You see her. You cannot miss her. Natalia Bryant is near six feet tall and moves with the certainty of a born and bred California girl who came thissssss close to pursuing college volleyball. She’s used to sunny days, and sand between her toes.
Introduction to Natalia Bryant Life
The eldest child of Vanessa and Kobe Bryant is self-possessed and long-limbed and jet-haired and we are all here for her. This bright July morning we’re on set at a Brentwood Spanish-style villa on a lot perfect for pool parties and high-society hijinks. Natalia’s grin is uncoded. She smiles with the baked-in confidence of one who is profoundly sure of her family’s love.
“Heeyy!” That’s the energy, with a bounce in her walk, and to just about everyone. “Thank you so much for being here!”
Natalia Bryant full cover September edition
Just east enough of Palisades to catch a Pacific breeze, this palace was built for the makers of American cinema’s so-called Golden Age, the old-school film studio lifers who intentionally created the kind of soulful extravaganza that houses this photo shoot. Natalia, 18, has just signed with IMG Models. She’s also set to register for her freshman year at the University of Southern California where she will major in film, and she has 2.7 million Instagram followers.
Eighteen is an obsessive, dreamy age, and the mood in Brentwood is blue butterflies and pure possibility. Natalia is center stage in a fuschia Alejandra Alonso Rojas sheath and flat black faux-leather Proenza Schouler boots, the ones that ease softly as lambskin, just over the knee. Creating Natalia’s portraits is the Bronx’s own Raven B. Varona aka RavieB — meticulous, charismatic — famous for the illuminating shots of Beyoncé and Jay Z on their 2018 On The Run II world tour. Natalia’s mother, Vanessa Bryant, low-key and alert, watches her oldest being watched. Bianka Bella, 4, and Capri Kobe, 2, Natalia’s baby sisters, zigzag the terrace in jelly ballet flats. The girls are thrilled about the Ring Pops on set, and the hummingbirds, which are everywhere.
This is Natalia’s first major photo shoot and profile — she’s fully aware that she has been more seen than heard. “One time this person was TikToking me or something,” she tells me. “I was talking. And [after], I was going through comments, which everyone does. Someone commented, ‘this is the first time I ever heard your voice.’ I never even realized that. You always see a face, but it’s hard to … think of a voice behind that face.”
Beneath the effervescence of this day is the tragedy of Natalia’s father Kobe Bryant and younger sister Gianna Bryant dying on January 26, 2020. It was a week after Natalia’s 17th birthday. “I’m very loyal to the people that I love,” she says. “Loyalty is an important value. Just … understanding your loyalty. You’re not just loyal for no reason.” When she says “loyalty,” I hear “family devotion.” You see the bonds on set via the subtle eye contact Vanessa makes with Natalia to loosen up in poses. You see Natalia, between takes, checking in on her sisters. The Bryants, a famously insular unit, have been cut down by two. An energy emanating from Natalia and Vanessa is that they will not lose another.
Nor will they play down Black and brown girlhood and its celebrations. From the speakers on set is Brandy’s 1994 “I Wanna Be Down.” It’s Brandy’s first single ever, a huge hit recorded when she was 14. This serendipity floats under Natalia’s delight in her deeply modified al fresco debut. It’s a sign of life in brutal times. In fact, all of us — Natalia, the photographer’s crew, the stylists, the editors — are delirious with post-quarantine-life freedom. This is that ten minutes of summer 2021 when it looked like the pandemic might peter out. We are working and we are giggly, and we are outside. “I’m an outgoing introvert,” Natalia tells me. “I love talking to people… but part of me is such a homebody.”
Part of the reason she is a homebody is that she likes her parents. “I do,” she says. “They’re fun.” The strong line between them, though, is lengthening. Vanessa declines formal comment for this story saying, as she watches Natalia’s adventure, that this moment is about, and she nods toward her eldest, “her.” Mother and daughter are just 20 years apart.
Natalia says she has vague memories of it just being she, her mom, and her dad. “I had,” she tells me, “that three-year space.” Natalia also unselfconsciously talks about her late sister Gianna in the present tense. It’s heartbreaking. And it’s beautiful. “I never realized,” Natalia tells me later, away from the hullabaloo of the shoot, “what people do know, and don’t know, about me.”
My niece Parker, 19, follows Natalia. Parker attended a well-known and arty independent high school in California. Natalia and Parker, both speak about themselves with ease. They both have deeply attentive, stylish mothers.
“I love her style,” is what Parker says about Natalia. “It’s classy and chic, and modern.” And in fact, when I meet Natalia at a café in Newport Beach a couple of weeks after the Brentwood shoot, her grey smock maxi dress is perfectly yet offhandedly on-trend. “She’s not just jeans and sneaks,” Parker tells me candidly, “It’s not her at-ing sponsors. Natalia has followers because she’s pretty and because of nepotism … I like her because I don’t feel like she’s fake.”
“Charmed” is probably the best way to describe much of Natalia’s life. She went to two prestigious private schools seven minutes apart just outside of Los Angeles, so she’s known a bunch of her friends since kindergarten. Sage Hill High School alumni are known for landing on Forbes’ 30 Under 30. Stanford and UC Irvine men’s water polo teams have used Sage Hill’s Olympic-sized pool for scrimmages. Natalia’s IG features cheerful check-ins from Capri, St. Tropez, and southern Croatia, from the lip of the Adriatic Sea. Her family is tight with La La Anthony and Ciara’s families. Pau Gasol is like a godfather to her and her sisters.
Just Nani’s love of films stems from time spent bonding with her father. Natalia recalls a particular midnight showing of 2019’s Rise of Skywalker. On the car ride back, she asked to watch the entirety of the franchise — at home, on the same night. “He was just like the best girl dad ever. He was just letting me play my playlist and jam out to Taylor Swift the whole ride back, and talk about Star Wars too. It was so much fun.” But their intergalactic rabbit hole ended sooner than planned, “I fell asleep during the first half of the [first] movie.”
It’s easy to worry about her, talking about her father. Especially since Skywalker was released just a month before the fatal accident. But Natalia is on a healing journey. “I love talking about my dad,” she says. “It’s bittersweet, but I enjoy talking about him more than it’s sad for me.”
Neither Vanessa nor Kobe attended college. Not everyone wants or needs to go. But it’s that experience that the Bryants wanted for their kids. Vanessa went from high school into a high-profile marriage. Kobe went from west Philadelphia’s Lower Merion High School to the NBA.
“I love talking about my dad. It’s bittersweet, but I enjoy talking about him more than it’s sad for me.”
Video sets were the Soho Houses and party Airbnb’s of the 1990s and 2000s, and after Kobe met her on set for a rap video of his own, he showered Vanessa Cornejo with so many flowers at Huntington Beach’s Marina High School that the courtship became disruptive to school days. Kobe was in his third year with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Natalia’s coming of age is different from her mother’s. Vanessa was raised in Orange County’s Garden Grove and Anaheim (a Disney company town), both spaces very different in mood and household income than Newport Coast with its mesmerizing views of the Pacific.
Natalia Diamante Bryant was born nearly two years after her parents’ wedding. “I have no idea why I’m named Natalia,” she says. “My mom just picked out my name. Diamante in Spanish is diamond and my nickname is Nani, which in Hawaiian means beautiful.”
While Natalia’s life is undoubtedly NBA-offspring posh — from the beaches of Bora Bora to the ski resorts of Utah, to Manhattan for Bergdorf Goodman and Chanel — she also rolled with her fam to strip mall spots and Disneyland. Natalia’s mother and maternal grandmother definitely hablan Español. Kobe, already a speaker of Italian, became fluent in Spanish by watching telenovelas like La Madrastra and Soñadoras. “I’m biracial,” says Natalia. “When I was younger, I didn’t really understand … how I’m both. As I got older, I was able to understand.”
Unlike her young, love-struck parents, a serious relationship is not a focus right now. “We’ve always been very busy … I’ve always been close to my family. I don’t want to remember high school as dating some guy that I’m most likely going to be hating next [year].” Okay, but there’s got to be a crush, right? “Of course. Everybody’s had crushes. [But] No. No room for dating.”
Volleyball was invented in 1895 by William G. Morgan. This was four years after the invention of basketball. Morgan had in mind a mix of basketball, handball, and tennis. Early volleyball games were played with basketball bladders (the internal balloon that holds air) but these were too light. Long-ago players also tried to volley official basketballs but these weren’t light enough. Natalia Bryant, daughter of one of the greatest to ever play in the NBA, played varsity volleyball for her high school.
Natalia’s love of volleyball began in 2012. “It was the London Olympics,” she says. “My mom took me to watch Misty May play beach volleyball.” Misty May-Treanor is the most successful beach volleyball player in history. That year, she and teammate Kerri Walsh Jennings won gold for the third time. Natalia was nine.
“I was watching and [my Mom] was like, ‘Nani, you’re going to love this sport. You’re going to love volleyball. I’m calling it right now,’” she says. “I think [my mom] knew I wasn’t confident in my height. She’s like, ‘You’re going to play volleyball. You’re going to get confident because of this. There are all these other tall girls too, so you’re not the only one.” Natalia says she wasn’t into basketball because she hates running. Like, really hates it.
She likes jumping really high, though: Natalia is an exceptional middle blocker. They’re usually the tallest on the team, and they’re about defense, and attacks. The kill — an unreturnable attack by the opposition that leads directly to a point powerful shot angled downward — is volleyball’s equivalent of a slam dunk.
“I remember this one kill,” says Natalia. “We were playing an away game, at a rival school, St. Margaret’s. We were really down. I got irritated because it gets very competitive between the schools. One of my best friends was our setter [and] we had a level of telepathy almost, where we could read each other’s minds. She was setting the ball, we ran a three” — Natalia talks with her hands now, diagramming in the air, “which is like the middle is here, the setters are here, another outside is here. When she set that three, I was so ready!”
“I’ve always been very competitive. I think it’s the way my parents raised me to be competitive.”
She slammed the kill. “I can’t remember if we [won] or not,” Natalie says, smiling her father’s smile. “I just remember that one moment.”
Natalia attended USC volleyball games — sometimes with her family. Kobe loved USC and adopted it as the athletic alma mater he didn’t have. On November 23, 2019, Natalia attended a USC vs Oregon match. It was just she and her father. Two months later, Kobe and Gianna were gone.
The sports world — the whole world — was in a state of shock. The city of Los Angeles continues to mourn. Beyoncé sang at Kobe Bryant’s Staples Center memorial service. President Barack Obama offered a tribute. Vanessa would go on to sue the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in September 2020 for negligence after officers made and shared photos of the crash. The helicopter tragedy that ended the lives of Natalia’s father, sister, and seven others is looked upon by many as an omen that preceded the mass-casualty, anxiety-ridden, culture-shifting pandemic in which we are all trying to survive.
Nothing has been the same since Kobe died, is a cultural refrain. Well, with regard to Natalia, we aren’t just talking about what has changed in the world. We’re talking about the loss and grief and shifts in her world.
“I wanted to play volleyball in college,” says Natalia. “I played club volleyball with the intention of becoming a D1 athlete.” Wistfully, she recalls that last match with her father. “That was an especially cool moment that I got to experience with him, and sit courtside, and watch two of the top teams. They were going at it. I was in awe watching them.”
A few weeks ago, in mid-August, Vanessa tearfully dropped her eldest off at the University of Southern California. But Natalia, at least for now, has decided against playing the game at which she is so brilliant. “I love the sport,” she says. “I quit volleyball after the accident because I was so … a lot was going on at that time. I knew I didn’t … love volleyball as much as they love basketball. I’m okay with that.”
Natalia has learned too early that even when blue skies beckon, and a whole ocean is your backyard, life will leave you gasping, bruised, and checking your heart always for tenderness. She already knows that what you thought was your destiny might only be a lap on your journey.
“I just wanted,” Natalia says, “to take a break from it.”
As do we all, Natalia. Even, sometimes, from that which makes us most ourselves.
You see her. On set in Brentwood, with the butterflies and hummingbirds, Natalia Bryant is that girl who wanted to be a fashion designer and a veterinarian. That girl whose family friends are household names, and who lives for Harry Potter and La La Land. The L.A. sun is on her face, and so are the flashing lights from photographer RavieB.
Modeling is something Natalia has wanted to do for a while. She showed interest during one of those trips with her mom to New York’s Bergdorf Goodman store. Natalia saw a Chanel runway show on a screen and said, “I want to do that.” Her mother, supportive but practical, advised her to take her time. “For my mom, it was really important for me to go through high school and get my education. Especially complete college too.”
It’s not just the sunbeams and gleaming lights: Natalia is lit from within. She knows her mind, and in a way that comes to her via nature and nurture, she is comfortable in her body. She is as protected as possible. She is confident, already, in her intuition. These things contribute to her privilege as much as the wealth. Natalia the Diamond is 18, and the image of her father.
“You do the best that you can,” Natalia says when I ask how her family is doing. “[For] my little sisters [we’re] trying to keep that memory for them. And also just trying to remember to live out every day the way they would.”
On matters of the spirit, Natalia — that tall Blaxican girl from Orange County with the familiar smile — is wiser than many grown folks. “It’s so relaxing,” she says about skiing, which she has experienced with her family, all of her life. “You go down the mountain, down different trails. I can’t say that I haven’t [crashed into trees]. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. But it’s just so relaxing to me. You get space … you get to clear your mind, and you don’t think about anything. You think about what you’re doing in the moment. It’s about being present. Which I love.”
Do you see Natalia? As she travels into adulthood? The wind is at her back. You can’t miss her.