When you have seven Grammys and an iconic voice that can drop to ocean depths, it’s your God-given right to also have a no-wings-in-my-dressing-room policy. This is Toni Braxton in 2018, still decrying the existence of pungent food in her midst before a concert. But sex? Cigars? Alkaline water? Unbreak Ms. Braxton’s heart with any of the above.
While talking up her first solo album in eight years, Sex & Cigarettes, the 50-year-old R&B diva was in tell-all mode, whether the topic of discussion was the current generation’s outspoken female artists, the Mariah and Janet duets that might’ve been (thanks a lot, bankruptcy and babies!), or the secret — hint: nose job — behind hitting those famous notes.
That album cover, Toni. You’re on fire.
Thank you. I feel good about it. You know, I was hungry while I was doing that. That was a little hard. But I love the album cover. I thought [photographer and director] Randee St Nicholas’s choice of lighting was really superb.
How would you describe your mood there?
It’s self-explanatory with that title: I’m feeling like sex and cigarettes. I feel sexy, like I need a puff afterwards.
I smoke cigars once or twice a year. Every year for my birthday I do, and sometimes around the holidays. Smoking is not my friend, with lupus and all, but you have to have a vice or two. A nice stogie, something I can chew. Something really hardy.
You’re known for the deep end of your range, so a few puffs can’t hurt.
My voice is naturally smoky. But when I do the cigars, it’s for my birthday, and I try not to work on my birthday. If I do [work], after my show I do a little puff-puff. Not a puff-puff-pass!
Some commenters on social media aren’t keen on what you’re wearing on the album cover. One wrote, “We as older women have to set an example for younger women.”
Oh, that’s cute. It doesn’t really bother me. I think if you look good, you can wear it. Any age. For me, personally, I don’t wear midriffs. I think I’m too old to wear midriffs. To each his own. It’s just me, my body shape, I’m sure. But I work hard on my body — not just because I’m older, because I like to be in great health. And it’s OK for people to have their opinion. I have my opinion, too, on things that I probably shouldn’t. But I would never post it.
Can you talk about the pressure on you and other women to dress and look a certain way? Have those industry expectations changed with age?
Gosh, you know, I feel forever 25. It’s kind of weird. Parts of me are 25. Probably. [Laughs.] I feel good about myself. In this industry, I would be disappointed if women [tried to tell other women how to dress]. I mean, guys don’t know, but women — we should embrace each other. I look at Madonna; she’s still doing it, and Madonna’s almost 60. Who cares? Or look at me, Janet [Jackson] or Halle Berry. We’re all in the same group. So, I think it’s all about how you feel about yourself. I like that now people look younger than their age. I think that people today really see people; they’re thinking [about] age less and aren’t thinking numbers. Numbers, to me, just determine how long you’ve been on the Earth. But I’m OK with it. The women’s movement, to me, is great. I’m excited about that part.
I’m really excited about that because my generation in the ’90s, when I peaked, when my career was at its height, we were taught to be a little aloof. You had to be mysterious. The younger generation, which I love, they’re my favorite because they speak as loud as they want. They’re like, “We will not be missed.” Rihanna, she’s my favorite. I just love that about the new generation. It’s just nice to live your life out loud.
How are the #MeToo stories resonating with you?
I think it’s good, I think it’s about time. It doesn’t only affect women, though. I mean, I’ve heard guys who’ve been in situations where they can say “me too,” but guys feel like they can’t say it. I like that people are [now] able to speak out about things that have happened to them, like, “We’re not having it anymore.” But as a woman, I’m proud of my species.
Do you have a #MeToo story?
I don’t have a #MeToo story, thank goodness. I have close friends who have stories. Most of them have chosen not to talk about it because they have kids, and they’re like, “It’s behind me, but it happened to me too.” But I’m very lucky that I don’t have any stories like that.
Going back to the elusiveness of ’90s artists: Did that stop you from being yourself?
Early on I was allowed to be myself and express myself through fashion. I always kind of pushed the envelope on my sexuality. I think it’s definitely different rules for women, compared to rules for guys. And we had to ride the wave a little bit, the women of our generation; if we said anything, we were being a bitch. Of course now it’s just a term of endearment: “That bitch is hot.” And even now the word “diva” is coming back in style, and it’s OK to be a diva. It’s a great moment to be a girl.
Are you a diva?
Oh, all of us are sometimes, absolutely.
What are you most diva-ish about?
I am very, very particular about my [set up] when I go on stage. I don’t like having to adjust my mic when I start performing. I think it’s tacky. Instead of starting off singing, you gotta adjust your mic because they think you’re 5′6″. I’m 5′1″ and three-fourths. You would think my people would know that, but sometimes they forget.
That doesn’t seem like too much to ask. It’s not like you’re requesting a specific brand of water.
Well, I’m particular about that, too, sometimes. As long as it’s high alkaline, [I’m OK], but I think the world is about that water now. But they know that, so they get it. I don’t really have this big rider [I attach to my contract for a performance]. I don’t have anything like that. But I don’t like food in my [dressing] room. Do not have food in my room! I do not want to go on stage smelling like food.
About Sex & Cigarettes: I hear a lot of people have different takes on the title of your song “Deadwood,” and are asking you, “Toni, why is the wood dead?” Why do I have a hunch these people might be your gay friends?
[Laughs.] Yes, they are.
Tell me more.
They were asking me that! But it’s just an appropriate title! I know what deadwood is; I lived in Maryland. And being in the suburbs, as kids, you would see the wood and kick it. “Don’t bring that deadwood in the house.” So, for me, it makes sense and it’s something you just disregard and throw away. You didn’t care about it. But a lot of people were asking me, “Why the wood dead?” And I guess they’ve got a point.
You told me once that your gay boys make you a better girl.
It’s so true. Sometimes I forget to be a girl; I forget to keep it feminine. But my boys remind me to be a girl, to be fabulous about it: “Why are you standing like that? Why are you standing with your shoulders down?” The little things. They just remind me to be a girl. I love it.
The cover of your debut album, with your short hair, denim and that leather jacket, wasn’t exactly your most femme moment.
That is true. That’s kind of the ’90s — when it was still coming off the ’80s. It was a bit more pookie then.
Do you have a gay posse you have to consult before you release new music?
It’s more about my look. My boys usually get my look together for me. I have height envy: I like a particular type of shoe so I can be taller. And they’ll go, “We have to find something [else] that will give you height because those platforms are out. Stop wearing those.” But I wanna be 5′6″. I try to keep it taller and keep current. But they say: “You gotta be ahead of the season, Toni. You can’t do that. We should do this look. OK, we’ll let you [wear] that little thing because that’s kind of indicative of who you are as an artist, so we’ll give you that one dated thing.” They keep me up with the times.
What was the last really dated thing you couldn’t live without?
I wear sweatsuits with high-heeled shoes all the time. You’ll never catch me in a sweatsuit without a high-heeled shoe. I’ll never wear sneakers unless I’m going to the gym.
2018 marks your 25th year in the music business; your first album was released in 1993. I was a little gay boy when I bought it on cassette tape.
You did not say cassette tape. That’s taking me back.
What don’t people know about the making of your debut?
Well, it was just before I got my nose job. Might be too much information, but yeah: We hadn’t finished the album, so I was singing with a fresh nose job, which [was] virtually impossible because it hurt so bad. I don’t know how they do nose jobs now; I think they do it from the inside. Well, [mine] was from the inside too, but you had to wear this little thing on it, and after they took it off, it was so sore. You can’t hardly move the skin between your nose and lips, and I remember it was really difficult to sing.
Did it become easier to hit the high notes or the low notes after the nose job?
The high notes got easier. I had rhinoplasty, but I also had sinus surgery. I know, everybody says that! But it’s really true. Mine was a nose job, but I lucked out, and my doctor fixed my sinuses as well. I didn’t go in there for my sinuses — no. I went in to get my nose fixed, and they also fixed my sinuses. So, I’m telling the truth. Truth: I went in for a nose job. OK, pumpkin?
The jeans [on the cover] were really too big for me, and they were pretty much cabled in the back. That was a true story. So many little tidbits I could tell.
Why did we get a Whitney and Mariah duet and never a Mariah and Toni duet?
You know, Mariah reached out to me about doing a duet, but unfortunately, it was just before the bankruptcy was gonna happen [Braxton filed for bankruptcy in 1998, and again in 2010], but no one in the world knew. So when she asked me about doing a song together, immediately I wanted to say yes, but I couldn’t because of what was about to unfold.
Why aren’t you calling her right now?
I’m gonna have to do that. There was talk of me and Janet doing a song together, but she was pregnant. But, hey, maybe me and Mariah. We were neighbors for a second, so I probably should’ve reached out to her then, but it’s never too late. You’re actually gonna spark me to maybe talk to her about doing a remix or something. That’s actually a really good idea.
What advice would “Sex & Cigarettes” Toni have for the Toni of 25 years ago?
“Sex and Cigarettes” Toni would tell the Toni of 25 years ago to have more sex and smoke more cigars and have fun. And don’t be afraid to be a bitch.