Serious Strength: Inside Vanessa Bryant's World Since the Deaths of Kobe and Gianna

Vanessa Bryant has been sharing memories of her late husband and daughter, doting on her three girls and taking it one day at a time with a lot of appreciated help from her friends.

By Natalie Finn Jan 27, 2021 7:40 AMTags
Kobe Bryant, Vanessa Bryant, InstagramInstagram

Vanessa Bryant is in the fight of her life.

Not because of her ongoing legal battles, a wrongful death lawsuit against the company that operated the helicopter that went down on Jan. 26, 2020, with husband Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna and seven others onboard, as well as a complaint alleging invasion of privacy against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in response to a Los Angeles Times report that at least eight deputies had snapped and shared grisly photos from the crash site.

Or because her own mother, who in September publicly accused Vanessa of leaving her high and dry, has sued her for $5 million, claiming she earned that acting as a "longtime personal assistant and nanny" for her daughter and grandkids. Vanessa has called the suit an attempt to "extort a windfall."

No, Vanessa is simply fighting to get by, one day at a time, her world having imploded when she lost her 13-year-old daughter and the man she'd loved since she was 17.

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Kobe Bryant's Family Album

"I'm mad I didn't go first. I always wanted to go first so that I selfishly didn't have to feel this heartache. You were supposed to miss me. Gigi was supposed to be here with her sisters. It should've been me," the 38-year-old wrote in a tribute to Kobe on Aug. 23, what would have been his 42nd birthday.

The remarkably private Vanessa—whose Instagram account was always set to request-only despite her being the first lady of Lakers basketball for so many years—temporarily made her account public after the tragedy, but has since gone back to having that buffer. Some of her photos look just like a mom having good times with her smiling kids and devoted friends, chilling in the pool in the summer, bundled up in the snow in the winter. But she has also shared intimate, honest glimpses into her pain as she's had to experience one first—Valentine's Day, birthdays, her wedding anniversary, Christmas—after another without her husband and daughter Gigi.  

Life does indeed goes on, but Vanessa—who hasn't granted any interviews or otherwise spoken out in a non-social-media forum since the public memorial last February—hasn't bothered to pretend that, while some days are easier than others, there aren't still times that are almost unbearably hard.

Watch: Kobe Bryant & Gianna 1 Year Later: E! News Rewind

"Grief is a messed up cluster of emotions," she posted Jan. 15. "One day you're in the moment laughing and the next day you don't feel like being alive. I want to say this for people struggling with grief and heartbreaking loss. Find your reason to live. I know it's hard. I look at my daughters and I try to push through that feeling for them. Death is guaranteed but living the rest of the day isn't. Find your reason."

Jan. 26 marked a year since the crash and, as she shared a beautiful letter she received from one of Gianna's friends ("Dear Mrs. Bryant," it began), Vanessa noted that "it still doesn't seem real."

Which, judging by the tributes that poured in this week, appears to be how countless people feel.

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At the same time, though, every remembrance of Kobe and her Gigi, the family's next budding hoops star who died on her way to a tournament with her dad, is also testament to Vanessa's strength as she faces down the unfathomable, all while knowing that she has to be strong for daughters Natalia, 18, Bianka, 4, and 19-month-old Capri—and that staying down isn't the Bryant way.

In a bizarre twist, mourning ended up coinciding with one of the more trying years in recent memory for far more than devastated Lakers fans and a reeling sports world.

What was already going to be a surreal period of time for Vanessa, devoted mother and now keeper of her husband's legacy, became even more insular than perhaps it would've been due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down businesses, schools, sports and the entertainment industry just a few weeks after a host of luminaries gathered to pay tribute to Kobe and Gianna at Staples Center, the house the Lakers legend built over the course of 20 seasons and five NBA Championships.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

The Feb. 24 celebration of life marked Vanessa's first appearance in public since the crash, the widow—who met Kobe at 17 when she was an extra in Tha Eastsidaz' "G'd Up" video and the aspiring rapper was working on his debut album—blowing the crowd away with her poise during a eulogy that was by turns humorous and heartbreaking, sweet and relentlessly sad, the tears threatening to come but remarkably held at bay.

In the meantime, Vanessa and Kobe's closest friends and loved ones had been visiting her and the kids at their home in Newport Beach, where vigil-keeping fans, many decked out in No. 24 or No. 8 Bryant jerseys, immediately started to gather outside their gated community in the hours after the news broke.

Lakers owner Jeannie Buss, who'd known Kobe since he was a teenager and Gianna her whole life, and team executive Rob Pelinka, Kobe's longtime best friend and former agent, as well as Gianna's godfather, were among her first visitors. It's hard to say whether Vanessa would have since attended a game at Staples Center or made any other more prominent appearances, but the suspension of the NBA season from March 11 until July, when teams resumed play in the Orlando bubble, answered that question. 

When the Lakers won their 17th championship in October, Vanessa celebrated on Instagram with a picture of Kobe when they won it all in 2009, a 3-year-old Gigi in his arms.

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Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant's Public Memorial: Stars Attend Celebration of Life

COVID also put a halt to any routine they were starting to get back to in the wake of their loss. Vanessa's Instagram started to resemble a lot of other moms' accounts in the pandemic age as Natalia's adventures in online schooling, TikTok dance routines and other attempts to stay busy took center stage.

They added a dog to the family over the summer, a gray French bulldog named Bobby, "Aka Bobby ganoush, bobbyrooni, bobbooshka. J/k he's named after iceman from x-men (blue eyes)," Vanessa shared in June, also noting, "Love seeing my girls smile."

Meanwhile, it's one thing to deal with a loss privately, and quite another when seemingly the whole world has been weighing in and the reminders are nonstop—a circumstance Vanessa knew would be the case. 

She explained last June why she had to start blocking fan accounts, needing to do something to change the algorithm so she wouldn't be smacked in the face with photos of her late husband and child every time she used the "explore" feature. But she hasn't shied away from her husband's ubiquity on her terms, whether she was touting the posthumous release of Kobe's first YA novel, Geese Are Never Swans, in July or marking Kobe Bryant/Mamba Day on Aug. 24 or sharing a photo of a well installed in Uganda by the Orange Catholic Foundation in Kobe and Gianna's name in September.

While shops were still closed, Vanessa had tattoo artist Nikko Hurtado come to the house to ink messages in Kobe and Gianna's handwriting on her neck and wrist. In October, she slipped on a pair of tall heels to show off her family of six's first names in script along the outside of her foot, work by Mr. Cartoon (whose Santa Monica shop she was actually able to visit in person).

"Together Forever," she captioned the pic.

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"It takes a village," she wrote on Instagram on Mamba Day, posting a shot of herself with Bianka (or B.B., as she's familiarly known), Capri (whose moniker is Koko) and pal Ciara, who's been one of her rocks during the past year. "Thank you to all my loving family, amazing friends and wonderful fans for your love and support. One day at a time."

It was a surprise to find out last fall that "loving family" didn't necessarily include Vanessa's own mother, Sofía Urbieta, who in an interview with Univision's El Gordo Y La Flaca claimed that her daughter had ordered her to vacate the home where Sofía had been living in nearby Irvine by March 2021 and took away her car (both assets provided for her by her late son-in-law).

In a statement obtained by E! News, Vanessa said, "My husband and daughter passed away unexpectedly and yet my mom has the audacity to do an interview on TV talking negatively about me while shedding tears about a car and home that wasn't in her name. She has removed all her diamond jewelry, emptied her apartment that I provide, and put the furniture in storage to appear as though she is without support."

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She continued, "My husband and I have financially supported her over the past 20 years, and I continue to do so, in addition to her monthly alimony. Contrary to previous reports, she has not been physically present or emotionally supportive for my daughters and me after my husband and daughter passed away. Going forward, I see what is most important to my mom and it is beyond hurtful. I hope this public airing of our personal relations will stop here."

After her mother filed a lawsuit seeking $5 million for so-called back pay and alleging that Kobe had promised to take care of her for life, Vanessa said in a statement, "She was a grandmother who was supported by me and her son-in-law at my request. She now wants to back charge me $96 per hour for supposedly working 12 hours a day for 18 years for watching her grandchildren. In reality, she only occasionally babysat my older girls when they were toddlers."

So it's no surprise as to why Vanessa prizes her privacy to such a degree, having had enough of strangers' opinions to last a lifetime back when she first married Kobe and again when she chose to stay with him when their marriage was on rockier footing. These days, the commenting function on her Instagram account is turned off, the O.C. mom content to post her pictures without other people's input.

Even her chiropractor, Dr. Dustin Glass, who made a house call in December, is a longtime family friend (as well as the Anaheim Ducks' resident specialist), his eldest daughter Shayna having been in ballet with Natalia and another daughter, Ally, playing soccer with Gigi.

"So grateful for good people coming through for us and helping us out when we need them most," Vanessa wrote, sharing video of her enviable adjustment session.

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NBA Stars Honor Kobe Bryant on Mamba Day

As COVID restrictions eased over the summer, the Bryant ladies started to venture out a little more, enjoying a trip to the Bay Area for boating and good times with former Laker Pau Gasol, who won two rings with Kobe and, in September, named his and wife Catherine's first child Elisabet Gianna Gasol.

"My goddaughter," Vanessa showed off a recent pic of her holding the now 4-month-old.

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Speaking of namesakes, when they celebrated Capri's first birthday on June 20, one of the seemingly never-ending list of bittersweet milestones they marked all year, Vanessa wrote of the dolled-up baby of the family, "God Bless you sweet princess. Capri Kobe Bryant a.k.a. 'Koko-Bean' named after her dearly missed daddy, Kobe Bean Bryant. We miss you SO much Gigi and Daddy."

Though it was a smaller affair than the one they might have had in non-COVID times, Vanessa went all out decorating, and the cake from Sweet Lady Jane in the shape of the Tokyo Disney Castle was bigger than the birthday girl herself.

Auntie Sophie (Vanessa's older sister) and Uncle Serg gave Capri a pink mini bumper car that's navigable by joystick, one of countless gifts that showed up at the house over the summer, whether for a special occasion or just because. Among the tokens of affection, Khloe Kardashian and celebrity florist Jeff Leatham sent flowers (Khloe of course sent a Leatham arrangement), while On Air With Ryan Seacrest producer Patty Rodriguez sent dolls for the little ones. Beach volleyball champion Kerri Walsh Jennings sent a "Mamba Forever" sweatshirt, which Vanessa showed off on a trip to the park with Bianka. Russell Wilson and Ciara gifted B.B. with a hot pink, kid-size Range Rover (because Koko couldn't be the only one with a sweet ride), the 4-year-old has since acquired a wee Lamborghini to go with it.

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Celebrity Deaths: 2021's Fallen Stars

On Kobe Bryant Day, Ciara also posted the shot of her with Vanessa, B.B. and Koko, writing, "Seeing you and the girls smile makes my heart smile. You're the toughest mama I know. Seeing you put one foot forward each day is admirable. It ain't easy, but if I know one thing, Mamba Queen's capable of it all." She added, "Love you V. @VanessaBryant. #MambaDay."

WNBA rookie Sabrina Ionescu, who considered Kobe a mentor and Gigi a protégée while she climbed the national ranks at the University of Oregon, has been over for movie nightKill Bill, starring Uma Thurman as the other "Black Mamba," naturally. In August, Kobe's sister Shaya Bryant-Tabb and her kids Autumn and Logan cuddled up on the couch for a sweet snap with Capri, who started swimming lessons over the summer.

Vanessa's other sister-in-law, Sharia Washington, also made appearances on the 'gram last summer, and she just flew in for a visit this month, which the family knew was going to be particularly difficult as Jan. 26 approached.

"Laughter is the best medicine. ♥️�� It's been so tough. Thx for flying in. I needed this @shariawash My sister-in-law is my #hypeman," Vanessa wrote as they laughed making TikTok videos.

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Vanessa Bryant's Mexico Vacation With Ciara & Lala Anthony

Monica told Entertainment Tonight in August that she and Vanessa's other close friends were quick to rally for her.

"Each day is a struggle and I think one of the greatest aspects of our friendship, which has spanned now for almost 11 years, almost 12, it's been really, really important to just simply be there," the "Angel of Mine" singer said. "Whatever she is feeling each day is something we will never understand, that level of pain, that level of heartache, also respecting her privacy. People have been reaching out for a very long time, but she's always been a private person."

Capri is "the happiest baby I have ever come in contact with," Monica continued. "B.B., the dancing machine, is just pure joy," she shared. "And you can see, even in the heartache, they are the greatest blessing. They are the greatest gift that they left. But as a mom, I have never seen the pain of losing a child. We try to keep her covered. She has an amazing village, her sister is amazing, La La's always been there. She has a great group of friends, the Gasol family. People have really stepped up and really been giving an outpouring of love."

As Monica mentioned, also in Vanessa's inner circle is La La Anthony, who as wife of NBA star Carmelo Anthony knows firsthand that being married to a basketball player is not always the easiest life, and she's been by her friend's side throughout the aftermath of her loss.

"Well, you know, I'm a real friend, that's what friends do," Anthony told Entertainment Tonight in September about being there for Vanessa. "You know, you don't dip out on your friends when it gets really hard. And she's going through something that is unimaginable, that, you know, I can't even fathom what that feels like."

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The designer and mother of son Kiyan continued, "So, just to be a friend and be there to make her laugh when she needs to, cry when she needs to, is a beautiful thing. But that's what friends do for each other, you know, so I'm always going to be there for her and the girls and just, you know, want to see her just continue to be strong and amazing."

Calling Vanessa "the strongest woman I know," Anthony said, "To see her smile and laugh to me is the greatest feeling. You know, to just have those moments whether they're quick moments or not, you know, for her to be able to have that, so, I'll continue to bring the fun and the laughter."

Namechecking more besties, she added, "But Monica has been great, Ciara's been great, and we're just going to continue to support her in anything that she needs. This is not a one-week journey, a one-month journey. These friendships are lifelong bonds, so I've known Vanessa, what, maybe 13, 14, 15 years now?"

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Vanessa Bryant & Ciara's Family Christmas Vacation

Ciara, La La, Vanessa and all the kids jetted to Cabo for a sunny getaway in October, while last month Vanessa and Ciara headed to snowy Montana with their broods. Needless to say, few things are cuter than an array of pics of little children in puffy coats and other cold-weather gear.

While on their Christmas vacation, Auntie C. also helped B.B. learn how to ride a bicycle, in case she desires a different mode of transport than the Rover or the Lambo.

"Bianka and Auntie C. Thank you so much for this Christmas vacation Auntie @ciara and Uncle @dangerusswilson Love you guys!!! Thank you so much for being there for us," Vanessa wrote in capturing the moment.

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In the meantime, "normal" is still a far-off dream, and not least because Natalia kicked off her senior year from home and her volleyball season was postponed along with the rest of high school sports in Southern California.

Despite their best efforts—and those efforts truly do seem super-human at times—more tough days are ahead as the family continues to press on without Kobe and Gigi, inevitable grief and sorrow mixed in with the happy.

As Vanessa wrote on Kobe's birthday, "Our lives feel so empty without you and Gigi. I've been completely broken inside. As much as I want to cry, I put a smile on my face to make our daughters days shine a little brighter. I'm not the strong one, they are. They're strong and resilient. I'm sure you're proud of them. They put a smile on my face everyday. I wish I could wake up from this horrible nightmare. I wish I could surprise our girls and welcome you and Gigi home to us."

One thing is clear, however, and it's that there is a village's worth of people invested in making sure that Vanessa and her daughters keep smiling. When so little is sure, that is a given.

(Originally published Sept. 28, 2020, at 5 a.m. PT)

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