PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where people who struggle up from the bottom get reminded of what that bottom looks like. Toni Braxton is one of the best-selling R&B artists of all time as well as a Broadway actress, a TV actor and star of her own reality TV show about her and her sisters. She's got a new memoir out now called "Unbreak My Heart." Toni Braxton, welcome to WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME.
TONI BRAXTON: Hello, Peter. Thank you.
SAGAL: Your book - I've been reading it this week. It's fascinating. It's a little heartbreaking at times as the title might indicate.
SAGAL: This rags to riches thing was not too much of an exaggeration. You grew up in a big family in - mostly in Maryland, right?
BRAXTON: Yep. Correct.
SAGAL: And one thing I did not know about you and would not have guessed from your career and the music you make is that you grew up in a very religious family.
BRAXTON: That's correct.
SAGAL: There's a very funny story you tell in the book about a preacher at the church your parents belong to coming over to your house and telling your parents they had to get rid of their living room set.
BRAXTON: That is - I think they wanted it, maybe. I don't know.
BRAXTON: They said that it was the color red.
ROY BLOUNT JR.: Oh.
BRAXTON: It was possibly demonic and black. It was dark, and they should get rid of the living room set in a particular dumpster they should throw it in.
SAGAL: Really? So the preacher was like, you should get rid of this demonic living room set, and you should put it in this dumpster at the corner of this street and that street.
BRAXTON: Exactly. That's exactly what happened.
BLOUNT: Next door to the parsonage.
SAGAL: Yeah. Now, you were singing a lot as a youth, you write about, constantly.
BRAXTON: Oh, yes.
SAGAL: But you tell a great story of how you were discovered.
BRAXTON: Me personally, at a gas station, yes.
SAGAL: You were discovered at a gas station?
BRAXTON: I got $5 I borrowed from my dad, and I went to this gas station in Annapolis, Md. And I had a plan. I was going to put $3 in my gas tank and keep $2 for lunch. And this gas attendant comes up to me, and he staring at me. And I'm thinking, OK, little weird. But then he says, all of a sudden, are you a singer? And he said no, really. I've seen you sing around the city. I'm a producer. And I would love to do some demos on you. And of course, I'm thinking this is a line. He might be crazy. He works at a gas station.
BRAXTON: But sometimes in life you're at the right place at the right time. You have to take risks. And it turned out to be legitimate. He was the guy who cowrote the songs that Milli Vanilli - "Girl You Know It's True" that was just starting to get some attention in Europe. So there you go. Here I am today.
SAGAL: So just to review.
SAGAL: You pull in to get gas. You're not singing at this point, right?
SAGAL: You're just standing there.
BRAXTON: I'm standing there.
SAGAL: And the gas station attendant, dressed appropriately for the job...
SAGAL: ...Comes over and says excuse me, are you a singer? I wrote the song for Milli Vanilli.
SAGAL: And you say...
BRAXTON: Pretty much yes.
SAGAL: ...I believe you.
BRAXTON: Yeah. Kind of like that.
BLOUNT: Were just his lips moving and somebody else...
SAGAL: Did you say to yourself, Toni, if this guy is a music producer who wrote a hit for Milli Vanilli, why is he here at the gas station pumping my gas?
BRAXTON: Well, you know what? Milli Vanilli wasn't known here in the states yet. They'd just got - were getting a little attention abroad. And I just took a risk, and he turned out to be legitimate. I mean, look at his life. He owns the gas station now, though.
SAGAL: Well, I would hope so. Now you are - and have become an incredibly successful with a voice that is very low. You're known for that.
BRAXTON: Oh, yes.
SAGAL: Oh, yes. And did anybody ever say to you at any point in particular when you're young, that's not going to work? You know that's not - well, I mean, listen to Whitney, listen to Mariah Carey. That's what the people want to hear.
BRAXTON: All the time.
BRAXTON: They said your voice is too androgynous. Is it a guy, or is it a girl? What is she? And they said it wasn't pleasant. It wasn't radio voice-sounding.
SAGAL: And so what did - did you ever, like, try to change it 'cause you often hear stories about young artists doing what they're told even if they could regret it.
BRAXTON: Yeah. I tried. I tried to make it sound lighter like this. And I ended up sounding like a Disney character.
SAGAL: Well, one of the things you're doing now - and this is - one of the thing that's kind of fun about your life is that when you were young, you know, you auditioned for a producer with your sisters, but they only wanted you. And that was - you describe in the book - pretty traumatic for everybody. But now you're back with your sisters doing a reality show called "Braxton Family Values."
SAGAL: And so is this, you know, just all you guys just doing what you do normally together, or is it more high concept than that?
BRAXTON: Normally what we do together in my family, we're pretty animated.
BRAXTON: Yeah. My sisters - you know, I'm a little different. I'm the oldest. And in my generation, being a performer, we were taught to be aloof, to be quiet, you know. Artists have a regalness about them. You don't tell too much of your life. The younger generation are comfortable telling everything about their lives in social media. I mean, one thing my sister said - she said, oh, I'm sorry. Guys, I need some help with something. I had a transaction with someone other than my husband. Should I tell him? I'm going you think he knows now 'cause you just told millions of people. What do you mean should you tell him? You just told him.
SAGAL: Really? So she says this to you...
SAGAL: She says this to you with the cameras rolling - that she was - let's just be public radio about it - canoodling with...
SAGAL: With another fellow.
BLOUNT: Is that what that means? I never knew.
SAGAL: Yeah. That's what it means, specifically. Canoodling is still legal in Mississippi.
CHARLIE PIERCE: Roy thought you needed a paddle.
SAGAL: Yeah. So she says to you, oh, my God. Toni, help me. Give me advice with this very private thing. I've, you know - in this intimate situation, what do I do? And did you really look at her and then look at the camera, and look at her and go what do you mean? He knows now.
BRAXTON: Exactly. That's exactly what happened. I just - you know, they're just so open about telling their lives. I don't get it, but I still feel that you should be quiet a little bit.
SAGAL: Yeah. Well, you just wrote this memoir, though, which is...
SAGAL: ...It's very frank.
SAGAL: Do you ever - does anybody ever come up to you and say, well, you know, we conceived our child during your song or something like that?
BRAXTON: All the time.
SAGAL: I mean, do you have any kids out there named Toni or maybe middle name Toni in honor of that?
BRAXTON: Probably, but I often hear stories - I fell in love to your music, and my husband and I - our first three kids, we kind of use your music to inspire us to have them. Things like that often - you know.
PIERCE: This is an answer that Axl Rose will never give.
SAGAL: That's probably true.
SAGAL: Now you're known - you named your book after your big song Unbreaks Your Heart - "Unbreak My Heart," which is...
SAGAL: ...Your big number one hit. It was on Billboard top song for a long time. Is that the song that's, like, most identified with you that the concertgoers clamor for, that's what they want to hear?
BRAXTON: Yeah. Pretty much. That one and "How Could An Angel break My Heart," usually those two.
SAGAL: Yeah. And does that ever get tired for you having to sing those songs?
BRAXTON: Not really. There are sometimes I wish I could do different versions of them, but I always tell myself I have to sing the song how it sounds on the record because the audience wants to sing along with you. I hate when I go to concerts and they do a completely different version of the song, and I can't sing with you. I feel like I want to perform it with you. So I try to make it so I can engage my audience.
SAGAL: Is - do you ever do that really cool thing I something see artists do where they simply stop singing and let the audience take over for a while?
BRAXTON: All the time. That's my favorite part.
SAGAL: Isn't that - is that as cool as it looks? 'Cause it looks pretty cool.
BRAXTON: It's pretty nice. Sometimes, if I forget the lyrics, they kind of help me out.
SAGAL: That's awesome. Well, Toni Braxton, what a pleasure to talk to you. We have invited you here today to play a game that we're calling...
BILL KURTIS, BYLINE: Unbreak My Heart. No really. I'm dying here, Toni.
SAGAL: Your biggest hit, of course, "Unbreak My Heart," which we think has something to do with that emotion you normal people call love. But we thought we'd ask you about actually unbreaking a heart. Answer two of these three questions about the lighter side of cardiac surgery...
SAGAL: ...And you win our prize for one of our listeners - Carl Kasell's voice on their voicemail. Are you ready to play?
BRAXTON: I am ready.
SAGAL: Well, Bill, who is singer Toni Braxton playing for?
KURTIS: Ellen Cooper-Festa of Grahamsville, N.Y.
SAGAL: All right. Are you ready to do this, Toni?
BRAXTON: Oh, the pressure. OK, I'm ready.
SAGAL: All right. First question. A man, who is now fine, faced cardiac trauma in 2010 after what happened to him? A, he was playing a patient on a TV medical drama, and the prop defibrillator turned out to be a real defibrillator. B, he took a point-blank, direct hit to the sternum from a T-shirt gun at a Padres game...
SAGAL: ...Or C, he suffered the only known actual case of total eclipse of the heart?
BRAXTON: Oh, my gosh. A?
SAGAL: A, he was playing a patient on a medical drama and he was defibrillated?
SAGAL: You're right. It was A.
SAGAL: He was an actor. You know, they were acting a scene - clear. And then, ah 'cause it was real. He did not suffer a heart attack, but he did sue the production company for, quote, the damage he received in the terms of anxiety and flashbacks to the event.
BRAXTON: OK. Wow.
SAGAL: All right. Yeah.
SAGAL: So check those things before you get on the table, people.
SAGAL: All right. That's good. Here's your second question. In 2006, a Connecticut man filed a lawsuit saying what had caused his heart attack? A, the loss of the Hartford Whalers hockey team, B, a bad toupee, or C, trying to squeeze into a supposedly extra-large sized Under Armour shirt?
BRAXTON: Let's say - I'd say C.
SAGAL: You're going to go for the Under Armour shirt? He was trying to squeeze himself...
BRAXTON: OK, maybe B. Maybe B.
SAGAL: Maybe B?
SAGAL: You're right again. It was the bad toupee.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: Mr. Paul Lewis says the wig shop sold him an ill-fitting toupee that was the wrong color. And he became so aggravated over it, he had a heart attack. And he sued the shop for damages. The shop says, no, the toupee was very nice. All right. This is excellent. You can go for perfect here, Toni.
BRAXTON: I like that.
SAGAL: Last question. In 2012, a very high-profile heart transplant operation in Mexico went off successfully despite the fact that the paramedics carrying the heart did what just before the surgery? A, as a joke, they gave the doctors a chocolate candy heart...
SAGAL: ...B, they propped up the unconscious patient for a "Weekend at Bernie's" -type photo shoot. Or C, they a dropped the heart on the ground in front of a line of news photographers?
BRAXTON: Maybe dropped the heart?
SAGAL: You're right. That's what they did.
BRAXTON: Are you serious?
SAGAL: I am not kidding you. It was this enormous operation that got a lot of press down in Mexico so there were people filming the private jet that brought it in from overseas. People filming it as the paramedics brought him to the helicopter. People filming as they got it off the helicopter, running across the tarmac, dropped the thing and it spilled on the ground. Hardly put it back in the cooler and ran it to the ambulance.
BRAXTON: No way.
SAGAL: It's true. It happened. It turns out the five second rule applies to organs as well.
SAGAL: Bill, how did Toni Braxton do on our quiz?
KURTIS: Three for three.
SAGAL: Well done. Wow.
KURTIS: For Ellen Cooper-Festa. Congratulations
SAGAL: Toni Braxton is a six-time Grammy award-winning singer. Her memoir, "Unbreak My Heart," is in bookstores now. She's currently shooting the fourth season of "Braxton Family Values" on We-TV. Toni Braxton, thank you so much for joining us. What a pleasure to talk to you.
BRAXTON: My pleasure.
SAGAL: In just a minute, Bill chugs some Coppertone. It's our listener limerick challenge. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to join us on the air. Support for NPR comes from NPR stations. And the Economic Development Authority of Fairfax County, Va., home to more than 67,000 technology companies at powerofideas.org. Arizona State University with more than 60 campus degrees now available 100 percent online at online.asu.edu. And Lumber Liquidators, supporting the Ronald McDonald House Charities, the National Braille Press and NPR. Information is at lumberliquidators.com. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME from NPR.