NEW YORK — 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 four-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.’”
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.”
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.”