Five years ago, when they were teenagers in Orange County, Laila Laine’s stepcousin Vanessa excitedly pulled her aside.
“She said, ‘Guess who I met and guess who called me -- Kobe Bryant!’ ” Laine, now a Huntington Beach paralegal recalled, still laughing. “I said, ‘Sure. Have another drink.’
“No one believed her.”
If Vanessa Laine, then 17, was known for anything, it was for her sheltered life. Her parents scarcely permitted her to date, let alone entertain advances from NBA superstars in their 20s. When she had gone with friends the year before to Magic Mountain, Laila Laine said, Vanessa had to call home hourly.
Her one stab at the glamorous life -- a three-month stint as a music video extra -- had fallen into her lap when a company trawling for fresh faces had accosted her as she was leaving a hip-hop concert in Irvine. She’d gotten a handful of jobs, all with her mom on-set to chaperone her.
“Never in a million years did we expect what happened to happen,” said the stepcousin. “She was just a normal girl. With a normal life.”
Now Vanessa Urbieta Cornejo Laine is 22-year-old Vanessa Bryant, the unlikely costar of one of the more compelling dramas in contemporary sports. Since 2001, when Bryant married her, temporarily estranging his parents and many of his former advisors, she has been viewed as one of the few powerful influences on Los Angeles’ most powerful professional athlete.
But lately, as her once-idealized young husband has spiraled from trial to tribulation -- sexual assault charges in Colorado, admissions of extramarital sex on national television, lost coaches, lost teammates, lost games, lost fans, claims of wife-poaching (“Vanessa-gate,” Sports Illustrated recently called the ugly exchange that preceded Karl Malone’s official retirement from professional basketball on Sunday) -- that influence has increasingly been drawn into the spotlight.
Paparazzi stalk her. Tabloids speculate about her. Her purple “makeup” diamond (the Santa Monica jeweler reiterated last month to The Times that it cost $4 million, though other sources say that figure was leaked as a prank to reporters) made People magazine. Her appearance at the 2003 news conference in which Bryant denied raping a Colorado hotel employee became both stock news footage and a “Saturday Night Live” skit.
Behavior that would be dismissed as the usual search for identity in another young adult has been scrutinized in her case by a public accustomed to noticing NBA wives only when they wave from championship parades or appear on behalf of charity. When she showed up at a Laker exhibition game in a tight pink tank top with “Fashionable [expletive]” on it, her outfit -- not so different from the look of, say, Britney Spears, who is five months older -- got almost as much attention as the strange tangle of tattoos that Kobe got to prove, yet again, that he was sorry.
When the state issued a new vanity plate for her Mercedes-Benz -- ICE QN -- sports pundits privately wondered whether the reference was as much to her demeanor as to her jewelry collection.
When her husband confirmed rumors that he’d accused ex-teammate Malone of making a pass at her in November, debate raged not only on talk radio but also on a panoply of Internet message boards that have sprung up to accommodate gossip about her.
Supporters called her “Da Baddest Female” and lauded her for bucking the NBA’s old-boy tolerance for tomcatting. Insiders called her a pawn, saying she’d merely given Malone’s handlers ammunition to generate some last-ditch buzz about an injured 41-year-old free agent who was weighing retirement. Critics called her a drama queen who would risk a multimillion-dollar franchise for another chance to make her husband prove he loved her.
The general impression was of a helpmate who, by NBA wife standards, wasn’t, ahem, helping.
“Vanessa Bryant is the new Yoko,” wrote Sportingnews.com columnist Matthew Berry, comparing her to the wife who was once accused of destroying the Beatles.
“Hey Vanessa,” a sports fan asked in December in a letter to The Times, “Is Devean George going to play or not?”
It was not ever thus, according to people who knew her -- not so long ago -- in the stucco-and-cinder block heart of Orange County where she grew up. Vanessa Bryant refused to be interviewed for this article, responding instead through her lawyer, John W. Keker. Though she has made numerous appearances with Bryant, her sole public comment has been a written statement issued under her name in the aftermath of the rape charge.
“I know that my husband has made a mistake -- the mistake of adultery,” her statement said then.
“We keep to ourselves, and those who want to talk can talk,” said Sofia Urbieta Laine, 52, her mother. “The people who say negative things, God will take care of them.”
But interviews with dozens of friends, relatives, former classmates, Bryant’s entourage and others who have known her depict a once-dutiful, if willful, young woman who has had to adjust, sometimes painfully, to life as the wife of one of America’s biggest sports stars.
Relatives describe a deeply family-oriented girl whose sudden wealth has estranged her from whole groups of her relations. Old friends say she rarely calls, and when she does, she makes it clear she can’t discuss her new life. New friends -- most of whom are entertainment people and friends of her husband -- call her a “spitfire” and a “wonderful person” and marvel (in quintessential show business fashion) at her decision to raise her child without a nanny, but they also remark on her guarded demeanor. Orange County shopkeepers struggle to reconcile the one-time Westminster Mall salesgirl with the notoriously tough customer they now see.
The challenges have intensified, they say, in the stressful months since Colorado. Stories of public confrontations between her and those who offend her -- Laker fans, wedding guests, a manager of a shoe store -- have proliferated. So have tales about her demands on her prodigal 6-foot-6 husband, who called her “the strongest person I know” and reportedly married her without a prenuptial agreement: “If he wears the pants in the family,” one Bryant associate confided, “she tells him which ones to wear.”
Those who have crossed her or lost her invoke the old saw about money changing people, but her defenders have a different take. Watching her at Laker games -- chattering on her cellphone, fixing her hair, giggling with her bodyguard or her baby, oblivious to the aging show business burghers networking in the stands around her -- they see simply young adulthood, unremarkable in every respect except the extent to which it’s been magnified by money and celebrity.
“She was very sweet as a child,” Stephen Laine, who became Vanessa’s stepfather in 1990, remembers.
At the time, he said, Vanessa was 8 and her sister, Sophie, was 18. Their mother was a low-level shipping clerk at an electronics firm where Laine, eight years her junior, was a middle manager. Vanessa’s mother and birth father had divorced when she was a baby, after which the father had moved to Baja, Mexico, according to Vanessa’s lawyer. Stephen Laine said that when he met Sofia Urbieta, she was a single mother living in her sister’s spare room. After their marriage, Vanessa began using Laine’s surname instead of her birth father’s, Cornejo. In high school, she changed her name legally.
The family lived in Anaheim, then in Temecula briefly before moving to Garden Grove, where they bought a four-bedroom fixer-upper. They used Laine’s father’s Huntington Beach address to get Vanessa into his alma mater, Marina High School, where she could attend class with Laine’s nieces, Laila and Sasha, with whom she was close.
Her school pictures were lovingly inscribed each year to family members. “Well this is my ugly 8th grade picture please don’t laugh!” she wrote on the back of a 1995 photograph she gave her step-grandfather the year she graduated from St. Boniface parochial school, signed “Love Ya Always.”
Now, the Laine family says, Vanessa scarcely speaks to them, the result of a bitter divorce between her mother and stepfather that intensified two years ago during a battle over the mother’s spousal support. But then, “we were like sisters,” Laila Laine said. If Vanessa was the new girl to others, her cousins saw her as the plucky one.
“If anyone looked sideways at us, Vanessa would go after them,” Laila Laine said. Once, when a kid at Chuck E. Cheese’s stole Sasha’s arcade tokens, Vanessa not only confronted him but also got into an argument with his mother. At school, several former classmates recalled both her good looks and her “tendency to get up in people’s faces if they crossed her,” as one put it.
In her high school yearbook, she is absent from the extracurricular and most-likely-to-succeed photos. But in the section where families can buy congratulatory advertisements, she has a full-page spread, featuring her with her mother, the rapper Snoop Dogg and Bryant.
In August 1999, she struck out on the path toward her future husband at the 92.3 the Beat Summer Jam concert at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre. She was heading into her senior year and her parents had let her attend with a close friend whose Jordanian-born parents were also exceptionally protective. As they exited, friends said, a man with a camcorder approached, saying he was looking for pretty girls to be in music videos.
Vanessa looked into the camera and enunciated her name and phone number, and when a call came days later, her mother accompanied her to the shoot because she was a minor, they said.
“We were all so excited,” recalled Rowena Ireifej, 22, who had gone with her to the concert and now is a Cal State Fullerton advertising major. “She was in a Krazy Bone video, and then she got called to be in a Snoop Dogg video, Tha Eastsidaz’s ‘G’d Up.’ She got to lip-sync to the part where Snoop Dogg does the hook -- you know, ‘If it ain’t chronic don’t blaze it up, and if it ain’t a Chevy, don’t raise it up.’ ”
The video depicts her as a gangsta siren in a metallic bikini and heavy black eyeliner, a far cry from the fresh-scrubbed girl whose mother had spent days deciding whether to let her attend the concert where she was discovered. It was soon after that, friends said, that she was called to appear in a video for a rap album Bryant was shooting. Soon, Bryant was calling her on her pager, and almost immediately they became an item -- a fact that the teenager happily shared with virtually everyone.
“She’d bring pictures of Kobe to school, and we’d all be like ‘Omygod!’ ” remembered Monica Squadrilli, now a 22-year-old graduate of Cal State Long Beach. “I remember there was one of him playing with her puppies, and she would only let us look at it, we couldn’t touch it. Even then, a lot of people didn’t believe her. But then he gave her that massive engagement ring, and that shut everyone up.”
Classmates still remember the time Bryant inundated the school office with roses for her and the days he would pick her up from class in his big black Mercedes, inciting a stampede of looky-loos to that side of the school. Close friends from that time said she’d stay home, saying that Kobe didn’t want her to go out on weekends, or confide that Kobe had just bought her a designer wardrobe. “It was just Kobe this and Kobe that,” one remembered, speaking on condition that her name not be published. “It got so that that was all she or anyone could talk about.”
Eventually, the romance was such a disruption that school officials sent her home to finish her senior year via independent study. There too, though, Stephen Laine said his stepdaughter’s romance was engendering mixed feelings.
“He was an adult and she was only 17, and it was like, hey, wait a minute,” Laine said.
Complicating matters, he said, was the fact that he and his wife were in financial trouble; she’d been laid off two years before, and a chronic back injury had prevented her from finding a new job. The family was mired in credit card debts and car loans.
Four days after Vanessa and Kobe announced their engagement at her 18th birthday party, court records show, the Laines signed bankruptcy papers in Santa Ana. “It was like, here I am, going bankrupt,” said Laine, “and my daughter’s marrying Kobe Bryant.”
Bryant’s father’s own initial qualms about the marriage have been well-reported, in interviews with this paper and others. Kobe had come to the NBA straight out of high school, skipping college. Like Vanessa, he had held himself apart from peers who would misunderstand his discomfort and accuse him of snobbery. Like her, he tended to limit his close relationships to family.
But otherwise their backgrounds were vastly different. Kobe is black, Vanessa is Latina. His father had played for the NBA, she’d scarcely known hers. He’d been raised in Italy and the affluent suburbs of Philadelphia; she’d grown up in a Garden Grove tract house.
Concerns about the marriage fell on deaf ears, according to her family. “We’d been going back and forth for months over a prenuptial agreement,” Laine recalled. Such agreements, typical in celebrity marriages, are confidential, and Bryant has never confirmed widespread rumors that he and his wife never signed one. But Laine said the negotiations abruptly ended shortly before the wedding.
“She just came home one day and said something to the effect that Kobe didn’t want a prenup -- that he loved her too much” for one, Laine remembered.
The marriage took place in April 2001 at St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church in Dana Point, where Vanessa and her mother had located a popular priest from her middle-school years at St. Boniface. (In a highly publicized footnote, Father John P. Lenihan, who officiated, subsequently left the priesthood after confessing to Times columnist Steve Lopez that he had violated his celibacy vows, first with a teenage girl in the late 1970s, then with older women.)
Neither Bryant’s parents, nor his sisters, nor any of his teammates were at the wedding. In fact, only about a dozen people attended, Stephen Laine said. Not even Laila and Sasha had been invited, an effort, they assumed, to minimize potential leaks, though, until Laila agreed to be interviewed for this article, she said, they hadn’t spoken to the press.
By now, every time Vanessa and Kobe went out, bodyguards went with them, trailing them through Disneyland or slipping them into previously blocked-off seats after the lights went down in the local Cineplex. News crews grilled the step-grandfather whose home had been her registered address in high school. “She’d take Kobe to places where people from high school would see her, like the Block of Orange or TGI Friday’s,” an ex-classmate remembered, “and then she’d get mad when people tried talking to him.”
To those around her, it was becoming clear that her old life might be irreconcilable with her new life, a life in which people like Mary J. Blige and Jennifer Lopez were part of her social circle and in which security guards had to stand watch while her family photographs were developed so that no one could make duplicates for sale to the tabloids.
Friends who, unlike her, had gone on to college, said she began to treat them like strangers. Her stepcousin said she seemed, at times, to be a stranger even to herself.
“I remember at one point she had this sort of identity crisis,” Laila Laine said. “She told me she was starting not to know who she was anymore, other than the wife of Kobe Bryant.”
Bryant would later tell The Times and others that he became estranged too, in his case from his family, who had first lived with him, then next-door to him in Pacific Palisades. In recent months, Bryant and his father have said they are now reconciled and in frequent contact. But after his marriage, Bryant’s parents moved back to Philadelphia; for more than two years, he and his father have said, they scarcely communicated.
When his old high school there retired Bryant’s jersey, his parents and his wife sat in different sections of the bleachers. In 2003, a few months before the Colorado incident, Bryant told The Times’ Bill Plaschke that the rift had been over his marriage. “I want a father. I want my father,” he said then.
As Bryant’s family retreated, so did longtime advisors such as his agent Arn Tellem, who had helped build his career and clean-cut image. Kobe and Vanessa moved an hour and a half south of L.A., to the guard-gated Newport Coast community of Ocean Ridge in Orange County, buying a home that had belonged, coincidentally, to Karl Malone’s agent, Dwight Manley.
They installed state-of-the-art security and decked out their home theater, friends said, with the stuff of childhood -- his “Star Wars” memorabilia, her Disneyana. In the backyard, they put a replica of the cottage from the “Harry Potter” movies. He bought her a Lamborghini for her 19th birthday, with a special adaptor for the transmission because, he told the car enthusiast magazine Dub, as it turned out she couldn’t drive a stick shift.
By now she was talking about children, telling Laila Laine that if she had a girl, she’d name her Natalia Diamante, in honor of another newfound taste, for diamonds. At South Coast Plaza, Laine says, she watched as the stepcousin who’d once worked at the Limited Too swept through Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana.
“She just kept buying and buying, and there I was carrying her packages,” Laine recalled. “She was being really rude to the salespeople -- ‘Get me this!’ ‘Do you know who I am?’ -- and of course they had no idea who she was until she’d pay with Kobe Bryant’s American Express card. I remember going home afterward and crying at how different she was.”
Through her lawyer, Vanessa Bryant denied that she was ever rude to salespeople. Other friends, meanwhile, say that, different or not, she was happier.
“It seemed to me that they were, and I think still are, very much in love,” said one close acquaintance who has stayed in touch with the couple and who spoke on condition of anonymity. Bryant announced in interviews that he was officially off-limits to other women; members of his entourage said that when he was on the road, he distanced himself from his teammates’ carousing.
Other NBA wives have said she distanced herself from them too. Through her lawyer, she denied this, though friends say she told them the other women seemed too old for her and “had their own gossip circle.”
In some respects, it wasn’t surprising, says Crystal McCrary Anthony, ex-wife of former NBA guard Greg Anthony and the coauthor of a novel set in the world of NBA marriages, “Homecourt Advantage.” “To some extent, they’re exotics in the NBA subculture,” she said. “He’s a superstar who has made it a point in his career to hold himself apart from other players. And she’s so young.”
Then, 15 months after her daughter’s wedding -- not long after Vanessa learned she was pregnant -- Sofia Laine filed for divorce from Stephen Laine, ending their marriage of 12 1/2 years. In court documents, the mother said she had learned that Laine was involved with another woman. Stephen Laine, who now is 44 and lives with that woman, denies cheating and blames the breakdown on Bryant’s money.
He says that as Kobe and Vanessa lavished his wife with surprise gifts -- a house full of furniture, a Mercedes-Benz S-500, $120,000 in cash, payment of phone, dental and credit card bills, payoff of their mortgage -- he began to fear his wife’s respect for him was crumbling.
Vanessa’s step-grandfather, Robert Laine, put it this way: “All of a sudden, it wasn’t ‘What does Steve want for dinner?’ It was, ‘What does Kobe want?’ ”
In an affidavit filed with their divorce papers, Vanessa Bryant, then 20, theorized that her stepfather was “jealous” because the gifts she had given him -- clothes, a computer -- were less valuable than those she gave her mother. Not so, says Stephen Laine: “It was that I became insignificant.”
With the divorce and its aftermath of spousal support battles, the Laines say, Vanessa pulled away, saying Kobe didn’t want her around “drama.” But drama by then had become a constant in their lives.
In 2003, for example -- hours after Bryant’s return from the trip that spawned the rape charge -- Newport Beach paramedics were dispatched to his home on a midnight 911 call to treat her for an undisclosed ailment for which she declined hospitalization. Sixteen days later, on the day after the Bryants’ news conference, he bought a $2.65-million second home down the block from their home. Through her lawyer, Vanessa Bryant said the house was “an investment.” Court documents indicate that his mother-in-law has been staying there.
Former associates of Bryant say that for a time his home situation was sufficiently volatile that he would flee to obscure motels where others could check him in without making a scene. When he was placed on the injured list with a seriously gashed finger amid reports that he had not only slept with the Colorado concierge but hit on a room service attendant in Portland, Ore., members of his entourage said the cut had come from the frame of a smashed family photograph. (Through her lawyer, Vanessa Bryant said that account is untrue.)
Meanwhile, tabloid rumors that both Kobe and Vanessa had seen divorce lawyers alternated with tabloid stories that they were closer than ever. (Again through Keker, Vanessa said that neither has consulted a divorce lawyer.) Leaked court documents detailed not only the humiliating particulars of the Colorado encounter but also ongoing rough sex between Bryant and another woman on the East Coast.
Early last year, Vanessa reportedly confronted a fan at a Laker-Clipper game sitting near her and badmouthing her husband. (“Vanessa turns around and was like, ‘I have had enough!’ [And] she goes off on the guy,” the R&B; singer Brandy, who was sitting nearby, told an interviewer for Africana.com.)
At a high school friend’s wedding, two sources said, the bride’s father ejected a tipsy guest who had had words with Vanessa. A dressing down that she gave the manager of a Jimmy Choo shoe boutique over returned merchandise and discounts became the talk of South Coast Plaza several months ago. Several sources said that after the dispute, she complained to her husband, who then dispatched his people to gather information on the employee.
Tony DiMasso, chief operating officer of the store’s New York corporate office, would say only that “we want every customer in the store to have an enjoyable experience, and we also want that experience to be enjoyable for our employees.” Another merchant familiar with the run-in was more blunt: “I’ve been in retail 25 years, and I’ve never seen anything like her -- you don’t treat people the way she did, I don’t care how rich you are or what you’re going through.”
And then there was the Malone accusation, denied by the former Laker, in which she told her husband that Malone had said he was “hunting for little Mexican girls” and asked if she liked him “like your daddy.” The assertion, made in November and revealed the next month in The Times and other publications, ruptured Malone’s relationship both with her husband and the team.
But those now close to her ask: What’s the “normal” 22-year-old response to public betrayal? To hundreds of millions of dollars? To the strange, insular life that now defines fame in this country?
“She’s been through a lot,” one friend observed, “for someone her age.”