Naya Marie Rivera (January 12, 1987 – July 8, 2020) was an American actress and singer. She began her career as a child actress and model, appearing in national television commercials before landing the role of Hillary Winston on the short-lived CBS sitcom The Royal Family at the age of 4 (1991–1992), for which she received a nomination for a Young Artist Award.
After a series of recurring television roles and guest spots as a teenager, Rivera received her breakthrough role as an adult as Santana Lopez on the Fox television series Glee (2009–2015), for which she received nominations for numerous accolades. She was signed to Columbia Records as a solo artist in 2011 and released a single in 2013, "Sorry", featuring rapper Big Sean.
On July 8, 2020, Rivera was declared a missing person after her four-year-old son, Josey, was found alone in Rivera's rented boat at Lake Piru, near Santa Clarita, California. Her body was recovered from the lake on the morning of July 13 following a five-day search.
Rivera was born and raised in the Valencia neighborhood of Santa Clarita, California, and has lived in or around Los Angeles for most of her life. She is of Puerto Rican, African American, and German descent. Her parents are Yolanda, a former model, and George Rivera. Her younger brother is NFL tight end Mychal Rivera, and her younger sister is runway model Nickayla Rivera. At 8 or 9 months old, Rivera began to be represented by the same talent agent as her mother, who had moved to Los Angeles to pursue modeling.
1991–2008: Career beginnings
Rivera appeared in commercials for Kmart as a baby, but her first significant acting job was at age 4 when she appeared as Hillary Winston in The Royal Family sitcom in 1991. The show received positive reviews and high ratings initially, but it was canceled soon after star Redd Foxx suffered a sudden heart attack on set. Rivera received a Young Artist Award nomination for her performance in the series.
Between 1992 and 2002, she had small roles in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, Live Shot, Baywatch, Smart Guy, The Jersey, House Blend, Even Stevens and The Master of Disguise. In 2002, she also appeared in the music video for B2K's "Why I Love You". She was hired for a single episode guest appearance on The Bernie Mac Show in 2002, but she was brought back to work on a further ten episodes throughout all five seasons. She was later featured in episodes of 8 Simple Rules and CSI: Miami. In between auditions and roles, Rivera worked jobs as a telemarketer, a nanny and a greeter at an Abercrombie & Fitch store. In 2006 and 2007, Rivera took part in a production of Mark E. Swinton's play, U Don't Know Me: The Musical, both in Los Angeles and when the production was taken on national tour. Rivera auditioned for an unspecified season of American Idol during the San Francisco auditions, she was cut in the first round.
2009–2011: Breakthrough and acclaim with Glee
In 2009, Rivera was cast as Santana Lopez, a high school cheerleader, on Fox's musical comedy series Glee, about a high school glee club. Rivera's character comes off as a cold-hearted and vicious cheerleader, who often shows her softer side to fellow cheerleader Brittany (played by Heather Morris). Rivera auditioned for the opportunity "to sing, dance and act all in the same show," and because she was a fan of co-creator Ryan Murphy's previous work on Nip/Tuck. Rivera drew on her own high school experience of unpopularity to prepare for the role, as well as watching films such as Mean Girls to "really get in the zone and feel like a bitchy sophomore." She has described Santana as "your typical high school cheerleader, for the most part," explaining: "She's really mean and loves boys. She's really witty so I love playing her." She has characterized Santana as "a bit of a bad girl" who is "really snarky and always has these really witty one-liners she throws out there." Rivera enjoys the fact Santana is competitive and headstrong as she herself shares those traits, but dislikes Santana's mean streak. She finds the show's pacing challenging, especially the dancing, and commented in June 2009 that her most memorable moment on Glee was performing the Cheerios' glee club audition piece, "I Say a Little Prayer". Santana played a more prominent part in the last nine episodes of Glee's first season. Rivera commented: "Santana's been wreaking havoc with people's boyfriends and people's babies and teachers – she's the high school terror, and she's going to continue to be the villain."
After having her screen time and musical involvement increased in the second half of the first season, Rivera was promoted to official series regular status as of the beginning of the second season. She was given her first solo in the fifth episode of season two, "The Rocky Horror Glee Show", and performed several others as the season progressed. During the second season, Rivera's role in the show was radically changed when it was revealed that her character was a lesbian. Rivera portrayed Santana struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, with her love for her best friend, and with her inability to come out of the closet. She received favorable reviews for her performance. In January 2011, Rivera appeared in a parody of "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang", called "Nuthin' But a Glee Thang", co-written by Glee co-star Heather Morris.
In July 2011, Rivera was nominated for two ALMA Awards, in the categories of Favorite Female Music Artist and Favorite TV Actress – Leading Role in a Comedy. Rivera received a great amount of critical praise for both her acting and her singing performances in the latter part of season two and the beginning of season three. As 2011 ended, she or her character were on many "Best Of" lists, including HitFix's 25 Breakout Stars of 2011, TV Guides Best Performances of 2011, MTVsBest TV Characters of 2011, as well as others. In the second half of the series' third season, she was given the opportunity to do a duet with Ricky Martin, and worked with Gloria Estefan, who was cast as Santana's mother. As the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards approached, Rivera was listed by many critics and media outlets as deserving of a nomination; The Hollywood Reporter included her in their "Emmy 2012: Supporting Players" photo shoot, and Rivera was also honored by E!, HitFix, TV Guide, and others. She was also chosen by the TV Academy to take part in a promotional video for the upcoming awards ceremony.
2011–present: Musical solo debut and film debut
In May 2011, it was announced that Rivera had signed a deal with Columbia Records to produce a solo album. The musical duo 2Cellos released the second single to their second album, a cover of Muse's "Supermassive Black Hole" featuring vocals by Rivera. She also starred in the music video for the song. Rivera's debut single "Sorry", featuring rapper Big Sean, was released as a digital download on September 17, 2013. However, production on the album "kind of halted" due to "so many things going on," Rivera stated, "Politics got involved so I've been putting it on the back burner; there are a lot of things that I'm doing that I'm excited about."
On May 1, 2014, it was reported that Columbia had dropped Rivera because her debut single had underperformed. Rivera's representative released a statement to news outlets stating that any claims were falsified, and that legal action would be potentially taken to ensure Rivera's creditability; at the time of publishing, Columbia Records could not be reached for comment. Rivera subsequently worked on an immigrant project with Guillermo Diaz, directing a short film PSA about the effect of immigration on children and their parents. While Diaz's part is about telling the stories of young dreamers and the fear they have of their mothers being deported, Rivera's PSA is about the problems immigrants deal with or face in the United States.
At the Devil's Door (previously titled Home), Rivera's debut feature film, premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas on March 9, 2014. The film has been described by its director, Nicholas McCarthy, as "a unique kind of genre film I think, almost like a Rubik's cube of a horror movie." The film was released through video on demand on August 8, 2014, and theatrically released on September 12, 2014. The film continued to play at festivals, receiving mixed reviews. Rivera's acting, however, received praise. Edgar Chaput, of Sound on Sight, called Rivera "the standout... the most natural performance in the film," while Marsha McCreadie, of Film Journal, wrote, "At the Devil's Door doesn't pick up steam until late in the story, when Rivera carries the narrative," and Jeremy Kibler of Diabolique magazine wrote, "Coming primarily from a TV background and fun to watch as sharp-tongued lesbian cheerleader Santana on Glee, the eye-grabbing Naya Rivera adjusts to the big screen with ease in front of the camera. Her Vera is headstrong and rigid but cut with just the right amount of vulnerability."
In 2015, Rivera portrayed the recurring role of Blanca Alvarez in the third season of Lifetime's drama series Devious Maids. Rivera released a memoir titled Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up in September 2016. In 2018, it was announced that she would be taking the role of school administrator Collette Jones in the YouTube Red series Step Up: High Water.
Relationships and family
Rivera began dating recording artist, Big Sean in April 2013. They announced their engagement in October 2013, but ended their relationship in April 2014.
Soon after, Rivera began dating actor, Ryan Dorsey, whom she had previously dated four years earlier. They were married in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico on July 19, 2014, the original date set for her wedding to Big Sean. On February 24, 2015, Rivera announced that she and Dorsey were expecting their first child. Their son, Josey Hollis Dorsey was born on September 17, 2015. In her memoir, Rivera revealed that she had an abortion in 2010, shortly after splitting from Dorsey, due to the fact her career was taking off with the success of Glee. In November 2016, Rivera filed for divorce after two years of marriage, but called off the separation in October 2017. In late November 2017, Rivera was arrested and charged in Kanawha County, West Virginia with misdemeanor domestic battery against Dorsey after she allegedly hit him in the head and face during an altercation over their child. Her bond was set at $1,000, and she was released and picked up from the courthouse by her father-in-law. Rivera subsequently refiled for divorce in December 2017. Later that month, Rivera and Dorsey agreed to temporarily share joint custody of their son. In January 2018, the domestic battery charge was dismissed at the request of Dorsey. On June 14, 2018, Rivera & Dorsey finalized their divorce.
Rivera and her family reside in Los Angeles.
In January 2015, during her appearance as a guest host on The View, Rivera alluded to her possible bisexuality. Rosie O'Donnell remarked on a recent study that showed that bisexual women were more likely to have mental health problems than lesbians, to which Rivera replied, "Rosie, no wonder I'm crazy. This just solves it all."
Rivera dedicates her time to various charitable organizations including GLAAD, Stand Up to Cancer, The Trevor Project, The Elephant Project, and The Sunshine Foundation.
On July 8, 2020, Rivera was declared a missing person after her four-year-old son, Josey, was found alone in Rivera's rented boat at Lake Piru. The search for both Rivera and Josey had begun at 4:00 p.m. PDT, three hours after they left the dock, when their rental was over. Another boater discovered Josey alone, asleep on the boat with his life jacket on, around 5:00 p.m.The boat was in the Narrows, an area at the north of the lake that can be quite deep and windy. An adult life jacket was found on board, along with Rivera's identification. Josey told investigators that they were swimming. His mother had helped him climb back into the boat but she was unable to climb back onboard herself, and then she disappeared underwater. He also stated that his mother was not wearing a life jacket. Lake Piru is known locally for strong, unpredictable currents and whirlpools that have caused the deaths of swimmers in the past. Rivera's vehicle, a black Mercedes G-Wagen, was found in the parking lot.
The Ventura County Sheriff's Office suspended the search and rescue operation that evening and resumed again the following day. The lake was closed to the public, with dive teams from across the region taking part in the search. On July 9, the sheriff's department confirmed to NBC that Rivera was presumed dead and that rescue efforts would now shift to recovery efforts: on the first day of the search, efforts had been made on land to determine if Rivera had made it out of the lake; a lack of evidence and Josey telling officers that he saw his mother disappear underwater led them to change the search to recovery. On July 10, the sheriff's office released closed-circuit television footage of Rivera and her son arriving in the parking lot and leaving the dock on the boat, and the number of divers involved was cut from around 100 to around 40. The sheriff's department explained that the visibility was so poor it was more probable Rivera would be found by using sonar devices. As well as dive teams and sonar, sniffer dogs were taken out on the lake.
On July 11 and 12, Rivera's parents, brother, ex-husband Ryan Dorsey and Glee co-star Heather Morris joined the search team at the lake. The sheriff's office dissuaded more civilians from joining the search because of dangerous terrain. They restated that they were searching on land as well as in the lake. On July 11, the sheriff's office had announced that other counties and a private contractor were assisting with the search.
On July 13, it was announced that a body had been found floating in Lake Piru by divers when the search resumed in the morning, at around 9:30 a.m.; the body was confirmed to be Rivera's at a press conference held later that day. She was officially declared dead on July 13. The Ventura County sheriff suggested that Rivera and Josey may have got caught in a current – these can be common in the area of lake they were in, especially during the afternoon – and that she "mustered enough energy to save her son, but not enough to save herself"