people," but these women don't pal around much. Blame it on their schedules, their managers or maybe (just maybe) diva pride. Houston and Carey's first joint appearance in a studio last summer to record "When You Believe," the theme to The Prince of Egypt, had all the trappings of a summit of Cold War superpowers. But both insist there has never been tension between them. The two even made a point of holding hands on Oprah in November. When the talk host asked the singers if they were indeed divas, Houston laughingly whinnied a no. "We really do get along," insists Carey. (Houston, by the way, gets first billing in the album credits stateside; abroad, Mariah's is the front name.) But getting along doesn't necessarily mean hanging tight. During the taping of the VH1 special, "I just stayed in my trailer," says Carey, who grew up on Long Island, the daughter of Patricia Carey, a white former opera singer, and Alfred Roy Carey, a black aeronautics engineer from Venezuela. Growing up biracial "made me separate from everybody," says Carey, whose parents are divorced. "Singing made me feel special."

Her adult life hasn't been run-of-the-mill, either. After four years with her idolmaker husband, Sony Music Entertainment president Tommy Mottola, Carey walked out on him, the marriage and their $10 million Bedford, N.Y., mansion (two pools, recording studio, pizza ovens) in 1997. "That place was amazing," admits Carey, who relocated to a rented Manhattan townhouse with her own electrolysis parlor in the basement. She's now hunting, for a permanent pad, recently checking out Streisand's $10 million Central Park West penthouse. But having racked up more No. 1 hits than anyone since the Beatles, Carey still obsesses over her career. Her limo includes a VCR and stereo so she can scrutinize her latest videos or songs while in traffic. "I love what I do," says Carey. "But I don't have any peace." And despite her fling with New York Yankees phenom Derek Jeter last year, she claims to have no romantic life, denying reports that she has dated Leonardo DiCaprio or Sean "Puffy" Combs. "No one," she says, "is coming to my house, picking me up and taking me to dinner."

Maybe not, though her dance card isn't entirely blank. Last May, in fact, she was accused of keeping no less a personage than Prince Albert waiting at a dinner in Monaco, and she reportedly commandeered all the hotel seamstresses to work on her wardrobe. "Oh, please," she said at the time, denying the story. "I am not a diva! It wasn't like I rolled into Monaco, flung out my arms and said, 'Bring me all the seamstresses in the land.' "

Whitney Houston was dissed as something even worse—a "wannabe diva"—by Fort Lauderdale attorney Fred Haddad, who dumped Houston's husband, singer Bobby Brown, as a client in November. In a letter to the couple, Haddad reportedly accused Houston of interfering with his handling of Brown's 1996 drunk-driving arrest in Hollywood, Fla. (Brown, turning himself in to serve a five-day sentence in October, arrived by Rolls-Royce and, according to prison officials, was intoxicated.) Houston has sometimes seemed on the verge of derailing herself. She angered talk host Rosie ' O'Donnell in 1997 when she canceled an appearance at the last minute, citing illness, only to turn up later that day at Brown's visit to Letterman's Late Show. And as recently as last November, Houston was denying rumors of a drug problem to Newsweek.

At least her sometimes troubled marriage to Brown seems on firmer ground. She and Brown—their daughter, Bobbi Kristina, is 5—split for a month in 1997. "We separated for a minute," she told Ebony recently, describing herself as "a loving wife...very emotional. Very protective." Says her mother, gospel star Cissy Houston: "Whitney's not unlike anybody else. They have some problems, but they're all right." (Most mothers aren't prosperous enough to build their daughters a playground with carousel, as Houston has done on her New Jersey estate.) And the singer was in fine form last Nov. 30 at New York's AmFAR benefit for AIDS, where she sang "I Will Always Love You" in a formfitting blue Gianfranco Ferre gown.

That's the spirit. The true diva will always propel herself past heartbreak and headache. Janet Jackson has talked openly about her struggle with depression and overeating due to stress and has alluded to the difficulties of growing up as part of the big, fractious Jackson family. Yet, she once told Ebony magazine, her suffering "made me a much stronger person." She's definitely in fighting trim. Even on a global tour this past year, she maintained her low-fat diet with the help of her personal chef and worked out 272 hours a day. On the road, "it's impossible to stay sane," says Jackson. That's easier at her Malibu home ("not too big and incredibly cozy"), where she lives with her longtime companion, dancer René Elizondo, 36. There, she plays with her dogs and reads. Latest book: If Life Is a Game, These Are the Rules.

Shania Twain realized early on how tough those rules can be. Growing up poor in northern Ontario, she raised three younger siblings after her mother and stepfather were killed in a car accident in 1987, when she was 21. "She was more mature than the rest of us," recalls country musician Toby Keith, one of a group that toured with Twain in the early days of her career. "She had a vision for what she wanted to go do, and anything less than achieving that was half-assed to her." Today Twain owns a 3,000-acre Adirondacks ranch (with lake), on which she lives with husband and producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange. Even now, says Keith, "she's one of the most down-to-earth people I know"—the sort who, after taping a video in the California desert last November, camped out by firelight with crew members. She has even been known to clean out the stables on her ranch. "I don't see many divas doing that," says Luke Lewis, head of her label, Mercury Nashville.

Or, for that matter, chanting a mantra, as Madonna does on her latest album, Ray of Light. "Madonna is extremely involved in her spiritual journey," says her publicist, who adds that the star's trip includes studying yoga and steeping herself in the Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabbalah. Being single mother to rock's most famous baby, Lourdes, now 2, whose father is former personal trainer Carlos Leon, has also broadened her perspective. Singing Raffi songs or taking her on trips to London (where she spends time with rocker Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler), Madonna apparently gives Lourdes precedence over relationships. "You don't hold her attention by being a good lover anymore," says Rick Sky, a British pop commentator. "You hold it by being liked by Lourdes. That's the way into Madonna's heart now."

For her part, Celine would like to follow Madonna into maternity—in the next millennium. Performing up to 200 concerts a year, she dreams of just hanging out at home (in her case, homes) and plans to go on a hiatus of undetermined length after she finishes her New Year's Eve show in Montreal. "I definitely want to have a baby," says Dion, who has found it difficult to conceive while maintaining her touring schedule. Her fellow Canadians share her concerns: In a survey last year, 82 percent said they wanted her to take time off and get pregnant.

Of course, family life often takes a backseat to the biggest challenge of modern-day divahood: looking good. Just ask Jewel, still fairly new to the game. "I think your worth is still your sex appeal in pop music, and the pressure to succumb to that is tremendous," she says. "I try not to get too neurotic about exercise. Working out is a diva thing, isn't it? There's such pressure. I'd like to talk to the other girls about that." Anyone out there?

Tom Gliatto
Sue Miller and Eve Heyn in New York City, Todd Gold in Los Angeles, Cindy Dampier in Chicago, Don Sider in Palm Beach and Joanna Blonska in London

  • Contributors:
  • Sue Miller,
  • Eve Heyn,
  • Todd Gold,
  • Cindy Dampier,
  • Don Sider,
  • Joanna Blonska.