She Sees the Silver Lining

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is a Times staff writer

Toni Braxton burst onto the pop scene in 1993, with the release of her self-titled debut solo album on LaFace Records. It sold several million copies and got Braxton the Grammy for best new artist.

Her second album, 1996's "Secrets," was equally successful. In all, she has won five Grammy Awards and sold 20 million albums worldwide.

But after the release of "Secrets," Braxton all but disappeared from the radar. Even though she'd sold incredible numbers of albums, she was broke, thanks to a record contract that paid her only about 30 cents per album. She filed for bankruptcy in 1997 and began fighting her record company for a better contract.

The fight took two years.

During that time, Braxton performed on Broadway, starring in "Beauty and the Beast," and took acting lessons, preparing for a second career if the music industry didn't give her her due.

But LaFace came around, gave her a raise, and now Braxton, 31, is back, with a new album, "The Heat," filled with catchy pop songs--one of which, "He Wasn't Man Enough," just reached No. 1 last week.

In an interview, Braxton, who has homes in Los Angeles and Atlanta, speaks about the new album and her personal life, which is also back in order after several traumatic episodes.

Question: What is this about you being discovered at a gas station?

Answer: That's a true story. No one believes me! They think it's just a marketing thing. I was at this Amoco station, and I was getting gas and this attendant comes up to me and says, "Do you sing?" And I'm like, oh God, what a line. . . . I'm looking at him, and he's the attendant. And he's not servicing me because I can't afford the full service. [laughs] So he says, "I do demos, I would love for you to come to my house," and I said, uh, well, OK. And I took my friend, just in case he was crazy. And it turned out to be legit. His name is William Pettaway, and he was the guy who co-wrote "Girl You Know It's True" by Milli Vanilli that was on Arista.

Q: So what was he doing working at a gas station?

A: Working. But he owns the gas station now. He actually was one of the smarter ones, because he said I need to work as well as be in the music business.

Q: When did you really know that you had made it?

A: Probably when I won my first Grammy for best new artist. . . . I was sitting there doodling, playing with my rings or something, and they said the winner is Toni Braxton and I kind of paused, and the camera's on me, and they're like "Get up, get up!" So it was, yeah, emotional.

Q: You said you couldn't afford the full serve at the gas station. What was the first major purchase you made for yourself once you started making money?

A: The first thing? I bought myself a piano. I've been playing piano since I was 14. I haven't really shown it a lot in my music. I played in church for the choir and for my sisters. I can really play the piano. On this new album there were some songs that I played the piano on--it says, "Keyboards by Toni Braxton."

Q: What was the concept behind the new album, and is it different from anything you've done before?

A: This album is a combination of the first and second album. The second album had things like "You're Making Me High," and I have a few more of those type of songs.

Q: Faster songs?

A: Yeah, those faster songs. And I have the classic Toni Braxton songs, ballads. But what I really was trying to do with this album is to be the spokesperson musically for women, like the Lifetime channel is. I was trying to be there for women. Romantic, sexy, strong woman songs.

Q: Is it from personal experience?

A: Yes. I was angry on this album a little bit, personally. My personal life was not--I wasn't as happy as I wanted to be. But I'm so happy now. So happy.

Q: Speaking of unhappiness . . . you had a little problem with your label and finances a few years back.

A: A leeeetle bit, yeah. [laughs]

Q: What happened?

A: Well. [laughs] You know, essentially, how could I sum this up? I asked for a raise. And they didn't give it to me at first. So I had to fight to get it. I mean, I was blessed, I'm one of the lucky artists who got their raise at the end.

Q: Was it just that you were so young when you got into your original contract that you didn't know what to ask for?

A: I can't say that. I think when I first signed my contract it was definitely fair. But if you sell a lot of records and you prove yourself, you should get a raise. In the corporate world, women have been fighting longer for being treated fairly, and I think in the music industry that is just starting to be seen. I think it's just for women. I don't think it's necessarily being a newer or older artist. I just think women have to fight a little harder than men do in this business to get paid.

Q: Talk a little bit about your current single, "He Wasn't Man Enough." Great song. Great video.

A: Thanks. Rodney Jerkins wrote the song. It was one of the last songs on the album. I think he was inspired by Jerry Springer or something like that, you know. Kind of, women fighting almost over a guy. [laughs] But in the end we come together and realize he's just a dog. Not that all men are dogs, but in this song he's a dog.

Q: What artists do you admire?

A: I'm a huge Celine Dion fan. I really admire Mariah Carey. I think she's so underrated, because she's a great producer, a wonderful writer, and no one gives her props for that. They always say, "Oh look, did you see what she had on?" And this and that. I'm like, she's 30 years old, she's not 70 with breasts hanging like chickens! She's young, she's beautiful, she has a great body! I just think she's wonderful, and I think people beat her up a little too much.

Q: How in control of your image are you?

A: A lot. So a lot of the things I do I come up with myself. No one makes me take the pictures, I take them.

Q: Right. The pictures. I read that some people have been very critical of you posing nude somewhere?

A: You're talking about the [old] cover of Vibe.

Q: Yes. Some seem to think you have a responsibility as a black woman not to be out there like that.

A: I've heard that one too. I would say that I wasn't naked. I had on underwear, but they erased that out. [laughs] I purposely went after doing something sexy. . . . I will say that me first coming out, my image was the girl next door, and it was too soon in my career to find myself in a situation doing pictures like that. I can understand why people have said the things they said.

Q: Is it fair to expect you to have to be a role model?

A: I chose to be in this business. It's what I dreamed of. And there are a lot of things that go along with it. I wouldn't say I have a responsibility to anyone else but myself and God. However, there are kids and people who like my music, and I have to be cognizant of that.

Q: You mentioned that you're responsible to yourself and God. Do you think God had a plan in putting you in the right place and the right time at that gas station?

A: Absolutely. Oh yeah. Yeah. For me. I'm not trying to push my beliefs on anyone else. But for me, being a P.K., my dad's a minister, I'm just very spiritual.

Q: What's a P.K.?

A: Oh! Preacher's kid! I'm sorry. [laughs] There are lots of us. We have our own vocabulary. I sang in church all my life. I think when I was younger my spiritual beliefs were religious because it was what my parents told me it was or should be. But as I've gotten older I'm definitely more spiritual. I think everything happens because it's planned. I think you have choices in life. And even those are the plan. And I think God plans them all.

Q: Has anything happened recently?

A: I think everything that happened with the bankruptcy. It put me on Broadway. It gave me a fresh start in life. It gave me a fresh start financially. I'm still trying to fight to get that American Express back. [laughs]

Q: That's hard? Even for Toni Braxton?

A: Very hard. The platinum one is hard to get back. My gentleman friend got me a gold card.

Q: Uh, Toni? Who is your gentleman friend?

A: His name is Cary Lewis. He's in the group Mint Condition. I don't know if you've heard of them. He's the guy in my new video.

Q: Is it serious?

A: Weeell. I can't tell yet. You know, every time I talk about my relationships they never work. I get dumped.

Q: Who would dump you?

A: I'm human.

Q: Fair enough. So after Broadway, you plan to do any acting?

A: I have some good offers. I'm looking forward to entering another world. I love the music, that's my heart, that's my No. 1 love. But I've been doing it almost 10 years now. Sometimes, I fought so hard to get it back, ugh, let me add something else.

Q: So when you think of yourself 10 years from now, what do you see?

A: Whoo. Ten years from now. In movies, or on television. Probably married, with a kid or two. Oh yeah. I'm not 19.

Q: Think it'll be hard to follow your own amazing act with this record?

A: Yes. It's really, really hard. But this is really important because I've been gone for so long. It kind of validates myself.

Q: Does it feel good to be back?

A: Yeah. It does. It really does.

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