October 09, 2000 12:00 PM

Not everything I have is from Tiffany’s,” says Toni Braxton as she lounges in her Los Angeles hotel room sporting a Cartier watch, a diamond-and-platinum charm bracelet and an art deco ring that her boyfriend purchased at, yes, Tiffany & Co. “Sometimes I go to the mall and I see something I really like at Kay Jewelers and I’ll get it.”

Breakfast at Kay’s, anyone? For pop diva Braxton, who turns 34 Oct. 7, buying more modestly priced jewelry marks some kind of progress. Indeed, less than three years ago, in the midst of a contract dispute with her record label, LaFace, the five-time Grammy winner, who had sold 15 million copies of her first two albums, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection that freed her from the burden of a whopping $3.9 million debt. Now solvent after signing a rich new recording contract with the company, Braxton has restarted her singing career in a big way, lighting up the pop charts with the multiplatinum The Heat, her first CD in four years. The album reached No. 2 on Billboard’s pop chart and has spun off two hit singles, “He Wasn’t Man Enough” and “Just Be a Man About It,” since its April release. “Her voice has always stood out,” Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds (a cofounder of LaFace) says of his friend’s sultry contralto. “When you hear her on the radio, you know it’s Toni Braxton. It’s not easy to find a voice that good and that unique.”

Richly talented as she is, though, Braxton came close to being crushed by her money woes. Besides her penchant for expensive jewelry and Gucci silverware, the singer, who owns a five-bedroom French chateau in Atlanta, as well as a $725,000 condo in L.A., enjoys sleeping on bedsheets with 400-plus cotton thread counts that cost upward of $200 per sheet. Yet Braxton says that it was the sheer expense of stardom, not her taste for luxurious living, that left her in such dire financial straits. “I don’t think people understand that the artist pays for everything,” she says. “If you go to the American Music Awards, you can’t go on your bike. You have to go in a limo; then there’s hair, makeup and a wonderful Marc Bouwer dress.”

After Braxton filed for bankruptcy in January 1998, all her household furnishings, from her Tiffany silver-plated napkin-ring set ($50) and salt and pepper shakers ($30) to her five Grammy statuettes ($2,000 each), were tagged for sale to pay off creditors. “They put a price on everything,” says Braxton (who eventually was able to buy back her possessions). “They even went through my bureau.” A public bankruptcy hearing in March of that year “was the most embarrassing, humiliating experience,” she says.

In September 1998 she began a six-month stint as Belle in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. During her run, she lived modestly in a sparsely furnished New York City apartment, where she tossed and turned on bedsheets with thread counts of a paltry 180 (available for $25 per set). “I was so paranoid about spending money,” she says, “I got cheap.”

Three months later she finalized her new contract with LaFace. Although she declines to disclose the terms of the deal, it is estimated to be worth nearly $20 million. “I’m very, very happy,” she says. Some believe, however, that Braxton filed for bankruptcy as a strategy in contract negotiations. “She found a way out of her [old] contract and the money she owed the world,” says an industry insider who asked not to be identified. Braxton vehemently denies the suggestion. “There was a lot of pain, a lot of crying,” she says of bankruptcy. “But I’m glad I went through it because it made me a better person.” Besides, adds Braxton, who makes her film debut in Kingdom Come (costarring Whoopi Goldberg and due next April), “if the bankruptcy hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have started acting. I always wanted to act, but I was afraid. Bankruptcy made me do it.”

Braxton and her four younger sisters (including Tamar, now 22, a singer whose debut CD was released in March) and a brother were raised in a strict Methodist household in Severn, Md., by their father, Michael, 52, a power company worker, and mother, Evelyn, 52, a former amateur opera singer who used to give her children singing lessons. The children weren’t allowed to listen to pop music, attend dances, watch most TV shows—or go to movies, which her parents believed “promoted witchcraft,” recalls Braxton. So how did her father, now a preacher, react to his daughter’s erotic 1996 hit ballad “You’re Makin’ Me High”? “My dad was like, ‘That’s a really good beat,’ ” she says, laughing. “I was so happy he didn’t listen to the lyrics.” Now, she says, “he supports everything I do. He used to hold up the Billboard chart in church: ‘Toni’s album took a jump to No. 2.’ ”

Once again living in style—and sleeping on comfy sheets—Braxton says her personal life is also on the mend. “I haven’t had the best love life,” says the singer, whose relationship with pro footballer Curtis Martin ended during her bankruptcy. “I’ve been dumped quite a bit. Sometimes it’s because I’m into my career too much. One guy said I wasn’t passive enough. I’m used to doing for myself.”

Her current beau, Keri Lewis, 29, a member of the St. Paul, Minn.-based R&B group Mint Condition, has no such qualms. “I love her independence,” says Lewis, who met Braxton when he and Mint Condition toured as her backup band in 1997. Romance bloomed a year later when, during a game of truth-or-dare, “somebody dared her to kiss me,” he says. “I had to play it cool, but I was thrilled.” For her part, says Braxton, “I started really caring for him. He was there for me during the bankruptcy when no one else was.”

Braxton, who kicks off a national tour on New Year’s Eve, also likes Lewis’s taste in jewelry. “I’m very girly,” she says. “I like ribbons and bows and Tiffany and Carrier.” Although Braxton’s own credit is shot, she can now charge such goodies on Lewis’s American Express account. “I try to take care of her and make sure she’s living comfortably,” says Lewis, who gave her a platinum card with her name on it. “No woman should go without an AmEx card.”

Steve Dougherty

Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles