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.”
After lunch, which ends up being a plate of chips and guacamole, Naya heads to her weekly pedicure. Instead of her usual spot, she’s getting her toes done at ONE, a luxury spa in the Shutters hotel. The aroma of acetone and lavender permeates the private wood-paneled room, which is marked by two small porcelain tubs for soaking your feet. It doesn’t look like she needs the treatment. Her naturally bronze skin is so spotless you’d swear it was expertly Photoshopped. But she undoes the straps on her black Prada sandals anyway.
Kissing a girl was a little awkward just because we had a million grips, and all the guys wanted to visit the set that day. Heather and I just laughed it off.
“I love that they’re playing Billie Holiday,” she says, leafing through a copy of L.A. Confidential.
What begins as small talk between Naya and Traci, the older, aproned, African-American pedicurist, escalates into a history lesson about civil rights in L.A. “It’s like that with gay marriage now,” Naya remarks, sending Traci on a riff about Sir Lady Java, a 1960s transgender woman famous for her performances at the Redd Foxx Club. It’s not exactly a Zen topic, but Rivera doesn’t mind. She knows a thing or two about being a gay icon.
Ever since Glee’s 2009 pilot, Naya Rivera has played Santana Lopez, one of the most irresistible characters on television. She’s the show’s resident badass, capable of eviscerating anyone with her wit just as easily as she hypnotizes them with her palpable sexuality, which is as thick as the smog over Los Angeles. She’s also a lesbian—and it’s not just a phase. Her coming-out scene in season two became one of the hallmarks of the entire series. Santana’s relationship with her best friend, Brittany (played by actress Heather Morris), has been dubbed “Brittana” and it’s a frequent trending topic on Twitter. The pair are so beloved that their break-up last season sent many younger viewers into hysteria, some of whom sent death threats to Ryan Murphy.
“Having gay characters makes a difference, especially when you are a teenager and you need people to look up to,” Naya says as Traci nods in agreement. “Your world feels so small. The tiniest thing can make you think, ‘I’m gonna die!’ I’m glad Glee is around for people dealing with something that big in such a small world. It’s important.”
Despite Naya’s devout Christian upbringing, the announcement of Santana’s sexuality didn’t prompt her family to ship her off to Jesus Camp. “My mother believes in God but she’s the most nonjudgmental, cool person I know,” she says. “There was absolutely no problem.”
Nor did Naya have any apprehension about kissing her female co-star on camera. “Kissing a girl was a little awkward just because we had a million grips, and all the guys wanted to visit the set that day,” she jokes. “Heather and I just laughed it off.”
Santana seems to get hotter and hotter with each passing year. By the end of season four, she was doing her best Jennifer-Beals-in-Flashdance-meets-Piper-Perabo-in-Coyote-Ugly impression. That is to say, she dropped out of college to bartend and cage dance just to get by in New York, putting her hopes of becoming a professional dancer on hold. Oh, and she’s also girlfriend-less, which has left some former Brittana loyalists blogging about their ideal pick for Santana’s next lady love. Naya’s got her own ideas.
“It would be funny if she had a girlfriend who had Lena Dunham’s personality,” she says. “She’s been crying for two seasons now. I’d like her to just have fun.”
Naya’s content to leave her character to the Glee showrunners as she begins her transition to the big screen. This year she wrapped her first feature film, the Nicholas McCarthy–directed thriller Home. “It was crazy,” Rivera says, laughing. “There were stunts and prosthetics involved, but there wasn’t much screaming. It’s not a jumpy film.” Instead, Home deals with demons and devilish behavior. “It’s more like, ‘That’s messed up.’”
Before she gets back in front of the camera—Glee starts filming season five in August—Naya’s busy recording her debut album, which she’s co-writing with Jaden Michaels, who’s worked with Carly Rae Jepsen and Cody Simpson.
As anyone who’s seen Naya perform Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” on Glee will agree, the girl is no gimmick behind the mic. She credits her dad, a former Universal Music Publishing employee who’d sneak her into the studio to lay down demos when she was a teenager.
Naya describes her album as “feel-good music for hanging out,” comparing it to early Destiny’s Child. “If you were having a summer barbecue, this would be the perfect album to play.”
After the soaking and scrubbing and foot-filing, Traci asks what color Naya would like for her toes. She requests Big Apple Red, but then decides on Vodka Caviar instead. She needs something hot to fit tomorrow’s strip-poker themed shoot.
“I want to be like Betty White—90 years old and still killing it,” Naya says. “What keeps people like that alive?”
“She can’t retire,” Traci says. “She retires, she’ll die.”
Naya’s eyes light up at the thought. “Did we just predict my fate?”
The next morning, Naya arrives in her white Range Rover at the West Hollywood photo studio, right on time for her cover shoot. After a couple of hours in hair and makeup, she tiptoes out of her dressing room looking like she hopped out of a 1960s Lucky Strike ad. Sipping on a glass of rosé through a pink straw, she waits for her cue. Her legs are thin and toned, like a Rodeo Drive mannequin. Her abs look like they’re straight out of a Pilates video. The crew around her whispers in awe.
I knew songs like ‘Ass’ because it was huge, but I never knew what [Big Sean] looked like. If I ran into him, I wouldn’t have known who he was.
Midway through the shoot, Big Sean shows up, dressed in an oversize camo jacket, dark jeans, and black adidas sneakers. As soon as the photographer calls for a break, Naya saunters over and engulfs him in a lingering hug. They don’t care who’s watching.
Naya first became aware of Sean through his music. “I knew songs like ‘Ass’ because it was huge, but I never knew what he looked like. If I ran into him, I wouldn’t have known who he was,” she says. “I was with my brother at his senior game in Tennessee and we were in his car going to get dinner. He played ‘Mula’ from Sean’s mixtape and I was like, ‘What is this song? Who is this?’ And he was like, ‘This is Big Sean.’ I said, ‘This is awesome, where do I get this?’” Before long she was hitting up Dat Piff for the first time. “It took me forever to get the music from my computer to my phone,” she recalls. She plays coy about how they actually hooked up though. “I ended up randomly meeting him. I told him that story the other day and we were still cracking up.”
Asked if Sean’s still as sensitive as the man who broke down in tears during his first major show in Detroit, Naya says: “He’s a sweetheart, but he’s not a little bitch.” She admits, though, that he “cried super hard” while watching Santana’s coming-out episode of Glee.
The pair has been together for a few months now. They make ample time for each other despite their hectic schedules. “With anything that you want, you’ll work at it and make the time for it,” she says. Together, they can be spotted everywhere from the Hollywood red carpet to the Hawaiian coast.
“She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Sean says in almost a whisper, as she steps back in front of the camera. “She’s one of those people that you can connect to, and I think she’s going to be a superstar.”
He may be onto something. Whoever comes across Naya in person or on screen either wants to be her or be with her. She’s the kind of person you want to know more about, and she’ll gladly tell you. “I feel like I’m a pretty open person and I’m never purposely not going to share things because I don’t have anything to hide,” she says. “If I feel like shouting from the rooftops, then I’ll do it.” Here’s hoping she never loses her balance.
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) Taylor Jacobson. (PROP STYLING) Lisa Bazadona. (HAIR) Clyde Haygood. (MAKEUP) Jo Baker. (MANICURIST) Karen Gutierrez. (CLOTHING) OPENING SPREAD: Tuxedo by Giorgio Armani / Shirt by Dolce & Gabbana / Necklace by Simon G / Right hand rings by ForeverMark and Neil Lane / Left hand rings by Effy Jewelry, Le Vian, and ForeverMark. FOLLOWING SPREAD: Bra by Dolce & Gabbana. PREVIOUS SPREAD: Bra and panties by Dolce & Gabbana / Pants by Pinup Couture / Shoes by Saint Laurent / Earrings by Neil Lane. THIS SPREAD: Halter top and pants by Emilio Pucci / Necklace and earrings by Ben-Amun by Isaac Manevitz / Left hand bracelet by Ben-Amun by Isaac Menevitz / Left hand rings by Neil Lane and ForeverMark / Right hand bracelets by Charriol and Jacob & Co.
WATCH NAYA RIVERA'S BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEO HERE: