From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
The winding marble staircase in Toni Braxton's cavernous Las Vegas home is more than an eye-catching, Tuscan-style focal point. For Braxton, it's also a reminder of the day her life changed. Last April, while her two sons watched Jerry Seinfeld's cartoon Bee Movie in the living room, Braxton decided to run upstairs for a minute. Until she realized she couldn't. "It felt like someone was pushing me back, and I could hardly climb the stairs. I was completely out of breath. I could barely talk. It was scary," recalls Braxton, who at the time was the resident headlining act at the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.

Her husband, musician Keri Lewis, rushed the six-time Grammy award winner to the hospital. After a series of tests, Braxton's personal cardiologist determined she was suffering from microvascular angina (see box), in which 23 percent of the blood flow to her heart was blocked. For Braxton, it was the latest in a series of personal challenges: In the late '90s she had declared bankruptcy, and two years ago she learned that her younger son Diezel, 5, has autism. True to form, she decided to face this new challenge head-on. "I'm not a person who likes to ask, 'Why me?'" the 41-year-old Braxton says matter-of-factly. "I think it some days—but I won't say it."

But after months of cardiac rehabilitation, Braxton reveals she was still "being afraid, sitting at home saying, 'I'm never going up those stairs.'" Finally, she decided to step up her emotional and physical recovery by agreeing to compete on Dancing with the Stars. The decision didn't sit well with her husband. "I was skeptical," says Lewis, 37. But since she began competing this fall, he's come on board. "It's such a great opportunity for her to get in a different mind-set, as opposed to worrying about her blood pressure and her heart," Lewis says. "People get to see how warm and loving she is."

Not to mention sexy, as the 5'2", 100-lb. Braxton has embraced the show's sultry, sequined costumes. "I like to be a little risqué with the fashion," she admits. But at home, Braxton's daily uniform is blue jeans—all the better for baking cookies and heading to PTA meetings, as well as raising her two sons. Older son Denim, 6, "is smart," says Braxton. "He Googles everything," including some sites that have his mom grateful for parental controls. Recently, he's been begging for an iPhone because, as he reasons, "How else am I going to vote for Mom on Dancing with the Stars?"

While Denim started school earlier than his peers, when her son Diezel was a year old, Braxton could tell that he was developing differently and was lacking in vocabulary and motor skills. "He wasn't saying my name. No eye contact. He wouldn't say 'cup' or 'juice,'" Braxton says. "As a mom, you can tell." The same day she learned, after numerous consultations with specialists, that Diezel was autistic, she had to go onstage at the Flamingo. In tears, she broke down and told the audience what had happened. "You tend to blame yourself," Braxton says. "Is there something I did wrong? A lot of times, parents are in denial because they want to think their child is perfect. But it's just that these kids have to be taught differently. Diezel has a sensory issue, for example. When we go to movies, we bring his earmuffs because certain sounds pierce his ears. He told me it's like sharp pencils poking his ear."

Today, an ABA (applied behavior analysis) specialist accompanies her son to kindergarten and works with him at home. "A friend of mine told me, 'Toni, all these autistic kids in the world now, they are God's new angels, and they are here to show us life differently,'" says Braxton, who also serves as a spokeswoman for the charity Autism Speaks. "I've been embracing that. I've come to terms with it. He's a wonderful kid."

Braxton prides herself on being there for her boys, whipping up a bowl of linguine with clam sauce (a family favorite), helping with homework and playing endless games of SpongeBob Monopoly. It's a different life than the one she had growing up in Severn, Md. The oldest of six children, Braxton and her siblings were raised by strict Methodist parents. "We never celebrated Halloween or Christmas," says Braxton. "[Those holidays] were pagan."

Her parents "loosened up" over time, but Braxton was shocked when, eight years ago, they announced they were divorcing (her father has since remarried). The singer felt adrift and unsure of how to deal with their split as an adult. "You love your parents equally, but it's just uncomfortable because they aren't together," she says, noting that they nevertheless both came to her bedside when she was recuperating and "the grandkids helped them merge together. We're still really close."

Braxton now takes a clear-eyed, pragmatic approach to life, including the realities of the music business. A decade ago, she watched all of her belongings tagged for sale to pay off the $3.9 million she owed creditors. Ultimately, she reclaimed her Grammys—and her financial security—and made a comeback in 1998 playing Belle in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. She was the first African American to star as a Disney character in the production.

"That was a great experience. African-American girls and Caucasian girls came up to me afterwards," she says, adding that she hopes to return to Broadway again when she gets her "health back to where I can do six to eight shows a week." In the meantime, having completed her Vegas stint, she is working on a new album for Atlantic Records, due in spring 2009. She makes no excuses for what went wrong in the past. "I did spend all my money, if I'm going to be honest," she says. "I'm not bitter or angry about it."

Braxton is equally candid about plastic surgery: "Been there, done that," she says of her nose job and breast augmentations. "Parts of me are 41 and parts of me are 20." But after having a second breast augmentation to correct a mishap with the first attempt, Braxton now says she'll do "nothing else. I don't want to be a turkey, stuffed and plucked and baked."

Even if she finds herself winning more Grammys in the future—or taking home that disco ball trophy on Dancing with the Stars—Braxton isn't going to start sweating the small stuff. What she's survived, she says, "changes your life completely. A fellow heart patient told me, 'From now on, make sure you live life.' So now I'm living."