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Naya Rivera: 10 Glee performances that captured her formidable talent

As lesbian cheerleader Santana Lopez, the late actress inspired a generation of LGBTQ fans.

By Will Stroude

Words: Will Stroude

The news of Naya Rivera’s tragic death has been met with an outpouring of shock and grief from the world of entertainment, as well as from the legions of LGBTQ fans who fell in love with the actress during her time as razor-tongued lesbian cheerleader Santana Lopez on Glee.

As the character’s sexuality was explored over six seasons of the hit musical series, Rivera became an outspoken ally for the LGBTQ community off-camera, and having initially been cast in an archetypal recurring role, became one of the series’ most prominent stars through the sheer force of her talent alone.

Here, we look back on 10 Glee performances which captured Rivera’s unrivalled talent, and those that defined her time as one of TV’s most beloved LGBTQ characters of the last decade.

‘River Deep, Mountain High’ (Season 2, Episode 4)

After proving so popular with fans that she was bumped up to a series regular for Glee‘s second season, Rivera wasted no time proving why producers made the right choice as Santana and Mercedes (Amber Riley) served up a barn-storming rendition of a Tina Turner classic.

‘Valerie’ (Season 2, Episode 9) 

As the spotlight increasingly began to gravitate Santana during season two, Rivera’s soulful, gravelly vocals proved the perfect antidote to the Broadway-heavy vocal stylings of the Glee club.

‘Songbird’ (Season 2, Episode 19)

Much of Glee’s Fleetwood Mac tribute episode centred on Santana’s sexuality and budding romantic relationship with best friend Brittany (played by Heather Morris).

This stunning rendition of ‘Songbird’ struck such a chord with fans that Christine McVie’s 1977 original re-entered the Billboard Hot 100 the week after the episode’s transmission.

‘Rumour Has It’ / ‘Someone Like You’ (Season 3, Episode 6)

As the ladies of New Directions formed a rival girl group, The Troubletones, in season three, Rivera increasingly got the opportunity to shine. Here, she nailed Adele’s modern classic ‘Someone Like You’ with all the power and raw emotion of the original.

‘I Kissed a Girl’ (Season 3, Episode 7)

Katy Perry’s problematic breakthrough hit was turned into a coming out anthem for the ages as Rivera and her female co-stars teamed up for an empowering kiss-off to the bullies.

‘Smooth Criminal’ (Season 3, Episode 11)

Another example of Rivera’s ability to steal a scene (or episode, or season…), this drama-filled, string-backed song-off saw bad girl Santana go head-to-head with Grant Gustin’s villainous Sebastian and birth a fan favourite performance in the process.

‘Mine’ (Season 4, Episode 4)

Santana and Brittany’s relationship once again came to the fore as Rivera broke hearts everywhere with this cover of Taylor Swift’s 2010 hit, in the aptly-titled episode ‘The Break-Up’.

‘Here Comes the Sun’ (Season 5, Episode 2)

Rivera teamed up with new onscreen love interest Demi Lovato for this delicate, uplifting take on The Beatles’ classic.

After news of Rivera’s death was confirmed on Monday, Lovato paid tribute to Rivera’s role for helping her come to terms with her own sexuality, writing: “I’ll forever cherish the opportunity to play your girlfriend on Glee.

“The character you played was groundbreaking for tons of closeted (at the time) queer girls like me, and your ambition and accomplishments were inspiring to Latina women all over the world.”

‘If I Die Young’ (Season 5, episode 3)

Season five episode ‘The Quarterback’ dealt the off-screen death of actor Cory Monteith, who had died several months earlier following an accidental drug overdose.

In an episode high on very real emotion, Rivera’s simple rendition of The Band Perry’s ‘If I Die Young’ has stuck with fans ever since.

‘I’m So Excited’ (Season 6, Episode 8)

Santana and Brittany’s eagerly-anticipated wedding episode saw The Troubletones reunite for the ultimate feel-good performance – and as tributes continue to pour in for Rivera, it serves as a bittersweet reminder that the actress touched not only the lives of LGBTQ Glee fans coming to terms with their sexuality, but those of the people she worked with too.

Rest in power, Naya.