It's All Coming Up Roses for Toni Braxton
LOS ANGELES – Forgive Toni Braxton for her unabashed glee when she talks about all the good things in her life.
Hot on the heels of her third hit record and her sixth Grammy, Braxton's working on another album. She's getting married this month and is eager to start a family. And she's making her film debut with the comedy Kingdom Come, the first step toward what she's hoping will become a side career in movies.
That's a lot to sing about considering the state of her affairs a few years ago. Mired in bankruptcy and fighting with her record label over royalties, Braxton felt uncertain she would re-emerge anywhere in show business.
"I've got a job," Braxton, 32, now says decisively, then corrects herself with a laugh. "I've got jobs. Plural."
Unlike the eye-catching outfits she often wears at events — including her barely there gown at this year's Grammys — Braxton dresses conservatively for an interview at the Four Seasons hotel. She wears a simple but classy ensemble of black sleeveless T-shirt, dark slacks and open-toed shoes with spiked heels.
Braxton exudes charm and good will, going on at length about her man, her movie, her music and her now-happy money matters.
Early in 1998, though, Braxton wasn't sure when she would work again. After her self-titled debut album in 1993 and the 1996 follow-up Secrets, Braxton and LaFace Records wound up at odds over her cut.
With 20 million albums sold worldwide, Braxton felt LaFace was paying her a pittance of what she deserved. Mounting debts forced her into bankruptcy.
Braxtontook a six-month stint starring as Belle in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, but the quarrel over royalties left her recording career in limbo.
"I'd be on VH1's where-are-they-now show. And I kept telling myself, I don't want to be a where-are-they-now on VH1," Braxton said. "I can't go out like that. It's a great show, but maybe when I'm 50. Not now."
Compounding matters, Braxton began sensing a split between her parents, whose marriage of more than 30 years ended in divorce last fall.
"I never thought my parents would ever, ever get a divorce," Braxton said. "It was like I was 12 years old again. All the emotions you see on the Lifetime channel, that really happens. With everything else going on, I was a little cuckoo there."
LaFaceand Braxton worked out their differences, and she roared back with the best-selling The Heat last year, an album that continued her trend toward hipper, sultrier music. The single "He Wasn't Man Enough" earned Braxton the Grammy for female R&B vocal.
After releasing just three albums in seven years, Braxton now is revving up the pace. She plans to release the first single off her next record in August, with a fourth album to follow late this year.
Braxton always had thought about acting, but she really caught the bug doing Beauty and the Beast. Kingdom Come allowed her to ease into Hollywood in a small but colorful role.
The cast includes Whoopi Goldberg, LL Cool J, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Vivica A. Fox in a farce about a dysfunctional family gathering for a funeral. Braxton plays a materialistic relative who has married well and likes to flaunt it.
"I'm not an actress. I don't even want to take the title. But I'm trying to become one," Braxton said. "I need to learn, and this was a great place to learn with all these established actors."
Kingdom Come director Doug McHenry said Braxton hurled her self into the part, working with her acting coach on set and developing good rapport with the other actors.
"Toni doesn't act like your typical diva. If everyone has to bend over and scoop up dirt with her hands, she's willing to do it," McHenry said. "She had a respect for the acting profession, and the other actors wanted to give to her, because she was not a diva in the worst sense. In the best sense, she is a diva, and she wanted to work and was hungry to learn."
There was talk of putting Braxton on the movie's gospel-themed soundtrack. But Braxton wanted the focus to be on her acting.
"I wanted people to know I was serious, that I wasn't playing games, Braxton said. "People might be like, 'Oh, she's on the soundtrack; that's why she's in the movie.' My manager said, 'We don't want to be on the soundtrack. People know she can sing. Let's let people look at her as an actress."'
Braxton's sister Tamar does contribute vocals to one song in the film.
The oldest of five sisters and one brother, Braxton had a strict religious upbringing. Her father is a Methodist minister, and Braxton was not allowed to listen to secular music or wear anything but simple dresses until her mid-teens.
"We couldn't go to the movies. It was a sin. Even rated G. It was thought that it promoted witchcraft, certain G-rated movies. We couldn't go roller skating," Braxton said. "We had to wear dresses all the time. Hats a lot, long dresses, no open-toed shoes. Show no nakedness."
Braxton said she remains deeply spiritual and will always be a "P.K." — preacher's kid. The racy outfits she wears now are not a reaction against her upbringing but an effort to compensate for her 5-foot-2 height, she said.
"Showing skin makes me feel taller," Braxton said. "As a little girl I always wanted to be like the black Marilyn Monroe. She was so sexy. I always wanted to be sexy because I wasn't when I was younger.
"I think when you're short and you show skin it makes you look taller, and it gives you the illusion that you're like Cindy Crawford, that you're sexy and grand like that."
Braxton has been busy planning her wedding April 21 to Keri Lewis of the group Mint Condition, whom she met when his group opened for her on tour in 1996. She said she wants to have children right away.
"I'm very happy," Braxton said. "Financially, things are great. As horrible as I thought things were, they're just as great now. So no bankruptcy, got a great pay raise, got a great guy in my life, my parents unfortunately divorced, but they're here. They're still here.
"And I'm in a movie!"