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Can Toni Braxton un-break her career?

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Bret Michaels did it. Bobby Brown did it too, to much less success. So did Paula Abdul. The preferred vehicle for a musical comeback is not on the charts any more but on reality television.

The latest to join that rich tradition is Toni Braxton, the Severn native who was one of the highest-selling artists of the 1990s but has seen her sales droop to dramatic lows, just 145,000 units for last year's "Pulse."

In the last decade she has also taken personal blows, a multimillion-dollar bankruptcy filed earlier this year being the most recent to attract unflattering attention from the tabloids.

The singer says "Braxton Family Values," which premieres Tuesday on We TV and revolves around her life with her sisters, is an attempt to take ownership of her media narrative and return to the spotlight she has ceded to younger stars.

"My sisters kept telling me, come 2011, you have to start telling your story. Everyone knows about your financial woes, your bankruptcies, but they don't know what really happened," she says. "In the end, I'm glad I did it."

The jury is still out on the impact of reality TV on a flagging music career. The path to a comeback is littered with stars who didn't fare much better than a token slot on "Celebrity Apprentice" or "Dancing with the Stars." Tellingly, Braxton's already done the latter. She placed sixth in 2008, bested by Cloris Leachman.

Makeba Riddick — the recently Grammy-nominated Baltimore songwriter who worked on Braxton's "Pulse" album — says it's her best bet.

"It's just where we are. Everything is reality TV," she says. "I think with Toni, it's helping her to get her audience back, to keep her relevant."

Advertised as an intimate look at Braxton's life, "sibling rivalry, man drama, bankruptcy, a DUI and much more," the show delivers on that premise.

In the first episode Traci, Towanda, Tamar, Trina and Evelyn, the family matriarch, squabble, sun-tan, toast champagne, and lounge on the private plane they've rented to fly to the Bermudas.

Tamar shows herself to be a student of the genre. She shrieks and pouts and generally plays the part of histrionic diva better than Countess LuAnn de Lesseps herself.

We TV, which has taken a page out of the Bravo handbook, has been building up its reality TV programming and was looking for a follow-up to their just-finished Joan and Melissa Rivers show.

John Miller, a senior vice president, said the network was attracted to the show because of the backstage dynamic of the sisters.

"Our series showcase women in real-life situations with all the raw emotion and chaos that comes with it," he wrote via email.

Mainly set in Atlanta, the show is less interested in the music. When Braxton does sing in the first episode, it's a modest coda after an hour of the typical sturm und drang of the genre.

It finds the singer far from the stratospheric heights of the '90s, when she was a musical supernova, on par with Madonna and Mariah Carey at dominating the radio waves.

Guided by mega producers L.A. Reid and Babyface, she created a unique blend of R&B and pop that broke through the pop-dominated charts of the time.

"Whitney was doing straight pop. Then you had other artists, like Mary J. Blige, who was straight R&B, very urban," Riddick says. "Toni bridged those two."

The new sound was combined with her voice, a sultry, almost hushed alto that lent songs like "Un-Break my Heart" a quiet drama, but that also surprised listeners by hitting sky-high notes.

"The singing that everyone's raving about today, the Jennifer Hudsons, Fantasias?" says Gail Mitchell, senior R&B editor at Billboard magazine. "That's what Toni was doing in the '90s in the wake of Whitney and other real singing singers."

Braxton's self-titled album spent three weeks atop the R&B/hip-hop albums chart. And over the course of the decade, she had four No. 1's on that chart and five top-10 albums on the Billboard 200, Mitchell notes.

But the last decade has been criminal on her personal and professional life, as she allows in the show's opening close-up. She filed for a second bankruptcy, discovered that one of her sons is autistic and separated from her husband.

She's also says she's been affected by health issues — a heart condition and lupus — that prevented her from furthering her career and committing to projects.

"My career is on hiatus by choice," she says. "I don't look at it as a low point. In any career there's ups and downs. It's been a really tough three years."

Even before that, she was at a generational impasse. Like many '90s contemporaries — Janet Jackson, Boys II Men, among them — she wasn't able to transition to the 2000s with the same strength.

In fact, since 2000's "Heat," which moved 2 million copies, she's been shedding listeners by the millions. Her follow-up to that album sold 243,000 copies, and last year's "Pulse" sold 145,000, a career low, according to Nielsen Soundscan

DJ Tim Watts of Baltimore's Magic 95.9 says the new material hasn't translated into sales because she's gone after the hard-edged sound that would get her played on hip-hop stations like 92Q instead of playing to her roots.

"Toni is no longer hip. She's basically an adult contemporary artist now," he says. "The 35-to-50 bracket is where her audience is," Watts says. It's only on stations like his, he says, that her old material gets played alongside R&B stalwarts Luther Vandross and Anita Baker.

Mitchell says that overall industry trends have cut into Braxton's sales as well but that her fortunes come down to her choice of material.

"Whitney's gone through the same thing. Janet Jackson's is the same. For the ladies of the '90s, the questions is 'How do you evolve?'" Mitchell says. "It depends on the song, You can't pretend to be something you're not. You can't go back and try to appeal to the kids by being a copy of what's out there. You have to stay true to what you are."

Braxton says she did not pursue the show to revive her flagging career. She says the idea for this one came from her sister Tamar, who has wanted a show since 2007.

She says doesn't even watch that much reality TV save for the "Top Model" shows.

"This is not going to help my financial problems. It's not the kind of money you get paid for a show like this," she says. "I just said 'yes' because I thought it was absolutely right what my sisters said. I've never told my story about financial woes, and I was ready to tell my story."

But it's usually at low points like this one that other artists have turned to welcoming environs of reality TV.

Mitchell, who's not ready to write her off, says Braxton is a hit song away from regaining her status. But until then, TV is a way to keep her in the public eye, even if it's unclear what effect it can have on record sales.

"I'm sure she'll get a spike, but sustainable sales is the operative word," she says.

That's the consensus on the show.

"As we've seen so many times before, it doesn't always revive a career, but having that audience watching something you do is always a plus," Riddick says.

"She should get on 'Hollywood Squares' if they'll take her," Watts adds. "It'll introduce her to new audiences who may not have heard of her, and it'll re-introduce her to some of the audience members who left hip-hop stations are listening to those like mine."

Beyond the show, Braxton hasn't thought far ahead.

She sounds, in fact, tired, and when asked if she's working on new material, or signed to label, she says something surprising.

"I don't even know if it's something I want to do. I don't know if I'm going to do music anymore. I love it still and I'll always sing. I'll always do a show here and there, but I don't know if that's going to be my concentration and my profession."

At least, she can rest assured there'll always be a place for her on "Celebrity Apprentice."

erik.maza@baltsun.com

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