The Canadian crooner’s first three albums have been chart busters, but her biggest challenges are yet to come.

NEW YORK — With her third album hitting gold status, a musical in the works and a baby on the way, Deborah Cox is preparing for her biggest year yet.

Sure, the pop/R&B singer already has quite a track record, with one platinum and two gold records to her credit, but the Toronto native thinks she has even more to prove musically. Cox will hit the road on Tuesday to star in "Love on Layaway," a play that’s part comedy/part inspirational story about a woman’s life in love — just one of her new challenges. Cox, who is married to her manager and high school sweetheart, Lasalles Stephens, is expecting their first child on July 4.

She will tour in the musical until April, and as her pregnancy progresses, her pending motherhood will be written into the role. While she isn’t ready to put music on hold — the 29-year-old Cox said she has begun preparing songs for her fourth album — she’s finding time to prepare for her child.

"Becoming a mother really makes you think about your purpose in this world," she said. "I think a lot about what kind of world I am bringing a child into. The threat of war and issues in government have become magnified to me."

Cox’s career began in 1993. While her first interests were not in music, but in journalism, poetry and sports, Cox realized her talents and landed a gig singing backup for fellow Canadian singer Celine Dion. Clive Davis, who was then leading Arista Records, heard Cox and was immediately impressed with her vocal range and soulful delivery.

Davis signed Cox to Arista and together they put out her first album in 1995. That album went gold. She began working on her second album, "One Wish," in 1997 and when her first single, "Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here," hit radio stations, Cox’s career was taken to a new level.

The single sold more than 1 million copies, reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent a record-breaking 14 weeks at the top of the R&B charts. That album reached platinum status and turned out two more hit singles for Cox. Now, her third album, "The Morning After," released in 2002, is her first with J Records, which she signed to in 2001 when Davis left Arista to start the new label."My relationship with Clive changes with each record," she said. "I completely trusted him right from the beginning, since he had already made so many people into stars. For the first album, he was very hands-on, for the second, he allowed me to be more vocal with what I wanted to do. Now, with the third, he has gone from being my mentor to becoming my partner. This album is me. I wrote more songs on it and it’s much more personal. I really think it’s my best material."

Over the years, Cox has been compared vocally to Whitney Houston, and even Davis has said that she has the potential to reach Houston’s level. While Cox has always been flattered by the comparison, she has also found it to be one hard to live up to.

"In the beginning, I was very flattered, but then it became a burden when people started wondering why my sales weren’t as high as hers. It was real pressure on me," she said. "But now, I realize that it doesn’t have to be a burden and I am back to being flattered by it. It’s such a great compliment to be seen at that level."

Cox and her husband moved from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., four years ago because they were tired of living on the West Coast. She still has family in Toronto, so she’s sure to visit when she can. When she was growing up there, Cox said she often hung out at the Eaton Center Mall and traveled to the border in Niagara Falls, N.Y., to shop.

"I love malls," she said. "Whenever I’m on tour, I always try and hit the mall in that town."

When she dresses up for an occasion, the petite Cox said she usually chooses between Dolce & Gabbana, Roberto Cavalli and Costume National — her three favorite designers. But, Cox said, it’s staying casually dressed that she likes the most.

"I can live in my Seven or Miss Sixty jeans with a tank and a cute heel and be fine," she said. "I also love cargos. It doesn’t matter the brand, I just love the look."Cox said it’s been a while since she’s gone shopping for herself, but is looking forward to hitting the mall again soon. She plans to begin decorating a nursery as soon as they find out the sex of the baby.

"I can’t wait to find out and prepare everything," she said. "There’s so much to do, so much to buy. It’s so exciting."

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