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Naya Rivera, who rose to fame on TV show 'Glee,' dies at 33

AP
Filed on July 14, 2020
Naya rivera, glee, lake piru, khaleej, gulf, dead

Officials confirm her body was found five days after she disappeared in Lake Piru

Naya Rivera, a singer and actor who played a gay cheerleader on the hit TV musical comedy Glee, was found dead Monday in a Southern California lake. She was 33.

Rivera's body was discovered five 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."

Viola Davis sent her prayers to Rivera's family and Kristin Chenoweth said: "Thank you for what you gave the world." Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said that "as a Latina, it's rare to have a rich, complex characters reflect us in media."

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, Rivera began acting at 4, appearing in such series 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 "Emotion." The pilot offered her no speaking lines.

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.'"

 
 
 
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My sweet Naya - to say that I am devastated would be an understatement. This is a nightmare. Everyday gets harder. However, I am holding onto hope that you will be found. ? ? We grew up together. We became adults together. We experienced so many firsts together. You were my first experience with everything; love, intimacy, heartbreak. We broke each others hearts and then mended them back together...more than once. I will never not think of you. No woman has ever measured up what you gave me or how you made me feel. I've never liked to admit it but I have never stopped loving you. A part of me always wished for the day where God would bring us back together to be what we dreamt we could have been. ? ? I pray deeply for the Rivera family and that God blankets them with strength, peace, and love right now. Mychal and Nickayla - you will always be like younger siblings to me and I love you dearly. I watched you two grow up into beautiful adults. George and Yolanda - whatever you need I am here for you. We are forever family and I love you. ? ? I ask everyone reading this to please lift up, along with the entire Rivera family, Ryan and Josey in prayer and to respect what they are going through during this time. I pray that God showers the entire family with strength and peace that only He can give. ? ? I still have faith. I still have hope. Let's please all pray that she is found and brought home safely. ? ? Naya, I miss you deeply. I wish I got the chance to tell you that once more but I'm believing I will get that chance. I know deep down you've always known how I felt. I look forward to the day where I can see your beautiful face once more and tell you everything I've wanted to say that I didn't get the chance to say. I love you forever. I always have and I always will. ? ? ??

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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."

Rivera's "brilliance and humor were unmatched," said "Glee" co-star Chris Colfer on Instagram. "She could turn a bad day into a great day with a single remark. She inspired and uplifted people without even trying." Jenna Ushkowitz, another "Glee" co-star, promised "to help the legacy of your talent, humor, light and loyalty live on."

Rivera struggled to get career traction amid the rising young talent on the show that included Colfer, Cory Monteith, Lea Michele, 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, 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.

Rivera's death is the latest death in a tragic arc of "Glee" actors. Monteith died in 2013 - exactly seven years to the day before Rivera's body was publicly 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.

 
 
 
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She was bold. She was outrageous. She was a LOT of fun.? ? Naya made me laugh like no one else on that set. I always said it while we were working together and I've maintained it ever since. Her playful, wicked sense of humor never ceased to bring a smile to my face.? ? She played by her own rules and was in a class of her own. She had a brashness about her that I couldn't help but be enchanted by. I also always loved her voice, and savored every chance I got to hear her sing. I think she had more talent than we would have ever been able to see.? ? I was constantly moved by the degree to which she took care of her family, and how she looked out for her friends. She showed up for me on numerous occasions where she didn't have to, and I was always so grateful for her friendship then, as I certainly am now.? ? And even as I sit here, struggling to comprehend, gutted beyond description- the very thought of her cracks me up and still brings a smile to my face. That was Naya's gift. And it's a gift that will never go away. ? ? Rest in peace you wild, hilarious, beautiful angel.

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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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