In 2016, Naya Rivera — who was found dead on July 13 at the age of 33 after a boating incident — released an autobiography at only 29.
Some might have thought that was too young for a memoir titled: ‘Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up’, but the American actress had gone through a lot already and she was ready to lay it bare for her fans, many of whom had come to admire her from the hit TV series ‘Glee’.
On January 12, 1987, Rivera was born to former model Yolanda, of Puerto Rican and African American descent, and dad George Rivera, of German and Puerto Rican ancestry, in California.
By 9 months old, Rivera had the same talent agent as her mother, who moved to Los Angeles to pursue modelling.
As a baby, Rivera appeared in commercials for department store chain, Kmart. Her breakthrough on television came at the age of four, when she played Hillary Winston on the 1991 sitcom ‘The Royal Family’.
Created by Eddie Murphy, the show’s early episodes held high ratings. But it came to a sudden halt when the star of the show, Redd Foxx, suffered a fatal heart attack while rehearsing, which Rivera witnessed.
At six years old, Rivera made an appearance on ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ as little girl Cindy, who Hillary Banks thought of hiring as her miniature assistant.
Rivera also made appearances on ‘Family Matters’ and ‘Baywatch’. At 15, she appeared in one episode of ‘Even Stevens’ opposite Shia LaBeouf. Between the ages of 15 and 19, she featured in 11 episodes of ‘The Bernie Mac Show’.
But, her career hadn’t taken off yet. In order to make ends meet, Rivera worked as a nanny, telemarketer and a greeter at an Abercrombie & Fitch store.
‘Glee’: A career-changing moment
In 2009, Rivera landed her big break — ‘Glee’. The Fox musical dramedy followed a high school glee club and all the heartbreak and triumph involved. Rivera auditioned for the role of cheerleader Santana, because she wanted an opportunity to sing, dance and act — all at the same time.
No one, Rivera included, could have anticipated the success of the series, whose cast was all relatively unknown at the time.
A publication titled ‘Hollywood the Write Way’ published a 2009 Q&A titled ‘Meet Cory Monteith & Naya Rivera of Glee’. (Monteith, Rivera’s co-star and eventual good friend, died on July 13, 2013, exactly seven years to the date before Rivera’s body was recovered on July 13, 2020; a tribute Rivera had sung him, titled ‘If I Die Young’, re-circulated online.)
In the article, Rivera said: “My favourite [thing about Santana] would probably be the fact that she is so competitive because I have that same character trait. She is headstrong. My least favourite part would be her mean streak. I can be a bit mean at times but not to the point where I ruin people’s lives.”
She also spoke about “really heavily” getting into songwriting at the age of 15.
“I needed an outlet to get things out. I was a big journal logger. I look back at the journals and it is really embarrassing — ‘I like so and so and he doesn’t like me’ stuff,” she said.
‘Glee’ ran for six seasons and ended in 2015.
Rivera dabbled in music and starred in her first feature film, ‘At the Devil’s Door’ (2014), where her performance was praised as a ‘standout’ and the film’s saving grace.
Growing up, Rivera was the eldest of three siblings — her younger brother Mychal Rashawn, 29, is a professional tight end, and her sister Nickayla Ann is a 25-year-old model.
Rivera’s parents were married for 10 years, from 1986 until 1996, before they divorced.
Rivera lived most of her life in Los Angeles, a city full of creatives and storytellers like her.
She penned her autobiography in the style of a journal, with the title of the book — ‘Sorry Not Sorry’ — underlying every unapologetic anecdote.
She spoke about her childhood, teen years, struggles with body image and her career’s highs and lows.
“I’d fallen back on my looks over and over because I didn’t think I had anything else to offer, but now I was starting to see that I was actually smart. Getting a graded paper on which the professor wrote ‘well written!’ felt a million times better than getting a 25 per cent tip because some d-bag got to ogle my butt when I dropped off his burger,” she wrote at one point.
“By the end of elementary school, my acting career had totally dried up. At that age, you’re too old to play a cute kid, too young to play a hot teenager and basically nobody wants you,” she said
She also opened up about her eating disorder and an abortion she had undertaken in 2010 shortly after her split from actor Ryan Dorsey.
Rivera and Dorsey married in 2014 and had a child, Josey Hollies, in 2015.
Rivera filed for divorce in 2016, but the couple did not separate. In 2017, Rivera was charged with domestic battery after she allegedly hit Dorsey in the head in altercation over their child. The charge was dismissed in 2018 as Dorsey withdrew his complaints and said he had never been injured by Rivera. In 2018, they finalised their divorce.
Rivera’s final words
Rivera’s final tweet to her 1.6 million followers on Twitter was an image with her son, with their faces pressed together, and the caption “just the two of us.”
The image has more than half a million likes on Twitter to date.
That same day, Rivera interacted with a fan about the possibility of publishing a second book, asking: “What would interest and inspire you most?”
On July 3, Rivera shared a poignant message with her followers.
“No matter the year, circumstance, or strifes everyday you’re alive is a blessing. Make the most of today and every day you are given. Tomorrow is not promised,” she wrote.