How Celine Dion is fashioning a brand new life
Last year, Celine Dion lost her husband whom she had known since she was 12 years old. In an effort to rebuild her life, she has thrown herself into the creation of a new image, and in doing so, she has become the darling of the fashion world
'I want to be treated like a model." This was the one condition Celine Dion laid down to Vogue magazine before agreeing to pose in couture for a video made for its Instagram account at this year's Paris Couture Week.
And what a video.
The footage of Celine Dion set the internet on fire, with the hashtag #CelineTakesCouture.
Draped in the most elaborate, expensive clothes in the world, Dion peacocks in what can only be described as a meta take on po-faced high-fashion - striking poses and throwing dances moves, all with the utmost seriousness.
In someone remotely self-conscious, it would have been utterly ridiculous. From Dion, a woman who has so thoroughly earned her professional stripes, and who, in the act of rebuilding herself after the loss of her husband, Rene Angelil, so clearly couldn't give a toss about anyone else's opinion; it was a one-woman tour de force.
Celine Dion, in case you haven't heard, is having a fashion moment.
It started last summer with a subtle but noteworthy shot across the bows, with Dion stepping out in a hoodie from Vetements, which is currently the coolest label amongst the fashion set.
The $885 hoodie, featuring a picture of Kate and Leo as Rose and Jack in Titanic, had already sold out so her stylist borrowed it from the label's archives - Dion laughingly lamented that she had to return it afterwards.
The fashion world sat up and took note of this departure from Dion's usual sartorial offerings, which in latter years have segued gently into bland and tasteful for off-duty; soft tailoring, leather trousers.
Her mother told her later the hoodie was far too big for her - "she did not understand it was cool," Dion, who wore it with skinny jeans and gold Gucci sandals, said with a smile.
Dion was attending Paris Couture Week, when she was spotted in the front row beside Anna Wintour, giving double thumbs up, lone standing ovations, and shouting bravo, an unabashed show of enthusiasm that was no doubt deemed 'so not fashion, darling', but does Dion care?
Paris Vogue hailed Dion's new fashion credibility. She began to wear the hottest labels - Off-White by Kanye's creative director, and was the first celebrity to wear the designs of Balenciaga's new creative director, Demna Gvasalia. She attended her first Met Ball Gala, appeared almost naked in an image on Vogue's Instagram account, and there was talk of her creating an accessories line (a lifestyle brand is planned for later this year, an accessories line has just launched).
Her 2017 appearance at the Billboard Music Awards, wearing a couture dress by Stephane Rolland, with huge winged sleeves, and singing My Heart Will Go On, caused an instant sensation. Drake, Rihanna's ex, told her backstage that he was planning a Celine Dion tattoo. This summer she returned in triumph to Paris Couture Week, and the making of the aforementioned videos.
These videos capture the essence of Celine Dion's rebirth. This is not a cynical marketing attempt to rebrand as cool in order to breathe some life into a flagging career. Dion's career is nowhere near flagging; her latest album, Encore un soir, was only outsold by Drake, Beyonce and Frank Ocean in its opening week. And constant rebranding has never been her thing. Neither is it an effort to drum up attention in the lead-up to launching her own accessories line - prancing around in couture is unlikely to help drum up sales of her handbags, publicity shots of Dion for that collection would suggest she is aiming at a much more vanilla audience for her own designs. This isn't a woman desperately seeking anyone's attention. It is a woman slowly coming to life after one of the worst losses anyone can suffer, that of a beloved spouse whom, in this case, Dion, now 49, had known since the age of 12. This is a woman trying to breathe joy into her life again.
Until now, Dion's biggest fashion moment has been her notorious appearance at the Oscars in 1999, when she won the award for My Heart Will Go On from the movie Titanic. She famously wore a white Dior suit with backwards jacket, fedora hat and sunglasses, designed by John Galliano. It was an outfit that was universally lambasted. Asked about it in an interview in 2007, never one to take herself too seriously, Dion said she would wear it again if she had a do-over, reflecting that she had wanted to play a trick at a more recent Oscars ceremony, and wear it with the jacket facing forward.
Indeed, Dion has been a long-time wearer of couture; buying it and having it adapted for her stage performance requirements. She has in the past expressed distaste for the culture of celebrities walking the red carpet in borrowed clothes and jewellery, plugging the designers to whom they are beholden. Dion, it would seem, is nobody's clotheshorse, but that rare thing, a celebrity who happily pays for their own clothes. "I can pay for my own diamonds... if nobody wants to dress me because they want publicity, well, I'm sorry," she has said in the past
This attitude allowed her to forgo the red carpet walk when she decided it was distracting her prior to big performances. It's an attitude of independence than one can only admire. She may be considered the queen of bland in musical terms, but her huge success (250m-plus album sales to date) has allowed her to do her own thing. She has spoken in the past about how she now feels musically free to go in whatever direction she pleases - if the album isn't a success, she will simply do another.
Coming as she does from a generation of female stars for whom constant rebranding of oneself seems to come with the territory - Madonna, Whitney, JLo - it is astonishing that this is her first major image overhaul. It speaks of a security rare in her industry.
When Angelil was alive, Dion never dressed as a trophy wife, emphasising her youth and glamour. She never needed to. She was no man's trophy; this was a true love match. If anything, her image was always that of a woman older than her years and her personality, which in interviews is always playful and fun. Possibly it was a subconscious effort to downplay the rather large age gap between her and her husband.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Dion has never made her physicality a part of her USP.
"I'm very comfortable in my skin, even though it's peeling," she once light-heartedly told a journalist, pointing out a patch of sunburn on her leg. "When I look at myself in the past, I get very emotional. I worked really hard, and I surpassed myself... I didn't have, visually, what it took. I was not pretty, I had teeth problems, and I was very skinny. I didn't fit the mould." Bar some dramatic dental work, there hasn't been any noticeable surgical reconstruction, and whilst naturally slim, she has resisted any sort of gruelling youth-chasing physical regime.
Instead, she has displayed a quiet confidence over the years. It's a confidence that comes with the kind of professional dominance she has experienced, and the loving family background, but probably most importantly, the almost lifetime of support from her husband, Rene Angelil, who passed away in January 2016. Angelil died after a long battle with cancer, with Dion spending the last year of his life largely by his side, cancelling all work commitments. The pair met when she was 12, eventually marrying in 1994. She would refer to him as "the only boyfriend I ever had". They had begun a secret affair seven years after first meeting, when Dion was 19, waiting five years before revealing the relationship to the public, fearful of reactions to their 26-year age gap. She would eventually reveal her feelings for Angelil in the sleeve notes of her album The Colour of My Love.
Initially, Dion's mother opposed the marriage, both due to the difference in age, and the fact that Angelil already had three children from two previous marriages.
"I have to say that for my mom he was not prince charming - the ideal prince charming. It was very difficult," she later recalled. Dion first came to her future husband's attention when she sent him tapes of her singing. Dion was the youngest of 14 siblings who grew up in rural Quebec, both parents were musicians and the family performed together at weekends. Angelil agreed to manage her if he could have complete control of her career - and re-mortgaged his house to fund her first album.
By the mid-1980s, Celine Dion was a star in Canada and in 1988, her international break came when she won Eurovision for Switzerland in Dublin. The pair first became parents in 2001, when after IVF treatment, Rene-Charles was born. She returned to the limelight in 2002, with her first residency in Las Vegas, performing a 90-minute show five times a week in a 4,000-seat arena designed especially for her. Impressively, there were five years of sell-out shows. In 2009, Dion suffered a miscarriage, and the next year the couple embarked on several gruelling rounds of IVF. After the fifth attempt, she successfully became pregnant at the age of 42, and had twin boys. Eddy and Nelson, named after producer Eddy Marnay and Nelson Mandela, were born in 2010.
Dion put her career on hold in 2014 when Rene's illness worsened. It was he who persuaded her to go back to performing, even though he had retired as her manager. "I didn't want to be here at first," she said in an interview at the time. "I don't need it. Don't get me wrong, I love singing for people. But I have priorities." Two days after her husband died, her older brother Daniel passed away, also after a protracted battle with cancer.
Assisting Dion in her current venture is her stylist Law Roach, discovered through her younger children. They are fans of the Disney programme K.C. Undercover, which stars the 20-year old Zendaya, another client of Roach's. Dion admired the young star's red carpet style and Googled her stylist. A call to Roach ensued. "My first words were Celine who?" he recalled. "I don't think I had dreamt that big of a dream. That this legend, this woman who we've all grown up to her music, that's been around for 30 years, was calling me to work with me."
The pair met at the Billboard Awards in May 2016 to discuss plans. The next day she invited him to move to Paris for a month. He has been with her ever since.
"Celine has no fear," Roach, who refers to himself as an 'image architect', said in a recent interview. "And when you have that type of energy, you have this attitude that we can do whatever we want and we don't care who likes it or dislikes it.
"She also credits me, and what we did, and the clothes and the shoes, and the bags and the jewellery and the couture week... and all that to helping her through her grieving process," Roach said.
It's the reason Celine Dion has suddenly become so compelling. She's not trying to sell us something. And she clearly couldn't care less about the mockers. Such confidence can only be attractive.
Maybe also in some small way, her new fashion dalliance is a sort of armour, a way of allowing her to go out into the world again and say "yes, yes, I'm fine, let's get on with it" and politely brush aside all the grief ghouls.
She has said she will mourn her husband for the rest of her life. But Dion is clearly no victim, and this is a mission statement from a woman who wants to get on with living.
RESTYLING THE IMAGE THAT MAKES A STAR
Unlike Celine Dion, who was allowed to be herself by her handlers, Whitney was shoe-horned into the role of America's sweetheart. As it turns out, she may have had a more street upbringing than was allowed by the myth, and was rumoured to be bi-sexual, possibly gay. It was an image makeover that would have terrible consequences. Whitney was Britney for an earlier generation.
A pair of barely-there hotpants are credited with restarting Kylie's career. And while Kylie's peachy derriere clad in gold lame definitely did do wonders for her popularity, it was also her appearance in a green Chloe dress with brown leather belt that ensured her makeover succeeded. Pulling off the ultimate IT girl label definitively erased the image of everybody's favourite girl next door: Charlene, with her frizzy hair and dungarees.
First she was Jenny from the block, then she most definitely wasn't anywhere near the block but on the arm of Puff Daddy, before she went off to become a Hollywood princess, sunning herself on a yacht with Ben Affleck. JLo has had many incarnations, but through it all, the booty has stood by her.
Madonna essentially invented the modern makeover. From material girl to cowgirl to spiritual creature to dance queen by way of Italian diva, Mother Earth, 1970s leotard-wearer, and, of course, activist, she has done it all, and generally pulled it off with aplomb. Her latest incarnation seems to be mother, no doubt one she would describe as her greatest role yet.
Twenty might seem young for a dramatic image overhaul but if you've been in the public eye your entire life, then it's almost overdue. Post Hannah Montana, Disney creation Miley Cyrus's makeover was not the the most tasteful - will we ever forget all that tongue - but was understandable for one who had been under the influence of Disney from a young age.