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Celine Dion takes on America

A look at the singer of the the number 1 hit ”Because You Loved Me”

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Celine Dion gets the signal and heads for the Tonight Show stage. As the cameras pull in and the French-Canadian chanteuse prepares to blow the shingles off NBC Studios, two men make their way to the green room and settle onto a couch.

One is Rene Angelil, a 54-year-old man with a husky whisper, a neatly trimmed white beard, and a silver ponytail. Angelil is Dion’s manager of 15 years. Though twice her age, he’s also her husband. To his right sits Vito Luprano, a director of A&R for Sony Music Canada — and Angelil’s loyal sidekick. Before them, a TV.

Dion, 27, has spent the afternoon milling around backstage with barely a trace of butterflies. Angelil and Luprano, however, get the jitters as soon as they hit that couch. ”When it’s a live performance, anything can happen. Something in the sound system could break; she could forget her lyrics,” Angelil muses. ”It never happens, touch wood.” He leans forward and touches a wooden coffee table three times.

”Touch wood,” echoes Luprano, giving the table another trio of taps.

Back from a commercial break, Jay Leno flashes the cover of Dion’s new CD, Falling Into You. ”Beautiful, beautiful,” utters Luprano. Then Leno introduces his guest. Luprano and Angelil spend the next four minutes frozen, barely breathing. Dion stares down the cameras, delivers her newest epic ballad, ”Because You Loved Me,” and wields her five-octave soprano like a light saber. When she finally kicks into the song’s gooey crescendo, her husband releases an audible sigh.

”That was good,” says Angelil.

”That was good,” says Luprano.

You can understand their relief: As Angelil has conceived it, the Leno gig is the vortex of a whirlwind week of promotion. In the breathless span of seven days, Dion makes national television appearances on the Grammys, The Tonight Show, the Blockbuster Awards. ”Because You Loved Me,” the theme song from the film Up Close & Personal, saturates radio stations, movie theaters, even television commercials. Remarkably, in one TV spot for the movie, Dion clocks nearly as much screen time as the film’s stars, Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Bill Clinton’s political virtuoso James Carville is another Tonight Show guest this evening, but you could argue that Angelil is the superior strategist: Within three weeks, ”Because You Loved Me” will rocket from No. 36 to No. 5 to its current place at No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart; the album will debut at an astonishing No. 2.

Oddly, the woman at the heart of this juggernaut acts less like a powerhouse diva than a ’90s version of Mary Poppins. She doesn’t smoke or drink; she doesn’t throw hissy fits when she has to wait for a table; she greets her fans with a saintly supply of enthusiasm. ”I’m not trying to be a nice girl, but it’s me,” Dion avers in a hearty French-Canadian accent. ”I’m not afraid to be nice.”

True, Dion leavens that sugar and spice with a fair dose of grit — and incalculable drive. ”She’s aggressive in the most sweet way,” offers Jim Steinman, the producer of several tracks on Falling Into You. Polly Anthony, the president of Dion’s Sony label, 550 Music, marvels at the singer’s ”almost inhuman work ethic.”

Despite a schedule of incessant touring and promoting worldwide (and a singing voice criticized for being as cold and mechanical as it is potent), Dion bridles at the notion that she’s a record-peddling cyborg. ??I don’t work hard to sell; I work hard because you have to work hard,?? she says. ??I’m not in competition with Mariah and Whitney and Barbra. I’m in competition with myself. I want to be the best of me.??

Even so, plenty of folks are ready to cast Dion as the next contender in the diva sweepstakes. David Foster, who produced the Diane Warren-penned ??Because You Loved Me,?? and who serves as the anointed studio guru to hit-seeking superstars like Houston and Streisand, compares her to the latter. ??She’s got the voice,?? he says. ??Whether she’ll reach the heights that Barbra did, nobody knows — but I see her taking that path instead of the Madonna path.?? In other words, Dion may be too chaste to publish a book like Sex, but not too nice to conquer the world.

So far, the world seems eager to comply. Since 1993, Dion has sold more than 12 million copies of an English-language album (The Colour of My Love) while hustling 5 million copies of a French one (1995’s D’Eux). Still, despite her global reach, many Americans haven’t a clue who she is; they associate her G-rated Top 40 hits — ??The Power of Love,?? ??The Colour of My Love,?? ??If You Asked Me To?? — with airport music. ??She’s not a household name yet in America,?? concedes Angelil. ??But I hope she will be soon.??

The tale of Dion’s discovery is national folklore in Canada: In 1980, the then-12-year-old singer — the youngest of 14 precocious and competitive kids born to working-class parents in Charlemagne, a tiny village east of Montreal — already had professional aspirations. Celine’s brother Michel dispatched her demo tape to an address found on the back of an album by her idol, French singer Ginette Reno. The address belonged to Angelil, a manager who, ironically, had just parted ways with Reno, his prize client. ??At that time,?? he remembers, ??I was depressed a little bit.??

The tape gathered dust until Michel called to egg Angelil on. ??So I listened, and I was amazed at the voice,?? he recalls. That same day, he summoned Celine to his office and asked her to sing. ??At the end, I was crying,?? he says. On the spot, Angelil decided to represent her. When record companies sniffed at the notion of cutting an album with a 12-year-old, he mortgaged his house to pay for her debut. The gamble paid off. When she was barely into her teens, Quebec hailed Dion as a regional treasure.

Understandably, Dion and the thrice-married Angelil, who were wed on Dec. 17, 1994, take great pains to stress that romance did not seep into their business arrangements until la p’tite Quebecoise, as she became known to fans in France, was well into her 21st year. ??I loved him, he loved me, because we had so much respect for each other,?? she says of those early years. ??But we were not in love — this other type of adult love, I should say.??

If Dion and Angelil’s story is something of a fairy tale, it’s fitting that the singer got her biggest professional break courtesy of the ultimate fairy-tale factory. In 1991 Disney chose Dion (and a duet partner, Peabo Bryson) to croon the theme from Beauty and the Beast. The song picked up a Grammy and an Oscar, paving the way for Dion’s multiplatinum The Colour of My Love and turning her into a bona fide soundtrack troubadour. It also cemented her relationship with the executives in the Magic Kingdom, where her voice, VH1-friendly fans, and goody-two-shoes image fit the bill when Disney’s Touchstone Pictures went looking for a diva to deliver ??Because You Loved Me.??

By now, movie songs have become the hot marketing tool in Hollywood: Thanks to Coolio’s ??Gangsta’s Paradise,?? Whitney Houston’s ??Exhale (Shoop Shoop),?? and Dion’s ??When I Fall in Love,?? films like Dangerous Minds, Waiting to Exhale, and Sleepless in Seattle have generated bucks at record stores and ticket booths. Acknowledging that, Up Close & Personal director Jon Avnet made sure he gave Dion choice real estate in his TV commercial for the film — creating, essentially, free ads for the song. ??We were pinching ourselves,?? says Sony’s Anthony. So was Disney: Up Close grossed $11 million at the box office in its first weekend.

Such marketing schemes may shower Dion with hits, but they won’t boost her street cred. Most critics write off her music as calculated schmaltz, although plenty of people do testify to the extraordinary power of her pipes. After all, Dion is the siren who lured Phil Spector back into the studio.

Spector, 55, the mythic, reclusive, and notoriously eccentric producer whose Wall of Sound wizardry turned pop nuggets by the Righteous Brothers, the Ronettes, and Ike and Tina Turner into Wagnerian epics, hasn’t overseen a full album since the Ramones’ End of the Century in 1980. But in October 1994, after watching Dion tear through his magnum opus ??River Deep — Mountain High?? on Late Show With David Letterman, the master felt compelled to seek her out. Over the course of one month in Los Angeles, he and Dion crafted tracks that would never find their way onto Falling Into You. ??We all had our fingers crossed to the point of cutting off our circulation, because it could’ve been so magnificent,?? Sony’s Anthony says of the Spector/Dion dream team. ??It was a great idea, but it didn’t work out.??

Why? Theories abound. Dion and Angelil say a long-planned European tour forced her to leave before the sessions — which Dion describes as teeming with ??hundreds of people,?? including a 60-piece orchestra — were wrapped. Others say the experiment was doomed from the get-go. ??He’s not exactly the most stable person,?? says Steinman, who wound up remaking ??River Deep?? on Falling. Steinman claims the ??turbulent?? sessions turned into a ??pretty hilarious nightmarish experience. They just had problems. I’ll leave it at that. They ended up with nothing they could use.??

If Dion and Angelil’s story is something of a fairy tale, it’s fitting that the singer got her biggest professional break courtesy of the ultimate fairy-tale factory. In 1991 Disney chose Dion (and a duet partner, Peabo Bryson) to croon the theme from Beauty and the Beast. The song picked up a Grammy and an Oscar, paving the way for Dion’s multiplatinum The Colour of My Love and turning her into a bona fide soundtrack troubadour. It also cemented her relationship with the executives in the Magic Kingdom, where her voice, VH1-friendly fans, and goody-two-shoes image fit the bill when Disney’s Touchstone Pictures went looking for a diva to deliver ??Because You Loved Me.??

By now, movie songs have become the hot marketing tool in Hollywood: Thanks to Coolio’s ??Gangsta’s Paradise,?? Whitney Houston’s ??Exhale (Shoop Shoop),?? and Dion’s ??When I Fall in Love,?? films like Dangerous Minds, Waiting to Exhale, and Sleepless in Seattle have generated bucks at record stores and ticket booths. Acknowledging that, Up Close & Personal director Jon Avnet made sure he gave Dion choice real estate in his TV commercial for the film — creating, essentially, free ads for the song. ??We were pinching ourselves,?? says Sony’s Anthony. So was Disney: Up Close grossed $11 million at the box office in its first weekend.

Such marketing schemes may shower Dion with hits, but they won’t boost her street cred. Most critics write off her music as calculated schmaltz, although plenty of people do testify to the extraordinary power of her pipes. After all, Dion is the siren who lured Phil Spector back into the studio.

Spector, 55, the mythic, reclusive, and notoriously eccentric producer whose Wall of Sound wizardry turned pop nuggets by the Righteous Brothers, the Ronettes, and Ike and Tina Turner into Wagnerian epics, hasn’t overseen a full album since the Ramones’ End of the Century in 1980. But in October 1994, after watching Dion tear through his magnum opus ??River Deep — Mountain High?? on Late Show With David Letterman, the master felt compelled to seek her out. Over the course of one month in Los Angeles, he and Dion crafted tracks that would never find their way onto Falling Into You. ??We all had our fingers crossed to the point of cutting off our circulation, because it could’ve been so magnificent,?? Sony’s Anthony says of the Spector/Dion dream team. ??It was a great idea, but it didn’t work out.??

Why? Theories abound. Dion and Angelil say a long-planned European tour forced her to leave before the sessions — which Dion describes as teeming with ??hundreds of people,?? including a 60-piece orchestra — were wrapped. Others say the experiment was doomed from the get-go. ??He’s not exactly the most stable person,?? says Steinman, who wound up remaking ??River Deep?? on Falling. Steinman claims the ??turbulent?? sessions turned into a ??pretty hilarious nightmarish experience. They just had problems. I’ll leave it at that. They ended up with nothing they could use.??

From David Foster’s perspective, Spector failed to take one thing in particular into account: David Foster. ??He comes out saying that this is the project that he’s chosen for his comeback, as if the rest of us have nothing to do with it,?? Foster says. ??That’s a little pompous.??

Indeed, clashes over how the record should sound may have put the sessions on ice. After a protracted effort to reach Spector for comment, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY received a three-page fax from him — one of only a handful of public statements he has issued in 16 years of reclusion. Spector — a man famous for obsessing over every facet of the studio process — offers lavish praise for ??the extraordinary talent of Ms. Celine Dion?? but says he backed out when he got the sense that her handlers ??simply wanted to record ‘hits’ even if they were contrived and repugnant — or nothing more than Whitney Houston- and Mariah Carey-rejected, soundalike songs and records.?? Spector says he didn’t want to remake ??River Deep,?? nor did he yearn to rub elbows with other producers — people he calls ??amateurs, students, and bad clones of yours truly.?? (Steinman’s retort? ??I’m thrilled to be insulted by Phil Spector. He’s my God, my idol. To be insulted by Phil Spector is a big honor. If he spits on me I consider myself purified.??)

??It became apparent,?? Spector goes on, ??that the people around Ms. Dion were more interested in controlling the project, and the people who recorded her, than making history.?? As for the tapes — tapes the mysterious producer predicts ??should put her on the covers of both TIME and Newsweek magazines?? — Spector vows to release them. ??Should you wish to hear the amazing and historic recordings I made with Ms. Dion,?? he writes, ??have no fear, because you will. I am presently finishing them up, and since I paid for them, and own them, I am planning to release them on my label, for the entire world to hear, and compare to her current recordings, or whatever you call those things they’ve released.??

Spector saves a final flourish for Dion’s management team. ??One thing they should have learned a long time ago,?? he says. ??You don’t tell Shakespeare what plays to write, or how to write them. You don’t tell Mozart what operas to write, or how to write them. And you certainly don’t tell Phil Spector what songs to write, or how to write them; or what records to produce, or how to produce them.??

It’s Wednesday, two days after the Tonight Show appearance, and Dion’s weeklong promotional blitz has reached its finale. Backstage at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, she runs through a handful of high notes, rubs her throat, frowns. Seconds ago, ??Because You Loved Me?? brought the house down at the Blockbuster Awards. The applause keeps coming, the stage director keeps mouthing the word beautiful, but the singer looks glum. ??I’m a little tired,?? she says. ??I’m afraid I did not have my full capacity.??

No time to brood. Unfettered by doubt, Dion exits the Pantages and makes a beeline for a fence where about 50 fans are lined up for autographs. ??She always does this,?? laughs tour manager Suzanne Gingue. All day, movie stars have rushed by with nary a glance at these fans, but Dion stops. She signs books, records, pads, hands, the sleeve of someone’s red silk shirt. After being thwarted and ignored all afternoon, the crowd isn’t sure how to respond, but Dion presses forward, leaving her mark on everything in sight. Then she does something that divas — even burgeoning ones — aren’t supposed to do: She searches the crowd for more.