It seemed like nothing could hold Naya Rivera back—yet behind the scenes, she struggled with tragic loss and tumultuous relationships. When she disappeared in July 2020, it sparked an intense search, but unfortunately, all that waited on the other side was a heartbreaking conclusion. Who was the woman behind it all? There’s much more to the starlet than just the fateful incident that took her life.
Rivera was born in California, the daughter of George Rivera and his wife Yolanda, a model. As an infant, her mother signed her up to join the “family business,” and they shared the same talent agent. It wasn’t just Naya and her mom who caught the fame bug, either—her brother, Mychal, is a former NFL player, and her sister Nickayla is also a model.
That talent agent must have seen something in the young girl, because Rivera booked work almost immediately as a literal baby. If you were alive in the late 80s and watching Kmart ads, you might have spotted her in some of them. A couple of years later, Rivera got a role that should have been her big break...
When she was just four, Rivera got a part in the sitcom The Royal Family. The show had a ton of star power behind it, with Hollywood legends Redd Foxx and Della Reese playing the leads and Eddie Murphy at the helm as executive producer. Even better, it also had incredible ratings—but one day, during rehearsals, disaster struck.
During what was supposed to be a regular day, Naya and the rest of the cast of The Royal Family were going through lines for a particular scene. That's when tragedy flooded in. The series lead, Redd Fox, had a heart attack right in front of his co-stars, including the heartbreakingly young Naya Rivera. And there was more to come.
Because another of Foxx's characters was famous for faking heart attacks, many of his co-stars thought he was just joking. Rivera's reaction, however, was somehow more tragic: She barely understood what was going on at all. Paramedics ended up rushing Foxx to the hospital, where he later passed. The fateful day would change Rivera's life.
The producers of The Royal Family tried to make the show work without Redd Foxx, but viewers lost interest and the network ended up cancelling it before the first season even ended. Just like that, Rivera's "big break" was gone, and she didn't know when she'd get another. Of course, we now know what was around the corner...
By the time she reached high school, Rivera was already a veteran actor. But success couldn’t protect her from what would come next. Her peers ostracized and teased her, and Rivera once confessed of those years, "I felt really alone. I had no confidence and didn’t feel like I could fit in." This all led to a horrible fallout.
Feeling utterly alone, Rivera began to battle anorexia, and its effects were utterly devastating. At one point, she weighed only 98 pounds, and became so weak that she passed out in the middle of gym class. Rivera eventually found a group of friends in school, and she credits them with her recovery. But sadly, her struggles weren’t over yet.
Young love can be heartbreaking, but in Rivera's case that went double. Her first boyfriend was Smart Guy star Tahj Mowry, who was a former child star just like Rivera. For their first date, they went on a chaperoned trip to the movies to see a Denzel Washington film...but the burgeoning romance went from innocent to icky real fast.
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Eventually, Mowry was the one who dumped Rivera—and he gave an utterly cold-blooded reason. When Mowry let poor Naya go, he said it was because he wanted to date someone more on his “financial level.” Ouch. Well, who’s name is more well-known today, Tahj? And Naya ended up showing him exactly what he was missing.
In 2009, Rivera nabbed a job on Glee as cheerleader Santana Lopez. After years of missed opportunities, she’d found the role of a lifetime. Rivera was ecstatic, and her character ticked all the boxes she wanted in a role. On top of that, Santana got to pipe in with all the best witty one-liners. It was a dream come true—but it brought as much trouble as it did fame.
Believe it or not, Santana Lopez was just supposed to be a recurring character on Glee, but Rivera's talent made her a regular by the second season. This is also where Rivera's most controversial storyline came in: Santana starts exploring her lesbian identity with the character Brittany. Critics praised Rivera—and behind the scenes, life was imitating art.
Portraying Santana made Rivera wonder about her own sexuality. While she never officially came out, she did give one cheeky clue. On a visit to The View, Rivera alluded to her bisexuality in response to Rose O'Donnell citing a study about bisexuality and mental health. In typical Santana fashion, Rivera quipped back, "Rosie, no wonder I'm crazy."
In her memoir, Rivera revealed all the raunchy behind-the-scenes secrets from the set of Glee. Rivera and her co-stars were young and hot—and it went exactly as you'd expect. They liked to stay up and play Spin the Bottle and Truth or Dare, and would all hang out at an apartment they called the “Love Nest.” But there was a dark side to all this...
Despite these scandalous nights, not everyone got along on set, and Rivera and Glee lead Lea Michele soon developed a notoriously jealous rivalry. Rivera claimed Michele was often threatened by the expansion of Santana's role on the show, and things got so bad that by season 6, Michele was straight-up refusing to talk to her.
Rivera formed a sibling bond with co-star Cory Monteith, and this gave her heartbreaking knowledge about the fallen star's life. Monteith was open about his struggles, but Rivera says she never saw him indulge...until the Glee Season 3 wrap party, where he casually ordered a drink. After his tragic end in 2013, Rivera said she wished she'd understood addiction better. But that wasn't all their troubles.
Rivera’s friendship with Monteith only grew closer—and then in 2011, it hit a road bump it could never recover from. When Monteith started dating Lea Michele, suddenly he no longer hung out with Rivera. Instead, he spent most of his time with Michele at the gym, though Rivera said she was at least glad he wasn't at the bar. Sadly, they'd never get to repair their relationship.
During her time on Glee, Rivera began dating co-star Mark Salling, only it wasn't a fairy-tale romance. Grossly enough, Salling’s publicist told Rivera that it would be better for Salling’s image “if he pretended not to have a girlfriend.” But Rivera had darker suspicions. Rivera thought he just wanted other girls to think he was single. She was proven right in the worst way.
Eventually, Rivera discovered that Salling wasn't at all devoted to their relationship. In fact, he was downright cheating on her. Her reaction was absolutely unforgettable. She enlisted the help of a friend and covered his car in birdseed, dog food, and eggs. The stinky surprise may have been unpleasant, but there was an unexpected twist to come.
It was around this time that Rivera met a man who would change her life forever—for better and worse, but most often for worse. Around 2010, Rivera became involved with fellow actor Ryan Dorsey. However, their relationship was rocky and she eventually broke up with him to focus on her career. A few weeks later, fate threw Rivera yet another curveball.
After breaking up with Dorsey, Rivera decided to take a pregnancy test. The results made her jaw drop: Rivera was in her early 20s, starring in a hit show, and now she was pregnant with her ex's child. Wracked with grief, she made a heartbreaking decision to terminate the pregnancy. Except as it turned out, that wouldn’t be the last she’d see of Dorsey.
In 2013, Rivera and the cast of Glee came together and staged an intervention for Cory Monteith, whose substance use had gotten out of control. He did end up completing a program, but just two months later, the shocking news broke. On July 13, 2013, Monteith passed after an accidental overdose. Rivera was devastated...and that date would come back to haunt her.
Rivera grieved the loss of her close friend, but fortunately, she wasn’t alone. Just months earlier, she’d begun dating rapper Big Sean, and the two were moving quickly…like, light-speed quickly. Just six months into their relationship, he popped the question and she said yes. Rivera thought she could finally settle down, but their union was doomed to a stormy end.
From the beginning, Rivera's relationship with Big Sean was fraught, especially since the rapper was frequently away touring. During one rough patch, he was back in LA but said he didn't want to see her. So Rivera did the totally chill thing, took the keys she had to his house, and "dropped in" for a visit. She got a bone-chilling surprise.
When Rivera opened the door to Big Sean's place, she caught sight of her boyfriend on the couch with another woman. That girl? As Rivera put it, "It rhymes with 'Smariana Schmande.'" That's right, Rivera caught Big Sean nearly red-handed with future pop superstar Ariana Grande. The pair went on to date—but not before Rivera and Big Sean came to an explosive end.
The demise of Rivera's relationship with Big Sean all came down to one infamous Rolex watch. See, the rapper had given her his fancy timepiece on an early date, and she'd worn it every day since then and kept it in her drawer at night. So imagine her surprise when it went missing after one of his visits. Rivera’s reaction was unforgettably cringey.
Jealous and suspicious, Rivera made a fatal mistake that so many of us have before—she opened Twitter. Hoping to shame Big Sean, Rivera tweeted, “@bigsean stealing rolexes from a lady’s house now. Maybe cuz I’m on Glee and making more money or something #triflin.” Yikes. She quickly deleted it...and yet somehow Big Sean's reaction was even worse.
In response to her embarrassing tweet, Rivera's fiance put out a public statement that they were no longer engaged—which, uh, was news to her. As the actress put it, "I learned that I was no longer getting married from THE INTERNET, and at the same time as the rest of the world." Rivera was heartbroken—but she didn’t exactly waste time jumping back into the dating pool.
After her painful and public breakup from Big Sean, Rivera reunited with Ryan Dorsey—the same boyfriend she’d dumped shortly before finding out she was pregnant with his child. The young couple then made an impulsive decision that shocked fans. Rivera and Dorsey got married in July 2014, just three months after Sean had dumped her. And the wedding was juicy.
When the pair wed in Mexico, it was a very secret affair; Rivera didn't even invite any of her Glee co-stars. To add to the soapy quality, by the time the quickie wedding rolled around, Rivera hadn't even gotten rid of the wedding dress she'd been planning to wear to her nuptials with Big Sean—though she wore a different dress to marry Dorsey. It was a rocky start, and it had a rocky end, too.
In February 2015, after less than a year of marriage, Rivera made an exciting announcement: She and Dorsey were expecting their first child. In September 2015, she gave birth to their son, Josey Hollis. Finally, Rivera had both the career and the family she’d always wanted. Tragically, the next few years would be a nightmare roller coaster ride.
When I say roller coaster, I mean roller coaster. After two years married, Rivera announced she was filing for divorce from her husband Dorsey. Yet less than a year later, she did an about-face and called off the separation entirely. Rivera had her family back again, and things seemed on the up-and-up...until they suddenly weren't.
In November 2017, just after getting back together with Dorsey, Rivera got herself into major trouble with the law. After an explosive fight about their son Josey, the authorities charged Rivera with domestic battery. At this point, the couple clearly couldn't work through their problems, and officially split up in 2018. Rivera was now a single mother.
In the middle of all this tumult, Rivera received some truly disturbing news. Her ex-boyfriend and Glee cast-mate Mark Salling was behind bars for possessing heinous photos of children. Yes, really. Perhaps even more chilling, Rivera later admitted that although she was surprised, she wasn't "totally shocked" by the news. But that wasn't the worst of it.
Salling eventually pled guilty in 2017, right as Rivera herself was going through the nightmare of her relationship with Dorsey. Then, while Salling was awaiting sentencing, he ended his life in early 2018 at just 35 years old. Like many of her Glee cast-mates, Rivera never made a statement about her troubled ex after his passing.
With the tragic ends of Cory Monteith and Mark Salling, many people began to point out that Glee seemed cursed as a production, and that its actors were doomed in one way or another. Whatever Rivera thought of the dark superstition, there's no way she could have predicted her own incredibly heartbreaking fate.
Rivera had a number of connections to A-listers when she was growing up. In one instance, legendary rapper Tupac approached Rivera and her family at an airport and introduced himself—he recognized her from The Royal Family, and was a fan of the show! However, Rivera also had a shadowy brush with one of the biggest scandals of the 90s.
As a child actor, Rivera made friends with Michael Jackson's niece at an audition, and soon enough the young girl was attending her friend's birthday party...at none other than the infamous Neverland Ranch. Though Jackson himself wasn't there that day, the invitations still specified that no parents were to attend. Yikes.
When Rivera needed to pay the bills in Hollywood when she was starting out, she took some seriously odd jobs. At different points she was a telemarketer, a nanny, and she worked at Abercrombie & Fitch—where she actually got fired. Rivera also spent some time as a waitress at Hooters, a job she said she has “nightmares about.”
Though you might not realize it, chances are you saw Rivera on sitcoms before Glee. After The Royal Family, she continued to act throughout her adolescence, getting small parts in beloved shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Baywatch, and Family Matters.
Following the final season of Glee, Rivera mostly laid low. She gained critical acclaim for her role in At the Devil’s Door, but her main priority was her son Josey. Throughout the early months of 2020, she posted photos of them hanging out together at home. They were finally out for a fun mother-son excursion on July 8, 2020, when tragedy struck.
This July, Rivera rented a boat to spend the afternoon on Lake Piru with her four-year-old son. When the pair didn’t return at the scheduled time, the boat rental company went out to look for their vessel What they found was utterly devastating. The boat was floating idly with little Josey alone and asleep in his lifejacket. But what really happened?
Josey said that he and his mother went swimming together off the back of the boat. His mother helped him to climb back on the boat, but she had trouble climbing back on herself. Eventually the current pulled her away, and she disappeared under the water. Immediately, the authorities deployed a search party, and chilling details began to emerge...
Due to the evidence on the boat and on land, the Sheriff’s Office made a gut-wrenching announcement. The rescue operation was now just a recovery operation for Rivera's remains. The actress’s family, friends, and fans were all devastated, and the Sheriff’s Office began to take desperate measures to find her body.
The authorities didn't search for Rivera alone. By July 11, Rivera’s family, ex-husband Dorsey, and her best friend and Glee co-star Heather Morris had joined the search party. Fans also showed up to help, despite warnings from the sheriff's department that it was incredibly dangerous terrain. Then, on July 13m 2020, everything came to a complete halt.
On the morning of July 13, 2020, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office announced that they had found a body in Lake Piru. Later that day, they confirmed the heartbreaking news that nobody want to believe: It was Naya Rivera. In a cruel coincidence, July 13 was also the anniversary of Cory Monteith's passing. And the heartache doesn't end there.
Rivera’s BFF Heather Morris was instrumental in the search for her beloved friend. Not only did she participate in the search, she even organized a meeting of the Glee cast to pray for Rivera’s safe return on the shores of Lake Piru. It was mere hours after the gathering that authorities found Rivera's body. But perhaps most touching of all is Rivera's last-ever Instagram post.
Since Rivera's tragic passing, there’s been an outpouring of love and tributes to her on social media from loved ones and fans. While these are numerous, perhaps none will be as beautiful or poignant as Rivera’s own words. Her last Instagram post was a close-up photo of her and Josey, which she captioned “Just the two of us.”
At the time of her disappearance, Rivera’s adult life jacket was on board, and Josey confirmed that she hadn’t been wearing one when they were swimming. The pair were also in an area of Lake Piru with incredibly strong and often fatal currents. This, combined with Rivera's autopsy, led the Sheriff's office to an utterly tragic conclusion.
The Sheriff’s office said that Rivera must have fallen victim to the currents while swimming, and that she was able to "[muster] enough energy to save her son, but not enough to save herself." An autopsy later confirmed that the cause was accidental drowning. Yes, Rivera really gave up her life to save her son's. Rest in peace, Naya.
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