Céline Dion is going to try to sing. This isn't a setup for a joke. She's had a viral infection for the last several days and is so stuffy and hoarse that she's already canceled four performances at Caesars Palace, sending home 16,000 brokenhearted Céline-deprived fans. Backstage before tonight's show, she's barely holding it together. She poses for photographs with a few of her devotees, sniffling between camera flashes. She manages to chat in French with one fan, while another tells Céline she's knitted her a pair of socks. Céline smiles bravely, until she sees an older gentleman she knows on the receiving line. "I'm having a hard time," she confesses. "My ears are plugged." The man tells her to stop shaking hands. Then he turns around to her fans. "Don't touch her!" he says. The crowd murmurs. Who the hell is he? "I'm her gynecologist."
Just for the record, the doctor is not here for an examination. He wants to see the concert with the rest of her minions. But when you hang out with Céline Dion, you get to see a lot of strange things. Like how when Céline leaves Caesars for the night, all three of her assistants wave goodbye in unison. "They started to do it and they have no choice now," Dion says. "It makes me feel good. You don't create superstitions, it happens." Or how she refers to herself in the third person, and in fractured English, too. "I was very sick," she says of her bad night in Vegas (though she did perform). "Sometimes I fight so much, my brain decides to shut off. My ears shut off. They say, 'Céline, how much are you going to go forward?' " The strangest is yet to come. Next week she releases "Taking Chances," her first pop album in five years. There are still enough sappy ballads to solidify her grip on the wedding-song market. But "Taking Chances" is also truth in advertising—Céline, 39, tries to get hip. She may be one of the top-selling singers of all time, but she's been in the desert for a long time. Since she left, record sales have hit an iceberg. All her first-name-only peers (Mariah, Whitney, Shania, Barbra) have been replaced by a new crop (Beyoncé, Rihanna, Shakira, Christina), some of whom can actually sing. If Céline wants to stay on top, she's going to have to fight like the diva she is. "For five years, I've been protected and focused in my surroundings—home, dressing room, home, bowling with my son, Chuck E. Cheese," she says. "It's like I'm doing show business for the first time in my life." Wait, Céline Dion goes to Chuck E. Cheese?
That's one way to stay young. Or you could also start imitating the young ones, which is one thing she does on the new album. "Taking Chances" is a ridiculously diverse collection of songs, with more edge. "Oh yes, I'm a rocker," Céline says without a hint of irony. "I grew up with my brothers and sisters doing Stevie Wonder and the Beatles." The album's third track, "Eyes on Me," even transforms her into a pop/Bollywood singer. "It's my Shakira song," Céline says. On "This Time," she sings about being a battered woman, which is about the last thing you'd expect to hear from delightfully sappy Céline. She wasn't sure if it was the right song for her, either. "I thought it was too dark and unhappy," she says. "Then I said to myself, 'We all deserve to be happy. If I save one person, mission accomplished'." So you can see that she's still sappy, and "Chances" probably won't win over her critics. But for her fans, it's a nice step up, with echoes of Janis Joplin. She's even upgraded her look. She's on the album cover wearing a heavy gold chain, flashing some cleavage, Texas-size hair and a semi-scowl. "People know that I'm a nice person," Céline says. "Can I pretend? Can I not smile? It doesn't mean that I'm mean."
No one who spends time with Céline would say she's mean, though she is a bit manic. Sometimes you ask her a question and she talks for so long, you wonder if she still remembers you're in the room. Her words tumble out of her mouth at breakneck speed, and she jumps from one topic to another. She's jet-lagged, she can't find her purse, she compares herself to an animal just released from its cage. "I'm a little bit spinning," she says. She also seems a little bit sheltered. This year Hillary Clinton selected Céline's song, "You and I," as her campaign anthem. But Céline couldn't care less about Hillary's campaign. "I know nothing about it," she says. "If I start talking about politics I'm just going to make people wonder, 'What is she talking about!?' " She's not even sure where she can vote, the United States or Canada. "It would not be fair to vote for something you don't know what the circumstances are bringing. A lot of people vote and then they complain."
Céline's only complaint is that she's going to miss Vegas. When she thinks about her last show—Dec. 15; scalp your tickets now!—she tears up. "I want my husband and son to be on both sides of the aisle," she says. "I'm going to need support." You'd cry, too, if you were losing a dressing room like hers. It's actually an entire home under Caesars Palace, with a living room, kitchen, office and a garage that holds a blue Ferrari, a Father's Day present from Céline to René Angélil, her husband-manager. In February, she'll begin an international tour. Then she plans on settling down in Florida, where she'll see if she can turn herself into a movie star (her dream project is a biopic of the Greek singer Maria Callas) and have a second child. "I can say, Yes, I want to have it and we will have it, but nobody knows," she says. "If it doesn't happen, it's because life and destiny has decided that. You can't be greedy." How very un-Vegas of her.