Remembering Christina Grimmie, a Friend Who'd 'Come Up and Give You a Hug'

Randy Ohman
Grimmie onstage at The Plaza Live on June 10, shortly before she was killed. 

Late on Friday, June 10, Christina Grimmie was doing what she had done many times: hugging and chatting with fans after a performance. Of the roughly 300 people police estimated were at the Plaza Live nightclub in Orlando that night, about one-third lined up to snap selfies with the 22-year-old singer, who had opened for the pop-punk band Before You Exit.

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Interacting with dozens of fans at a time was not easy for Grimmie, her brother Marcus, 23, said at a candlelight vigil held the following Monday, June 13, in Evesham Township, N.J., near where they grew up: “She was introverted.” Still, witnesses say she had her arms open as Kevin James Loibl, a 27-year-old who had driven from St. Petersburg, Fla., for the show, approached for his turn to meet her. Loibl would fire three gunshots at Grimmie before Marcus, who was standing nearby and had played guitar for his sister that night, tackled him. Loibl then turned the gun on himself and died instantly. Grimmie was taken to the Orlando Regional Medical Center and pronounced dead at 11:30 p.m., a little more than 24 hours before the mass shootings began at the Pulse nightclub, just four miles away.

The night of Grimmie’s murder, a family friend and pastor, Jason George, says he called Marcus to offer support and tell him that he was proud of him for tackling the killer and saving others’ lives. “I want to come through the phone and hug you right now,” said George. “But I failed her,” replied Marcus. At Grimmie’s memorial the following Friday, June 17, in Medford, N.J., Marcus spoke only briefly: “I don’t have anything to say. I don’t have words, still.”

During the course of her career -- she started posting covers of Miley Cyrus and Celine Dion on YouTube in 2009, finished third on season six of The Voice in 2014 and independently released an EP, Side A, in February -- Grimmie mingled with some of the biggest names in music. At a concert in Miami the day after Grimmie’s death, Selena Gomez, who brought Grimmie on tour as an opener in 2011, tearfully dedicated a cover of Hillsong Worship’s “Transfiguration” to her. Many other artists, from Demi Lovato to Lil Wayne, remembered her online. Rachel Platten, who toured with Grimmie this spring, tells Billboard, “I remember her asking my advice on how she could reach people and spread a massive amount of love. I didn’t know what to say -- to me, she already had.”

“She was one of The Voice’s real shots at a pop star,” says Audrey Morrissey, an executive producer with the show. “She proved herself week in and week out, she had iTunes downloads galore, and people loved her. She came to the show with a massive fan base, and it only grew.” Grimmie and Adam Levine, her mentor on The Voice, had a close relationship, adds Morrissey: “He spent a lot of time considering what her next move would be artistically, fought hard for songs and took some risks with her. She really touched us and inspired us.”

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Grimmie cultivated her own fame on social media and at events like the June 10 meet-and-greet. Like other stars of YouTube and reality TV, she built up “Team Grimmie,” as her fans call themselves, by offering direct access to herself in pictures, tweets and funny videos online. Richard Choi, 22, discovered Grimmie’s YouTube feed in 2011 and has rallied her followers with his fan art and tweets. “I was going through some pretty dark times in my life and her voice was a sliver of light that gave me hope,” he says. He found strength, he adds, in her openness about having been bullied in school.

Friends remember Grimmie as sweet, goofy (she and her dad loved puns) and dedicated to her dream. “She was graceful despite her clumsiness, her laugh was infectious, and she didn’t judge others,” says the singer’s publicist, Heather Weiss.

Brian Teefey, Gomez’s stepfather and former manager, signed on to manage Grimmie after discovering her online. He says she was coming into her own during the past year, working in the studio with songwriters and producers including Nashville singer-songwriter Amy Stroup, who finally seemed to get what she was about: sincere, romantic pop ballads. (“She was hilarious, full of life and had an amazing voice,” says Stroup.) He’s waiting for the family to decide how and when the few tracks she completed will be released. “If we do something, it will be to honor Christina,” says Teefey. “It’ll be music that I know she’d be proud to release.”

At the June 13 vigil for Grimmie, roughly 1,000 mourners, many who knew her personally and wore Team Grimmie T-shirts and clutched candles, gathered at sundown on a football field near where Grimmie grew up. One, Hannah Hyland, 16, tells Billboard about meeting Grimmie 10 years ago, when Hyland was 6 and the two rode the school bus together. “She would definitely lighten up the mood, any day,” says Hyland. “She was such a positive person.” Brianna Hunt, 13, says, “If you were ever upset she would be the one to come up and give you a hug.” Several people had laid flowers under large posters of Grimmie’s headshot. One left a note that read, “Thank you for showing God’s ray of sunshine in a dark world.”

Grimmie’s parents raised her and Marcus, her only sibling, as evangelical Christians. Grimmie stayed in touch with George, the then-youth pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Cherry Hill, after the family relocated to Los Angeles in 2012 so Grimmie could pursue her career. She would text him in the wee hours of the morning, sometimes to ask for a prayer (“I have a big audition,” she’d say) and other times for advice on staying true to herself in an industry, she told George, that prided itself on fakeness. They consulted the gospel for answers.

In a “Get to Know Christina” video from 2014, Grimmie draws what she calls the “Triforce of Christina”: music, food and video games. But then she adds a line north of all that and writes Jesus’ name. “Sounds corny,” she says, adding in her best Mr. T voice, “but it’s how I live, fool!”

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Later in the same series, Grimmie says her mother, Tina, was originally against her posting on YouTube. “She was like, ‘You need to get off the Internet before some creepy man comes and, like, tries to track you down.’ ”

Little is known about Loibl. He had two handguns, two full magazine clips and a hunting knife on him when he died. He shared a small house in St. Petersburg with his 58-year-old father and 29-year-old brother and was once arrested for domestic violence against his father’s fiancee. Police are continuing to investigate his motives, but his co-workers at a St. Petersburg Best Buy told TMZ he had been obsessed with Grimmie and that they teased him because her social media accounts recently seemed to reveal that she had a boyfriend. (Grimmie and Stephen Rezza, a producer with whom she worked, posted photos with each other on Instagram. He has not confirmed the relationship.)

It doesn’t seem that Loibl knew Grimmie personally, although he reportedly told co-workers he did. “You’re far more likely to get shot by someone you’ve interacted with in the past than a complete stranger -- 85 percent of shootings happen within social networks,” says Jonathan Metzl, the director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University. But, he adds, “there is a level of intimacy in the age of social media that allows people to feel very personally connected to people about whom they might obsess.”

Grimmie’s growing online following, says Teefey, merited a special security detail but didn’t deliver the income that would allow her to afford it. “Security was a slow conversation,” admits Teefey. “We were getting there.” As an independent artist, Grimmie relied on Marcus to work as her “bandmate, tour manager, merch seller, roadie” on this tour. “They loved each other -- they were very, very close,” says Teefey of the two siblings. Grimmie’s fans may have felt close to her, but the loss to her family is incalculable.  

Additional reporting by Michele Angermiller.

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This article originally appeared in the July 2 issue of Billboard.