On Glee, Naya Rivera plays everybody’s favorite cage-dancing lesbian cheerleader. In real life she’s expanding into music and movies while finding time to kick it with Big Sean. Looks like she’s playing her cards right.
This feature appears in Complex’s August/September 2013 issue.
Naya Rivera sits at a table at the outdoor patio of Coast, an oceanfront restaurant within the sunny Santa Monica hotel Shutters on the Beach. She’s waiting for her French 77, a cocktail made with champagne, a lemon twist, and St. Germain Elderflower liqueur.
She’s clad in a long black cotton dress and oversize sunglasses, with her hair in a bun, held in place by a black headband. Wearing just a touch of foundation and mascara, Naya doesn’t mean to intimidate, although it’s hard not to be taken aback by her beauty. She’s got the presence you’d expect of a celebrity: Her face is expressionless as she scans the emails on her phone one last time before burying it in her black Prada bag. Sitting tall with her legs crossed, she is quiet, collected, and perfectly postured. But the poised moment doesn’t last.
The waiter returns with bad news: “I’m so sorry, we don’t have any Elderflower on hand for your 77.”
“Oh no? It’s OK. I’ll just take house champagne then,” she replies graciously. Spotting a glass cylinder of plastic-wrapped sticks in the middle of the table, Naya asks, “Do you guys have sushi, too? Is that why there are chopsticks here?”
“Those are breadsticks,” the waiter says.
“Oh, breadsticks. Right,” Naya replies in a cartoonish voice, laughing with embarrassment as she sinks into her chair, hand held to her forehead.
“Trust me, honey, if we had sushi I’d be 10 pounds heavier,” the waiter says, trying to ease the tension. No need though; she’s already over it.
On Friday nights, me and my friend Madison would stand outside the liquor store and bribe older people walking by to buy us wine coolers to drink while we watched The Notebook.
The waiter treats her like he knows she’s a big deal, and he’s right—Naya Rivera’s got all the makings of a soon-to-be household name: She’s the biggest star on the Emmy-winning TV powerhouse Glee, amassing a cult-like fan base for her portrayal of feisty lesbian cheerleader Santana Lopez. She just finished filming her first movie, the horror flick Home, and she’s getting ready to drop her as-yet-untitled debut album. With her career on the verge of a major tipping point, you’d expect Naya to come equipped with some serious diva-type tendencies. So why the hell is she so cool? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that she was working full-time as a babysitter when she got cast for Glee five years ago. “I was still a nanny up until the third episode of season one,” she recalls. “I didn’t work that much and I didn’t know if I would still be around.” She only quit her babysitting gig after show creator Ryan Murphy convinced the network to make her a series regular.
With such a rapid rise, Naya is still feeling her way around celebrity. “If I wasn’t famous, I’d be on OkCupid,” she says. “All my friends are.” But Naya is famous, and she’s doing pretty well for herself in the relationship department—as her Instagram feed and numerous red carpet photos of her and her boyfriend Big Sean can attest. But today she has a different lunch companion.
“I feel like we’re on a date,” she jokes, mockingly sitting up straight in her chair. “Dates are nerve-racking. They’re weird. They’re like interviewing someone. They’re torture.”
Although the 26-year-old’s daily existence keeps her deep in the heart of La-La land, Naya is determined to keep it real. “Is it weird that I just want hummus and pita?” she continues, ditching her sushi plans. “Which I don’t see here—what was I saying?” As she chats away about family, friends, and music (faves include Big Sean, of course, Future, Robin Thicke, Lil Wayne, and Major Lazer), it becomes clear that she’s the rarest of Hollywood types: a young starlet who’s genuinely down-to-earth. Just don’t mistake her kindness for weakness.
“Naya isn’t afraid to go for and speak to what she wants,” says her Glee co-star Dianna Agron, who plays head cheerleader Quinn Fabray on the show. “Maybe there was a time in her life when this wasn’t the case, but all I have ever seen is a fearlessness to entertain and to be who she wants to be.”
Naya Marie Rivera grew up in Valencia, Calif., a cookie-cutter Los Angeles suburb, with her mother, father, and two younger siblings, Nickayla, now an 18-year-old fashion model, and Mychal, a 22-year-old tight end for the Oakland Raiders. Her mother, Yolanda Rivera, a former model, got her firstborn daughter an agent “straight out of the womb.” Naya’s first gig was a KMart commercial where she crawled across the screen in a diaper. She followed that with a starring role on the quickly canceled sitcom The Royal Family, and guest spots on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Family Matters.
Despite being on TV as a kid, Naya confesses that she didn’t have classmates lining up to be her friend—much less asking for her autograph. “I wish I had more fun in high school,” she says. “I wasn’t allowed to hang out with the black kids because they thought I wasn’t black enough, which was a problem.” Naya’s dad, George, is Puerto Rican and her half-German, half-African-American mother was strict, religious, and didn’t let her go out much. “On Friday nights, me and my friend Madison would stand outside the liquor store and bribe older people walking by to buy us wine coolers to drink while we watched The Notebook,” says Naya. She’s still a homebody who prefers to throw pool parties at her Los Feliz home rather than hit the clubs.
“I don’t understand how someone can be that funny, talented, and hot,” says her friend and Glee co-star Kevin McHale. It’s hard to believe Naya wasn’t a hit with the boys in high school, but she has her own horror story to prove it.
Naya’s prom date was a guy on the football team. “He started talking about how skinny I was,” she recalls. “All of his friends were like, ‘You need a thick girl.’ He was grinding on every other girl at the dance while I sat alone at the table, looking like a señorita.” She whips her head back and cups her hand to the side of her head, suggesting the ginormous flower she wore in her hair that night, à la Anita in West Side Story. “I didn’t even dance,” she says. “It was horrible.”
“Then he said, ‘So are you coming to the hotel?’ And I was like, ‘No, my dad is picking me up. On top of that, you’re trying to have sex with me? How rude are you?’” she says. The only time she speaks with her hands is when something pisses her off. Whoever that guy was, he must be kicking himself right now. But Naya insists she’s not bitter. “Best believe I’ll be at that reunion though.”