Naya Rivera: A Look Back on the Former Glee Star's Life, One Year After Her Tragic Death
After years of working as a child actress, Naya Rivera shot to fame with a major role in the hit show Glee, gaining acclaim for her performance as an openly gay cheerleader with a love for a capella. On July 8, 2020, tragedy struck when Rivera, 33, disappeared from a rented boat on a Southern California lake. On July 13, her body was recovered; authorities called the incident a tragic drowning accident, with no signs of suicide or foul play.
Rivera was known for being a trailblazer for queer characters on television, playing Santana on Glee from 2009 to 2015. After writing and promoting her 2016 memoir, Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up, the actress returned to acting for the YouTube Red series Step Up: High Water in 2018, playing an administrator named Collette Jones on the show.
The star was also dedicated to uplifting others and dedicated time to organizations like The Trevor Project, March of Dimes, GLAAD, Stand Up to Cancer, Get Schooled Foundation and Los Angeles Mission.
Rivera’s romantic life was filled with turmoil, but the star was a loving mother to her young son, Josey Hollis Dorsey, whom she shared with ex-husband Ryan Dorsey. The couple’s relationship was somewhat tumultuous from the start.
After first starting to date in 2010 — a few months following Glee's premiere — the couple split so Rivera could focus on her career. A few weeks later, she discovered that she was pregnant with his child, and decided to get an abortion.
“When I made that decision [to have an abortion], I made it by myself, as I feel is the case for a lot of women, and I did not share it with Ryan at the time,” Rivera wrote in her memoir Sorry Not Sorry.
She then dated co-star Mark Salling as they filmed together, but Rivera says he dumped her at the request of his publicist, who said she wasn’t good for his image. (Salling was charged with possession of child pornography in 2016, and struck a plea deal the following October. He was found dead of an apparent suicide in January of 2018.)
“When Mark dumped me, I thought it was the worst thing ever, but can you imagine if that didn’t happen? And I was laying there in bed when the battering ram came through the door?” Rivera wrote after hearing about Salling’s charges.
Naya Rivera on Glee
The actress then began a romance with rapper Big Sean in April 2013, with the couple getting engaged that October. But in April 2014, Big Sean broke off the engagement, adding that it was a “difficult decision.”
Naya Rivera and Big Sean
“Sean wishes Naya nothing but the best and it is still his hope that they can continue to work through their issues privately,” his rep told PEOPLE at the time.
Just three months later, Rivera announced that she had married Dorsey, in a small ceremony in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, on July 19. The quick turnaround led to criticism, with many accusing the star of “switching grooms.”
“The media eschewed it into this whole thing,” Rivera told PEOPLE. In reality, she said, they were longtime friends, and Dorsey reached out in support after her split from Big Sean.
Naya Rivera and Ryan Dorsey
“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,’ ” Rivera wrote in her book.
She also said that Dorsey was completely understanding about her decision to have an abortion in 2010.
“He said, ‘In the short time that we dated, I wish that I could have done something to make you feel like you could have trusted me with that information because I would have loved to have been there with you,’ ” Rivera told PEOPLE. “I think it was the kindest, best thing that any man could have ever said in that situation. It just made me love him that much more.”
In February 2015, she announced the two were expecting a baby.
“Ryan and I feel so blessed and can’t wait to welcome the newest member of our family,” the actress wrote on her website, after sharing the happy news on Instagram with a picture of a “bun in the oven.” Their son Josey Hollis Dorsey arrived in September of that year.
About one year later, Rivera announced that she and Dorsey were getting divorced.
“After much consideration, we have made the decision to end our marriage,” the couple told PEOPLE in a statement. “Our priority is and always will be our beautiful son that we share together. We will continue to be great co-parenting partners for him. We ask for respect and privacy for our family during this difficult time.”
Rivera submitted paperwork to start the divorce process and ask for primary custody of Josey, with visitation rights for Dorsey.
“It is what it is, but I’m glad that my family is together,” she said, adding that it was “a personal decision.”
In November 2017, Rivera was charged in Kanawha County, West Virginia, over the Thanksgiving weekend after an alleged altercation with her Dorsey, police confirmed to PEOPLE. She was released on bond. (A rep for Rivera did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.)
She re-filed for divorce in December 2017.
On July 8, 2020, Rivera was reported missing after a trip to Lake Piru in Ventura County, California. Rivera and her then-4-year-old son, Josey Dorsey, rented a pontoon boat and were swimming in the water.
After the boat was overdue for return after the three-hour rental, staff at the lake found it at the north side of the body of water with her sleeping son aboard, but not Rivera. Authorities announced that the 33-year-old was presumed dead after first conducting a rescue mission, though continued to search for her in the days that followed.