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Actress Naya Rivera, ‘Glee’ TV star and ‘fierce talent,’ dies at 33

Former "Glee" star Naya Rivera is pictured sitting at a window
Former “Glee” star Naya Rivera has died at 33. Her body was found Monday at Lake Piru.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Actress Naya Rivera, best known for playing a sharp-tongued cheerleader and glee club member on Fox’s hit musical comedy-drama “Glee,” was found dead Monday morning after an extensive search at Lake Piru in Ventura County. She was 33.

At an afternoon press conference, Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub said he was “confident” that the body found floating on the lake was that of Rivera, who went missing Wednesday. Her 4-year-old son, Josey, was discovered Wednesday night sleeping alone on a boat his mother had rented for them that afternoon.

The area had been searched extensively by dive crews and with sonar equipment, and cabins around the lake were scouted as well. Rivera’s body was found at 9:10 a.m. in the northeastern portion of the lake, Capt. Eric Buschow of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department said Monday.

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20th Century Fox TV and Fox Entertainment issued a joint statement Monday.

“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. Our hearts are broken and our thoughts go out to Naya’s family, friends and young son,” it said.

Rivera earned stardom with her breakthrough role in “Glee” when it made its debut on Fox in 2009. Created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, the series transformed its mostly unknown young cast into TV superstars.

Naya Rivera and Kevin McHale in "Glee"
Naya Rivera, left, and Kevin McHale on “Glee.”
(Fox Image Collection via Getty Images)
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Rivera played popular and conniving cheerleader Santana Lopez, who joins the school’s glee club as a spy for cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) but soon finds herself developing an interest in music while dancing and singing around the halls of McKinley High School. Rivera became a series regular in the show’s sophomore season.

“Glee,” which finished its six-season run in 2015, was one of Fox’s biggest hits with young viewers during its time on air, though its ratings dropped in its final two seasons.

But the beloved series and its cast have been plagued by tragedy. Rivera is the third main “Glee” cast member to die in seven years.

Cory Monteith, who played heartthrob football star and singing coach Finn Hudson on the series, died on July 13, 2013, of a drug overdose after a battle with substance abuse. And Mark Salling, who played Noah “Puck” Puckerman, died in 2018 of an apparent suicide; he was weeks away from sentencing after pleading guilty to possession of child pornography. (Like their characters, Rivera and Salling dated on and off during the show’s run.)

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Naya Rivera, left, with Gloria Estefan on "Glee."
Naya Rivera, left, with guest star Gloria Estefan on an episode of “Glee.”
(Fox)

More recently, Rivera was starring as a former dancer-turned-school administrator in the “Step Up” television series based on the popular film dance franchise. (Originally on YouTube Red, the series will move to Starz for its upcoming third season.)

News that Rivera’s body had been found prompted an outpouring from friends and admirers. Because she played a queer character on “Glee,” many remembered her as a trailblazer for LGBTQ representation on television.

“Rest sweet, Naya. What a force you were. Love and peace to your family,” actress Lynch tweeted Monday.

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“I’ll never be able to articulate the importance of seeing Naya, a Black Puerto Rican, portraying a queer Afro-Latina on primetime TV. I’m heartbroken over all the stories that will remain untold,” Steven Canals, co-creator and executive producer of FX’s “Pose,” tweeted Monday.

“How can you convey all your love and respect for someone in one post? How can you summarize a decade of friendship and laughter with words alone? If you were friends with Naya Rivera, you simply can’t,” wrote “Glee” castmate Chris Colfer on Instagram after the Ventura sheriff held his press conference.

His post continued:"Her brilliance and humor were unmatched. Her beauty and talent were otherworldly. She spoke truth to power with poise and fearlessness. She could turn a bad day into a great day with a single remark. She inspired and uplifted people without even trying. Being close to her was both a badge of honor and a suit of armor. Naya was truly one of a kind, and she always will be.”

“Glee” star Naya Rivera, who died during a boat outing with her son last week, was known for showstopping performances on the series. Here are the 10 best.

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The organization GLAAD noted in a tweet, “Naya Rivera will be missed so much by so many. She was a friend of GLAAD and even hosted the GLAAD Media Awards twice. She was kind, gracious, and personally used her platforms and voice to tell LGBTQ youth that they are loved. Our hearts are with her loved ones.”

Naya Marie Rivera was born and raised in Santa Clarita and began her Hollywood career at age 4 with a role in the 1991 Eddie Murphy-created CBS sitcom “The Royal Family.” Rivera went on to appear on the television shows “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “The Bernie Mac Show” and “8 Simple Rules,” before landing her role on “Glee” by auditioning with Destiny Child’s version of “Emotions.”

Rivera’s performance on “Glee” garnered attention in the show’s third season with her character’s coming-out storyline, which involved Santana being publicly outed by a rival glee club member.

“I get so many stories of people that the storyline truly touched them and hit home for them. It’s created a fan base for me that I never thought I’d have,” Rivera told the Hollywood Reporter in 2012. “It’s really cool to know that there are people out there that this does matter to and that your work does matter.”

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Rivera attempted to translate “Glee’s” chart-topping musical success into a real-life music career. She signed a deal with Columbia Records in 2011 and released her debut single, “Sorry,” featuring then-boyfriend Big Sean, in 2013. But the album was ultimately shelved, and her music career stalled.

In 2014, she married the actor Ryan Dorsey, with whom she had her son. A few years into their marriage, in 2017, Rivera was arrested on suspicion of domestic battery against Dorsey. The charges were ultimately dropped and the couple divorced in 2018.

The actress and singer chronicled many of the highs and lows of her career and personal life — fights on “Glee,” her struggles with anorexia as a teen, her decision to have an abortion — in her 2016 tell-all book, “Sorry Not Sorry.”

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Rivera is survived by her son, Josey, and her parents, Yolanda and George Rivera, as well as brother Mychal and sister Nickayla.

On July 2, Rivera posted a now tragically poignant message on Twitter and Instagram that said: “no matter the year, circumstance, or strifes everyday you’re alive is a blessing. Make the most of today and every day you are given. tomorrow is not promised.”

Times staff writer Christie D’Zurilla contributed to this story.


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