'Glee' Actor Naya Rivera's Death Ruled Accidental Drowning

Jul 13, 2020
Originally published on July 14, 2020 6:33 pm

Updated at 8:39 p.m. ET Tuesday

The Ventura County Medical Examiner's Office has ruled the death of actor Naya Rivera to be an accidental drowning. She had disappeared on July 8 while boating with her 4-year-old son, and her body was recovered from a Southern California lake on Monday.

Best known for her starring role on the Fox show Glee, Rivera was 33 years old.

Sheriff William "Bill" Ayub said Monday Rivera's remains were found in Lake Piru in the Los Padres National Forest, not far from Los Angeles.

For six seasons, from 2009 to 2015, Rivera played the role of an unexpectedly popular television antihero. Glee's Santana Lopez was a cynical, initially closeted high school cheerleader with charisma to burn and an ax to grind. "The only straight I am is straight-up bitch," Santana announced in Season 2. But the character's bullying eventually yielded to team spirit and a tender romance with another cheerleader, the sweet natured but dim Brittany.

Glee fans pushed for the storyline, which became one of the most popular arcs on the show. "Who knows if the writers would have taken that relationship so seriously if there hadn't been such an outpouring for them to get together," Rivera told The Los Angeles Times in 2011.

A child actor and model, Rivera was barely more than a toddler when she played Redd Foxx's granddaughter on the CBS comedy The Royal Family. More television work followed, with appearances on such programs as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Baywatch, The Bernie Mac Show and CSI: Miami.

Her breakthrough character, Glee's Santana, was originally conceived as a minor role, but Rivera brought swagger and unexpected sensitivity to the spiky character. Although some critics at the time complained about seeing yet another traditionally beautiful queer femme of color, the character has also been celebrated as an outspoken, charismatic Latinx who pushes back against stereotyping.

"Honestly, I never thought I'd actually be playing a teen lesbian," Rivera said in The Los Angeles Times interview. "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.' "

Rivera was not gay in real life; she was engaged to the rapper Big Sean, with whom she recorded a single in 2013. She later married the actor Ryan Dorsey, whom she divorced in 2018. After Glee ended in 2015, Rivera appeared on the Lifetime show Devious Maids and the YouTube Red series Step Up: High Water.

Rivera rented a boat on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 8, with her son. The boy was found safely in the boat and told authorities that his mother had gone swimming. She is the third regular cast member of Glee to have died tragically and unexpectedly in the past five years.

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The body of actor Naya Rivera has been recovered from a lake in the Los Padres National Forest not far from Los Angeles. Rivera had been missing since last Wednesday afternoon. Authorities believe she accidentally drowned after diving from a boat she'd rented with her young son. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, Rivera was only 33 years old.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Naya Rivera was known for just one role but what a role it was.


MATTHEW MORRISON: (As Will Schuester) Give it up for Miss Santana Lopez.

ULABY: On the TV show "Glee," Santana Lopez was a mean girl for the ages, a take-no-prisoners cheerleader who joins the dorks in the glee club.


NAYA RIVERA: (As Santana Lopez, singing) A church house, gin house, a school house, outhouse.

ULABY: Even among the show's triple threat platinum talents, Rivera stood out. But says Alex Zaragoza, a culture staff writer for Vice, Santana was not even imagined as a series regular at first.

ALEX ZARAGOZA: No, she wasn't. She was just kind of this sidekick, mean-girl best friend.

ULABY: With a gift for insulting the show's hapless protagonist.


RIVERA: (As Santana Lopez) Well, Rachel, congratulations. Normally, you dress like the fantasy of a perverted Japanese businessman with a very dark, specific fetish, but I actually dig this look. Yeah.

ZARAGOZA: Naya was just so great and even the small snippets that she got, and she was such a scene stealer.

ULABY: One of the most popular story arcs on "Glee" was pushed by fans on social media. Santana is a lesbian who falls in love with her best friend, a fellow cheerleader. Their romance turns Santana into a sympathetic antihero, especially for LGBTQ fans. During a 2011 panel at The Paley Center for Media, Naya Rivera talked about what it was like to hear from them.


RIVERA: That's been really overwhelming and very humbling because I had no idea, you know, going into it. I've never played this sort of character.

ULABY: Rivera was a child actor who scored her first series regular role when she was little more than a toddler. Later, she popped up on shows like "Baywatch" and "The Bernie Mac Show." On "Glee," her slinky femme character was criticized by some as a stereotype, but this was before "Orange Is The New Black" and other shows helped diversify lesbian representation on TV. Even those critics appreciated Rivera's humor and humanity as Santana schemed to win over her crush.


RIVERA: (As Santana Lopez) I should be prom queen at this school. If I were prom queen, I could get Brittany to drop the four-eyed loser and go for the real queen.

ULABY: Even though "Glee" was one of the biggest hits on television in its day, the best role Naya Rivera could find when it ended in 2015 was playing a maid in a short-lived sitcom. What a career she should have had and what a life she should have led.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.