- Singer Toni Braxton hopes that ‘peering back at my past heartbreaks will ultimately lead to healing’ in her new memoir
- As a kid, her parents joined the Pilar of Truth congregation where women had to ‘cover their nakedness’ by wearing full stockings in the summer
- ‘I’d always been shaped like a gymnast – size double A breasts and thunder thighs
- Despite five Grammys by the end of 1997, her debts totaled nearly $4 million and she had to file for bankruptcy.She cried and ate Twizzlers and Kit Kats
- Because she used Accutane for her acne, a drug that has since been banned, she had an abortion for fear of birth defects
- When boyfriend New England Patriots running back told her ‘We shouldn’t touch each other below the neck,’ she was ‘completely heartbroken’
Toni Braxton is a survivor. She grew up poor, and her parents’ religious cult forced her to speak in tongues. She hated her wide nose and tiny breasts. She’s had to declare bankruptcy twice. She’s divorced, has an autistic son, and has been diagnosed with Lupus, a debilitating chronic inflammatory disease.
But in spite of all the trials and tribulations, Braxton is considered one of the best R&B singers around, with six Grammy awards under her belt.
Now Braxton has written a memoir describing her tumultuous life, Unbreak My Heart, published by It Books, an imprint of Harper Collins. ‘I’m looking ahead with that ultimate hope – that peering back at my past heartbreaks will ultimately lead to healing’, she writes in her memoir.
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A star is born: Because of her parents joining the Pillar of Truth congregation, Toni couldn’t go roller-skating or go to a movie. That left singing in the choir
Boob job: Toni admits her tiny boobs made her so unhappy she she had a boob job. ‘Before I got the breast implants, my stylist would use duct tape beneath my tiny boobs to make it look like I had cleavage’, she reveals. She adds that she regrets not getting lipo on her thighs
Toni’s life began in Severn, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore, in a two-bedroom trailer with turquoise shutters. Her grandmother was ninety percent Caucasian, and her grandfather, Frances Braxton, half African-American and half Native American, was a descendant of Carter Braxton, the Virginia delegate who signed the Declaration of Independence.
Her father, Michael. was living in Baltimore when he met 15-year old Evelyn Jackson at a YMCA dance in Severn. He was in love and married the young girl from Cayce, South Carolina who had been sent up to live in Severn with an aunt.
Less than a year after the couple tied the knot in 1966, Toni would be the first baby of five daughters and a son.
Her parents didn’t have much money but her mother brought her southern lifestyle up north and grew collard greens and tomatoes in the backyard for her soul food cooking. She also led the family on a spiritual search out of the Baptist faith and into a rigid Apostolic Pentecostal congregation, Pillar of Truth.
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Meet the Braxtons: Front row from left: Evelyn (Mom), Tamar, Michael Sr. (Dad). Back row from left: Trina, Toni, Towanda, Traci, Michael Jr. (aka Mikey)
Women had to ‘cover their nakedness’ by wearing only skirts or dresses, full stockings even in the summer and no holidays were acknowledged – or ‘You’re going to hell’!
‘I began connecting religion, God and church with judgment, anxiety and guilt’, Toni writes.
Her salvation was singing in the Sunshine Band, the children’s church choir. Yes, Lawd, that child can sang’! the congregation said.
There were so many religious restrictions that it left little else for children to do. Toni couldn’t go roller-skating because that music was evil. Going to a movie was a sin. Drinking was ungodly.
You had to be prepared for rapture to come at any time and the goal was to be ‘saved’ and stay obedient, which required being baptized and speaking in tongues. That was the evidence that you were on your way to heaven.
Oh baby: Toni fell hard for Keri Lewis, a keyboardist and producer. They married in 2001 and she had son Denim eight months later. She had gotten pregnant before but decided to have an abortion because she was taking Accutane for acne, a drug that has since been taken off the market for causing birth defects
At eight years old, Toni faked speaking in tongues and quickly learned that ‘the ties that bound us together became the ties that strangled us’, she writes. ‘Our family had fallen into religious extremism’.
Their spiritual pursuit alientated Toni from other children her age. Her clothes were homely, her mother fixed her hair in a ponytail right on top of her head, and her studies suffered with so many siblings at home. Her parents could not focus on enforcing the children to study
Her parents’ religious journey took them through two more repressive churches before they landed at an organization called Truth Foundation. Despite the repression, the family learned that the girls could sing – Trina, Traci, Tamar, Towanda and Toni — and they performed at area churches.
Toni became known as the girl who sounded like Anita Baker.
She went through a variety of jobs and onto to college, transferring often because she really didn’t want to be a college student. She wanted to pursue music.
Sister to sister: Toni (center) felt enormous guilt about leaving her four sisters behind as she rode the wave of success. The successful reality show Braxton Family Values helped alleviate her guilt
She hooked up with a fledgling producer by night, gas station attendant by day, Bill Pettaway – who made a demo that lead to the first deal of the singing Braxton sisters in the summer of 1988 with a song, The Good Life.
Pettaway then introduced her to Ernesto Phillips, a singer who also had his own production company. He produced the demo, ‘Good Life’ and sent it off to Arista Records, the record company that had signed Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston and Barry Manilow. To their amazement, the girls were signed and their song hit the radio airwaves in 1990.
It was a bomb.
With a decade’s difference in ages and voices of the sisters, the producers did not know how to make the group work so they decided to go with one Braxton – Toni.
Walking away from a family civil war and the admonition of her mother whose mantra was ‘Don’t forget about your sisters’, Toni signed with LaFace Records as a singer/songwriter.
‘For a girl who’d just scored a record deal with two of the biggest names in the business, I actually felt very lonely’. Her mountain of guilt was growing.
With some money in the bank, she got a nose job in 1992.
‘I’d been wanting to change my nose for years – I wanted it to be less broad. But because of the conservative ideas I was raised with, I struggled with the thought of altering my body’.
‘And of course, I later got my boobies done. I’d always been shaped like a gymnast – size double A breasts and thunder thighs. In fact, I wish I would’ve had lipo on my inner thighs. I’ve always hated them’.
Devoted mom: Toni with sons Denim Cole Braxton-Lewis (left) and Diezel Braxton-Lewis. Diezel has been diagnosed with autism
But with her new breasts – ‘I loved how they looked. At last – Homely Toni Braxton had some curves. Before I got the breast implants, my stylist would use duct tape beneath my tiny boobs to make it look like I had cleavage’.
To this day, I am still happy I got that nose job. Yes, I wish I’d gotten it smaller, but the new nose did fit my face so much better’.
‘Now people started asking, ‘Who’s the short girl with the chubby cheeks, the pixie haircut, and the big ol’ butt? I never thought I had a big butt —though I do have Serena Williams thighs’.
Advised by her manager that a little flirting and hanging out with guys might improve her business relationships, she started dating her producer’s (L. A. Reid) brother, Bryant Reid. But it was an empty gesture. She didn’t really like the guy and let the relationship go too far. He was getting more interested and she was angry with herself for hanging in so long.
Driving home one night, they got into an argument and she swerved the car up onto the curb.
‘Never in my life had I wished that another human being would die’. With that surge of rage, she ended it. ‘For the first time in my adult life, I took a stand for myself’, she writes.
The colorful Braxtons: Their reality show, Braxton Family Values, has been renewed for a fourth season by WE network
Life was changing fast. In 1993, she was the newest R&B artist getting buzz for her talent and she received a Soul Train Music Award – ‘from the show that first inspired me to dream’.
Her producer bought her a baby-blue Porsche. ‘My private life was pretty ordinary, but whenever I went out in public, I suddenly felt like I was living the glamorous life’.
That didn’t last long before her guilt resurfaced when she thought about her accomplishments that excluded her sisters. But winning Grammys and jumping into stardom was her consolation.
She experimented with marijuana when someone passed her a blunt. She took it home and put it away in a shoebbox until a couple of nights later and decided to smoke the entire joint at one sitting. She loved it – ‘at least the first few times I smoked.
‘I would watch the Chinese channel and think I actually understood what the actors were saying’! She continued to smoke weed until a panic attack made her decide to finally quit.
Her first big financial payday came in 1996 with an advance on future recordings that came to a whopping $1.6 million before paying taxes, agents, lawyers, managers – which left her $600,000. So she started spending.
She bought a house, a mahogany Schimmel piano, leased a Jeep Cherokee. She began sleeping in the double suite penthouse at the Four Seasons in New York. ‘My only regret was having no one to share the room with me’.
Pass: Toni was getting serious with Curtis Martin, a running back for the New England Patriots and they shared religious beliefs. But when Curtis wanted no touching below the neck Toni was heartbroken and called it quits
Clive Davis, the famed record producer and music industry executive, wanted her to go out on tour with saxophonist Kenny G. so she could develop the same crossover appeal as Whitney Houston and develop a white audience.
But she needed to work with black promoters as well.
She tried backing out of the tour but it was too late; tickets were being sold. When the tour ended, she had to borrow a million dollars from Arista to pay for the band, the sets, lights, background singers and dancers, wardrobe.
During the tour, she hooked up with Curtis Martin, a football running back who played for the New England Patriots. He was just coming into a religious awakening and they shared a mutual bizarre spiritual connection.
Several weeks in the relationship, Curtis asked her how she felt about waiting. They had only been kissing and hugging.
‘For me, sex is for when you get married’, he said. ‘I can’t wait to make love to my wife one day’.
In early 1998, around the time of her first bankruptcy, Curtis was very supportive ‘but then things started to get weird in other ways’, she writes. He had new restriction on touching and started saying ‘We shouldn’t touch each other below the neck’.
Helping hand: Toni didn’t get much help at home with her schoolwork, but she makes sure to give her son Diezel the support he needs
‘We’d be making out, and all of a sudden, he’d just stop. ‘That could lead to other things’, he’d say.’ But Toni needed some physical consolation and they were sleeping in the same bed.
When she flew into Pittsburgh to spent time with him, he announced that ‘Jesus told me we had to break up. God told me that we shouldn’t be together anymore. I can best serve you as your friend’.
‘Huh? We’re friends now’, she protested. ‘We’re not lovers – we haven’t even been intimate’!
‘I flew back to Los Angeles feeling numb and confused. I was completely heartbroken…’
‘Once home, I curled up in my bedroom and cried like a little kid…’
Nothing was going right. She couldn’t keep up with payments she owed Arista. She sold her home in Atlanta and moved to LA but she still needed to borrow more money to pay for the tour.
After Arista deducted their costs and production of the album that was selling with the hit Un-Break My Heart, her royalty check was $2000.
Despite five Grammys, five American Music Awards and three MTV Video Music Awards at the end of 1997, her debts totaled nearly $4 million.
She had to sue her producer and Arista and file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. She had signed a bad contract that allowed the record company to collect marketing costs of her albums from her instead of underwriting the expenses themselves.
‘Even though I was trying to act strong, I felt broken.’ She cried her way through her depression and ate Twizzlers and Kit Kats.
She finally reached an agreement with the label and Toni received $20 million. But then there were agents, managers, and attorneys to pay, along with taxes. She moved back to Atlanta.
Music to our ears: The sonstress has won five Billboard Music Awards, six Grammy Awards and seven American Music Awards
Love was in the cards this time and she fell hard for Keri Lewis, a keyboardist and producer. She got pregnant but decided that the baby should be aborted because she was taking Accutane for acne, a drug that has since been taken off the market.
She had signed a waiver at the time she got the prescription, saying she understood possible catastrophic side effects of deformation of a fetus for up to two years after ceasing to take the drug.
Toni had an abortion and another wave of guilt consumed her. ‘In my heart, I believed I had taken a life – an action that I thought God might one day punish me for’.
Keri proposed at the same time Toni’s father was divorcing her mother and marrying the company secretary at Baltimore Gas and Electric. Keri and Toni married in 2001 and eight months later had a baby boy, Denim. Two years later, she would have a second baby boy, Diezel.
Breaking out of just recording albums, Toni took the leading role in Aida on Broadway after playing in Beauty and the Beast. The work was exhausting. She fainted on stage and thought it was simply exhaustion.
Her doctor diagnosed it as periocarditis, an inflammation of the sac that surrounds the heart. He also told her he believed her periocarditis was caused by lupus, an autoimmune disorder that causes the body’s immune system to attack healthy tissue. She didn’t believe him. Enough tests didn’t validate that diagnosis – so she thought.
Braxton signed on to do a show in Vegas and enrolled her boys in school in Sin City. She was in the midst of a rehearsal at the Flamingo Hotel when she got a call from the school that something was wrong with her youngest son, Diezel.
After weeks of testing, he was diagnosed with autism. Symptoms appeared within weeks after having an MMR vaccine, an immunization against measles, mumps and rubells – now a controversial issue as to whether or not the vaccine contributes to autism.
Unboken: ‘I’m looking ahead with that ultimate hope — that peering back at my past heartbreaks will ultimately lead to healing¿, Toni Braxton writes in her new memoir Unbreak My Heart
‘I have sometimes wondered whether God was punishing me for the abortion I had years ago by allowing my son to have autism. Or by giving me so many health issues’, she writes.
Her health kept deteriorating with the pressure to perform and stress over her deteriorating marriage.
Toni needed weekly iron transfusions but she was still exhausted. She was rushed to the hospital with symptoms of a heart attack.
Two weeks later, the diagnosis was in — lupus, and it was attacking her heart. That was the underlying cause of the exhaustion she’d experienced for years.
Divorce was inevitable, she writes, but Toni and her ex have but remained friends. A second Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing was also inevitable.
She was now being sued to cover the cost of the cancelled shows at the Flamingo. She was the producer and the insurance company was not going to pick up the cost because she failed to list her health conditions. She had also taken out a personal loan for millions to launch the Vegas show
She lost her home in Vegas. The bank foreclosed on her home in Atlanta and she moved into a rented home in LA.
Following the diagnosis of lupus, she thought it best not to disclose her condition thinking people wouldn’t hire her or want to be associated with her. ‘But carrying such a big secret is a form of bondage – and above all else, I want to be free’, Toni declares.
She’s now on the drug Kenalog, a steroid for the lupus. She also gets shots that cause her face to balloon up.
To work out her guilt over leaving her sisters behind years ago, she agreed to do the reality show, Braxton Family Values with her sisters in 2011 and is still on the air going strong.
‘My job is done. Braxton Family Values is the final punctuation mark on a sentence of guilt that has gone on for too many years—since that day in 1991 when my mother told me, “Don’t forget your sisters”.’
and published by It Books, an imprint of Harper Collins is available on amazon today.