“If I die young, bury me in satin,
Lay me down on a bed of roses,
Sink me in the river at dawn,
Send me away with the words of a love song.”
So sang Naya Rivera in the role that made her famous: Glee’s Santana Lopez. Her haunting cover of The Band Perry’s No 1 hit paid tribute to character Finn Hudson, Santana’s friend and one-time lover, who was written out of the show after the actor Cory Monteith died of an overdose in a Vancouver hotel on 13 July 2013. The song would prove prescient when, seven years to the day later, divers found Rivera’s body floating in the water. She was just 33.
Rivera had been missing since 8 July, after she disappeared on a boat trip with her four-year-old son. The pair had rented a boat on the man-made reservoir Lake Piru, near Los Angeles. But a few hours later, when the boat had not returned, a search began. Another boater found her son alone, asleep on the boat. He had been wearing a life jacket in the water, but Rivera’s was still on the boat.
Later, the child would tell police that Rivera had managed to help him back on to the boat before she disappeared under the surface. Lake Piru is known for strong currents and has caused the deaths of several swimmers in the past. An extensive search began, as her family and fellow Glee stars stood by the edge of the lake holding vigil – and holding hands. On Monday 13 July, her body was found at the northeast of the lake. The day before she went missing, Rivera had tweeted a photo of her and her son, Josey Hollis Dorsey, captioned: “Just the two of us.”
Naya Rivera was born in Santa Clarita, California: the oldest of three in a family of Puerto Rican, African-American and German heritage. As an infant, she was represented by the same talent agent as her mother Yolanda, a former model. She landed her first TV role at the age of only four, as Hillary Winston on a CBS sitcom called The Royal Family. Although the series only ran from 1991 to 1992, Rivera was nominated for a Young Artist Award.
After a self-described “lean period” between the ages of 16 and 21, which included some guest appearances and small roles in series and music videos as well as time as a greeter in Abercrombie & Fitch, Rivera’s breakthrough was with the role of Santana Lopez in 2009. Santana began as a minor antagonist to Rachel Berry (played by Lea Michele); a bitchy cheerleader and best friend to Brittany Pierce.
Rivera really did have a turbulent relationship with Michele, who has been accused of aggression and hostility by other cast members. Michele was forced to delete her Twitter account after Rivera’s disappearance, thanks to abusive posts and troll demands for comment. She later posted a black and white photo composite of Rivera and Monteith, who Michele had dated, on Instagram.
Rivera’s acting and vocal performances proved so popular that by the second season, Santana had been promoted to a series regular. Her realisation that she was in love with Brittany, and her subsequent struggles to accept herself as a lesbian, deal with being maliciously outed and having to come out to her traditional Latina family garnered widespread praise and acclaim. Rivera’s portrayal of Santana and her relationship – eventually, marriage – with Brittany was highlighted as a rare and powerful representation of an LGBTQ+ Latina.
The popstar Demi Lovato, who played Santana’s girlfriend in the fifth season of Glee, wrote: “The character you played was groundbreaking for tons of closeted (at the time) queer girls like me and your ambition and accomplishments were inspiring to Latina women all over the world.” Rivera once alluded to her own sexuality, hinting that she might be bisexual.
The “Brittana” pairing was nominated for the Favourite Fictional Lesbian Couple award at the 2010 AfterEllen.com Visibility Awards. Rivera and Heather Morris, who played Brittany, became close friends in real life. River also dated her Glee co-star Mark Salling, another of Santana’s lovers. (Salling was arrested in 2015 for possessing an extensive amount of child pornography, and later took his own life.)
Thanks to Rivera’s popular performances on Glee – and plethora of awards – she was signed to Columbia Records as a solo artist in 2011, releasing a single, “Sorry”, with rapper Big Sean in 2013. Rivera also directed a short film about the problems immigrants face in the US. In 2016, she published her memoir, Sorry not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up. Her debut feature film, At the Devil’s Door, premiered in March 2014; Rivera was commended as the standout.
Rivera later began a relationship with actor Ryan Dorsey, an ex-boyfriend who she had broken up with just as Glee took off. The pair married in Mexico in July 2014, and their son Josey Hollis was born the following year. But by November 2016, Rivera had filed for separation – which she called off in October 2017. A month later, she was charged with domestic battery after she allegedly hit Dorsey in the head. The pair subsequently filed for divorce together. The battery charge was later dismissed at the request of Dorsey, and their divorce was finalised in 2018.
Rivera was also a keen philanthropist for various charities, particularly those for LGBTQ+ people and immigrants, and a lifelong Democrat. After her death, US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: “As a Latina, it’s rare to have rich, complex characters that reflect us in media. Naya worked hard to give that gift to so many.”
Rivera’s family thanked fans for the “outpouring of love and support” for them, and shared a statement saying: “While we grieve the loss of our beautiful legend, we are blessed to honour her everlasting legacy and magnetic spirit. Naya was an amazing talent, but was an even greater person, mother, daughter and sister.”
They added: “Heaven gained our sassy angel.”
Naya Rivera, actor and singer, born 12 January 1987, died 8 July 2020