Naya Rivera, a singer and actor who played a gay cheerleader on the hit TV musical comedy Glee, was found dead on Monday in a Southern California lake. She was 33.
Rivera’s body was discovered six days after she disappeared on Lake Piru, where her son, Josey, was found July 8 alone on a boat the two had rented, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said. The Sheriff’s Office confirmed that the body was Rivera’s.
“Rest sweet, Naya. What a force you were,” wrote Glee co-star Jane Lynch on Twitter. Steven Canals, who co-created and produced the FX television show Pose, tweeted that he was “heartbroken over all the stories that will remain untold.”
Naya Rivera began acting at a young age, but she rose to national attention playing a lesbian teen on Glee, which aired from 2009 until 2015 on Fox. She is survived by her parents, Yolanda and George; a younger brother, Mychal; a sister, Nickayla; and her 4-year-old son.
“Naya Rivera was a fierce talent with so much more to do and this is such a terrible tragedy. We are forever grateful for the indelible contribution she made to Glee, from the first episode to the last,” said a statement from 20th Century Fox TV and Fox Entertainment.
A native of Santa Clarita, California, Naya Rivera began acting at 4, appearing in series such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters and The Bernie Mac Show. As a teen, she struggled with an eating disorder and had breast implants put in at 18 (“a confidence thing, not a sexual thing,” she would later write in her autobiography).
“I had the lowest self esteem in high school possible. I wasn’t popular, I didn’t have friends, but I would say it’s really important that you know who you are and you’re going to win in the end because of that,” Rivera said in a 2011 interview with The Associated Press.
She worked odd jobs as a telemarketer, a nanny, a waitress and an Abercrombie & Fitch greeter before landing the role of Santana Lopez on Ryan Murphy’s Glee. She auditioned by singing Destiny’s Child’s “Emotion.” The pilot offered her no speaking lines.
Naya Rivera played a secondary character — the mean cheerleader with blistering put-downs — in the show’s first season, but became a show regular in the second season as she struggled to reveal her character’s sexual identity. Many on social media credited her character for making them feel better about their own sexuality.
“Honestly, I never thought I’d actually be playing a teen lesbian,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “I didn’t think it was going to go this far. But I’m glad that it did, because there have been a lot of fans who have expressed that they’ve been going through similar situations in their lives. I’ve heard from girls that are in high school, they’re 16, 17, and they’re like, ‘I came out to my mom,’ or ‘I came out to my friends, and thank you for helping me do that.’”
Some of her more memorable songs on the show include a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” with guest star Gwyneth Paltrow, “Here Comes the Sun” with Demi Lovato, and a tearful cover of The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young.”
Naya Rivera struggled to get career traction amid the rising young talent on the show that included Cory Monteith, Lea Michele, Chris Colfer, Darren Criss, Amber Riley, Melissa Benoist and Dianna Agron. She was no longer a series regular during the sixth and final season of Glee.
“It would be an understatement to say that ‘Glee’ changed my life. It overhauled it. It got me out of debt. It helped to cement my career. And before the show, I’d never had a group of people I was that close with,” she wrote in her memoir, titled Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up.
“But while Glee changed our lives, it didn’t necessarily change who we were. We started the show as a ragtag group of misfits, and six seasons later, when we filmed the last episode, we were still the same bunch of misfits. Just now wearing more expensive jeans.”
After the show, Naya Rivera sought success in film and music. She made her feature film debut in 2014’s At the Devil’s Door, playing a woman caught in the middle of supernatural events, and released the single “Sorry” in 2013 featuring rapper Big Sean, a one-time fiance.
She and actor Ryan Dorsey were married in 2014 and their son, Josey, was born in 2015. She called her young son “my greatest success, and I will never do any better than him.”
Rivera was arrested and charged in West Virginia in 2017 with misdemeanor domestic battery after she allegedly hit Dorsey. The charge was dismissed because Dorsey did not wish to press charges. They divorced soon after.
Most recently, Rivera had a role on Lifetime’s Devious Maids, released her memoir in 2016 and played school administrator Collette Jones in the YouTube Red online series Step Up: High Water starring Ne-Yo. The show is about a cutthroat performing arts school in Atlanta.
Naya Rivera’s death is the latest death in a tragic arc of Glee actors. Monteith died in 2013 — exactly seven years to the day after Rivera’s body was identified — from a toxic mix of alcohol and heroin, and Rivera’s ex-boyfriend Mark Salling, who played a jock on the series, killed himself in 2018 after pleading guilty to child pornography charges. Rivera and Salling dated for three years and broke up in 2010.
In the preface to her autobiography, Rivera wrote that motherhood had changed her life and given it perspective. She said she was braver, too.
“Your life doesn’t have to be perfect for you to be proud. In fact, I think it’s the opposite: the more imperfect your life has been, the prouder you should be, because it means you’ve come that much further, and also probably had a lot more fun along the way.”
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