Naya Rivera Is Dead at 33, Glee Star’s Body Recovered from Lake Piru After 6-Day Search

This post was written by Riese Bernard, Carmen Phillips, and Heather Hogan.

On Wednesday July 8th in the afternoon, singer/actress Naya Rivera took her four-year-old son Josey Hollis Dorsey to Lake Piru and rented a pontoon boat. At 5 PM, her son was found alone in the boat by another boater, and eventually was Ventura County Sheriffs’ deputies. He told them that his mother had jumped in the water and not come back up. He was wearing a life jacket, and an adult-size life jacket remained in the boat. People looked for her body for a long time but then it got dark. Her last Instagram post was of her and her son, with the caption “Just the two of us.”

Over the last six days, local Ventura authorities have engaged in a detailed and thorough search and rescue mission, using sonar equipment to counter the lake’s poor visibility, along with dive teams, helicopters, and searching on foot through all the cabins and shore neighboring the lake. Rivera’s parents and ex-husband, Ryan Dorsey visited the lake in person over the weekend, mourning and helping the search as needed. Online, her cast mates encouraged fans to keep praying and Heather Morris went as far as offering to help with the search herself — anything to bring “our Naya” home.

This morning, her body was finally found. A photo, taken by Rivera, sent to her family shortly before her disappearance, aided in her recovery.

Although the exact circumstances of her drowning are currently unknown, a 2000 Los Angeles Times article about Lake Piru cited multiple recent drownings in the lake. Park officials told the paper that “the lake’s swimming beach is clearly marked and other parts of the lake are posted off-limits to swimming for grim reasons.” A user on twitter remarked, “please never come to Lake Piru to swim!! I lost my prima at an extremely young age while she went out for a swim when a sudden whirlpool dragged her 6 feet under.”

Naya Rivera is best known to all of us here for playing Santana Lopez on the teen musical comedy Glee, a program we covered with mild enthusiasm for about1.5 seasons and then, following Santana coming out as a lesbian; with obsessive, rapt and breathless attention.

Rivera was born in Santa Clarita, California in 1987 and grew up in and around Los Angeles. The agent of her mother, a model, took Rivera on as a client when she was eight months old. Rivera appeared in Kmart ads as a baby, and continued acting throughout her childhood, with small roles on shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Family Matters. She struggled with an eating disorder as a teenager, comparing herself to Brittany Murphy’s character in Girl Interrupted in her memoir Sorry Not Sorry. In the 2000s, she did 11 episodes of The Bernie Mac Show and spots on CSI: Miami and 8 Simple Rules before landing the legendary role of Santana Lopez on Glee in 2009.

Santana Lopez became nothing short of an icon, but her rise in an overcrowded cast of couldn’t have happened without Rivera’s sheer determination and work ethic. Heather Hogan, Autostraddle’s Senior Writer and TV Editor, covered the Glee for both our website and another, and when asked for a comment she shared, “In my 13 years of writing queer TV criticism, I have never experienced anything like what Naya Rivera did on Glee. Santana Lopez was a tertiary character, created for one-liners and bitchy smash-cuts — but Naya Rivera was a firecracker, a superstar, a singular talent who simply could not be relegated to the background.”

Like perhaps many of you, Santana Lopez’s coming out scene was the first I’d ever seen on television where I could see parts of myself in her story:

It seems like — with respect to coming out stories — most girls saw a door. Maybe you had gone in but kept it a secret, maybe you stood it front of it every afternoon debating whether or not today would be the day you’d enter. Maybe you opened and closed it constantly, or gayly dashed back and forth through it. Maybe your family or friends were blocking the door.

But some of us never even saw the door, even with nobody blocking it, and once it was opened we fell straight in. A friend opened that door for me. I never, ever, ever in ten million years, would’ve opened it myself.

This scene, I think, is when Holly opened that door for Santana.

It was a storyline that came out of fandom, a throwaway line between Santana and her best friend Brittany S. Pierce. Santana declares “sex is not dating” and Brittany replies “If it were, Santana and I would be dating” — the moment was seized upon by Glee fans, who began lobbying for a full-fledged romance. And, we got it.

As we shared stories of our time working as writers and editors in fandom, Heather reminisced: “When fans latched onto the idea that Santana and Brittany were a couple, Naya didn’t deny it or refuse to talk about it or shy away in any way. At the time, in 2010, I could hardly get any actresses playing queer roles to do interviews with the gay website I worked for. No one wanted to be ‘typecast.’ No one wanted to be ‘stuck’ playing a lesbian for the rest of their career. But here was Naya Rivera — in a time when presidential candidates still didn’t believe gay people should be allowed to marry, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was still flourishing, and California voters had revoked marriage equality by ballot referendum — leaning into this queer on-screen relationship, fanning the flames, encouraging her fans to ask for more. It paid off. Santana Lopez became the first lesbian character I ever saw come out because of popular demand, and Naya inhabited her with vulnerability and passion and ferocity and hilarity and hope and just so much love.”

In the early 2010s, Autostraddle Deputy Editor Carmen Phillips was one of those fans. “For me, it was the following season — after Santana came out to Brittany — when she came out to her abuela. I remember the Dominican flag on her grandmother’s fridge so clearly. I sobbed. A little over a month later, I finally came out to my Mom. Santana was a teenager, but Naya and I are less than a year apart in age. It made a difference for me that she was a mixed race, Black Puerto Rican actress. That photos splashed across her Instagram of her family reminded me of my own. There was very little queer representation when Glee was most popular, but even less representation for Latinas. We had Santana Lopez and Callie Torres. Naya Rivera and Sara Ramirez — that was it.”

For Heather, the power of that community was like none other before then, because the technology itself had changed. “It’s common now, but Twitter was new then, and we crowded around our TVs every week, live, to watch Santana Lopez sing and brood and drop hard truths and dance and refuse to apologize for who she was, and also occasionally to slap a man who deserved it. We came together with a #GaySharks hashtag and we became a family, because Naya Rivera helped us make space to do it.”

Santana and Brittany would eventually marry in a double wedding with fellow classmates and equally legendary gay couple Blaine and Kurt, because that’s what happened on Glee. Santana Lopez was also in the series’ best mash-up ever, Rumor Has It / Someone Like You. One of Santana’s most beloved performances, a highlight of the Glee Live Concert Tour, was “Valerie,” by Amy Winehouse, who died at the age of 27.

Rivera, who maybe possibly hinted that she was bisexual on The View one time, also did work for GLAAD and The Trevor Project.

From where we are now, it’s almost hard to believe how much has changed in our media landscape, so quickly. There was a lot that Glee got wrong, but it certainly also encouraged us to dream for more. It’s in this moment, maybe more than most, Heather reminds us that the best of Glee and the gifts that Naya Rivera gave us don’t end here: “It’s been a decade since Glee changed the landscape of TV, but Santana inspires as much debate and adoration as she did ten years ago. We think of her when we hear ‘Landslide,’ even if it’s Stevie Nicks who’s singing it. When Adele sings ‘Rumor Has It,’ we bust in with ‘Someone Like You.’ When someone mistakes us for straight, we text our friends about it and they text back, ‘The only straight I am is straight up bitch!’… I believe, firmly, that the only lesbian TV character as influential as Santana Lopez was Ellen DeGeneres, and that character would never have existed without Naya Rivera’s advocacy and support. Through Santana, Naya made us braver, stronger, and absolutely unwilling to settle for representation scraps. There will never be another Santana Lopez. There will never be another Naya Rivera.”

Naya Rivera is now the third Glee cast member to die in their 30s.

Mark Salling, who was 27 when he began his role as high school junior Noah Puckerman on Glee, committed suicide in 2017 after being charged with possession of child pornography. Cory Monteith, who played Finn Hudson, died of a drug overdose in a Vancouver hotel room in July 2013 at the age of 31. Today also happens to be the 7th anniversary of his passing.

I’ve been thinking about a lot of Naya’s performances today — the ecstatically queered “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” duet, the heartrending “Mine” cover delivered to Brittany in the back row of the Glee room —  but there’s one I keep coming back to. Episode 503, “Quarterback” (the episode devoted to Finn’s death). “If I Die Young.” It’s a stripped-down number — just her, backed by acoustics, in front of the shocked, sad Glee Club.

She starts: “If I die young bury me in satin / Lay me down on a bed of roses / Sink me in the river at dawn / Send me away with the words of a love song.”

Almost at the end: “Sink me in the river at dawn, send me away with the words of a love song.”

A few verses in she breaks down crying, she can’t finish, she leaves the room.

But somewhere in the middle, she sang this: “the sharp knife of a short life.”


This piece will be updated as we learn more.

Riese is the 38-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2843 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. This is such a tragedy. I absolutely loved the vulnerability Naya brought to Santana, in addition to her comedic timing on the zingers. It was a wonderful storyline, sometimes inspite of the show itself.

  2. Rest in peace Naya. Thank you for your advocacy and legacy. I came out around the same time that Santana did. It meant the world to me as a bisexual POC. Naya was so gracious about speaking at GLAAD events and telling the world at a con that if she, Naya, could choose an ending for Brittana, she would get Brittany pregnant. #GaySharks was one of the only threads that I would post on, trying to get a re-tweet with the funniest post. Naya and Heather helped create such a generous community. Sending love to Naya. GaySharks forever! Rest in peace.

  3. I’ve started and stopped writing about 6 times. I, typically, don’t get over emotional about celebrities but this one hits differently. For me, Naya was the best part of Glee. I’m still annoyed about how her coming out story was handled in relation to Kurt’s story.

    I didn’t have a lot in common with Santana but the way Naya played her it didn’t matter. She was so relatable and talented and vulnerable that she made you want to watch what happened next. She turned an afterthought of a character into a star. So many of her performances were soul shaking but I could listen to her sing Songbird everyday for the rest of my life.

    I hope her son and the rest of her family are able to find some peace and happiness in the future. And for the rest of us, I hope more time is spent remembering her for her tremendous talent and strength rather than obsessing about the circumstances of her death.

  4. The whole thing is so sad. Apparently her little boy said that she boosted him onto the boat before he looked back and saw her disappear under the water, leading law enforcement to believe the boat was unanchored and drifting away forcing Naya to chase it with Josey in tow.

  5. This is so heartbreaking. I remember being a closeted, dejected teenager almost ten years ago, looking to Naya Rivera’s performance as Santana on Glee as one of the few things I looked forward to. I remember watched Youtube videos of Brittana over and over again, and reading Brittana fanfiction, because the thought of them being together gave me so much hope and joy. I wish I could go back in time and tell Naya how much her performance as Santana meant to me, and how much it helped me navigate one of the hardest periods in my life. I can’t believe it, but I’m actually crying as I write this comment. Its been so long since I last watched Glee, I forgot how much it meant to me at the time.

    Rest in peace Naya. Wherever your soul is, I hope you know how much you’ve helped so many of us.

  6. Thank you for everything, including your advocacy. My thoughts are with your little boy.

    I do hope it gives her family some closure that they’re able to bring her home. When the sheriff’s department said she may never be recovered, I couldn’t fathom that.

  7. This is so lovingly put together and is bringing me a lot of solace. Thank you. I keep returning to this piece, three times in the last couple hours. I think it’s because you really encapsulated why this hurts so deeply and personally. Naya’s portrayal of Santana- Santana came out as I was struggling with my queerness, and her character started to shift my understanding of my identity. Maybe it wasn’t just okay to be gay- maybe it could actually be cool. And hot. And that…changed everything.

  8. 2010 me was so completely closeted. The Santana/Brittany story line was a bright spark in what was a very dark time for me. I remember lurking the watch-a-longs thread on livejournal and waiting patiently to read Heathers recaps on that other website which will-not-be-named.
    My heart aches for her family. What a tragedy.

    • Thank you so much for writing this, I really needed it tonight. In a lot of ways Naya and her open engagement with the community got me through my first year of college, where without Glee I would have been adrift but instead I found some other folks willing to huddle around a laptop and settle in for an evening. I hope she knew how much she mattered to a generation of queer kids just trying to figure it out.

  9. This one hurts. Santana/Brittany meant so much to me as a closeted kid in a small, rural town back in the 2010s. If Santana on Glee could be gay, maybe I’d be okay too, you know? Like, my mom and all her friends watched Glee. (Not without disparaging homophobia, but. Still. They watched. And they kept watching. It gave me the tiny spark of hope I needed. I stopped watching once I went away to school, but I’ll be forever indebted to that story. This is a tragedy and so, so, deeply sad.

  10. I started watching glee at the end of season 3, so I had no idea Naya had such a large part in Santana coming out. She portrayed one of my favorite television characters, and her charity was endless.

    The article brought tears to my eyes; thank you for writing this.

  11. I was already an adult with a wife and a baby when Glee premiered, but watching Santana’s story still healed my teenage soul in a lot of ways. Hers was the story I needed to see when I was a teenager but didn’t have. And even though I had to wait until I was nearly 30 years old to see it on screen, it still mattered a lot to me. This is so shocking and heartbreaking. Blessings to her family and friends, especially her little boy.

  12. I’m heartbroken. For her and for her little boy. I never thought I could be this sad about someone passing who I never even met but my god this is heavy. I’m looking back at her work with a smile though. Even the tragedy of her passing can’t dim what a brilliant light she was in life. I don’t pray often but I have prayed for her and for her family and friends, and that beautiful child of hers.

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