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03.15.11

The Man Who Made Celine

The singer’s husband, Rene Angelil, has been carrying on a decades-long love affair—with Las Vegas. He talks to Ramin Setoodeh about poker, blackjack, and how he persuaded Celine to return to Vegas.

The singer’s husband, Rene Angelil, has been carrying on a decades-long love affair—with Las Vegas. He talks to Ramin Setoodeh about poker, blackjack, and how he persuaded Celine to return to Vegas. Plus: Can Celine Dion save Vegas?

The throngs gathered last night for Celine Dion’s return to Las Vegas have one person to thank, and he looms as large in this city as Caesar himself. He’s Rene Angelil, the diva’s 69-year-old French Canadian husband and manager. You’ve probably seen him in the pages of People magazine or seated next to his wife on Oprah’s couch. He discovered Dion when she was 12, and he’s closely guided her career for the last three decades. He’s the reason she opened in Sin City in 2003 and moved her entire family to the desert. He’s also the reason why she’s back.

Even after Celine left Las Vegas in 2007, Angelil would come back to Vegas several times a year (he even saw Bette Midler and Cher perform at the house Celine built, The Colosseum at Caesars Palace, but he won’t compare their performances to his wife’s). And every time Angelil strolled through a casino, he says, people would ask “’When is Celine Dion coming back?’ Fifty times a day.” He wanted Celine back in Vegas, too. “Personally, I love Las Vegas,” says Angelil, who frequently tosses gambling metaphors into regular conversation and seems to know about every casino in town (and also where to get the best burgers). He visited Vegas for the first time from Montreal in 1966. He was only 24, and Dion wasn’t even born yet. But he was so smitten by Vegas’s neon, it influenced the rest of his life.

Angelil used to have singing aspirations himself—he was a member of a band (“we were like the French Beatles”)—but he mortgaged his house to help produce Dion’s first record after he discovered her in 1981. He says he became a professional gambler when Dion took time off to learn English in the late ‘80s. “That’s how I managed to make an income,” he says. “I had a system at blackjack. We were winning.”

He’s been doing that ever since, both backstage (Dion makes an estimated $500,000 per show) and on the casino floor (he raked in $1.6 million at a poker tournament in 2007). He says his love for poker comes from his parents, who played with pennies when he was a little boy growing up in Montreal. “That’s how I got interested,” he says. He’s passed his passion on to his 10-year-old son Rene-Charles. “I’m being very honest with you. He’s great at poker,” Angelil says. “It’s so funny to see him look you in the eye and say, ‘All in!’ I try not to laugh.”

Angelil’s most precious Vegas memories weren’t all on the casino floor, though. They were in the showrooms. Vegas was the city that showcased two of his biggest idols, Sinatra and Elvis. He made regular pilgrimages from Canada to see them both in concert. He tells of the time he and his pals cornered Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker for a photo. And the way Angelil talks about Sinatra, it’s as if he’s still performing down the block. “I saw Sinatra many times,” he says. “I saw him at Caesars. I saw him at the Sands. You’d fly in one trip, and you’d win. Then I would lose on the next three trips, but I would remember the time I won. That’s how they get people.”

"I understand people who come to see Celine and they cry when they see her," Angelil says. "I was like that with Elvis.”

Although Celine sounds nothing like Sinatra or Elvis, Angelil’s affections for those performers have rubbed off on her. About 15 years ago, Angelil introduced Dion to Sinatra. They watched old footage of him on stage, and they were both equally impressed by how he took puffs of smoke between lyrics. “Rene thinks about Sinatra all the time,” says Dion, in her underground dressing room at Caesars after her first preview performance. “I didn’t grow up with the Beatles or Elvis or Frank Sinatra. But it’s OK to borrow from the class and emotion of the music they’ve done.”

Dion arguably may be the most powerful woman in music, but she concedes that her husband makes most of her career decisions. It was Angelil’s idea to have Dion backed by a 31-piece orchestra in her Vegas show, a wink to Sinatra’s glory days. He also had Dion sing a duet with a video of Sinatra’s “All The Way” in her last Vegas concert. He even booked her on American Idol in 2007, performing alongside a hologram of Elvis. Some critics were less than thrilled, but Angelil still glows at the memory. “It looked so real!” he says. “It was incredible. I understand people who come to see Celine and they cry when they see her. I was like that with Elvis.”

Angelil says that after travelling most of his life, he’s happy to be settling down and living the suburban life in Las Vegas. He talks about how peaceful their home is, 30 miles from the Strip. “You don’t hear a sound in the desert,” he says. The couple had twin boys four months ago (Eddy and Nelson), and Angelil likes taking their older son to baseball practice and bowling. “To me, if we are in Florida, if we are in Vegas, as long as we are together,” he says. Then he adds, with a sly smile, as if he’s about to roll the dice. “As long as I’m with the people I love,” he says, “why shouldn’t it be Vegas?”

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Ramin Setoodeh is a senior writer at Newsweek. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times and U.S. News & World Report, among other publications.