Words by:

Growing up where I grew up it was not cool to love Celine Dion. In fact, growing up anywhere in the world it is probably not cool to love Celine Dion. But my love for Celine Dion – for her coos, her belts, her incredible ability to lean almost all the way backwards when huffing out a big note, the way her little finger arches when she’s switching registers, the fact she holds her mic in her left hand when she sings, and her right hand when she addresses the crowd with niche statements like “this is for all the parents and the children” (ergo, like, everyone) – was very much a totem for my sexuality, and my gender, and so cool didn’t come into it. Cool, much like my sexuality, was not a choice.

It started covert, laced with shame. For it was to Celine Dion’s tour de force album Let’s Talk About Love (a CD I played so much it melted) that I first slipped on a black chiffon and sequin dress at the age of nine, with it learning the power of both lip synching, drag, and a good chaise longue (which we were storing for some family friends). I was glorious: escaping a world where people punished me for my femininity to a world, all on my own, where I was free from homophobia and misogyny and was, finally, a star. Celine taught me that I was a star in a world that was desperate to make me disappear. Yet my love for her, and my sexuality and gender, remained secret for the next half decade.

She sings love songs, and in the past when I was full of shame and doubt and terror and misplaced self-loathing, I needed love songs.

With Celine there’s no pretence, no attempts at obsessive zeitgeist catch up, no tropical house beat atop a mono-tonal vocal belying the certain death of originality. Celine was never trying to shape the zeitgeist, she was never trying to appear original, she’s never heard of trop-house. She sings love songs. Gooey, sometimes spine tingly cringeworthy love songs that I, once upon a time, was ashamed to tell my friends I knew every single word of, every single riff of. And there I was — thirteen years old, on the 555 bus from Lancaster, having rocks thrown at my head for being a “faggot”, denying every claim while blasting Celine Dion’s Falling Into You through a see-thru Alba CD player to drown out the sound of half a bus full of school kids shouting “Puff puff takes it up the chuff.”

I came out, as gay. I became the hardest stereotype imaginable, but it helped me survive. And every night I would go home and listen to more Celine Dion, watch old VHS tapes of her live in Memphis in which she wore a full gold lamé look, and it helped me to survive. And there, with one of the only people who had allowed my emotions to flow free and not assume the position of fab, fat gay, I was allowed to escape, to work out who I was for myself without having to implement endless survival techniques. Celine saw me for me. And I was complex, sensitive, emotional, not the bitchy clap-back gay I had become.

"Celine taught me that I was a star in a world that was desperate to make me disappear"

At university, after eight years of playing the Dame in the popular pantomime that is High School, I became more comfortable with my gayness, and my femininity, and so, one day on Facebook, I came out via a status: I love Celine Dion. There, I said it. I have been carrying this around with me for so long, thank you for all your support.

It was a joke, but it was the first step in a new kind of honesty which allowed me to be honest about more things: sex, queerness, all the pain I’d experienced growing up, my non-binary gender. I listened to A New Day Has Come as my heart broke for the first time at university, after listening to The Colour of My Love when I was falling for aforementioned heartbreaker. Her songs were, and still are, a mirror to my emotions in a way that’s indescribable: I can’t tell you why I love her, I need her, I can just tell you that I do, I always have done, I am an obsessive Celine Dion fan. Much like I am gay, and I am non-binary.

During and after university, I met friends who thought the coolest thing you could be was honest. And so I led with that honesty: I have Celine’s name tattooed on my bum inside a heart.

Just last year I came out as non-binary to my family, and that night we were going to see Celine Dion in concert. It was my first time ever seeing my deity in the flesh. And there, as she appeared on stage singing The Power of Love I broke down. I looked across the row to see my mum, my dad, my partner, and myself. Here, 15 years on. And I wept; I wept and wept for that nine-year-old who had no idea both how hard it was going to get, and how glorious it could all turn out. I wept at the sound of her voice, I wept at how far my parents have come, I wept for my partner who loves the fact I love Celine Dion, I wept for the butch lesbian couple in front of me who were weeping too.

I could never afford therapy, but I could afford a bargain bin Celine Dion CD. It feels extreme to say that Celine Dion saved me, because I saved me. But she, more than a few times, Loved Me Back to Life. That’s why I love you Celine Dion, Because You Loved Me. And, frankly, in a world so full of hate – there’s nothing cooler than love.

Tom’s debut book, Diary of a Drag Queen, is published 7 February via Ebury