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Céline Dion Being Iconique: A Timeline

Photo: Prime Video

Céline Dion has a voice rivaled by few others. Soaring and powerful, its extraordinary range has meant the singer can reach stratospheric heights in emotive ballads and descend into sweet, softer keys for love songs.

But Dion also has a long history of attracting attention beyond her voice. She is also an icon of campery, self-deprecation, and endurance, all qualities she has famously shown throughout her (now sadly halted) career. From letting a fan go pee during her own final performance to bravely sharing struggles battling a chronic health condition, Dion is a rare star who is as happy to read herself to filth as she is to wear her pain publicly. This is even after her devastating health diagnosis of stiff-person syndrome (SPS) in December 2022. The rare neurological disorder has meant Dion can experience painful spasms and muscle stiffening and struggles to sing. Even though SPS has (temporarily) stopped her from performing, she still remains a larger-than-life figure in the Zeitgeist beyond her rare vocal prowess, a superstar defined as much by her public vulnerability as by her playful self-mockery.

With the release of her baring new documentary, I Am: Celine Dion, we’ve retraced Dion’s iconography — that is, her back catalogue of iconic moments — into one easy timeline. Our only wish now is that she’s back onstage soon, calling out to us with her siren song(s) and maybe cracking jokes about water parks as she’s done throughout her legendary career.

1984: Performing for the Pope (at 16!)

Dion has always been a virtuoso singer, beginning her music career in her early adolescence thanks to manager — and future husband — René Angélil. In September 1984, the 16-year-old singer performed for Pope John Paul II and 65,000 Catholics at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, serenading the enraptured crowd with “Une colombe” (“A Dove”). As a dove formation assembled across the football field, Dion’s soaring and angelic voice quickly revealed an extraordinary vocalist to the masses — a young star on the rise. Her song soon scaled Quebec’s music charts (landing at No. 2) and brought Dion national attention. Again, that towering voice is 16 years old.

As Dion’s teenage years passed, Angélil helped her shed her docile, ingenue image for a more sophisticated, worldly one. While the relationship with René has remained controversial — managing her by age 13 and then reportedly dating her from 18 — Dion has nevertheless attested to the intense devotion and fidelity shared between the two, saying he was “the only boyfriend I’ve ever had.”

1996, 2007, 2018: Breaking the music video rules

Never leave Dion too long in the video-editing suite or she might go rogue with the special effects. Case in point: “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” 1996’s incomparable ballad on rediscovering lost love. The accompanying music video features a lonesome Dion struggling with the loss of her motorbiking boyfriend after he dies in a tragic accident. As she paces around her mammoth château, ghosts of bikers past return as gothic décor and flashing lights resound to her cries of, “It was gone with the wind!” The drama, mama!

Years on, Dion’s playful ridicule of her superstar status was evident in the video “Taking Chances,” where she played two versions of herself — one looking to assassinate the other richer mogul version. The resulting supercomputer control-room scene is worth it alone. We also can’t forget her diva theatrics in “Ashes,” the soft Deadpool 2 anthem in which she explains she can’t phone in any performances: “Listen, this thing only goes to 11!” Let’s ignore the Vaseline screen for that one and just enjoy her confected divadom arguing with so-called “Superman.”

1997–99: Subbing in at the Oscars

In the year her song “Because You Loved Me” was nominated for Best Original Song, Dion took to the stage to sing Barbra Streisand’s “I Finally Found Someone.” Streisand, who reportedly wanted to snub the Academy after her own film The Mirror Has Two Faces didn’t court a nod for Best Picture, declined performing it, so Natalie Cole was asked to replace her. When Cole (suspiciously!!) came down with the flu days before the ceremony, Dion was asked to step in. Her effortless performance is a masterclass in simplicity, with only a trumpeter and the sheet music on stage, showcasing Dion’s legendary vocal skills all while she humbly performed another singer’s nominated tune.

The deed won favor with Streisand, who suggested the two do a song together. “Tell Him” was the resulting dueling-diva duet. (In the music video, Babs nevertheless shows she still has the upper motherly hand, sweetly correcting Dion’s diction at various points on-camera.) In later years, Dion kept on serving at the Oscars, such as at the 1998 ceremony thanks to Titanic and again in 1999 with her iconic backward white suit. Like most gambles, the suit was a risk, but Dion has long proven to make a mark every time she graces the Dolby’s red carpet.

2013: Building her own personal water park

While promoting her album Loved Me Back to Life in the U.K., Céline gifted us one of her wildest TV interviews. (That is, if we quietly overlook her 2005 Hurricane Katrina moment.) Prodded by host Jonathan Ross, Dion makes several startling revelations like confessing she first rejected “My Heart Will Go On” and that the polarizing ballad has now grown a little tiresome to belt out. Oh, and that also she built a water park at her Florida property. Excuse me?

“Some people do drugs and go out every weekend, I built a water park,” she tells the bemused Ross. Everyone has a vice and if a lazy river, waterslides, and some splashy fountains are Dion’s, then let her swim with the stream. In 2017, Dion sold the water-soaked property — with its thirst for 500,000 gallons of water an obvious burden — after trying to first offload it in 2013 ahead of her Las Vegas residency. Sure, love can move mountains, but Céline Dion can erect her own aqua park.

2016: Fighting on after René’s death

After 22 years married together, Dion’s husband, René Angélil, died from throat cancer in January 2016. A month later, the singer was back in Vegas, fighting through her own private grief and pained anguish to perform again for audiences. It was her first rendition of “All by Myself” that seemed at first to represent a private oath to bravely face life alone. That is, until it didn’t.

As she intoned the lyrics, “I don’t want to be all by myself,” Dion had to stop the song to compose herself. Always a consummate professional, however, our ballad queen powered through the final note to a brave and exultant end that can still give chills. Even at her most vulnerable and grief-stricken, Céline embraces an emotional setback and lets her own music provide a personal salvation — all while looking gorgeous and celestial, naturally.

2017–19: Camping out at the Met Gala

For years, Céline Dion had wrongfully been denied an invitation to the Met Gala. Until 2017, when Anna Wintour apparently realized her error. Still concerned she wouldn’t be let in to the famed fashion affair with her Versace gown (and shoe phone), Dion insisted that pockets be sown into her dress so she could keep her invite on her. (And her passport and driver’s license apparently.) Her gnawing concern that she might be not recognized at the entrance is both adorable and extremely relatable.

Two years later, Dion gave an off-the-cuff remark emblematic of her unique brand of zaniness and delivered one of the camp-themed Gala’s campest moments — without even realizing it. When asked by an interviewer what “camp” meant, Céline said: “At first, I was a little bit confused … We’re going camping? We’re going to be at the Met and everyone is going to stay and sleep all night?” Okay, even Susan Sontag would be shook.

2019: Serenading the Vegas Strip

Dion’s “Carpool Karaoke” appearance has gone down in pop-culture lore as one of the series’ greatest — not a high bar, but one she clears with ease. From wild gestures (like suddenly pecking James Corden) to serenading tourists on the sidewalk with “My Heart Will Go On” to admitting she has a computer catalogue tracking her 10,000 shoes, this 15-minute feature has it all. (Even her outsize toile pussy bow is kind of outrageous.) So silly is the entire exercise that we even see Dion regrettably parting with her prized pumps and gifting them to confused bystanders on the Vegas strip.

Dion levels out the fun with some candor, too, acknowledging that fame and celebrity can sometimes be real barriers to her living her fullest life. Seeing a doctor announce on TV the birth of her son — before she had even held him — is a reminder of the sad reality that looms large around her very exposed life. Dion is as wise and self-possessed as she is stupid and ridiculous all at once. Mother, dare I say?

2020: Doing a (polarizing) drive-by

While most of us were bunkering down ahead of the onslaught of COVID-19, Dion was listening to randoms singing her songs from her SUV — or not, depending which version you’ve seen. A viral video from March 2020 shows Dion listening to an eager fan belt out “I Surrender” before Dion summarily winds up the window. Wig. But — fortunately or unfortunately, depending on where you stand — that version is doctored, with the real version showing Dion actually fist-bumping, then praising the enthusiastic songbird. Also wig.

Both deeds can be iconic Dion moments that feel true in our hearts. Like most superstars, there is, of course, the rarefied celebrity world Dion occupies where aspiring vocalists no doubt chase the star down for the chance to get a leg up in the biz. And Dion does give opportunities to eager singers — memorably in 2008 by bringing up Jake Zyrus (then known as Charice) to sing “Because You Loved Me” and at Vegas shows — to showcase their talents. But there are also times when her altruism surely runs in short supply, and our queen’s gotta hit the road like any A-lister must. So, be prepared, come in key, and Céline might one day give you the chance. Or she’ll roll up her window and give you the finger. Either way, you’ve been blessed.

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