Toni Braxton's dramatic power ballad, "Unbreak My Heart," was released in 1996, but the then 28-year-old singer had no way of knowing that it would become a harbinger for her entire life: Later that year, she'd file for Chapter 7 bankrupcy, and just over a decade later, she'd be diagnosed with lupus, a potentially life-threatening autoimmune disease. But what was arguably more difficult than being saddled with millions in debt and battling a chronic illness was that she wasn't able to tell anyone about it, fearing that it would ruin her career. "I was always burdened with having to hide things," Braxton recently said over the phone. Now, she's finally sharing her story in a new biopic (named after her hit song, naturally), premiering tonight at 8 p.m. ET. on Lifetime. Below, more about her intriguing past, living with lupus, and her new album.
What was your goal in creating the film?
A lot of people don’t know me—they only know the headline. Once you read the story, it makes a lot more sense. In the movie, you find out a lot of things that I couldn’t talk about for over ten years because there was a gag order.
You're referring to when you filed for bankrupcy.
It made it very challenging to speak out. I had to sit in silence about what happened and no one got to hear or see my side. I hate feeling sorry for myself, but it was tough going through it because I felt so alone and had no one I could talk to.
Did anyone in the industry reach out during that time?
Prince. He would call me up from the sidelines with suggestions for people who could help out, like the best attorneys. He’s like my guardian angel who’s always there watching over me.
How does it feel to be portrayed by Lex Scott Davis onscreen?
It was surreal—exciting, but surreal. It’s hard to be objective in that situation. A dear friend of mine who’s a director said, “Toni, you’re not going to find someone to look like you—you’re an odd beauty—but you need to find someone to emulate you.” In the scene where she sings “Unbreak My Heart,” I honestly had to look twice. She did a wonderful job learning all of my quirky mannerisms: Every performance I’ve ever had, I’ve had to go to the bathroom, so I always hold in my stomach in on a certain side to tell my bladder to relax. She picked up on that.
What were some of your duties as executive producer?
Overseeing the timeline and making sure things were accurate. I wasn’t there for one day when we were shooting—I didn’t think it was fair to the actors and I wanted it to be from their perspective. But for the pre-production and post-production, I worked hard for the money!
What were some important things you wanted to highlight?
The lupus. It was shocking to me at first, because I knew I was sick, but I never knew what was wrong with me. Besides that, I wanted people to understand my beginnings. They were very religious: I wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music or wear pants, so the journey to becoming the artist I am today was a long one.
What did you learn about yourself in the process?
I found out that I was stronger than I thought I was. I always try to find the silver lining in things. I always try to be positive.
When can we expect a new album?
I was very fortunate when Babyface and I won a Grammy. We’re working on Love, Marriage & Divorce Pt. 2, slowly but surely.
Watch the trailer for Unbreak My Heart below, and tune in to the world premiere tonight at 8 p.m. ET on Lifetime.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.