The 'ultimate diva'
(CNN) -- By 1999, "My Heart Will Go On," the theme from "Titanic," had cemented Celine Dion's status as a superstar.
After 20 years in the music business, she had won five Grammy Awards and sold 120 million albums. The ballad from "Titanic" was an international hit.
But at the height of her popularity, at the pinnacle of her career, Dion chose to walk away from her career and enjoy her personal life.
"It was a must. I had to take those two years. I have met life for the first time," she said. "And I was with my husband who needed me the most at this period of his life."
She disappeared from the public eye on January 1, 2000, and the next two years were the most challenging of her life."
"Taking time off to have a baby, start a family, take care of (her husband) Rene who is, you know, battling cancer, going through in-vitro fertilization," said Peter Castro, assistant managing editor of People magazine. "I mean, it was sort of like a soap opera ... 'As Celine's World Turns.'"
In March, Dion returned to the spotlight, with a No. 1 album and a new attitude on the important things in life.
"First step, first tooth, a nightmare, an earache, 'Mommy,' -- that's important," she said. "So if I can do both, making a difference in my son's life, in my husband's life, and at the same time come here and talk to you about it and sing a couple of songs in between that, I can't be happier.
One of 14 children
Dion (center, white dress) was the youngest of 14 children in a musical family.
Dion was born on March 30, 1968, in the tiny village of Charlemagne, Quebec, Canada. Within minutes of leaving Le Gardeur Hospital, she was surrounded by her first audience: her family of 13 brothers and sisters. But her 41-year-old mother, Therese, was less than thrilled by having a fourteenth child.
"She didn't want any more children," said Mia Dumont, Dion's former publicist, and a friend. "She figured out she had enough. And she went to see the priest and he said, 'You can't do that. You're such a good person, you can't do that.' Do you know how happy she is now?"
Dion's father, Adehmar, worked as a butcher, supporting the family of 16 on $165 a week.
"And since they didn't have any money, he used to walk to work because he would save 10 cents each day by not taking the bus," Dumont said.
The Dion family home now houses an aluminum siding business in Charlemagne. But during Dion's childhood, it housed only fond memories.
"Five of them shared a bed, all of them shared one bathroom, they had no washing machine, you know, they were so poor that after dinner, they would flip the plates over to have dessert," Castro said.
Dion remembers sitting with her brothers and sisters watching their mother use the oven to make toast and warm the children's socks.
But despite their poverty, the family thrived on music and each other.
"She was born in a house where everybody was singing or playing music," said George-Hebert Germain, Dion's authorized biographer. "Guitar, piano, drums, everything. And she was raised in this family where the music was so important."
At age 2, Celine was singing for her family on the dining room table. By age 5, brother Michel asked her to sing at his wedding.
"And I remember singing for my brother, at his wedding. I sang a couple songs," Dion said. "When I started to feel the love and the warmth of the audience it got me. I said to myself, 'Really this is what I want to do all my life. I want to be a singer.'"
That dream became a reality in 1980. Dion's mother wrote a song for her 12-year-old titled "It Was Only A Dream."
According to Castro, Dion recorded a demo version of the song and one of her brothers sent it to Rene Angelil, who was at the time a fledgling producer in Canada.
Angelil never replied, so the Dions called him directly. Castro said the call "piqued Rene's curiosity" and Angelil set up an audition for Dion in January 1981. As Dion sang, Angelil started crying.
"It really shook me up," he said. "You hear a voice like that every 10, 20 years."
Angelil promised her parents that he would make their 12-year-old a star and promptly mortgaged his house to pay for her debut album, "La Voix du Bon Dieu."
He also hired a publicist, Mia Dumont. One of her concerns was Dion's looks.
"I remember the first record, we said, 'OK, how do we present this to the press?' You know, she was not attractive," she said.
So Dumont arranged a luncheon for the Canadian press to meet Dion. The next day, a newspaper ran the story with the headline, "Une Nouvelle Judy Garland!" (A New Judy Garland).
"And we must have been right because the next day, the front page of the big newspapers were saying, 'A star is born' and we were so happy," Dumont said.
In 1982, she won the gold medal in Tokyo at the Yamaha World Song Festival. By the time she returned to Canada, she was a household name.
Falling in love with her manager
Dion won the gold medal at the 1982 Yamaha World Song Festival in Tokyo.
With her career going well and her schoolwork falling to the wayside, dropping out of school at the end of eighth grade seemed like a good idea.
With school behind her, Dion and Angelil headed to France. Angelil wanted an international career for his young prodigy and by 1985, the 17-year-old Dion was a major star in Canada and France.
But Angelil had even bigger ideas for his young protege: the United States.
Taking her off the market for 18 months, he had her undergo a full-scale transformation. Dion's teeth were capped, her hairstyle changed, a new wardrobe was procured and she even took English classes.
A 19-year-old Dion debuted her new look and sound with 1987's French album, "Incognito." The video for "Lolita" stunned her fans.
"All of a sudden she had this body," Dumont said. "These legs from here to there. And she was beautiful. People could see that she was beautiful."
And as her career blossomed, so would her feelings for her much older manager.
"I knew," Dumont said. "I suspected that she was in love with him."
"He was a protecter, her knight in shining armor, a father figure, a manager, a Svengali," Castro said. "It's no surprise that she fell in love with him."
In 1988, at the Eurovision song contest, held that year in Dublin, Ireland, Dion would take home the top prize. Angelil, now 45, and divorced from his second wife, would share more than a congratulatory hug.
"But at night, you know, when you kiss goodnight, always kiss on the cheek. And on that night ... everything changed," Angelil said on CNN's "Larry King Live."
Within months, Angelil would begin negotiations for Dion's first English-language album.
Dion's English-language debut, "Unison," was released in the United States in September 1990.
And in 1992, "If You Asked Me To" hit the Top 40 just as "Celine Dion" hit the stores. The album produced four chart toppers, including a duet with Peabo Bryson for the Disney movie, "Beauty and the Beast."
"And that was our key to America, at that point, 'Beauty and the Beast' was our first real hit in America," Vito Luprano, senior vice president of artists and relations for Sony Music Canada, said.
The duet won an Academy Award and a Grammy. A 24-year-old Dion was stunned.
"Sincerely, I did not expect to win at all," she said after winning the Grammy. "I think it's one of the most beautiful songs, it's a classic. I hope it's going to follow me for the rest of my life."
She scored another hit with "When I Fall In Love," a cut from 1993's "The Color of My Love" that became the theme to the film, "Sleepless in Seattle." Also on the disk, "The Power of Love" became her first No. 1 hit song.
"It's an extraordinary record," said David Foster, a songwriter and producer who has worked with Dion. "And it holds up today, you play that record and it sounds just as good as it did 10 years ago."
The song also was an expression of her feelings about Angelil, which her fans did not know about. Having kept their relationship a secret for five years, the 51-year-old manager and the 25-year-old pop star made a decision to leave a message in the liner notes for all to see.
"I wrote a note behind my album," Dion said. "Rene is my love, I can't keep this secret inside of me anymore. It's getting too powerful. Let me paint a truth and show you how I feel. Rene, you are the color of my love."
Fans were anything but upset. On December 17, 1994, they lined the streets of Montreal hoping for a glimpse of Dion and Angelil on their wedding day.
At the helm of the wedding was Dion's friend and former publicist, Mia Dumont, who said it was as if she was marrying off her own daughter. Dumont said she had "carte blanche" to plan the event.
"I said to her, 'What do you want? And she said I want something I'll remember all my life,'" Dumont said. "So I did something that I hope she will remember all her life. A fairy-tale wedding."
The spotlight takes its toll
Dion's son, Rene Charles, was born in January 2001.
In December 1997, Dion's career catapulted into another realm when she sang "My Heart Will Go On", the theme song from "Titanic."
The movie was a huge hit and the teen-age girls who went ga ga over the movie's star, Leonardo DiCaprio, also went crazy for "My Heart Will Go On."
"Those same girls who were going to see Leonardo DiCaprio, were also going to the movies again and again to hear that song, to wallow in that song, to sort of wash over them," said Leah Rozen, an associate editor at People magazine.
"Titanic" director James Cameron had not wanted a love song in his epic but James Horner, who scored the film's soundtrack, contacted Dion on his own.
Luprano said that while Horner is a great composer, he is not a great singer or pianist.
"So he starts playing this song, and he's singing it to them, and Celine is going, 'What the hell is this?'" Luprano said.
But Angelil got his wife to record a demo. Dion remembers recording session as a "bad day" because her voice was not in top shape. But she decided to give the song a shot because it was a demo, "no big deal."
Her "one-take demo" became the version on her song's single. Thomas Mottola, chairman and CEO of Sony Music Entertainment, said the recording was "special."
"And then she did one take. We sat there, we all had goosebumps, and ... we had tears in our eyes," Mottola said. "Everyone walked out of there knowing something really special had happened."
The "Titanic" soundtrack became the biggest selling soundtrack of all time. Dion's album, "Lets Talk About Love'" sold nearly 30 million albums and won two Grammy Awards and "My Heart Will Go On" won the Academy Award for best song.
Mottola, whose ex-wife is singer Mariah Carey, said Dion is the "ultimate diva."
"She's got the pipes, she's got the looks, she's got the style, she's got the persona, but she doesn't have the piss-poor attitude that the rest of them may have," he said.
According to Castro, she enjoys the parody of herself on NBC's "Saturday Night Live." "I mean it, let's face it, you haven't really arrived as a household name in this country until they really skewer you on 'Saturday Night Live,'" he said.
But by 1999, Dion began to tire of her schedule.
"I don't want people to be tired of seeing me and hearing me," she said during an interview at the 1999 People's Choice Awards. "And what do you want me to do after the 'Titanic'? What do you want me to do? I need to take a break."
Dion and Angelil planned to take a two-year hiatus beginning in 2000. But just months after announcing the hiatus, Dion noticed a lump on her husband's neck while they were flying to Texas.
The lump was cancer. Angelil immediately began radiation therapy and Dion began taking care of the man who for so long had watched over her.
At the end of 1999, Dion said goodbye to the spotlight. Her final concert before her hiatus was the culmination of 20 years in the music business. It was a bittersweet night -- dedicated to her husband -- and she closed the concert with the song her mother had written when she was 12: "It Was Only A Dream."
Five days later in Las Vegas, the couple renewed their marriage vows before family and friends in an over-the-top Arabian-inspired ceremony.
"You know, Celine Dion is a great singer, but no one is saying that she has all of the style and class in the world," Castro said. "You know, they had camels there. Anybody with livestock is a little dicey."
Five months later, on June 8, 2000, the couple received the most important news of their lives together: Angelil's cancer was in remission and Dion was pregnant.
The couple had tried to get pregnant in vain for five years until Dion underwent in-vitro fertilization. For eight months and a week, Dion avoided doing anything that might cause her to lose the baby.
"So I didn't do crazy things," she said. "I didn't go out. I didn't play golf. Not too much sun. Not too much exercise."
The hospital announced the successful birth of Rene Charles on January 25, 2001, with a press conference. The couple's friends said the baby was a life-changing experience.
"I remember the first time seeing Celine after the birth of Rene Charles," Mottola said. "I saw a different Celine, a completely different Celine."
Dion made a rare appearance during her hiatus at the July 2001 baptism of her son. Hundreds of fans and paparazzi lined the streets outside the cathedral making it more of a red carpet event than a family affair.
"Celine doesn't really do anything privately," Castro said. "It's amazing. Her baby's baptism was just another example of sharing her life with her fans."
But sharing her life with fans could have its downside, even while out of the spotlight. In March 2002 Dion's husband was be the subject of a nasty lawsuit in Las Vegas alleging rape. The woman who filed the suit was later arrested for a $500,000 bad check debt to a Las Vegas casino.
"He's not a violent man. And if it was an affair of business, like Rene Angelil has, I don't know, stolen the artist of another manager, I'll believe that," Germain said. "But not to rape a woman, and tell her, I kill you if you tell my wife. It's ... that's crazy."
After spending two years out of the spotlight, Dion returned in March 2002 with "A New Day Has Come," her first studio album in five years. It shot immediately to No. 1 in the charts.
"Celine's voice is like a fine-tuned instrument, and if you let it rest, when you play it again, it'll sound even better," Mottola said.
Dion also recently signed a $100 million contract for three-year commitment to appear five nights a week at Caesar's Palace Coliseum in Las Vegas. A three-tier, 4,000-seat arena was designed and currently being built for her show, which is scheduled to begin in March 2003.
"I'll be able to give my fans something I never gave before: a visual show," Dion said. "Every song will be an adventure, a visual experience."
But beyond the glamour, fame and fortune, Dion said she remembers her roots in a small Canadian village.
"I know where I'm from, I know where I'm going, my baby is waiting for me, he's happy, and I'm looking forward to eating Cheerios with him tonight," she said. "And I'm just, I've never felt like this before. I'm at the happiest of my life. So the rest is, we'll see, you know?"