By Shawn Hubler
Sun Sentinel Times Staff Writer
Vanessa Laine was just another sheltered teenager in
Huntington Beach. Then she fell in love with a
By Shawn Hubler 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
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 an obscene phrase
emblazoned 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
"Hey Vanessa," a sports fan asked in December in a
letter to The Times, "Is Devean George going to play
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
"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
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
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
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
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."