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'Glee' actress Naya Rivera's rise to fame: from child star to symbol of hope

She might have been best known for playing Santana Lopez in 'Glee', but Rivera had been an on-screen regular from the tender age of 4

Naya Rivera, who died at the age of 33 in an accident at Lake Piru in California, went from child star to doting mother. Instagram
Naya Rivera, who died at the age of 33 in an accident at Lake Piru in California, went from child star to doting mother. Instagram

The body of actress Naya Rivera was recovered from Lake Piru in California on Monday after a five-day search by rescue teams.

Rivera had rented a boat for the afternoon with her young son Josey, 4, who was found asleep and alone in a life vest three hours later. He told investigators he saw his mother disappear beneath the water after she helped him back on to the boat.

Police have since described her death as a "tragic accident". Formal identification of her body is yet to be carried out.

Rivera was best known for her role as Santana Lopez on the long-running US TV show Glee, which ran from 2009 to 2015.

However, Rivera already boasted a long career in showbusiness before landing her role on the musical sitcom.

A child star

Rivera was born on January 12, 1987 in Santa Clarita, California, to parents Yolanda, a former model, and George Rivera. She is of African-American, German and Puerto Rican descent. By the time she was just eight months old, Rivera had been signed to the same talent agent as her mother.

Naya Rivera starred in 'The Royal Family' from the age of four. YouTube
Naya Rivera starred in 'The Royal Family' from the age of 4. YouTube

As a baby, she starred in a number of television adverts for Kmart, before landing her first acting role at the age of 4, playing Hillary Winston in The Royal Family. Her role in the short-lived series landed her a nomination at the Young Artist Awards.

In the years that followed, Rivera had small roles in Baywatch, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Smart Guy, Family Matters and Even Stevens. She also appeared on stage in the LA production of U Don't Know Me: The Musical.

Finding fame with ‘Glee’

Rivera’s breakthrough came when she landed the role of high school cheerleader Santana Lopez in 2009. Rivera’s Santana started out as the mean girl in Ryan Murphy’s musical drama, but she gained acclaim for her acting as the series progressed and her character dealt with many issues, including her sexuality.As such, Rivera and the character became a symbol of hope for many young fans of the show.

She performed a number of solos on the show, as well as a duet with Ricky Martin.

During later seasons of Glee, Rivera became a more prominent cast member, and was dubbed a breakout star by the likes of MTV and The Hollywood Reporter.

Life after ‘Glee’

In 2011, Rivera signed a deal with Columbia Records to produce a solo album, although ultimately that never happened and she was dropped by the label in 2014. However, she did release solo single Sorry, featuring rapper Big Sean, who Rivera became engaged to in 2013. However, the couple split in 2014.

Following the break-up, Rivera reconnected with her ex-boyfriend, actor Ryan Dorsey, and the pair announced they were expecting their first child in January 2015. Their son, Josey Hollis, was born in September 2015. The pair split in 2017.

At the age of 29, Rivera released a memoir entitled Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes and Growing Up which revealed details of her rise to fame, her life during Glee and some details of past relationships.

Her last words

In the weeks leading up to her death, Rivera’s social media posts showed her enjoying life at home in California with her son. In one post from July 3, she wrote: “No matter the year, circumstance, or strife everyday you're alive is a blessing. Make the most of today and every day you are given. Tomorrow is not promised.”

In her last post, an image of her holding her son, she wrote: “Just the two of us.”

Authorities believe that Rivera drowned accidentally, and that her body was most likely trapped in vegetation under the lake for several days, Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub said.

Detectives also revealed that family members spoke with Rivera via FaceTime when she was on the boat, and search crews watched those videos for clues as to where she might have died.

“It has been an extremely difficult time for her family throughout this ordeal,” Ayub said. “We share in their grief.”

Tragedy and 'Glee'

Rivera is the third major cast member from the show to die in their 30s.

Two of the 'Glee's' main stars, Cory Monteith and Mark Salling died in their 30s. 
Two of the show's main stars, Cory Monteith and Mark Salling, died in their 30s.

The confirmation of her death came seven years to the day after co-star Cory Monteith died at 31 from a mix of alcohol and heroin, with the series losing one of its leads while it was still on the air.

Another co-star, Mark Salling, who Rivera briefly dated, committed suicide in 2018 at age 35 after pleading guilty to child pornography charges.

Updated: July 14, 2020 04:52 PM

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