Inside Naya Rivera's Incredibly Full Life and the Legacy She Leaves Behind

The child star turned adult phenom had endless talent and even bigger dreams, but none of that topped her self-described "first priority": raising her beloved 4-year-old son.

By Sarah Grossbart Jul 14, 2020 7:00 AMTags
Related: Naya Rivera's Body Has Been Recovered: Details

Scroll through Naya Rivera's recent Twitter activity and you'll get a pretty solid picture of who she was in 2020. 

A dedicated mom, filling her and 4-year-old son Josey Dorsey's days soaking up sunshine and baking gluten-free pizzas from scratch, her final post a sweet, snuggled up snap she captioned "just the two of us". 

A person devoted to making her piece of the world a better place through activism (on Breonna Taylor's would-be 27th birthday June 5, she attended a Black Lives Matter protest) and continuously drumming up funds for her favorite charity, L.A.'s Alexandria House. 

A triple threat still making use of every ounce of the talent she displayed on Glee, her latest gig as dancer-turned-school administrator Colette Jones on Step Up: High Water getting bumped up from YouTube to Starz. 

But it's one of her final tweets—a missive she dashed off on July 2—that will make you stop in your tracks. "no matter the year, circumstance, or strifes everyday you're alive is a blessing," she wrote. "make the most of today and every day you are given. tomorrow is not promised."

An eerie case of prescience, her words proved all too true six days later when the Ventura County Sheriff's Department announced July 8 they were combing every inch of California's Lake Piru for signs of the missing star. Hours earlier, when Rivera failed to return the pontoon she'd rented for an afternoon on the reservoir, some 50 miles north of Los Angeles, workers tracked down the boat and found Josey on board, alone and fast asleep and immediately called 911, kicking off the desperate search for the single mom. 

Everyone from Demi Lovato to former fiancé Big Sean to her fellow Glee alum sent up prayers for her safe retrieval, but by the late morning hours of July 9, the operation had shifted from a search and rescue to recovery, the 33-year-old presumed to have drowned in the often treacherous 160-foot waters that had claimed so many others. Following five days of efforts, authorities confirmed the worst, announcing the star's body had been found. 

photos
Naya Rivera: Life in Pictures

It's a crushing end for the child actress turned adult phenom with endless talent and even bigger dreams. "She was just totally dedicated to her craft," former publicist Zack Teperman tells E! News. Grasping tight to what was meant to be a guest role on Fox's runaway 2009 sensation, Glee, she transformed what could have been a one-dimensional villain into the type of person countless LGBTQIA youth saw themselves in.

As details of the incident continued to flood the internet, and the search grew tragic, those whose lives she helped change rushed to add their heartfelt thanks. Among them was Lovato, who played Rivera's girlfriend in a four-episode Glee arc. "The character you played was groundbreaking for tons of closeted queer girls (like me at the time) and open queer girls," she wrote after Rivera was found July 13, "and your ambition and accomplishments were inspiring to Latina women all over the world." 

A fitting tribute for someone who so desperately wanted to use her platform to advance important causes inside the LGBTQIA community, shares Teperman. "She wanted to become bigger and bigger," he says. "Whatever she put herself into she always gave her all."

Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

She certainly packed a lot into her three-plus decades. The eldest daughter of Yolanda and George Rivera (her younger brother Mychal Rivera is an NFL tight end, sister Nickayla Rivera is a runway model) hadn't even reached her first birthday before she was signed with an agent. 

"My mom actually had moved [to Los Angeles] to pursue modeling, and so when she had me then, at 21, she just decided that I should go ahead and try my hand at it," she explained in a 2009 interview with Nice Girls TV. "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. "

Her career as a child star brought her young love (her first kiss was with Tia and Tamera Mowry's younger brother Tahj Mowry, the pair having met on a print shoot when she was four) and acclaim from industry vets, Jackée Harry, her costar on CBS's 90s series The Royal Family among those paying tribute. "We starred alongside one another in her first very television series," she reflected of watching the 4-year-old Young Artist Award nominee in action, "and I've watched her career blossom ever since." 

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

By the time she was matriculating at Santa Clarita's Valencia High School, Rivera had already mastered the art of the hustle, working jobs 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, an appearance in a B2K music video and a brief stab at finding fame on American Idol.

"I was very resourceful when it came to getting a job," she explained in a 2014 interview with Cosmopolitan for Latinas. "I was the ultimate liar on a resume. At the tender age of 19, I said I had a bachelor's degree; they never checked! Even when I didn't have much, I always acted as if I had everything I wanted. Latin women are go-getters by nature."

Even at 22 she knew she had the right combination of grit and thick skin to cobble together a real career in the industry. "It takes 150 percent commitment," she allowed to Nice Girls TV. "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."

Image Collection via Getty Images

By that point, she had booked that job, her gig on Glee making use of her freshman year stint in her high school's chorus group. "We didn't even know it was gonna hit, and it was just a guest role to begin with," reflects former publicist Teperman. "Everybody fell in love with her and that's what kind of took it into that series regular."

As Santana Lopez, McKinley High's resident acerbic cheerleader and glee club member, she delivered countless cutting insults, sang the hell out of more than a few ballads (among her favorites: Tina Turner's "Nutbush City Limits") and steadily worked her way from potential background player to full-on breakout star. 

FOX Image Collection via Getty Images

Beyond her talents for one-liners and Adele covers, though, the actress provided necessary representation through her surprisingly sweet romance with Heather Morris' Brittany S. Pierce. "There are very few ethnic LGBT characters on television, so I am honored to represent them," she told Latina magazine in 2013. "I love supporting this cause, but it's a big responsibility, and sometimes it's a lot of pressure on me."

Still, she continued to rise to the challenge, says Teperman. "She liked the storylines that helped inspire and change things," he tells E! News. "She was all about helping to create a change with whatever topic it was, whether it was bullying or equal rights, or whatever. She was all about using her platform in her roles to inspire and help people."

When the Fox series' six-season run came to a close in 2015, she transitioned immediately to another regular gig, accepting the part of Blanca Alvarez on Devious Maids. But she'd dip back into McKinley's fictional halls a year later, her 2016 biography, Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up, filling us all in on what we missed behind the scenes on Glee

Fox-Tv/Kobal/Shutterstock

There had been a lot of fun, of course, the cast of impossibly talented, photogenic twentysomethings possessing "the sex drive of bunnies and the bed-hopping skills of a polygamist cult," she wrote, leading to a lot of memorable nights at Kevin McHale and Jenna Ushkowitz's pad, dubbed "the Love Nest" after a tabloid story named it as such.

Like the one night shortly after Chord Overstreet joined the show when "we brought him to this sex den of a house and initiated him by making him play spin the bottle—while wearing a onesie," she wrote. Or, as she recalled, when "we got one of our castmates high for the first time, or at least tried to. We fed him a whole bag of weed gummy bears on New Year's Eve, and he still didn't feel a thing."

Brian To/Variety/Shutterstock

But there were more than a few heavier moments that wouldn't have felt entirely out of place as storylines on the coming-of-age series. 

Weeks after breaking up with future husband Ryan Dorsey back in 2010, she discovered she was pregnant and made the excruciatingly painful choice to drive to a Pasadena Planned Parenthood in disguise, paying for an abortion pill in cash. "It was the worst experience of my life," she wrote. "It was incredibly painful—your body is basically in labor with strong, frequent contractions. I was nauseous and kept going in and out of consciousness because of the pain." The next day, still bleeding, she got up and went to work: "I had to put my cheerleading uniform back on," she continued, "and hope that the skimpy bloomers covered the giant pad I was wearing."

The physical discomfort, though, was nothing compared to the mental trauma. "I don't think I ever emotionally healed from the abortion," she shared. "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."

FOX

Still reeling, she'd go on to date Mark Salling, their oft-tortured romance not unlike the relationship between Santana and bad boy Mark "Puck" Puckerman. After three on-and-off years of pretending not to be together for the sake of his image, she learned she'd cheated and enlisted a pal to cover his car with "dog food, Coca-Cola, eggs and birdseed," she revealed. "That's how I got my first media scandal." 

It seemed she was due for her happy ending when Big Sean proposed just six months into their 2013 romance. In the rapper, she found someone who appreciated her work ("I'm Gleekin' heavy," he told GQ of binging the series), supported her desire to put out an album featuring the sound she described to Vulture as "soulful, jazzy, urban" and, quite simply, seemed to adore her. "Every morning I wake up," he said, "I look over at her and be like, 'I'm winning so hard." 

Gregg DeGuire/WireImage

But that streak came to end mere months before their planned 2014 vows. An April fight over the Rolex he'd gifted her spiraled fast after she took to social media to accuse him of stealing it or, as she wrote in her book, "The One Time I Showed My Ass on Twitter." She deleted it, but not before it was noticed by countless fans, leading Sean's publicist to announce via statement that their wedding was off. 

"So I learned that I was no longer getting married from THE INTERNET, and at the same time as the rest of the world," she detailed in her book. "Not only were we no longer getting married, but apparently we weren't even together anymore."

She sought comfort in Dorsey's arms, the two quickly realizing the deep connection that had been there along. And suddenly Rivera was planning a new July 2014 wedding in Cabo San Lucas. "The media eschewed it into this whole thing," she told People, but the simple reality was she felt she'd found her forever. As she wrote, "By the time we sort of reconnected, I was like, 'Gosh, there's a reason why you keep coming back in my life and we keep coming back together.'"

photos
Naya Rivera's Pregnancy Style

That reason arrived the following September when tiny Josey made his appearance. Though Rivera's sometimes contentious on-and-off romance with actor Dorsey came to an end for good in 2018, not long after she was arrested and charged with misdemeanor domestic battery (charges that were later dismissed), the gift of motherhood remains. 

Asked to describe what most surprised her about parenting, she spoke with Momtastic in 2017 about the all-consuming, unconditional love. "You hear about it and you think, 'Well, obviously I'm going to love my child.' But it's so deep,'" she marveled. "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." 

Instagram

It even prompted a new venture, Rivera putting out a gender-neutral kids' lifestyle brand, JOJO&IZZY. "Josey inspires me in so many ways that it felt natural to want to create this for him and I," she explained to People in 2018. "It's a sweet bond that we share together."

Her favorite sidekick, Rivera revolved her days around planning fun excursions for them. "She loved to take Josey places and explore with him, entertaining him with various activities," a Rivera insider tells E! News. "Her son was her number one priority above anything else."

Instagram

And that, beyond the way she inspired teens who may have otherwise fallen through the cracks, beyond the performances that she leaves behind may just be her greatest legacy.

She was just eight months into the parenting game, when she reflected on the life lessons she'd already absorbed, detailing "these 'aha' moments about motherhood" she was constantly experiencing in a chat with Fit Pregnancy and Baby. "You're always going to wonder if you're doing things wrong, but that's what it means to be a mom," she asserted, "to care so much about someone else that you just want to be as perfect as possible."

It's a goal those close to her say she fully accomplished. "Naya and Josey were incredibly close and had a very tight bond," says the Rivera insider, the actress never hesitating to clear her schedule to, say, hunt for caterpillars with her little man.

"I just really make sure that I make time and stay organized so that I can, once I pick him up from school, the rest of the day is ours," she explained to E! News last year. Whatever work needed to be done, could simply be put on hold: "Being a mom is always my first priority so everything else can sort of wait. Nothing's more important than that."

—Additional reporting by Amanda Williams