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?”