Originally published in
Arise
,
May 2010
What don’t kill you makes you stronger could be Toni Braxton’s mantra. Health, wealth and heart have all been through the wringer, but she’s kept on keeping on
Toni Braxton reclines on a four-poster bed wearing a naughty but nice baby doll dress, a pair of towering platform sandals, and a smile. No this isn’t some man’s lucky day. It is in fact a scene from today’s ARISE photo shoot. We’re in a west London hotel and the soulful singer has never looked better. “Pass me those shorts,” she cries, pointing to some sparkly high waisted knickers in the stylist’s hands. She slips them on, right there on the bed, adds a blouse and we’re ready for the next shot. It’s safe to say, that after her battles with bankruptcy, her marriage, and her health, Braxton is back on top where she belongs.
I’ve been taking pole dancing classes. I can do three spins, one carousel and am learning to climb the pole.
Photography: Diana Gomez

Fashion and frillies aside, we’re here to talk about Pulse, her first studio album since 2005’s Libra. It’s classic Braxton from front to back thanks to its signature mix of up tempo dance tracks and heart wrenching ballads. “I’ve kept it nice and simple this time,” says Braxton, now back in her own clothes and sipping tea. “When you’ve been in the game for a long time and know a bit too much about the business, sometimes creativity and having a great time gets lost so I wanted to make sure with this album that I made music that makes me feel good. The first single Yesterday is original but also familiar enough so that people know it’s me.”

The video for Yesterday sees a lingerie and Louboutin-clad Braxton lamenting falling out of love with her hunky man after she catches him canoodling with a busty blonde. There are tears and then she shows him the door. Ready to face another day, a man with even bigger pectorals scoops her up at the end. “Everyone thinks it’s Trey with the blonde but it’s actually a basketball player from The Lakers,” she’s at lengths to point out, probably because of the minor scandal following their on-stage kiss at an awards ceremony last year.

Pulse’s stand out dance track is Make My Heart. Due to be the second single, the promo sees her having the time of her life at a warehouse party. “It’s sexy. There’s a lot of dancing with some gay boys who make me look fabulous, and a few men in cages too,” she giggles. She’s made a third video for Hands Tied, for which she’s back to smoldering, this time on a stage, around a pole and surrounded by voyeurs. “I’ve been taking pole dancing classes as a form of exercise. I can do three spins, one carousel and am learning to climb the pole. I really appreciate those girls who do it for a living now, they deserve that money they get. It’s a lot of work and they have to smile and make it look effortless!”

Braxton is no stranger to handsome men in her videos of course. Cast your mind back to 1996’s Un-Break My Heart, undoubtedly her biggest hit (it’s the second best-selling single by a female in the history of the US Billboard chart, just behind Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You). Model Tyson Beckford straddles his motorbike, the engine purrs and he speeds off, only to crash into an oncoming car, leaving Braxton to grieve over his beautiful corpse. “Yeah, he’s a cutie,” she winks.

Taken from the album Secrets, which sold 10million, and following other worldwide hits such as Breathe Again, Another Sad Love Song and You’re Making Me High, it’s hard to believe that two years later she was declared bankrupt. “It was at the height of my success and then that happened. It was awful,” she recalls. “Everyone thought I’d been living an extravagant lifestyle but people don’t understand that every penny a record label spends on you from hair and make up to a car service to hotels has to be paid back before you make a cent. After all that my royalty cheque was less than US$2,000.”

The imprint in question, LaFace Records, also left label mates TLC and Usher in similar situations but as “The First Lady of LaFace”, Braxton was hit the hardest. Some of her fans felt for her so much they sent her money but she returned every donation. “It was hard because (label owners) LA and Babyface were like family, it was no blame thing. But my case got elevated to Congress for being unconstitutional and I got a good pay cheque in the end.”

It was super producers LA Reid and Babyface who discovered Braxton in the early 1990s. She’d grown up in Severn, Maryland in a strict, Methodist household with four sisters and a brother. She wasn’t allowed to listen to popular music (so she’d sneak out to watch Soul Train) or wear trousers and was expected to train to be a teacher. But she had other ideas. She sang gospel alongside her sisters in church and together they formed The Braxtons in the late 80s. “Our first single sold, like three copies. I was the eldest at 21 and the youngest was nine so the label (Arista) didn’t know what to do with us.”

LaFace signed her as a solo act and put her solo song Love Shoulda Brought You Home (originally written for Anita Baker, one of Braxton’s heroes) on the soundtrack to the Eddie Murphy movie Boomerang. Her self-titled debut album won her a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1993 and decade of success on LaFace brought wracked up 40million album sales. She saw herself through bankruptcy with a turn on Broadway in Disney’s Beauty And The Beast and released three solid albums in the noughties - The Heat, More Than A Woman and Libra. Then a run of her show Toni Braxton: Revealed in Las Vegas was curtailed in 2008 when she collapsed after a performance. She was later diagnosed with the heart condition micro vascular angina.

“I had something like a petite heart attack. At first I couldn’t sing a song or walk to the front door without being out of breath. It took a long time to get better and I had a lot of cardiac rehab but now I’m on medication, I can perform a whole show and live a normal, healthy life,” she says. “It’s completely changed me as a person. I’m learning not to take everything so seriously. My career’s important to me but the little things don’t matter as much. I don’t feel the kind of stress I used to over releasing an album.”

Her newfound serenity is even more impressive given the fact that she separated from her husband Keri Lewis (of Mint Condition) just over a year ago. But they’re still “great friends” and have two young sons Denham and Diesel. The youngest, Diesel, suffers from autism. “I knew early on something was different about him but the doctors didn’t diagnose him until he was three. He’s six now and has just begun mainstream school and having play dates with other kids,” she says, brimming with pride. “Autistic kids have gentle spirits, even those who have severe disorders - his brother is his hero. I’m a hands on mom and am bringing both up to be great communicators.” Do they know mommy is famous? “They do but they don’t really care. It’s like ‘Mommy don’t sing, can we hear Jay-Z?’”

The summer holds tour dates in South Africa – and perhaps a peek at the World Cup (her song with Il Divo The Time Of Our Lives was the official 2006 World Cup anthem). “I’m not a soccer fan but there’s something sexy about kicking the ball around the way they do.” And after that? “I’d like to do Broadway again but this time originate the production - create a role that needs me to play it.” Toni Braxton: The Musical? Now that would be a rollercoaster show.

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