Ask Toni Braxton for a memory that encapsulates her ‘90s imperial phase and she’ll ignore that decade’s five Grammys, 25 million albums sold (10 million for 1993’s self-titled debut, 15 million for 1996’s Secrets) and the 11-week US No 1 reign of windswept mega-ballad Un-Break My Heart.
She’ll neglect to mention the friendships with Prince and Whitney Houston, or the fact that her influence means she recently performed at Rihanna’s 30th birthday party (slow jam Breathe Again is a RiRi favourite).
No, the story that sticks in her head is a little less glitzy. One night, she tells me over the phone from New York, she was followed to a restaurant toilet by a group of female fans who, while she was having a quick sit down, tapped on the cubicle wall. “Excuse me, are you Toni Braxton?” they asked. “Can we get your autograph?” “I was like: ‘Can you give me a second?!’” Braxton laughs.
In the grand scheme of Braxton’s life, however, an interrupted toilet break is fairly small fry. In 1998, despite being one of the world’s biggest-selling artists, she filed for bankruptcy. In 2010, shortly before confirming she was suffering from the autoimmune disease lupus, she filed for bankruptcy again, the result of cancelling a 2008 Las Vegas residency due to microvascular angina.
In addition, there has been a divorce, feuds with managers, acrimonious label changes and, in 2013, a short-lived retirement. If you’re thinking: “Wow, this would make a great memoir or Lifetime movie,” you’re in luck: the book came out in 2014, while the straight-to-TV film followed in 2016. It makes this month’s new album, Sex & Cigarettes, even more of an unexpected triumph.
Braxton should never have been a star. Raised by religious parents in Maryland (her father was a Methodist clergyman, her mother a pastor), her upbringing was strict. In the late 1980s, as her parents’ grip loosened, Braxton and her four younger sisters (Traci, Towanda, Trina and Tamar) started performing as the Braxtons. While their 1990 debut single Good Life flopped, it ended up catching the attention of producers Antonio “LA” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, who liked some of what they heard; the pair would sign Toni to their LaFace label as a solo artist. The news didn’t go down well at home.
What should have been a cause for celebration — Braxton cut two songs for the hugely successful soundtrack to the 1992 Eddie Murphy vehicle Boomerang — was tainted. “It was perpetual guilt,” she says. “Looking back, there were situations where I go: ‘You should have lived louder.’”
The success of the soundtrack led to LaFace fast-tracking sessions for what would become Braxton’s debut album. “I was so green,” she says. “Just happy to be there. I always felt this need to do my best immediately. The first album was done on purpose, you know, making me a little more adult contemporary. By the time the second album came around I wanted to be my age. I didn’t want to wear all these long gowns; I wanted to wear jeans or a catsuit.”
The campaign mirrored Whitney Houston’s early years under the watchful eye of label head Clive Davis, with the main aim being not to alienate the lucrative white, adult contemporary audience. Davis once referred to Braxton as “too black to be white and too white to be black”.
Did Whitney ever give her any advice? “She gave me great advice on dating,” says Braxton, somewhat surprisingly. “She was the leader of the pack for me.” For a while, Braxton’s sales reached Whitney heights. The 1996 album Secrets gave her two massive hits in the shape of the honeyed sex jam You’re Makin’ Me High and the medically ambitious Un-Break My Heart.
Less than two years after Secrets, however, Braxton found herself filing for bankruptcy. It was decided Braxton should go on Oprah Winfrey’s chatshow. The interview was a car crash, with Winfrey reprimanding what she saw as Braxton’s lavish lifestyle.
Braxton wound up with huge debts after being forced to self-fund her tour with saxophonist Kenny G and assumed the royalty cheques she was owed would clear the debt. The cheque she’d been waiting for amounted to just $2,000 (Dh7,345) after label deductions, while her debts totalled nearly $4 million. In late 1997 she sued LaFace and Arista, before filing for bankruptcy in January 1998.
In a 2012 interview, Braxton accused Winfrey of being “mean to me, I was in shock”, but today she’s a little more sanguine: “I remember I didn’t want to do it, and I was advised we should. I thought it magnified it. It was a bad call; it made it an enormous situation.”
One person offering better advice, however, was Prince. “He was always there, even during my second bankruptcy...” She pauses, before suddenly roaring, “which sounds so crazy to say! ‘My second bankruptcy!’” She regains her composure. “I feel like he’s still watching me. There have been times where I’ve been thinking about him and his song will come on the radio.”
With her financial situation stabilising (she reached an agreement with Arista and LaFace in early 1999, signing a $20 million record deal), Braxton announced her retirement in 2013, leading to messages of support from Missy Elliott and Barbra Streisand. Babyface — with whom she hadn’t worked for more than a decade — showed up at her house suggesting they collaborate. The resulting joint album, 2014’s Love, Marriage & Divorce, earned her another Grammy and a fresh start.
“My goal is to be a centennial,” she giggles. “By the time I get my letter from the president — who will probably be Justin Bieber by then — I would like to be proud of myself.”