It’s Christmas morning, 1980-something, and the Braxton sisters of Severn, Md., have just unwrapped the gift that will change their lives: a VHS camcorder.
There’s no tripod, so the camera whirs away on the coffee table as the girls reenact scenes from “The Cosby Show.” They host imaginary cooking shows. They face off in a living room version of “Star Search.”
Nearly 30 years later, they’re the stars of “Braxton Family Values,” a reality series that’s made them one the most famous families on American television. The show initially centered around the superstar magnetism of eldest sister Toni, a platinum-selling R&B singer whose career exploded in the mid-’90s. But over the course of three seasons, “Braxton Family Values” has launched her kid sister into the pop stratosphere, too.
“I think it’s real,” Tamar Braxton says of the show’s continued appeal. “You’ve met one of us in your life. Everybody has the bratty, bigmouthed, unsolicited-advice-giving little sister — which is me.”
Oh, we know. She’s the noisy, spoiled, superficial, undisputed star of a show brimming with sisterly squabbles and huggy reconciliations. But the morning after a recent concert at DAR Constitution Hall, the 36-year-old is calm, funny, chummy and gracious enough to make you wonder how real the reality television iteration of Tamar Braxton really is.
Or maybe she’s just tired. After chasing her childhood R&B dreams down various dead ends for the past 20 years, her new album, “Love and War,” peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s album chart in September. “Braxton Family Values” returned to the WE tv network for a third season in March, and scored its highest ratings ever with last week’s mid-season premiere. “Tamar & Vince,” a spinoff show starring her and her hubby, record executive and producer Vincent Herbert, just wrapped up its second season. And if you’ve been watching, you know the couple welcomed their first son in June.
Now, with a jampacked year coming to a close, the real Tamar says she feels like a few different Tamars.
“I don’t feel like Tamar the celebrity, or Tamar the singer,” she says. “Yes, that’s my job. But I’m also Tamar the wife, Tamar the mother, Tamar the sister, Tamar the daughter.”
Living assorted hyper-public lives at once can feel dizzying. But one thing that’s clear right now is how priceless reality television can be when marketing a music career. When Tamar the singer threw all five of her octaves into a set of acrobatic love songs at Constitution Hall, fans knew exactly what she was talking about. They’d been following the life of all the other Tamars from their couches for years.
“Being in homes every week for 26 weeks out of the year . . . people got to know how serious my artistry is to me,” Braxton says. “It’s a constant commercial.”
The Braxton sisters’ collective ambitions can be traced back to one day at home in the ’80s when young Tamar found herself stranded in a moment of domestic vulnerability.
“I was in the bathroom and there was no more toilet paper, so I started singing about it,” she says. “And my sisters all came to door and started harmonizing. . . . Then it was like that every day in our house.”
Tamar and her sisters — Toni, now 46; Traci, 41; Towanda, 40; Trina, 38 — had learned to sing from their mother Evelyn, and put their pipes to work at church every Sunday, where their father, Michael Sr., was the pastor. (The parents have since split up and Michael Jr., the second-oldest of the six Braxton siblings, doesn’t spend as much time in the spotlight.)
The sisters were discovered and signed to Arista Records as a pop quintet in 1989, but their 1990 single “Good Life” stalled on the charts. In 1991, industry honcho Antonio “L.A.” Reid and singer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds whisked Toni away to a massive solo career. The siblings became Toni’s backup singers.
These were blurry years for the baby of the family, then a freshman at Old Mill High School who didn’t truly understand the reach of her sister’s fame. “We went from church all day on Sunday [to] this secular world, singing at venues and doing homework at a desk in a hotel,” Tamar says. “I didn’t know my sister was famous until years after that. “
In 11th grade, Tamar returned from tour and enrolled at Archbishop Spalding High School, where she started plotting a pop career of her own. “A lot of the kids were applying to go to Notre Dame, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna be Mariah Carey,’ ” she says. “ ‘You can’t teach me how to be a superstar.’ ”
After graduation, she left Maryland for the R&B industry nucleus of Atlanta, but never managed to escape Toni’s shadow. “I’m still introduced as her sister,” Tamar says. “Which is fine. I am her sister. And she’s an icon. Am I that full of myself that I don’t want to be Toni Braxton’s little sister? That’s who I am.”
This kind of humility doesn’t surface often on your average of episode of “Braxton Family Values,” but Tamar says her outspokenness is authentic. It might even be the trait that kept her singing career from taking flight.
“The problem has been my personality,” she says. “Sade would come out every 10 years and then go back into hiding. But I’m not that girl. I would sit down with anybody and spill my beans if I was having a bad day. Artists didn’t do that back then, and record labels didn’t know how to market who I was.”
After her 2000 solo debut failed to make her a star, she soldiered off on a decade-long slog through the music biz until her budding friendship with Herbert provided a turning point.
“I remember Vince telling me, ‘What’s wrong with being you? We have a Toni. What’s wrong with being yourself?’ ” Tamar says. She married him in 2008, and they now live in Los Angeles.
Herbert, who has been sitting quietly in the other room of the hotel suite, takes this as his cue to jump in.
““We pulled up to the venue last night and she said, ‘I remember coming here at 12-years-old and “singing background for my sister,’ ” he says. “Those moments are just so incredible. . . . As a person who has watched her dreams for the past 10 years, that means so much to me.”
He asks Tamar to cue up a video on her phone. The singer has been feeling a little sick this week, so fans have been sending her video get-well messages. She taps her manicured fingers on the screen, presses play and basks in the kindness of complete strangers.
“You can’t buy that!” Herbert says to his wife. “You are reaching people in a supernatural way. . . . It makes me wanna have tears.”
As the video screen of her phone fades to black, Braxton dabs a little moisture from her eyes. Whether they’re tears of gratitude or exhaustion is tough to say. But they’re real.
(one hour) airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on WE tv.