Born: January 12, 1987;

Died: July 8, 2020.

NAYA Rivera, who has died, aged 33, in a swimming accident, was just a few months old when she took her first steps into the often brutal world of Hollywood and stardom. Her ambitious mother was an aspiring actress and model who appeared regularly in the fashion pages of her home town’s Sunday newspaper. Having unexpectedly fallen pregnant, her hopes for fame switched to her baby.

“She got me an agent before I could walk,” recalled Rivera in her 2016 autobiography Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up, which documented a childhood overshadowed by cameras, filming demands, fans’ attention and adults’ expectations. “My grand entrance into life in the public eye was a topless scene: at seven months old I was cast in a Kmart commercial; to crawl across the floor wearing nothing but a diaper”.

She went on to forge a successful career in front of the camera, picking up her first actor’s award when she was just four years old, one of many accolades she would receive. However, for many her greatest achievement would be her role in Glee, the Fox comedy musical drama, as Santana Lopez, an Afro-Latina high school cheerleader who was struggling to balance her attraction to her best friend with her outward image as a boy-chasing cheerleader before, eventually, accepting her lesbian identity.

Santana was regarded as a breakthrough not only for spotlighting a lesbian relationship in a mainstream and globally acclaimed show, but for raising the profile of Afro-Latino representation on TV. Rivera’s girlfriend in the series, singer Demi Lovato, paid tribute to her: “The character you played was groundbreaking for tons of closeted queer girls (like me at the time) and open queer girls, and your ambition and accomplishments were inspiring to Latina women all over the world.”

Rivera was born in Santa Clarita, Los Angeles County, California, in 1987. A mix of African-American, German and Puerto Rican, she was the eldest of three siblings – her younger brother, Mychal Rivera, would go on to become a professional American footballer and her younger sister, Nickayla, is a model. While her father, George, worked in IT, her mother, Yolanda, concentrated her daughter’s blossoming career, securing her a string of contracts modelling baby and toddlers’ clothes.

Rivera dismissed the idea of it being easy or always fun. “It was work!,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I had to do stuff like hula hoop, blow bubbles, pretend to laugh or – the worst – hold hands with other kids. Usually their hands were sweaty and clammy, or they’d pick their nose right up to the very last second then reach their fingers towards mine.”

Despite her youth, she was aware that she was being picked as the “go-to ethnic girl” and was conscious of her looks, using thick make-up that was normally intended to cover scars to disguise a mole on her chin, and fake teeth to cover her missing baby teeth.

Aged five, she landed her first television role on CBS’s The Royal Family. It meant waking up for call times at 4.30am, rehearsing and learning her lines by parroting her mother as she read them. “I never once complained,” she wrote, “because secretly I knew that if I was up before the sun, I must be important.”

The show, created by Eddie Murphy, was filmed in front of a live studio audience, with the young Rivera taking stage directions and doing physical comedy. She recalled performing once despite having a 102⁰ fever “not because anyone told me I had to, because I insisted”.

When fan mail arrived, she responded by signing autographed photographs with her name and a love heart, a habit she found hard to break even in adulthood. The show was a major success but would end in tragedy when its leading man, Redd Foxx, whom she regarded as a grandfather figure, suffered a fatal heart attack on set, witnessed by her and her fellow actors.

Appearances followed in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Baywatch, during which time she battled and beat anorexia. Glee propelled her to fame, and she remained a key character throughout its six-year span. Her portrayal of her character’s vulnerabilities and confusion, along with the programme’s sensitive approach to exploring teenagers’ sexuality, earned plaudits from critics.

The show’s global success led to its young actors becoming the focus of intense tabloid and paparazzi attention. Rivera’s relationships came under the spotlight, including her tumultuous marriage to actor Ryan Dorsey which ended in 2017 with claims – later dismissed at his request – that she hit him during a heated argument.

Rivera was with their four-year-old son, Josey, on July 8 when she rented a boat at Lake Piru, near Santa Clarita. The child was later found alone in the boat. He told rescuers that his mother had gone swimming but had not returned. Her body was found on July 13.

She is the third Glee cast member to die in distressing circumstances; her close friend Cory Monteith died from an accidental heroin overdose in July 2013, and her ex-boyfriend Mark Salling killed himself following child pornography allegations. Of Rivera, US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote: “As a Latina, it’s rare to have rich, complex characters reflect us in media. Naya worked hard to give that gift to so many.”