With husband René Angélil by her side, Celine Dion gives birth to a long-awaited son

By Anne-marie O'neill
February 12, 2001 12:00 PM

As wake-up calls go, this one was hard to beat. Thérèse Dion was asleep in her room at the five-star Hotel Le Bristol in Paris, where she had gone to film episodes of the cooking show she hosts on Canadian TV, when the phone rang at 7 a.m. on Jan. 25. On the line, more than 4,500 miles away at Palms West Hospital in Loxahatchee, Fla., the youngest of her 14 children, pop diva Celine Dion, was 18 hours into labor and literally seconds from giving birth. “I heard the baby’s first cry live on the telephone,” says an elated Thérèse, 73, who spoke to her daughter only briefly. “Celine told me, ‘The baby is in good health, but the mother, she is tired.'”

As well she might have been. After years of publicly wishing for a child—and enduring an intensive round of in vitro fertilization treatments to conceive—Dion, 32, and her husband-manager, René Angélil, 59, finally welcomed 6-lb. 8-oz. René-Charles three weeks before his Valentine’s Day due date.

“Everybody was just crying tears of joy,” says Dion’s obstetrician Dr. Ronald Ackerman, 48, who assisted in the cesarean section delivery performed by his partner Dr. Steven Pliskow, 37. “Nurses, doctors, experienced people—there was not a dry eye in the room.” Least of all those of the proud parents (who declined to release pictures of the newborn). “This was their dream,” says record producer David Foster, a longtime friend. “It’s bigger than any hit record, bigger than anything for them.”

Dion had been relaxing at the couple’s 10-bedroom mansion in nearby Jupiter when contractions began on Wednesday afternoon. After consulting Ackerman, the singer and her husband packed their black Mercedes 500 and drove to the hospital 40 minutes away. But the baby for whom they had waited so long wasn’t ready to take the stage just yet. At one point Ackerman and Pliskow tried to induce the birth chemically, to no avail. “They gave it every chance to be a vaginal delivery,” says maternity nurse Helene Schilian, who cared for Dion during her three-day hospital stay. “But at some point the baby just seemed to say, ‘I’m tired, let me out.'” By 1 a.m. Thursday (up to 24 hours of labor is not unusual for a first-time birth), the doctors became concerned that the umbilical cord was in a position to damage the child and performed a cesarean section.

Throughout the birth Dion was “focused and calm,” says Ackerman. “This is a lady with extreme focus and fortitude,” adds Pliskow. After Angélil helped cut the cord, René-Charles was placed in his tearful mother’s arms before being washed and wrapped in a hospital-issue blue-and-pink-striped blanket, topped with a knitted cap. Then Angélil and Dion’s sister Linda, 41, who had also attended the birth, began the task of spreading the news. “The baby of the family had a baby!” sister Liette, 50, who lives in Montreal, exclaimed when she heard of the birth. “We were that much more excited because she so wanted to have a baby and the way she became pregnant was a miracle in itself.”

The next morning Dion made some phone calls of her own (“I had a boy!” she announced to Manhattan fertility specialist Dr. Zev Rosenwaks, who had administered her IVF treatment back in May) and made a careful inventory of her new baby’s features. “He has René’s little feet, René’s toes and the little ears of René,” she told her mother over the phone. “He has my chin, though, and my hair color.” Over the next couple of days the songstress never left her birthing suite, a green-and-peach-hued room with a bathroom, dining table and two foldout beds that Angélil and Linda occupied at night. Dion cooed softly to the baby in French (“Mon amour”) and approached her mothering with the singular determination that earned her five Grammys and more than 100 million worldwide album sales in her singing career. “She took to nursing the baby like she’d had 12 others,” says Schilian. “She handled that baby like a pro.”

For his part, “René was very attentive,” Schilian adds. “He was up for every feeding during the night, making sure the baby got fed every three hours. He changed diapers.” Whenever he did step out, the new father couldn’t conceal his joy. After munching on a chili hot dog at the nearby Chicago Style Grille on Thursday, Angélil returned the next day with a signed photograph of his wife for the deli’s owner Scott Verdung. At breakfast on Saturday at a local diner he tipped waitress Erla Simon, 18, $20 on a $20 check—”The biggest tip I ever got!” she says. And staff at the nearby Babies R Us were struck with Angéli’s happiness when he stopped by that same day for a bottle sterilizer, a nursing pillow and a baby car seat, which store clerk Mike Maldonado helped him install in his Mercedes. “You could tell he was a little nervous,” says Maldonado, “a little anxious about making sure it was done right.”

Maybe so. But when it comes to raising children, both Dion and Angélil have had plenty of practice. Dion dotes on her 32 nephews and nieces—for whom she bankrolls annual Christmas toy shopping free-for-alls—as well as the children of friends. “Even when a baby is crying or upset, as soon as she takes them in her arms they become quiet and happy,” says her pal and Canadian press agent Francine Chaloult. “She knows how to hold a baby, cradle a baby, feed a baby, handle a baby.” So does Angélil, who had his share of diaper duty while raising his three other children—Patrick, 33, Jean-Pierre, 26, and Anne-Marie, 23—from two prior marriages. “If you want to know what kind of a parent René is, look at those children,” says David Foster. “They’re polite, nice, successful.”

Their father had been divorced for three years when he and Dion, whose career he had nurtured since she was just 12, revealed their love to each other in 1988. Four years would pass before they admitted their relationship to the world. But there was nothing secretive about their 1994 wedding, a lavish affair with 500 guests at Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica. (Five years later the pair renewed their vows in an equally opulent Arab-themed ceremony, complete with live camels and belly dancers, in Las Vegas.) From the start, having children was a priority. “I never thought that my life would fall apart if I didn’t have a child,” Dion wrote in her book My Story, My Dream, published last October. “But even so, I was waiting for it, looking for it and making it part of my plans.”

What the couple hadn’t planned on was the need for artificial conception. In the spring of 1999 Angélil was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma on a lymph gland in his neck. Concerned about the potential side effects of the chemotherapy and radiation he would require, the couple froze some of his sperm for future use. Tests before freezing found that Angélil’s sperm count was already too low for standard IVF treatments to be successful. So Dr. Ackerman suggested a procedure known as intracytoplasmic sperm injection—using a single, isolated sperm cell to fertilize an egg, which is then placed in the uterus. For a time the couple focused their energy on Angélil’s cancer treatment; they had already announced that beginning in 2000 Dion would take at least a year off from performing to “chill out and a discover new things,” as she put it—including starting a family.

Then, last February, the couple met with fertility specialist Rosenwaks. Four months later, after undergoing a battery of drug treatments and invasive, sometimes painful procedures, Dion received the happy news. “Congratulations, lovers,” Rosenwaks told them over the phone from Manhattan while Ackerman was by their side at their home. “You’re pregnant, Celine.”

Earlier that day the couple had learned that after some 38 rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, Angélil’s cancer had been cured. Overjoyed and eager to preempt tabloid reports, they shared the news of Dion’s pregnancy with her fans the very next morning: “There’s no hiding happiness,” they said in a statement. “We can’t keep something so big, so wonderful a secret just for us.”

Despite René-Charles’s extraordinary history, Dion enjoyed “a very normal pregnancy,” says obstetrician Pliskow. She followed a balanced diet, took prenatal vitamins, did water exercises, attended Spanish classes and read up on pregnancy and motherhood. “I’m basically now just a slob on the sofa,” she told David Foster over the phone one day. “That’s my life.” Still, she was as much the perfectionist in pregnancy as she was in her performing career. “She went above what she needed to do,” says her hairstylist Sheila Stott. “If the doctor said, you need rest, she’d go to bed for three days.”

Which, if you’re Celine Dion, is a long time away from the mall. On doctors orders, she-of-the-thousand-shoes stopped playing golf (she has an 11 handicap) and singing, but no one said anything about her other passion: shopping. At the upmarket stores near her Florida home, Dion stocked up on baby linens in white with gold trim at the Purple Turtle and visited Ralph Lauren, Saks Fifth Avenue, Charles David and Valentino, where sales assistants were impressed by the slim 5’7″ star’s maternity chic: clingy dresses (she gained just 25 lbs. during her pregnancy) with high heels and oversize sunglasses. At the Palm Beach outlet of the French baby-boutique chain Bonpoint-where infant sweaters sell for about $50—Dion “bought the entire autumn-winter 2000 collection and a few pieces from the spring-summer 2001,” reports store spokesman Vincent Debear. “In all, about 200 pieces.”

Celine and René, who divide their time between Florida and Canada, have already decorated the Florida nursery in white and blue, with a French provincial bassinet, a Burberry baby carriage (worth $4,250) and a wardrobe stocked with everything from blue-and-white onesies to baby golf shoes. But there was even more baby booty to be had at a surprise shower thrown by René’s daughter Anne-Marie and close friend Mia Dumont at Donald Trump’s Palm Beach club Mar-a-Lago on Jan. 3. The 90 guests—including many members of Dion’s family, whom Angélil had flown in for the event—all hid in a darkened room and when Celine entered yelled, “Surprise!” “Celine doesn’t really like surprises, but she was very happy,” says her friend Coco Lacroix. Later the couple opened gifts—including a handmade teddy bear from Thérèse, stuffed with heat beads, which had her daughter in tears. “This baby,” says Lacroix, “is the most lucky child in the world.”

Indeed, the media in Dion’s home province of Quebec has already dubbed René-Charles “Le Petit Prince.” And there’s little doubt he’ll be treated as such when Dion takes him home to be doted upon by grandmama Thérèse and grandpapa Adhémar, 77, a former butcher, and the infant’s 13 aunts and uncles. The trip, which she hopes to make in June, may turn out to be more restful than she imagines. “She won’t be seeing much of her little boy,” notes sister Liette. “Everyone will want to hold him!” Before then Thérèse plans to spend time in Florida helping her daughter; sister Linda has already been chosen to be the baby’s godmother. As for the future, only one thing is certain: Dion is in no hurry to resume her career. “I suspect that by 2002 she’ll be back to work in some form,” says Foster. “But that first year with her child is extremely important to her.”

Friends also suspect that René-Charles won’t stay an only child for long. Doctors say there is no reason the star couldn’t become pregnant again. And conveniently, a second embryo, frozen during her IVF procedure, lies stored at Rosenwaks’s Manhattan fertility clinic. “I will go get it,” Dion said an interview in December with Canada’s French-language TVA television station. “That’s for sure.” Maybe in the near future: As she left Palms West Hospital on Jan. 27, Dion bade a fond farewell to the staff of the maternity wing, then added breezily, “See you next year!”

Anne-Marie O’Neill

Lori Rozsa in Loxahatchee, Peter Mikelbank in Paris, Sue Miller and Bob Meadows in New York City, Mary Green in Los Angeles and Linda Miller in Montreal