'Glee' Actor Naya Rivera's Death Ruled Accidental Drowning Rivera was best known for her role as Santana Lopez, a take-no-prisoners cheerleader/singer on Glee for six seasons. She had disappeared while boating with her son on Lake Piru in Southern California.

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

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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.

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