Renaud Philippe / The New York Times
Monday, Sept. 11, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Annick Chenard, 38, has seen Celine Dion in concert 21 times and also has a large tattoo of Dion’s face and flowing hair on her right shoulder. She recently spent a whole day out on a Montreal street with a fold-up chair and a poncho, waiting for a slim chance to meet her queen.
Was Chenard OK waiting this long? “What do you mean, wait this long?” Chenard said, exasperated. “I saw her over 20 times and never met her!”
Chenard was among more than 1,000 people camped out for Dion’s appearance for the debut of her handbag and accessories line, the Celine Dion Collection — and it worried Dion. She was concerned they hadn’t eaten, that there were children there, that they had been up for so many, many hours — all, ostensibly, for a purse!
Dion looked toward the front of the store; fans peered in the windows. “People love me beyond what I do,” she said. “They get married with my song. They lose people with my song. They remarry with another one. They sing a lullaby with their kid with my song.”
One hundred of the most lucky fans in Montreal got a bag (all sale proceeds went to a local children’s and obstetric hospital), but also and more important, 30 nerve-racking seconds to hug Dion, or cry to her, or share a painful story about being in a coma. The line was not moving so quickly.
“It’s not them,” said her brother, Michel, part of her management team, looking at his sister. “It’s her.”
Meet and greets are usually reserved for performers early in their career, or for those trying to hold on to one. This is not the way Dion works.
She gives all of herself. She doesn’t want to sound pretentious. She doesn’t want to sound like Mother Teresa. “But they tell me, ‘Don’t talk too much,’ because I’ll make myself sick,” she said. This is difficult for her, to hold back. If you’ve ever seen her perform, if you’ve seen her speak publicly, or if you watched Dion furiously wipe tears from her cheeks as she spoke about Hurricane Katrina (that video is now making the rounds again because of the Houston flooding), you know this to be true.
“When I give myself,” she said, “I give myself.”
Some of this intense connection, she believes, is because she’s an open book. Her fans knew about her struggle to get pregnant, and her fertility treatments. They knew when her husband was sick, and they knew when he died, and when her brother died two days later, and then when her brother-in-law died in August. “Life is also happening to us,” Dion said.
“At my show, when the curtains open and I didn’t even say anything yet,” she said, her face growing more serious, “they stand up. And they all cry.”
One man showed her photos in his phone. They were of Dion when she was 12 years old. A woman lifted her sleeve to reveal Dion’s lyrics tattooed on her forearm. Another woman drove five hours with her granddaughter. You were my grandpa’s favorite singer, one person said.
Dion doesn’t take this lightly, and she never did. She’ll go home exhausted.
“I want them to love me for the rest of my life,” she said.
Last year, Dion’s husband, René Angélil, died from cancer at 73. He was her manager since she was 12, and they were married for 21 years. Angélil’s funeral was televised across Canada like that of a monarch. For eight hours, Dion stood, black veil covering her face, accepting condolences — no VIP access, no special tickets. If you were a fan, you got in line.
“When she was hurting the most, she decided to also share her grief with her fans,” said Elaine Lui, the Canadian gossip queen. “She doesn’t need the money, she’s so rich. She certainly doesn’t need to do that to make people love her.”
“All she has to do is, like, sing. Or sing-talk. And we’re happy,” Lui said.
At 49, Dion is a single mother. Her 16-year-old, René-Charles, is driving now. He’s very good at checking in. He writes notes to his mother and slips them under her door, like Dion’s late husband did. “I rarely put red on because I have small lips,” Dion said. “But I put red on and I kiss him and he says, ‘Now it doesn’t come off!’” She smirked, leaned forward and pointed her index finger to the sky. “One day you’ll remember my lipstick!”
There are also her 6-year-old twins, Nelson and Eddy. One of the boys asked her the other day, “Do children die?” and then, “Is Grandma going to die next?” So they worry, too.
When Angélil became ill, Dion wanted to take a year off. This wasn’t something he wanted to hear. “He was freaking out,” she said. She told him: “You’re going to do your living will. I’m going to do my will too. I’m going to be by your side. I’m going to take a year off.” And that was good for a little while.
“But at the end he really wanted me to sing and show me how to live again,” she said. “It was hard for me to leave him, and go back on stage and shake my” — she pointed to her bottom — “every day and every night.”
“This is what he loved the most,” she would tell herself, when it hurt. “I’m his favorite singer.”
Just before the 2016 Billboard Music Awards, where Dion masterfully dominated a cover of Queen’s “The Show Must Go On,” she contacted stylist Law Roach, who works with 21-year-old Disney star Zendaya. Dion had seen Zendaya’s show with the kids.
“Everybody’s so obsessed with millennials, and we tend to kind of push older women aside,” Roach said. “Celine has been sitting in this classroom with these 20-year-olds and these younger girls, and she raised her hand and said, ‘Here, listen. I’m here too.’”
Their partnership was sealed when, during the 2016 Paris Couture Week, Roach dressed Dion in a $885 Vetements sweatshirt that carried a photo of Jack, Rose and the Titanic in all of its sinking glory.
The sweatshirt was about much more than just showing off the street wear brand of the moment. It was also a brilliant callback to almost 20 years ago, when “My Heart Will Go On” seemed to stream from every screen and speaker, most notably at the 1998 Academy Awards, when Dion pounded her chest so hard that she nearly smacked a 171-carat sapphire heart-shaped necklace from its chain.
“I know for a fact this girl, this fashion girl, this outrageous, no-fear girl, was there when I met her,” Roach said.
Once, in 1999, Dion landed on the worst-dressed list for wearing a white backward John Galliano suit to the Oscars.
This year she was touted as a fashion icon. She shot a couture video for Vogue. After the Met Gala she ate a hot dog from a street vendor in her custom Versace gown. At the Billboard Music Awards this May, she wore a white Stephane Rolland couture dress with enormous sleeves, channeling an iceberg or maybe an angel. And on the steps of her private plane, she posed in full python — Balmain thigh-high boots, a Rochas trench coat and a bag from her collection, her lips in an absurd pout, her collar standing at attention, staring directly into the camera.
And so, of course, a Celine Dion Collection was to follow.
“Maybe they don’t necessarily like the album that’s going to come out, but maybe they can have a bag that they can hold on to,” Dion said. “It’s tangible.” This is reasonable: More than 85 percent of Canadian sales of “Encore Un Soir,” her 2016 French language studio album, were in physical, not digital, media. Her fans wanted to cradle the music in their arms, because of course they did.
“Some people take up a sport or a hobby. Some people decide to move somewhere when they have a change of life,” Dave Platel, of Dion’s management team, said. “And Celine is maybe exploring some of that love she has with fashion, and we’re seeing it more magnified. It’s a place she can unfold herself.”
“She wasn’t looking to be a Prada,” said Andrew Hattem, chief executive of the luggage and handbag company the Bugatti Group, who collaborated with Dion on the line. “Her fans had to be able to afford it.”
Most of the bags, which will be sold at Nordstrom in the United States, are priced from $149 to $299, though there are some for under $100, like a crossbody bag. A few exclusive collections made in Italy will cost $600 to $1,500.
This summer, in Paris, Dion, while staying at Le Royal Monceau hotel during her sold-out European tour, made a regular spectacle by exiting through the front entrance as if were a one-woman fashion show. One day she wore a Ralph & Russo Bianca Jagger-inspired white pantsuit, cape and hat. Another day she dressed in leather Givenchy overalls and Kanye West-designed pearl-studded heels for Giuseppe Zanotti.
“I’m about to turn 50, and I’ve always had a kind of person to help me out,” Dion said. “Things are different now.”
When she finally departed the hotel after a two-month stay, the staff lined up to say goodbye. She and her twins were drowned in an explosion of silver confetti as a farewell gesture.
“Me, my change is that I was going to be strong for myself. And if I show strength, my kids will be strong,” she said. “Because you don’t choose always what you want. Life imposes things on you sometimes.”