By Jeremy Helligar
March 01, 1999 12:00 PM

For Celine Dion and her husband, René Angélil, it’s not the 26-year age gap between them nor the long-standing allegations of his Svengali-like hold over her that makes them quarrel. No, it takes something far more important: golf. “We used to fight on the second hole,” Angélil, who boasts an 11 handicap, says before Dion’s February concert at the Tokyo Dome. “Now at least we wait until the fourth hole. That is the only place where we have arguments. Then we laugh about it at night. We laugh so hard we are crying. And it starts all over the next day.” Later, sitting at the makeup table in her dressing room backstage, Dion, who has a 24 handicap, adds, “He tries to be a manager on the course and tell me what to do, which club to take. I listen to him now because he is the manager, but when I’m not singing, no.”

Of course, since breathing is about the only function Celine performs more than singing, Angélil is likely to continue to call lots of shots—on the links and off. Since the 1990 release of Unison, her gold, breakthrough U.S. album, Dion has been in perpetual motion, racking up worldwide sales of 100 million on a total of 11 albums in English and her native French and collaborating with the likes of Barbra Streisand and Luciano Pavarotti. She is due to perform at the Feb. 24 Grammy Awards, where she is up for four trophies, including Record of the Year for “My Heart Will Go On,” her career-defining No. 1 hit from Titanic. The ballad helped make the movie soundtrack album and Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love the top sellers of 1998, with respective U.S. sales of 10 million and 8 million. “I must be doing something right,” she says with typical understatement.

Her melodramatic singing style and thick accent have been grist for Saturday Night Live parodies lately, but Dion, who turns 31 on March 30, is hardly bothered by any of it. After all, she’s a three-time Grammy winner, who appeared on no fewer than eight of Billboard’s Top 200 albums last fall. They included VH1 Divas Live, the companion album to her April 1998 television special with Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan, Aretha Franklin and Shania Twain, as well as her holiday-themed These Are Special Times, which sold 3 million copies and spawned her fourth No. 1 hit, “I’m Your Angel,” a duet with R&B star R. Kelly. “You can say the name Celine Dion to the guy who digs holes 500 feet under the ground, and he’s heard of her,” says Billboard magazine’s radio editor Chuck Taylor. “It’s reached that point.”

And she enjoys the perks that go with the mantle of pop’s reigning queen. On her current 14-country world tour, Dion, Angélil and their 105-member entourage—including Dion’s brother and assistant tour director Michel, 47, and sister Manon, 38, her hairdresser—tool around in a rented Gulfstream jet. There is also the six-person catering team from England that serves high-quality fare to Dion and her minions, all of whom patronize only the best hotels. Not to mention her favorite collectible: shoes. She has 500 pairs, with no letup in sight.

Still, a jet-setting, shoe-loving siren can stand only so much pampering. After wrapping up her tour with a New Year’s Eve millennium concert in Montreal, she plans to take at least a year off. “I get paid a lot of money to be on this schedule, but it’s okay to want to stop,” she says. “And I prefer to stop at the top of my career rather than when no one wants to hear me anymore.”

She will devote the sabbatical to the couple’s most important project yet. “We want to have kids,” says Angélil, 57. “That is our main goal.” They have been trying for so long, though, that some reports have raised questions about her fertility. “If I had a problem with my health, I would let [my fans] know,” says Dion, who travels with a masseuse to relieve chronic back pain caused by arthritis in her spine (a condition she has inherited from her mother). “If you have a fertility problem, you have a problem. I share my whole life with the audience. They know everything about me.”

In fact, Dion is all but certain she will have children. “My doctor said to me, ‘You need to relax. You need to fly a little less, be home a little more. Just have a normal life, and the baby may want to be a part of it,’ ” says Dion, who adds that they will consider adoption if all else fails. But she is acutely aware that the clock is ticking. “I don’t want to wait until I’m 35, because my husband is not 30.”

As for her reed-thin body, the 5’7″, 115-lb. Dion credits her high metabolism and genetics. “I don’t have an eating problem, and there’s nothing more I can say about it,” she says between bites of a salad of red onions, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs and a main course of pork and potatoes backstage in Tokyo. “I’m very thin,” she adds. “I don’t even train. I’m lucky.”

Indeed, despite a hardscrabble start in tiny Charlemagne, Que., a truck-stop town 12 miles east of Montreal, Dion’s life does seem largely charmed. The youngest of the 14 children born to Adhémar Dion, a former butcher, and his homemaker wife, Celine arrived six years after her mother gave birth to twins. “I was 41 years old and convinced I wouldn’t be able to care for them all,” says Thérèse, 71, who now lives with her husband and youngest daughter in Rosemère, Que., in a four-bedroom house that Dion and Angélil bought in 1996. “I was very depressed because I was embarrassed to be pregnant again in front of my children,” says Thérèse, speaking in French to a translator. “You see, my daughter Denise was pregnant at the same time. But they were all very supportive, and as soon as [Celine] arrived, my depression was erased.”

Though happy, the Dion household had to struggle to make ends meet. Adhémar supported a family of 16 on a butcher’s salary of $165 a week. “Sometimes I would work 15-, 16-hour days,” says Adhémar, 75. “I didn’t have a choice. If there was something missing from the refrigerator and we didn’t have the money, we’d go without. The kids didn’t have soda pop. They drank Kool-Aid because it was cheaper. With 14 kids, you make sacrifices.”

Sometimes even in your sleep. The Dion children (who now range in age from 30 to 52) crammed into four bedrooms and shared one bathroom. “There was one room for the five boys, and we all slept in the same double bed,” says brother Jacques, 43, who helps run Thérèse Dion’s foundation for the needy in Charlemagne. “We stretched out three one way and two another. I had the toes of my brother in my nose. The nine girls had three rooms between them. Some of them slept two to a bed.” Meals were democratic. “The more cutlery and dishes you used, the more you had to wash,” recalls Thérèse. “Sometimes after dinner we turned the plates upside down for dessert to lessen the burden.”

Washing clothes required less ingenuity. “Laundry was my job, and I did that pretty much alone,” says Thérèse. “At the time, we had no washing machine, and I had to wash the family’s clothes in the bathtub.”

But despite her family’s circumstances, the youngest Dion thrived. Inspired by her siblings’ Aretha Franklin and Creedence Clearwater Revival records, she sang in the basement with her musician brothers and sisters. “She’d say, ‘I’m going to go out on tour and be the biggest singer in the world,’ ” says Jacques. She first sang publicly at 5 at her brother Michel’s wedding. “Her voice made people dance,” says her father, “and you can’t miss something like that.”

At age 10, the “p’tite Québecoise’ ” (little Quebecker) persuaded her parents to let her perform in a piano bar they had opened. Two years later, she recorded “It Was Only a Dream,” a song written for her by Jacques and Théresè, who sent the tape to well-known manager René Angélil. Weeks later, Michel phoned him. “I said to him, ‘I know you haven’t listened to the tape, because if you had, you would’ve called right away.’ ”

Angélil did set up a meeting with Celine. “She was very shy,” he recalls. “She wasn’t exactly the cute little 12-year-old that you would think, ‘Oh, look how cute she is.’ She had this problem with her teeth. She was very skinny. She didn’t talk, but she had this voice. At the end, I told her mother, ‘If you give me your trust, I guarantee you that within five years she’s going to be the biggest artist in Quebec’ It took two.”

Angélil mortgaged his house to finance two albums, and a local No. 1 single followed. After completing sixth grade, Dion quit school and toured Quebec with Thérèse as her chaperone. At 18, she saw Michael Jackson performing on television and told Angélil that she wanted to be that big. Fine, said Angélil, who ordered her to take 18 months off, during which she underwent a massive makeover that included plucked eyebrows, shorter hair and caps for the long incisors that had prompted a Quebec humor magazine to dub her “Canine Dion.” He also sent her to a two-month Berlitz course in English to help her break into the American market. The result, says Thérèse, “was her transformation from adolescence to a young woman.”

As Dion’s career blossomed, so did her relationship-with Angélil. They have long maintained that it remained platonic even after his 1985 divorce from his second wife, Anne Renée, a former Canadian talk show host with whom he had two children, Jean-Pierre, 24, and Anne-Marie, 21. (He also has a son, Patrick, 31, from his first marriage.) But in 1988, after a show in Dublin, Dion, then 20, and Angélil, then 46, gave in to feelings outside of her hotel room. “We gave ourselves a goodnight kiss on the mouth for the first time,” she says. “A real kiss. My whole body shook for half an hour. Then he called me and said, ‘Are you okay? I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘No! No! Are you kidding?’ It was magic.”

They decided not to go public, but they did tell her mother. “Like any mother, I reacted badly,” says Thérèse. “Not only was he her impresario, but he was substantially older than her. I was not happy at all.” After stewing for six months, she softened. “Considering that I had great esteem for him and that Celine loved him so much,” she says, “I put my reservations aside.”

Dion never had any, despite the fact that her one previous romance—with a hockey player she dated in her late teens—was a bust. “I was constantly traveling, and he couldn’t understand what I was going through,” she says. Angélil could and did. “He’s such an incredible man,” she says. “He makes me happy. He makes me feel safe and secure. He’s experienced, funny and generous.”

Not that age hasn’t been a factor. In 1992, Angélil suffered a heart attack in their suite at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons hotel. “We came down in the elevator, and it stopped at every floor,” recalls Dion, who was still in her swimsuit from an afternoon plunge when she drove with Angélil to the hospital. “I stood in-the emergency room freezing. But they took real good care of him.” As for any lingering effects, Angélil says, “Now there is no trace of it.”

The following year, in the liner notes for her third English album, The Colour of My Love, Dion finally fessed up to her May-December romance. “I was afraid like crazy,” says Angélil. “I thought we would lose some fans.” Her ascent continued, though, and in 1994 they were married in a lavish ceremony with 500 guests in Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica. “We each had our own limousine, and each was escorted by the police,” says Jacques. “It was as if we were the Mafia.”

With a fortune estimated at more than $200 million by industry insiders and a 1998 income of $55.5 million, they are riding higher than ever. “Keeping her happy is my job,” says Angélil, who has expanded their business ventures to include a partnership in a chain of 44 1950s-theme restaurants in Canada and Florida. On the menu? A six-layer chocolate cake called the Celine. “Sometimes I think she doesn’t need another pair of shoes, but if it makes her feel good, that is the most important thing.” Comfort counts too. The couple own a $10 million, 10-bed-room mansion in Jupiter, Fla., and the four-bedroom home near Montreal—complete with a 300-square-foot room, filled with Louis XIV furniture, for Dion’s wardrobe—and they are building a new estate between two 18-hole golf courses in the Montreal suburb of Terrebonne.

Dion indulges her family no less. “Everybody works for Celine,” says Jacques, adding that she gave each of her siblings $100,000 for Christmas in 1996. And twice a year, the singer rummages through her closets and distributes her designer duds to the Dion women. She also recently splurged on a $100,000 Mercedes for her father. Adds Jacques: “She’s incredibly generous. It is one of Celine’s greatest strengths that she’s taken care not just of herself but of her family too.” Her 28 nieces and nephews would not dispute it. Every year, three weeks before Christmas, Dion sends each of them a Toys “R” Us catalog with instructions to mark anything they want. “Christmas is my favorite time of year,” she says, “so we spoil every person.”

With her upcoming year off essentially etched in stone, Dion hopes she soon will be spoiling kids of her own. She has other plans as well. “I can’t wait to do the normal things,” she says. “Like just doing your own groceries. Looking for your own tomatoes. I just can’t wait to get up in the morning and look awful. I’m looking forward to getting bored.”

Jeremy Helligar

Danelle Morton in Tokyo and Sue Miller in Charlemagne