"I'm always trying to be positive," says singer Toni Braxton. (Erik S. Lesser, For The Times )
Multiple Grammy-winner Toni Braxton, 43, stars in the We TV reality show, "Braxton Family Values," which gives equal time to her four singing sisters, Tamar, Towanda, Trina and Traci.
Unlike reality shows where the drama is contrived, I get the sense that your family drama goes back years. At one point you and your sisters were all equals as members of the Braxtons. How did they react to your breakout as a star?
It was very challenging age-wise, because I'm 11 years older than my youngest sister and five years older than my next sister. So when I was 18 in the group, my next sister was 13. I remember when we first signed with Arista Records and Clive Davis said, "We have a family group, and we don't know how to market them because of age differences." We did a showcase in L.A. and [LaFace Records co-founder Kenneth] "Babyface" [Edmonds] signed me. They'd just signed TLC so they weren't looking for another girl group, and my sisters said, "You sign with Babyface and then you come and help us."
What a lot of people don't know is I got my sisters a record deal on LaFace Records two years after I signed, and the person who signed them went to Atlantic Records; he took them with him. My sisters had a record that came out a few years later. It didn't do so well here in the States, but it did pretty well abroad, especially in Asia.
Has the show changed the family dynamic?
Yes. When we first started shooting, it was challenging because we were at each other's throats more than usual, I think because things were being exposed and we found that we were much more vulnerable. Other people told me that that's something that happens [when you're in a reality show] that no one talks about. It's more challenging because we're family. If you don't know the other person and you go back home, you're by yourself, but we're enmeshed together.
Did the producers fan the flames of conflict?
No. We're very lucky. Every show is 100% real.
Why did you do the show?
Two reasons. At first I said no. But my sister Tamar said, "You should use this to tell your story." Because I had those financial issues. She said, "Stop letting other people tell your story. Use this show to tell what really happened."
The second reason is — this is a true story — we were playing Monopoly. She had Park Place and I lost. I owed her like $2,800. And she said, "If you do the show, I won't make you pay the money you owe." And she held me to it.
What do you want the public to know about your two bankruptcies?
What a lot of people don't know is my  bankruptcy was because of illness. I have heart disease, but it's because I have lupus. So I had to cancel my Vegas show and all the upcoming concerts. The doctors said I'd probably never be able to perform like that again and do 10 shows in two weeks' time. It was too much for my body.
I canceled the show, and that happened in 2008. I couldn't work. I'm slowly getting my body ready. I went to Russia in the [reality] show, but I haven't been able to do five shows in one week. I also have chronic fatigue episodes, so I have to be very careful of recurring pericarditis. I read somewhere that I owed BMW. I don't own a BMW. If they really look at the ledger they'll see things like, she owes lighting companies, staging companies, set companies. Vegas shows are very expensive. I don't think people understand that the person headlining the show, that's your show. You pay for the lights, you pay for the stage, you pay the unions. So I had all these outstanding contracts when I canceled.
And everyone says, but this is your second bankruptcy, but they don't know. My royalty statement after "Unbreak My Heart" and that big album, "Secrets," was less than $2,000.
How is that possible?
It's just the way the music business is. Let's say you get 35 cents a record. The record company spent $20 million on your project. You have to pay all that money they invested, and what's left over, you get. Then they give you an advance on the future, which puts you further and further in debt. So I was forced to file bankruptcy, but I had to sign a gag order immediately.
But I'm very lucky. My case was a pioneering case for artists. [Bankruptcy law held that] if [a recording] artist files for bankruptcy, all contracts will be null and void, except for your recording contract. And Congress [tossed out that exception in bankruptcy reform legislation]. So my case helped a lot of other artists. I was not trying to be a pioneer. Let me raise my hand to that. However, it worked out, it helped others.
The show followed you when you went public with your lupus in November. You said you were worried that it would hurt your career if people knew you had it. Did it?
Yeah, it did. When I found out I had lupus, everyone told me don't tell anyone because of my line of business. They knew I had heart disease, but they didn't know it was [caused by] lupus. Everyone is much more comfortable when you have heart disease. They're educated about that. But when I mentioned the word "lupus" to people, they were like "oh, my God." In my line of business, if a promoter is promoting me to do a show, I could have a flare[-up], and I'd have to cancel the show. I can get insurance, but it's incredibly expensive.
What are you going to do going forward?
I'm just taking it slow. I'm always trying to be positive. I talk about [lupus] because I'm trying to educate people, and it also helps me, but I don't want to be a victim. I have lupus, but it doesn't have me. I'm trying to live until my 80s or 90s and see my great-grandkids. I can't wait to go to the prom again. So it's OK.