Toni Braxton finds her 'Pulse'

Soulstress un-breaks hearts with her first album in five years - and opens her own to the gays

By Chris Azzopardi

Toni Braxton's loving the ladies. Regardless of lesbian rumors that swirled around years ago, the R&B singer who rode a massive wave to superstardom with the ubiquitous mid-'90s ballad "Un-Break My Heart" isn't ashamed to mack on fly females. Or dish on her dramatic family, which we'll see more of during her upcoming Bravo reality show. Or tell you that her sultry voice - one of robust power that's nabbed her numerous Grammys - tinkers with Auto-Tune on her first album in five years, "Pulse."

Whatever it is, Braxton's not one to hide it - and in our interview, the singer was very vocal about the gays making her a better woman, the fresh batch of female artists and Ellen DeGeneres being man enough for her.

Would you call this a comeback?

I'd call it anything you want to call it! I'm just really glad to be back at work again, because I didn't think I'd ever be. For me, it's a really great moment.

Do you feel like you have to find your place again because of all the female artists dominating the charts in recent years, like Lady Gaga and Rihanna?

No, I don't really feel that. Though, they're two of my favorite artists. Huge fan of theirs. But my counterparts are people like Mariah and Mary J. Blige, and artists like that have kept it to where artists from the '90s can still maintain and be a part of the group as well. I'm very grateful for them for keeping it going for me.

It was all about the voice in the '90s. Less so now, when everything is so digitally enhanced.

I use a little bit of it. It has helped me here and there. Thank goodness for technology!

How do you feel the female artist pool has changed since that decade?

The industry's pretty much still the same. It's always about the bottom line, which is unfortunate and can sometimes take away from the creativity. What's great is the newer artists get to be a little bit more creative. Like Gaga, she doesn't care. She does what she wants and I love that, especially being a girl. A lot of times people want to put you in a box if you're a girl, and she's like, "I'm a girl, but I can look sexy, I can wear what I want, I can think for myself. I don't need you to think for me." I love that about the newer artists.

The video for the second single, "Make My Heart," is so gay. How conscious were you of your gay fans when you made "Pulse"?

I love my boys because my boys help me be a better girl. My choreographer and my video director are gay, and they've been my best friends since I started in the industry. They tell me, "No, no, no, girl. You don't walk like that anymore. Girls walk like this." I'm like, "We do?! What else do we do?" They're my favorite part of the whole industry.

When did you first know you had a gay following?

"Un-Break My Heart." I guess that's when we recognized all the support. And it was really wonderful. So when we did "Make My Heart" we had no idea that was the audience that was going to love it most.

Have you seen drag queens do "Un-Break My Heart"?

Oh yes! I definitely have (laughs). And "He Wasn't Man Enough," which is wonderful.

What should drag queens keep in mind when they're doing "Un-Break My Heart"?

Keep the hips really tight and to the side. Gyrate a little more. But I love the lip service that they give, so I have incorporated some of that in my live performances.

And isn't it also about the hand when you're hitting the money note?

(Laughs) Yes! Thank you for that. Very important to use the hand for the high notes.

You've been dealt some hardships recently with your heart condition, your son's autism and your separation late last year.

Everything!

Will that be reflected on "Pulse"?

A little bit of my health with the song "Pulse." I made it, of course, about love. Sometimes you think love's dead and that one little heartbeat gives you that spark to go for it again. There's also a song called "Woman" where I'm talking to guys, telling them what women want, and that's personal with me going through a separation. There's "Why Won't You Love Me," and I think everyone knows the feeling of when they're in a relationship and you're the one who gives a little more than the other person: "Why won't you love? I make love to you, I cook for you, what else can I do to make you love me?" It's more of a purging moment.

You grew up in a strict, religious household, where your father was a clergyman. How did that shape your feelings on gay people?

Oh gosh, when I was younger everything was about the Bible. They believed that women shouldn't wear pants, so I never wore pants until I was 14. I didn't listen to secular music. It was very old school. But when I got older, I learned things for myself.

How are you raising your kids then?

There's one little kid in one of my son's classes and my son said, "Mommy, he acts like a girl. Will I act like a girl?" I'm like, "It's not that he acts like a girl; he acts like himself. It's not something you can become. You're born a way, and it's OK because people are born different ways."

I teach them that there's nothing wrong with that. Kids are different nowadays. They aren't close-minded like my parents' generation was or how I was initially taught to be.

Will your Bravo reality show that's set to air in the fall be more "Being Bobby Brown" or Kathy Griffin's "My Life on the D-List"?

I don't know. I've never done a show like this before. It's called "Braxton Family Values," like "Addams Family Values," and it's about myself and my entire family. It's so much drama because there are so many different opinions. I'm the person in my family who's most successful and I don't like to say head butting, but some of my sisters are like, "I wish I had that!" And some of my sisters are like, "I'm fine with my life being this way."

Everyone wants them to be Toni Braxton's sister, and when I'm hot, they're hot and when I'm not, they're not. It's about how I feel being an artist, being the most successful person in my family and how it affects the other family members. It's going to be a very animated show to say the least.

Early in your career there were lesbian rumors that you denied. Remember that?

I do remember that!

Now that you've gone through a couple of men, have you changed your mind?

(Laughs)

I have a few girl crushes, like, "Mmm, she's kind of cute" or "Gosh, I love her body." I have a terrible crush on Ellen (DeGeneres) and everyone around me knows it. She makes me laugh, and she's girl enough and dude enough at the same time. And I love Salma Hayek.

With reality shows like "American Idol," artists are being discovered a lot differently than before. Are the days of being discovered singing at a gas pump over?

That's really a true story! Let's see, Lana Turner got discovered in a drug store, so the old school way can still apply because if you're at the right place at the right time - and I was singing all over the city and they saw me there - it could happen.

You're such a tease in the "Hands Tied" video. Are you one in real life?

When I was younger I was probably a tease because sex before marriage was a bad thing. I had to let that go, too! (Laughs) Not as much being older, but I can be a tease when I need to be. But I haven't been practicing because I'm separated.

Now's the best time to practice.

Exactly!

Your Twitter page lists you as a cake-maker. Would you consider opening up a bakery?

I love cooking and baking cakes, but oh god, "Ace of Cakes"? Not for me! I'm not that good. However, I do like to bake a lot, so I can make a guy - whomever I'm with - very, very happy.

Hear that guys?

Or girls even!

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