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Celine Dion. Illustration by Kagan Mcleod
Celine Dion. Illustration by Kagan Mcleod

Newsmaker: Celine Dion

As the star turn at Beijing’s Chinese New Year celebrations, Celine Dion sang in Mandarin and acquitted herself rather well, to the chagrin of her critics.

As music lyrics go, the words to the Chinese folk song, Jasmine Flower, with which Céline Dion regaled an estimated billion television viewers, are not the most challenging.

Untempted by mischievous variations developed by pro-democracy protesters in the People's Republic, the Canadian singer played safe for her duet with a renowned Chinese soprano, Song Zuying.

Together in Beijing for last weekend's Chinese New Year celebrations, they contented themselves with the more familiar version, its soft, sentimental words praising the fragrance of blossoms waiting to be plucked for sweethearts.

What made the performance an international show business news story was that the lines were sung in Mandarin.

This is not the most startling feat a professional singer has ever accomplished; Elvis Presley sang in German on an early hit, Wooden Heart, and the Beatles mustered some schoolboy French in Michelle. Legions of non-Anglophone artists have regarded learning to perform in English as a prudent career move.

All the same, it was - by all accounts - a commendable shot by Dion in a language widely considered a nightmare for English-speakers to learn.

In her case, the task might have been harder still. She is not a natural linguist, grew up poor in French-Canadian Quebec and barely spoke English until her late teens. A makeover that included intensive English lessons showed that she, too, knew her bright future would be brighter still if she could communicate in the world's most-used tongue.

International response to her singing of Jasmine Flower, inevitably followed by yet another rendition of My Heart Will Go On, from the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic, mostly focused on her ability in Mandarin. Assessments of her competence varied only narrowly - from "almost flawless" to "flawless and fluent".

A sourer note was struck by Shanghaiist.com, an irreverent English-language website, which included a video clip and told its readers: "For those of you lucky enough to have avoided watching CCTV's Saturday night Spring Festival Gala live, you can catch up on the moment when a Canadian was paraded around on stage to speak Mandarin … no, not Dashan, Celine Dion. She also sang that dirge from Titanic, in English. "

(Dashan, real name Mark Rowswell, is a bilingual Canadian who has carved out a winning career as a television presenter and actor in China, where he may be as big a household name as Dion.)

The website's waspish words will have worried Dashan's compatriot little. She is accustomed to occasional disdain for her music and stage presence.

"She crinkles up her nose," a San Francisco Chronicle reviewer wrote after a 2003 concert in San Jose. "Her face is such a studied mask of projected emotion, she sometimes inadvertently looks like someone experiencing intense pain."

Yet even that Californian critic made no attempt to question Dion's appeal. "Even though in the end she is serving relentlessly middlebrow aesthetics, an artistic vision as powerful as hers sweeps up everything in its path," he wrote. "Celine Dion cannot be denied."

Beyond the triumphant live performances, Dion is also one of the world's best-selling recording artists in both of her languages. D'Eux, released in 1995, is the biggest-selling French-language album in music history, while My Heart Will Go On has sold 10 million copies. With album sales from 2000 to 2009 alone amounting to 17.5 million, she was the decade's 20th best-selling artist and the second-best-selling female artist in the US. Forbes magazine estimated her 2009 earnings at US$100 million (Dh367 million).

It is all a long way from Dion's birthplace, Charlemagne, a northeastern suburb of Montreal with a population of less than 6,000. Eagerly beating its own drum, the local council erected a sculpture in her honour and then named a boulevard after her, despite being told by Quebec authorities that it could not be recognised until at least a year had passed following her death.

Dion was born on March 30, 1968, the youngest of 14 children of Adhémar and Thérèse. Her father is now dead; her mother, using her maiden name Tanguay, has become a television personality, cannily exploiting her daughter's fame with a range of food products, Pâtés de Maman Dion.

Money was short but young Celine's parents ran a small piano bar, Le Vieux Baril (The Old Barrel), where she would sing with her siblings. At five, she was warmly applauded when she sang a French-Canadian pop song, Du Fil des Aiguilles et du Coton (Thread, Needles and Cotton), at her brother Michel's wedding. Michel was to repay the favour handsomely. She was only 12 when he sent a copy of her first disc, written and recorded with him and their mother, to René Angélil, who would become her manager and, eventually, her husband.

Dion quickly built a large following in Quebec. But being big in a Canadian province, albeit the country's largest, had its limitations.

Under Angélil's influence, her burning desire for broader success, stoked by the effect of seeing Michael Jackson live, led her to retreat from the public for a makeover.

She re-emerged after 18 months with a more glamorous look - "short hair and tight sequinned dresses," recalls the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada - and, courtesy of the Berlitz language school, a lot more English.

The transformation worked quickly and sensationally; Dion's second album in English, called simply Celine Dion, sold two million worldwide and forced the US breakthrough she craved.

The professional and personal bond with Angélil has endured. She is 26 years younger but their relationship is said to have grown into a romance by her late teens and they married in 1994, in Montreal, renewing their vows in Las Vegas 15 years later. The couple have three children, René-Charles, 12, and two-year-old twins named Eddy - after Dion's favourite Algerian songwriter, Eddy Marnay - and Nelson, after South Africa's first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela.

Motherhood seems to have had no effect on her appetite for the limelight and the Dion phenomenon attracts a rich mixture of gush and grimace. Amid the acclaim, the singer has also been the subject of merciless mockery.

In the 1990s, as Dion's career took off in France, she was interviewed on television. The occasion undoubtedly boosted her appeal there, but there were others who laughed at her French Canadian dialect.

That may say more about French snobbishness than her technical command. But it is also true that the reach of Dion's work has also generated, for some, a weary familiarity.

Her two biggest hits, a French love song called Pour Que Tu M'aimes Encore (it remained top of the charts in France for 10 weeks and was later to become If That's What It Takes in English) and the Titanic song, instantly established themselves as karaoke favourites. "After the amazing Top 50 success of Pour Que Tu M'aimes Encore, a whole succession of people would want to do it each night, " said a musician who, at the time, presented nightly sessions at a bar in the Mediterranean resort of Le Lavandou. "Children, teenagers, mothers if they thought they could sing - good voices, appalling voices - they'd choose it. I don't know how I stayed sane."

Her range and strength have been enthusiastically acclaimed but also drawn dissenting murmurs; The New York Times, while acknowledging a "good-sized arsenal of technical skills", spoke of her "thin, slightly nasal" timbre. Some critics feel her singing lacks authenticity, and the French newspaper Libération detected a "raspy" lower register and "bell glass-like high notes".

In a career overwhelmingly marked by highs, Dion can easily afford to ignore the misgivings. She even describes comedy mimicry of her accent as flattering.

But her innermost thoughts on Kate Winslet, who received an Oscar nomination for her Titanic role, would perhaps be fascinating.

In comments about My Heart Will Go On that outraged some Dion fans, Winslet complained a year ago to MTV News that the song made her "feel like throwing up". After briefly reflecting on the force of the putdown - "I shouldn't say that" - Winslet paused before saying: "No, actually, I do feel like throwing up."

Dion has responded diplomatically, but in tones that hint at slightly wounded feelings. "If she feels tired just hearing it and, like, throwing up, I'm glad she was not the one singing it," she told the American NBC network last June.

Wounded or not, Dion is unlikely to lose much sleep. And she may well feel entitled to believed the attention paid to her during her Beijing adventure suggests the Year of the Snake will be another rosy one for the bank balance.

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