The first time Céline Dion brought René-Charles to hear her perform, she felt sick to her stomach. Her little guy—named after his dad, her husband-manager, René Angélil—had watched her get ready to go to her nightly gig at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas since before he could speak. Then, one evening when he was about 4, he said, "I want to go to the show," recalls Dion. As he sat in her dressing room, clutching his ticket, she says, "I started to feel nauseous for the first time in my life. It was like he was saying, 'I know you're a singer, and I'm going to be noticing that with my own eyes tonight. And it's okay. I decided I can share you.' It was very powerful for me."
At the end of the show, she brought him a rose, then carried him onstage with her. "It was amazing," says Dion, who to this day has held onto the ticket, the flower—and the feeling. As she says, "He's the only guy who intimidates me."
Clearly, moms who rock in four-inch heels don't scare easy. Still, sitting in the recording studio at the Palms Casino Resort one evening in September, putting the finishing touches on her new album, Taking Chances
, on a rare night off from her sold-out show at Caesars, Dion, 39, seems more fragile than fierce. Asked by PEOPLE how she is feeling, she pauses, sighs, then says, "I'm okay." Truth: She's beat—and at the kind of crossroads that might make a lesser performer jittery. Her 4 1/2-year gig with Caesars ends on Dec. 15, and on Feb. 14 she kicks off a world tour. The CD came out Nov. 13, and make no mistake, she is taking chances on an edgy mix of rock and pop that sounds little like the sentimental ballads that have been wowing audiences since she was a 5-year-old singing alongside her parents and 13 siblings in a piano bar in her hometown of Charlemagne, Que.
But her desire for a nap aside, Dion is ready to seize a new day—bolstered no doubt by the success of the old ones. In the three decades since her future husband mortgaged his home to finance a French-language album for the then 13-year-old back in 1981, she has won more Grammys and assorted Canadian and European music awards than she knows what to do with. "She has over 200 trophies, and not one in our house; they're in storage," laughs Angélil, 65. With sales of more than 200 million records to her name, does trying something new on Chances—like the Janis Joplin-like riff called "That's Just the Woman in Me" that called on her to let go of decades of "technique" training, she says—make her nervous? Sure. But she is "very, very, very happy" with the result, she says. And if others are not, well, she says, "it's not going to change my life."
What would? Not being able to bake cupcakes with René-Charles or make sure he brushes his teeth properly or just watch him sleep. "He makes noises like, 'Ahhh, uhhh,' like he's singing," she says. "I just love to touch his hand. It makes me cry of happiness." For Dion, who spent six years trying to have a child the old-fashioned way before she became pregnant through in vitro fertilization with René-Charles, "[he] is a miracle child," she says. She and Angélil are hoping that when the tour ends, they can work on another project: making René-Charles a big brother, using embryos they froze during their former fertility treatment. "I've asked him if [he prefers] a little boy or a little girl," says Dion. "And he's said, 'A little sister.'" She'd take either. "I breast-fed René-Charles for a year, and I'll never forget it," she says. "His eyes, his skin, his smell, his sleeping, the sweetness, the love, there's nothing like it. You know, I'm not really a singer," she explains. "My life is to be a mom. It is what I enjoy the most. It is my most amazing reward. I will take a chance with my music," she adds. "I don't take risks with my family."
Especially not one that involves scissors. Like all parents, Dion has had to learn to balance what she wants for her son with his own desires for himself—like, say, hair nearly as long as her own luxurious mane. "Everybody asks me why I don't cut it," says Dion. "It's his own decision. I've asked many times. 'Would you want me to cut your hair a little bit?' And he doesn't want to." Yeah, right. "She won't cut it!" counters his father with a laugh. "Maybe when he's 45."
Since they moved into the contemporary home in 2002 that Caesars built for them as part of Dion's multimillion contract, Las Vegas has become the unlikely backdrop for an idyllic family life. Father and son bond over PlayStation, Wii and any kind of car, from the go-carts they zoom around a track on their property to the toy cars he loves to ram into each other. "That's the game of the day, destroying things," says Dion. "He's a real boy." But also a cuddler. On a recent night, she, Angélil and René-Charles curled up in their bed and watched the latest Bond flick Casino Royale
. "It's supposed to be [for older kids]," she acknowledges with a shrug. "But he liked it." The next day, her little man, who is, she says, "very protective of me," let her sleep in. After playing tennis with her sister Linda, 48, who lives with them, "He woke me up and said, 'Mom, it's 2:30 p.m.! Do you want me to turn on the light?' I said, 'Okay.' So he turns on all the lights. I said, 'How about the little side table light?'"
Superstardom has afforded Dion many luxuries, but down time isn't one of them. Juggling a career and motherhood leaves her, as she says, "constantly exhausted." She tries to leave work out of the house; when she is making pancakes with René-Charles or going over his math lessons with him (the second grader is homeschooled by a tutor), she doesn't want to talk about concerts or CDs—a feat made harder by the fact that she's married to her manager. "We want to go in the pool but [René] has 15 phone calls to return," says Dion. "It's hard for him not to stress me. We have to plan our lives, the tour, everything. But it's now that's important."
Their lives will change considerably when Dion's contract with Caesars is up and the family (including Dion's mother, Thérèse, 80) heads out on tour early next year. She will miss her life in Las Vegas—an experience that has been, she says, "colorful, difficult and amazing." It was in Vegas that René-Charles learned how to walk and talk and shoot a basketball and change the windshield wiper fluid on his dad's car and do a killer Tom Jones imitation. "We'll never leave Las Vegas," she says. "We're keeping the house and the memories. There's no moving out."
But there is moving on. For Dion, the chance to see the world with her family is many things, not least of which is a chance to sneak some R&R. "Three to four shows a week instead of five—right there I'm vacationing," she says with a laugh. "I'll rest onstage." But mostly, she says, it is "the adventure of a lifetime." From Africa to Australia to China, "I have my husband, who's going to lead the way and make sure everything's safe," she says. "And my mother on the one hand and my son on the other. I want him to take his own camera and journal." And when they return, they will settle back in Jupiter, Fla., where they lived pre-Las Vegas. Once there, she and Angélil plan "to relax," he says, "[and] try to have another baby." Adds Dion: "If it's given to us again, we'll be more than blessed. And if not, it's not bittersweet, it won't be a disappointment. It will be that life decided this way. You accept it."
After a lifetime of achieving, letting go feels good. Dion spent her youth, as she says, "proving myself" in the industry. And as she told PEOPLE in 1994, "I don't regret having lost my adolescence. I had one dream: I wanted to be a singer." But as she approaches her 40th birthday on March 30, Dion has new dreams—and a new perspective. "I feel like I'm at the bottom of the ladder, finally. I started at the top. I came down. Maturity is being grounded. When you feel grounded you feel strong. I know what I want."
For starters, less pancake makeup, more pancakes. "I love performing, but I never really liked show business. My success is my family," Dion says. "I want to be more successful as a mother." Meaning, perhaps, a schedule that allows her to make breakfast for her son, teach him about the world—and learn from him. "I love to watch him and applaud him," says Dion. "The most important thing I can give to my son is my true values. Whatever choices he makes, I want him to assume his responsibilities and achieve what he wants—and be happy. For me to be able to give my happiness to my son," she says, "I cannot achieve better than that."