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Wholesome goes wholesale

If you're a preacher's daughter, then market-friendliness comes at a price. Toni Braxton is a diva with a problem.
"I am a Type A personality," says Toni Braxton with an earnest shake of new shoulder-length locks. "I am defined by my attention to detail. The shirts in my closet are arranged blue, white, yellow etc. Type A people like things ordered - Type B exists on adrenaline and chaos. I am not quite anal, but things have to be right."

And today they indubitably are. Toni Braxton, the 28-year-old soul singer, is ensconced in the Christian Dior suite of a New York hotel mapping out her evolution from small-town church girl to post-Whitney soul pin- up. Emotionally, the journey has sometimes been fraught. She may have enough shoes to keep any Type A personality busy, but there are other, more awkward rewards of fame to be dealt with, such as the insomnia which has driven her to a sleeping-disorder clinic, and a fear of flying which will make the forthcoming promotional blitz a trial. The preacher's daughter from Severn, Maryland, who became an international ballad star after her 1993 debut album sold nine million copies, is about to release her second, Secrets.

The eldest of five girls (Traci, Towanda, Trina and Tamar will release an album under the name The Braxtons later this year), Toni was born to Methodists not keen on the sinful excesses of youth culture: nail varnish, earrings, listening to secular music programmes like Soul Train. "It was a very strict upbringing," she says, "I am a PK, a preacher's kid, all the way through. I was taught that when you marry you exchange Bibles because rings are jewellery and jewellery is sin. I had to watch Soul Train in secret."

Braxton's powerful voice was put to devotional use and she eventually left school to train as a teacher. At the time, soon after the first explosion of Whitney-mania, R&B's premier hit-makers, Antonio "LA" Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, were pondering the singular lack of divas on their LaFace label. A tape of Braxton's reached them. By 1991, the wholesome church-bred voice was being ripened for commercial exploitation with a brace of full-blown weepies, "Seven Whole Days" and "Breathe Again".

This time out things may be different. Braxton's new single, "You're Makin' Me High", is a raunchy R&B affair which pitches her into the commercial ring against bad girls like TLC. Where Braxton's previous ballad scenarios have found her mooching around in Whitney territory, content to sit by the phone or walk in the woods when the boyfriend doesn't call, the new song finds her masturbating.

"The first thing I got to say is that Babyface wrote those words, not me," she says. "I wasn't too comfortable with them to begin with and I said to Babyface, 'Aren't we going a little left here?', because it was so far from what I had done before. But I am happy with it now. Sexual fantasies are healthy. I am a young woman too. I played it to my father and he said he liked the beat. I wasn't about to draw his attention to the words. I just said nothing."

Many of America's most brazenly saucy divas, from TLC to Mary J Blige, have their lyrics supplied to them by men. However, if Babyface has dragged Braxton into the rapids of R&B outre exhibitionism with "Makin' Me High", her own take on human relations survives on two new co-written compositions, "How Could an Angel Break my Heart" and "Talking in his Sleep". These are songs of a more orthodox languor and upset but they are based on true experience and sung with conviction.

While the success of street-oriented R&B means that Braxton is being asked to enact the role of libidinous Nineties soul chick, her homely background continues to throw up problems. Already the schism between image and reality is proving troublesome. In America it is assumed that a handsome girl in possession of a multi-platinum album must be in search of a husband, and because Braxton isn't, no interview is now complete without questions about whether or not she is a lesbian. Whitney Houston, who has become something of a mentor, faced the same problem and has counselled her through it.

"I am not a lesbian, but no matter how often I say it, the question is asked. At first it used to make me angry that people kept questioning my sexual orientation and it began to affect my relationships with women. I started to get nervous about asking females over for afternoon tea in case they thought, 'Oh, she's hitting on me.' Now I've overcome that. If I was a lesbian I would just come out and say it. In this business you're either gay or a whore anyway. That's what the media would have - you're having sex with every man you're seen with, or you're gay."

She's already more wary than I remember from two previous meetings - the small-town affability is hardening to something more hack-proof. Even so, Toni Braxton is still more frank, accessible and likeable than a star of her substance conventionally needs to be.

n Toni Braxton's new single, 'You're Makin' Me High', is out on 1 July. Her album, 'Secrets', is released 15 July on Arista