‘Céline Dion is everything to us ... Here she is family’

The outpouring that greeted news of the star’s rare neurological condition showed how both Céline fandom and ideas of national identity in Quebec, her home province, have evolved

It’s a Friday night in Montreal, and hundreds of euphoric revellers are dancing and singing It’s All Coming Back to Me Now at a sold-out Céline Dion tribute party. One young man vogues in a home-made version of the gold-tinted headpiece of singed peacock feathers that Dion wore at the Met Gala, in New York, a few years ago. Another gawks at a mini-shrine of Dion-inspired wigs, showcasing her hairstyles through the decades.

“In an era of arrogant stars, she is always authentic,” Simon Venne, the voguer, a 38-year-old stylist, gushes. “She is everything to us, a source of pride, our queen.”

If there was ever a sense that Quebec, the French-speaking province of the 54-year-old singer’s birth, was conflicted about her rise to global superstardom with pop hits that she often sang in English, it has been dispelled. She now occupies an exalted space here, experiencing a cultural renaissance as Quebec’s younger generation has unabashedly embraced her: Radio Canada, the national French-language broadcaster, parses her life on a podcast translated as Céline: She’s the Boss! A recent docuseries called It’s Cool to Like Céline Dion explored her appeal to millennials. And Céline Dion drag competitions have been surging.

Dion’s emotional announcement this month that she is suffering from a rare neurological condition called stiff person syndrome, forcing her to postpone tour dates, which included two gigs in Dublin next March, was met with an extraordinary outpouring. Québécois politicians from across the political spectrum, including both Quebec’s premier, François Legault, and the head of a party advocating Quebec’s independence from Canada, jockeyed to express sympathy for Dion. Fans commiserated over social media.


A headline in Le Devoir, an influential Quebec newspaper, called her “Céline, Queen of the Québécois”. Dion, the newspaper noted, had attained the status of untouchable icon after years of being panned by critics and mocked by others.

“It’s like hearing your aunt is sick,” Venne, the feathered fan, says. “Céline is famous around the world, but here she is family.”

The intensity of the reaction here – 25 years after the premiere of the blockbuster film Titanic, which helped make Dion’s bombastically exuberant My Heart Will Go On ubiquitous – shows how much Céline fandom and ideas of Québécois identity have evolved over time as the province, like its most famous daughter, has come of age.

During a recent visit to Céline Dion Boulevard in Charlemagne, a soulless stretch of road in the gritty working-class town of about 6,000 on the outskirts of Montreal where Dion was born, a group of twentysomethings say it is no longer embarrassing to admit to liking her music.

“Being stuck at home during the pandemic made people nostalgic for the past, and everything old and vintage is in fashion,” says Gabriel Guénette, a 26-year-old university student and sometime Uber deliveryman, explaining why he and his friends are singing The Power of Love during karaoke nights. Dion’s unbridled message of hope and optimism, he adds, resonates during uncertain times.

Older residents in Charlemagne still refer to her as “notre petite Céline” – our little Céline – and recall her days as a shy teenager who performed French ballads with her 13 brothers and sisters at her family’s restaurant. Younger residents – including 15-year-old Meghan Arsenault, who attends the high school Dion did – grew up singing her songs.

Across Quebec, a francophone province of 8.5 million people that has been buffeted by centuries of subjugation and fears of being subsumed by the English language, Dion has at times been a polarising figure. Even as many fans ardently embraced her, she was dismissed by some critics as the cultural equivalent of poutine, the Québécois snack of French fries and cheese curds drenched in gravy drunkenly and guiltily consumed at 3am. Some elites baulked at her success, seeing in her sprawling working-class family, her garish outfits and her broken English an uncomfortable mirror of an old Quebec they preferred to forget. Some considered her quétaine – cheesy in Québécois slang.

And her singing in English has, at times, been an affront to hard-core francophone nationalists. But when Dion thanked the audience with a “Merci!” at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 after singing The Power of the Dream, the single word reverberated across the province, an affirmation that French Canada had gone global.

Martin Proulx, a producer who hosted the podcast Céline, She’s the Boss! recalls that, as a gay teenager in Montreal in the 1990s, he hid the fact that he was listening to her Let’s Talk About Love album on his Sony Walkman.

“It wasn’t cool to love Céline when I was in high school. Kids my age were listening to hip-hop and heavy rock, and she was for soccer moms who watched Oprah,” he recalls.

Now, he says, he could proudly proclaim his ardour, in part because a more confident Quebec has shed some of its past complexes. Members of the younger generation of Québécois, he says, seem less hung up than their parents or grandparents on issues of language and identity, and more likely to embrace Dion’s global stardom, financial success and bilingualism as a template for their own international aspirations.

“We used to roll our eyes. Now we think she’s pure genius,” Proulx says. “She never changed. We did.”

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Quebec-born music director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, says his first memory of Dion was from 1984, when he was eight. Dion, who was then 16, sang a song about a dove in front of Pope John Paul II and 60,000 people at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Nézet-Séguin says he had surged with pride that she was a fellow Quebecer, and says he sees Dion as a “diva” in the operatic sense of the word.

“When I think about a diva I think about personality, having something recognisable artistically, and one can’t deny the virtuosic aspect of Céline’s singing,” he says. The intense interest in Dion is hardly limited to Quebec. Aline, a highly unusual, fictionalised film drawn from her life, drew buzz at last year’s Cannes film festival.

When a musical parody of Titanic called Titanique recently moved to a larger off-Broadway theatre in New York, its producers promised “more shows. More seats. More Céline”.

And Dion is set to appear alongside Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Sam Heughan in a romantic comedy called Love Again that is expected in cinemas early next summer.

The fascination with Dion endures in part because her Cinderella story never grows old. As the youngest of 14 children of an accordion-playing butcher and a homemaker from Charlemagne, Dion’s first bed as a child was a drawer.

At the age of 12 she cowrote her first song, Ce N’Était Qu’un Rêve, with the help of her mother and her brother Jacques. Her brother Michel sent a cassette demo to the impresario René Angélil, who became her manager and, later, her husband.

Dion had a complete makeover, disappearing for 18 months in 1986 to study English, cap her teeth, perm her hair and take voice and dance lessons. A star was born.

When Angélil died, in 2016, two days before his 74th birthday, his two-day, meticulously choreographed funeral at Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal was televised by CBC, the national broadcaster, and flags were lowered at half-mast across Quebec. Dion, veiled in black, stood by her husband’s open casket for seven hours, greeting Quebec dignitaries and the public.

In the years since then, Dion has recast her analogue image for the Instagram era. A Vetements Titanic hoodie she wore in Paris in 2016 broke the internet. A few years later she stole the show at the camp-themed Met Gala, in an Oscar de la Renta clinging champagne-coloured bodysuit embellished with silvery sequins.

Her zany, self-deprecating appearance on James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke in 2019 from Las Vegas, during which she sang My Heart Will Go On in front of a replica of the Titanic’s bow at the Bellagio Hotel fountain, helped some people who had made fun of her realise that she was in on the joke.

Her fandom seems as strong as ever.

Mario Bennett, a 36-year-old who works at a concert hall, began covering every inch of his cramped basement apartment with Dion memorabilia at the start of the pandemic. He says that throughout his life her powerful voice has been a clarion call to dream big. Among his prized possessions is an unauthorised collectible Céline doll, wearing a version of the midnight-blue velvet gown that the singer wore to the Oscars in 1998. “She makes me feel that anything is possible,” he says.

Guy Hermon, an Israeli drag queen who emigrated to Montreal a decade ago and absorbed Quebec culture – and the French language – by trying to embody Dion, says he had never been a fan of her music but invented his Dion alter ego, Crystal Slippers, out of necessity on the Dion-obsessed Québécois drag circuit.

After years of mimicking Dion, he says, he has come to appreciate her. “She just wants everyone to be happy.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times