Changing Her Tune

UPDATED 03/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

RENÉ ANGÉUL COULDN'T WAIT TO give his star client the news. As Celine Dion's manager for more than 15 years—and as her husband for more than two—he knew the singer had been preparing her whole life for a moment like this. Her 1996 album Falling Into You had sold an astounding 8 million copies in America, and now there was even more to celebrate. "You've been nominated for four Grammy awards," he told her early one morning last month. Lying in bed, Dion smiled. "Well," she said, "is it sunny outside?"

Come again? Is that the way les Québecoises say "Yee-ha!"? Actually, no. But in her own way, the 28-year-old native of Charlemagne (pop. 6,000), outside Montreal, was making a point: There is more to life than shiny gold statuettes. Not that fame and fortune have dampened Dion's gratitude for her success: 40 million albums sold, packed concert sites around the globe, both an Oscar and a Grammy for her 1992 duet (with Peabo Bryson) Beauty and the Beast, and now four more Grammy nominations. She will, of course, be elated if she is called to the stage at New York City's Madison Square Garden to accept an award come Feb. 26. But prizes, she says, are no longer her top priority.

"When I was a smaller kid, I wanted to be in show business, and I was holding on to that dream," says Dion, who grew up speaking French and could not speak English until she began studying 10 years ago in order to sing bilingually. "I don't want to hold on to that dream any more. I want to hold on to the real things."

Like, for instance, Angélil, 55. "Look what I'm doing to you," she says, smoothing out the wrinkles in his dark-blue suit as she snuggles in his lap during a business trip to L.A. earlier this month. In a few days she would be heading for Japan, and a three-week Asian tour; the thought of leaving her husband behind always makes her unhappy. For starters, she says, traveling to exotic locales is no fun without Angélil, who has managed Dion since she was an aspiring 12-year-old singer and has been romantically involved with her since she was 20. "It's weird, because I don't care about seeing the beauty of foreign countries if he's not there," she says. What's more, an ocean between them will put a damper on what is a high-priority project these days: starting a family.

"After the American tour ends in April," says Angélil, who has three grown children from a previous marriage, "we stop for a year and then we're going to relax, to try to have a baby." He pauses, then smiles. "We're trying right now."

"Every month I hope my period will not start," adds Dion. "For two years we've been working on it, hoping. We're not going crazy about it, but just like every woman, and every couple, wants to have a child, to share their happiness, we're hoping."

The youngest of 14 children of Adhémar, now 74, and Thérèse, 69, retired piano-bar owners and grandparents of more than two dozen, Dion knows something about the joys—and responsibilities—of motherhood. Her own mother was initially distraught to learn she was pregnant with Celine. "She almost did a depression," says Dion. "She had wanted to go out and meet the world, have a life." Happily, Dion's 13 siblings were all available to babysit. "While Mom did lunch or things like that," says Michel, 44, Dion's brother and assistant tour director, "we'd take care of her. Like me; I was in a rock and roll band, and I'd bring Celine to gigs with me." Music was, in fact, a central part of their lives: Adhémar played the accordion, Thérèse the violin, and weekly family sing-alongs gave Celine a chance to show her natural five-octave range.

The rest, as any Dion fan knows, is pop-music history: Her brother Michel sent a tape of her songs to Angélil's office when she was 12—and within two years she had her first hit single in France. The focused performer left childhood behind: She never graduated high school ("I always hated school," she admits) or even had a chance to date boys (save a two-week romance when she was 17). But the baby of the family clung tight to her home ties. In 1986, "as soon as I had the money," she says, Dion bought her parents a lakefront home just outside Montreal. She still speaks with them every day, "just to keep in touch, find out what's up," says Michel. She employs Michel and her sister Manon, 35, who is a wardrobe assistant. And every Christmas she hosts a family bash back in Canada—complete with such door prizes as vacations, TV sets and CD players—for the extended family.

Dion stays close to her family during tough times too. Twenty years ago her niece Karine Menard, the daughter of her sister Liette, 47, who lives in Montreal, was born with cystic fibrosis, which attacks the respiratory and digestive systems. Dion says that for many years she did what she could to make Karine happy, like taking her to local malls—oxygen tank and all—for "get-everything-she-wants" shopping excursions. But by 1993, Karine, then 16, was confined to bed at home, in critical condition, barely able to breathe or swallow. One day, "I had her in my arms," says Dion, "and I started to sing softly in her ear, and out of nowhere her eyes closed. I looked at my mom, who was massaging her feet because her circulation didn't work, and nodded, 'Okay, it's happening.' One tear came down Karine's cheek, and then she went."

Karine's death continues to remind her aunt—who became a celebrity patron for the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in 1993—to try, as she says, "to hold on to true values." Dion allows that she enjoys the good life: homes in Montreal, West Palm Beach and the latest one under way in Jupiter, Fla., complete with closet space for what Michel calls her "spiffy clothes" and several hundred pairs of shoes. "She always buy two pair," he says, "because if she broke one, she have another one exactly the same." But as Dion tells it, she is less Pop Princess than Domestic Diva. "When I'm at home, I do a lot of cooking for René—usually trying to make leftovers look better," she says with a laugh. "And I clean and make the bed and do the laundry. It's not like I have to do it," she adds. "I do it because I like it."

She'd like to be changing diapers too, of course. But the high stress of a center-stage life—coupled with Dion's history of irregular periods—has made starting a family tough. For now, the couple are eschewing physicians and fertility specialists in favor of the old-fashioned method. Meanwhile life goes on: There are songs to sing, beds to make, parties to plan. "If it happens, it happens," says Dion of motherhood. "If it doesn't, it doesn't." In any case, she adds with a grin, "René and I are having a wonderful time trying."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
JEANNE GORDON in Los Angeles

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