Toni's back! Music diva returns from heart disease battle with new CD, new record company and new TV acting career

Toni's back! Music diva returns from heart disease battle with new CD, new record company and new TV acting careerSHE'S "unbreaking" her heart. A heart disease scare temporarily sidetracked her, but Toni Braxton is blasting back with a new album and a new focus on life. In fact, the happily married mother of two young boys says she has never felt better--or looked sexier.

"I don't think I've ever felt this sexy in my life," she says. Those are tall words from the diminutive star, whose vocal talents and sex appeal have propelled her to the top of the music charts and the bright lights of the Broadway marquee.

The 30-something diva says for the first time in her life she is comfortable with herself, and her comfort level is apparent in her new CD, Libra, her debut album for Blackground/Universal Records. It is her first CD since leaving Arista. Recorded in Los Angeles and New York over the last two years, it is set for an August release date.

"I've been a little nervous," she says about her relationship with the new record company. "Because this is a whole new family, a whole new way of thinking, but everyone has made me feel really comfortable." She says she and her music mentor, L.A. Reid, have smoothed over any lingering tension from her split with his label. In 1992, Reid and Babyface signed her as the first female artist on their then newly formed LaFace Records. "Actually our relationship is very good now; we talk," she says. "Sometimes you have to get away from it to appreciate the love and treasure it for what it is."

The first single, "Please," which she describes as "ghetto fabulous-yet elegant," is up-tempo, not Toni's trademark sultry ballad. "It's important to reinvent yourself," she says, trying to avoid being typecast. "You don't want to come back the same way, with the same music and the same style. I like people to discover my lyrics [and add their own interpretation]."

Unlike her previous projects, Toni didn't write as many songs on this album. "I didn't write as much, because I usually write what's going on in my life most of the time, but I'm happy, married with children and no one really cares about that," she says, laughing. "Unfortunately that's not considered 'sexy'--people want drama." She adds that many of the songs on the album are about relationship drama--something she says does not apply to her.

Toni and her husband, producer and musician Keri Lewis, one of the members of Mint Condition, celebrated their 4th wedding anniversary earlier this year in Las Vegas. "We were very naughty in : Vegas, that's like the adult Disneyland," she says, laughing. The family recently moved into a new home in Duluth, Ga., and is in the process of decorating the house that she calls "a baby castle."

Toni and Keri are planning to renew their wedding vows next year for their 5th anniversary. "He has to buy me a new ring next year," she says. "I've already picked out the setting."

And as they approach their 5th anniversary, Toni says she still loves being married. "I like the security of it," she says, and adds that she and Keri work hard to keep the spice in their marriage and work hard to keep the communication channels open.

The singer and actress says that she and her husband are "old school" and that the thought of infidelity makes her absolutely crazy, pointing out that there's no reason for either of them to cheat because they have great communication and take time for each other. "If I saw or heard that Keri was with some other girl, you would read about me being in jail," she says, laughing. "I would beat him and her--I would go crazy," she says, laughing about an imaginary tabloid headline--"Toni Braxton Jailed."

In the early days of their marriage, Toni and Keri made a pact to not be separated from each other or their children--sons Denim, 3, and Diezel, 2--for more than seven days. The boys have completely different personalities, she says. "Denim is more laid back like his Dad, and Diezel is a little more hyper like me, but they are really great kids." She says it's new technology that allows her to watch her children by computer even when she is filming on location. "I was in Toronto taping, and I could see my kids at home, sleeping or playing around the house," and the boys couldn't understand how she could call them on her cell phone to reprimand them!

Even with so much going on in Toni's life--music, Broadway, TV--she says there's no conflict between motherhood and stardom. "I think mothers can still be beautiful and sexy," she says. "It's changed from the past. I think you can be married and have children and still be sexy--it just takes your life to the next level. I'm hoping people are starting to get it."

Currently, they won't rule out adding another child to the Braxton-Lewis family, but she says, her heart scare has made her apprehensive about attempting another pregnancy.

"I'm thinking about it, but I'm just too afraid right now," she says. "I've had two C-sections, the surgery before the sections and with the heart thing, I'm just a scaredy-cat."

Only six weeks after having her second son, Diezel, by Caesarean section, Braxton was on the Broadway stage starring in Aida. She says she was "crazy tired" during the production but attributed it to her recent delivery. In the middle of the show, she told one reporter, the producers sent her to the emergency room. Following an EKG, she discovered she had pericarditis, an inflammation of the heart's lining. She told EBONY that she's fine now and no longer has to take medication--initially she was on steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs.

But she still must exercise and work out "because of the heart thing" and to help control high cholesterol. Although she is not overweight, and is in fact quite tiny, she says her heart disease is genetic, placing her at risk. "It's a thin package, but it's damaged inside," she says. "I love having my kids, but it's taxing on the body."

Following the heart scare, Braxton became this year's National Heart Association spokesperson, urging women to get checked out and get educated about heart disease.

With that scare behind her now, Toni is back to one of the things she knows best--planning a music tour, her first in seven years, to support her new album, and she plans to take her family on the road with her. She is also planning new initiatives in acting after receiving critical praise for her recurring role on the recently cancelled drama Kevin Hill. And there are plans for her to star in her own sitcom--loosely based on her own life.

"We're going to wait on my sitcom until after the album--probably next year," she says, adding that it would be too difficult to tour and promote the album at the same time.

When it comes to acting, Braxton says she chooses roles that challenge her. "I don't want to play a singer at this stage, because I want people to see me as an actress." She would love to play a villain like Charlize Theron's role in the film Monster. "I'm the kind of person whose brain has to be active, involved and learning, and acting does that for me. It's creative and new and titillates my brain."

Although she has been at the top of her game since she was a teenager singing in the choir and studying to become a teacher at Bowie State University, she still has to work hard. Her 1993 multiplatinum debut album and subsequent chart-toppers established her as one of the industry's top female artists, reportedly grossing more than $170 million for her record company. But at the peak of stardom, the award-winning singer filed for Chapter 7 protection from a reported $3.9 million debt. While enduring bankruptcy and legal troubles, she made a triumphant Broadway debut as "Belle" in the musical Beauty and the Beast. She rebounded from bankruptcy with her possessions and a reported $20 million recording contract with her old label. She has persevered and says she's a lot smarter now than she was when she started in the business.

"I'm still a little feisty, I can't deny it," she says, and although she's an industry veteran, she still has to fight for respect. "I think in the past it was harder, but now I think it's easier. Women are stronger, and we are not afraid anymore.

"I still have to fight for things in the business. I don't think it's because I'm a woman; I think it's more because people think 'Oh, you're a mommy [and you won't fight].' Well, I'm not stupid, and I'm a lot of other things, too," she adds.

Braxton adds that women's roles have expanded. She says she really loves her job, but at the end of the day, she's learned it's about "finding happiness."