Image: Yahoo News
On July 13th, 2020 the world received closure amidst the search for missing actress, Naya Rivera. At the age of 33, her life was unexpectedly cut short due to a drowning accident at Lake Piru, a location she considered her sanctuary.
Although she may be gone, she will never be forgotten as her life and legacy will forever be embedded into American entertainment. Known as a sweet and brilliant triple-threat, Naya Rivera was and will always be remembered as so much more.
A Star Is Born
Naya Rivera was born on January 12, 1987 in Santa Clarita, CA to Yolanda, a former model, and George Rivera. She was the oldest of three children: her younger brother is former NFL tight end Mychal Rivera, and her younger sister is runway model Nickayla Rivera. Before her first birthday, Rivera began being represented by the same talent agent as her mother, who had moved to Los Angeles to pursue modeling. According to a 2009 interview with Nice Girls TV, Rivera says “I actually had the same commercial agent that she did when I was 8 months, 9 months old. So I’ve been doing it ever since then and I just grew to love it. ”
She certainly packed a lot into her three-plus decades, beginning with one of her very first roles at age four when she appeared as Hillary Winston in The Royal Family sitcom in 1991. She even received a Young Artist Award nomination for her performance in the series. According to E! Online, by the time she was attending Santa Clarita’s Valencia High School, Rivera understood the value of hard work. Rivera worked as a nanny, a telemarketer and an Abercrombie & Fitch greeter in between guest roles on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, Baywatch and The Bernie Mac Show. She also appeared in a B2K music video and caught a glimpse of fame when she auditioned for an unspecified season of American Idol during the San Francisco auditions, though she was cut in the first round.
Breakthrough & Glee
During her interview with Nice Girls TV, Rivera noted, “It takes 150 percent commitment. You can’t be wishy-washy, it’s hard. Be prepared for a million-and-a-half nos. You probably will not get a job for a while. But when you do book that job, it is so much fun.”
In 2009, Rivera booked the role of Santana Lopez on musical comedy series Glee which propelled her into the limelight. She auditioned for the opportunity “to sing, dance and act all in the same show. To gain inspiration for the character, she drew on her own high school experience of unpopularity and watched films such as Mean Girls to “really get in the zone and feel like a bitchy sophomore.” As the fictional McKinley High’s cheerleader and glee club member, she delivered cutting insults, sang the hell out of countless ballads, and worked her way from the sidelines to full-on breakout star.
One of the most notable aspects of her Glee character revolves around representation. During the second season, Rivera’s role in the show radically changed as it was revealed that Santana Lopez was a lesbian. Rivera portrayed Santana struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, with her love for her best friend and inability to come out of the closet. She received favorable reviews for her performance as it gave international representation for young queer women and the idea of being out in the music industry.
Motherhood & New Ventures
Image: Hollywood Life
In 2017, she spoke with Momtastic about parenting and the all-consuming, unconditional love it entails. “You hear about it and you think, ‘Well, obviously I’m going to love my child.’ But it’s so deep. Even after Josey goes to bed, I find myself thinking of him and looking at pictures of him and it almost brings me to tears half the time, because the love that I have for him is so amazing.”
Her journey of being a mother prompted a new venture in which Rivera put out a gender-neutral kids’ lifestyle brand, JOJO&IZZY. When speaking to People in 2018, Rivera mentioned, “Josey inspires me in so many ways that it felt natural to want to create this for him and I. It’s a sweet bond that we share together.” Josey was her favorite sidekick as Rivera revolved her days around planning fun excursions and making memories for them. An insider revealed to E! Online, “Her son was her number one priority above anything else.”
Making A Difference
Rivera dedicated her time to various charitable organizations including GLAAD, Stand Up to Cancer, The Trevor Project, The Elephant Project, and The Sunshine Foundation. In 2011, Rivera hosted the San Francisco GLAAD Media Awards and alongside her Glee co-star Amber Riley performed at the 10th Annual Celebration of Dreams Event for the Dream Foundation.
In March 2012, she co-hosted the 23rd Annual GLAAD Media Awards in New York with former Glee co-star Cory Monteith. Both hosts auctioned off kisses to the crowd, raising $15,000. Rivera also shared a vulnerable story about her abortion which ended up comforting countless women.
In her 2016 released book Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up Rivera mentions, ‘I don’t think I ever emotionally healed from the abortion. I think choosing to have an abortion is almost harder than choosing to have your own child because you make that choice knowing, or at least suspecting, that many moments of your life will now be tinged with regret.” Her revealing memoir also presented inside information into coming of age experiences, rocky relationships, and personal empowerment.
Image: Entertainment Tonight
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. Another boater discovered Josey alone and asleep on the boat with his life jacket on, around 5:00 p.m. The boat was in the Narrows, an area north of the lake notorious for being deep and windy. Josey told investigators that they were swimming and his mother had helped him climb back into the boat but she was unable to do so herself and then she disappeared underwater.
He also stated that his mother was not wearing a life jacket as it was found on board, along with Rivera’s identification. On July 13th, it was announced that a body had been found floating in Lake Piru by divers at around 9:30 a.m.
At a press conference held later that day, the body was confirmed to be Rivera’s. 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.”
At the ripe age of 33, Naya Rivera left this Earth. She dedicated her final moments to save her son, the person she loved more than anything else. While her humorous, beautiful, and talented energy will no longer inhabit the world, her legacy and spirit will forever linger.
Our condolences go out to the family and friends of Naya Rivera.