Ms. Lonelyhearts

THE STORY OF TONI BRAXTON'S hair is the story of triumph over tragedy. In 1993, she launched a trend with her short pageboy cut after an overheated curling iron burned off a chunk of her hair. These days, Braxton is sporting a long, wavy weave, having recently been the victim of a home dye job. "My hairdresser told me not to do it, but I was bored, and of course my hair all fell out in the sink,' says Braxton, 28, laughing. "It sent LaFace [Records] into hysterics. What can I tell you? This business is hard on a black woman and her hair."

Actually, the business has been very good to Braxton. Her sultry 1993 debut album sold 7 million copies and won three Grammys. Her new follow-up, "Secrets," is another warm bath of R&B, full of sad love songs that ask, How'm I gonna go on? (Braxton wrote four tunes; three others were written by Babyface, whose heart exists only to be broken.) Braxton isn't an overly showy singer like some of her soul mates. Hers is a famously deep voice that's shot through with a sort of shivering worry. "I don't record until late at night-around 10 or so-because you haven't heard deep until you've heard me at 6 a.m.," she says. "You'd swear I was a man."

Braxton grew up in Baltimore, loving Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross but, because of her range, imitating Isaac Hayes and Barry White instead. Her mother had studied opera. Her father was a conservative Apostolic minister: "We'd have to wait until our parents went grocery shopping on Saturday morning to watch "Soul Train'." In high school, Braxton performed with her sisters and entered the Miss Black America contest, covering Anita Baker numbers.

The Braxton sisters released an album that turned the heads of Babyface and L. A. Reid, at LaFace Records in Atlanta. Braxton recorded a demo of a song Babyface had written for Baker. "But Anita was pregnant and didn't want to go into the studio," says Braxton. "So she called Babyface and said, "Why not let the girl on the tape do it? She sounds great'." "Love Shoulda Brought You Home" was a hit off the soundtrack for the Eddie Murphy movie "Boomerang." Says Braxton, "I thank Anita all the time."

To be close to LaFace, Braxton has spent four years in Atlanta, a city she's not enamored of: "Girl, this place is dead at night. Can you believe it?" Braxton is funny, self-effacing and-standing 5 feet 2 and weighing 98 pounds--not as statuesque as she seems in videos. Professionally, she's fully engaged, having executive-produced "Secrets." Personally, she seems lonely. Her handlers say she can spend only an hour talking to NEWSWEEK, but Braxton chats for ages about ill-fated loves, scented body lotions and her crush on Michael Jordan. (On rumors that she's gay: "Honey, Eddie Murphy once told me that you haven't made it in this business until they call you gay or a "ho.' I've obviously made it.")

Braxton insists she enjoys nothing better than sitting in her Jeep and reading. "It's hard to really trust people in the business, so you end up staying to yourself a lot," she explains. "You never know who's there for you for real." That insecurity probably helps Braxton's music, if not her life. Stardom, it seems, isn't just hard on your hair.