It should have been the greatest time of their lives.
Last April, the all-girl band G.R.L. was just gaining buzz, heating up the charts with “Ugly Heart” and singing the chorus to Pitbull’s popular radio jam, “Wild Wild Love.” The five singers were huge in Australia and performed on the Today Show and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
And then, the unthinkable happened. Group member Simone Battle, 25, who had risen to fame as a finalist on the 2011 U.S. version of X-Factor, unexpectedly took her own life on Sept. 5, 2014.
“It all just came to a stop,” says member Paula Van Oppen, 25. “Everything halted.”
The shock of Battle’s suicide was almost unbearable for the group.
“You can never prepare yourself for something like this, ever,” says group member Lauren Bennett, 25. “We’d just been in rehearsals the day before, learning choreography for our show, and the next day we were starting the morning as usual when we got the call. I still can’t believe it. I don’t think any of us can. It’s weird that we’re even sitting here, talking about it.”
The members say the last four months have been a blur, dealing with the loss of their friend, taking care of one another, going through therapy (both together and individually) and slowly trying to regroup and find their next path.
They don’t just want to get back in the studio and start working on an album – they want to make a difference in the world, to prevent a tragedy like this from happening to anyone else.
“This time has given us a moment to reflect and find purpose as a group,” Van Oppen says. “A big part of what’s helping us move forward is partnering with this amazing organization, Give an Hour, which raises awareness for mental health issues and helps people learn about the signs of depression.”
They say their main mission is to bring the topic of depression out in the open, especially among their young fans, for whom that sort of stuff is generally taboo to talk about.
“Mental health is important for everyone, and people need to be able to talk about it,” says member Natasha Slayton, 26. “And also be aware of the signs that friends and family members can look out for, in case someone close to them is going through something.”
They say the fact that they didn’t realize their close friend was struggling so much will always stay with them.
“She was such a strong woman, and very independent, and we had no idea what she was going through, or her pain,” Van Oppen says. “We admire how prideful she was, but now we just wish she’d let us in a little bit so maybe we could have helped her. Now we want to spread that message that it’s okay to talk about, and help people, maybe even change the world.”
They recently recorded the single “Lighthouse,” a song about being there for your friends, and the entire video features footage of Battle, from her childhood to her time with G.R.L.
“We rehearsed the other day without her, and it’s just weird. But she was so passionate about singing and this group, and I feel like we’re keeping her memory alive by being together,” says member Emmalyn Estrada, 22. “But right now we’re focused on the song and the positive message overall, about being together in hard times. We’re taking everything else one day at a time.”
“We learned so much from her,” says Bennett, choking back tears. “In the video you can see her passion for performance, and you can see her strumming along to the music in the beginning. It’s us showing that she’s still part of the group. She’ll always be part of this group.”