Remembering Naya Rivera: A Look At Her Best ‘Glee’ Performances

As Santana Lopez, the 33-year-old actress captured our hearts and cemented her place in television history.

When Glee hit our television screens in 2009, few people could have predicted that Ryan Murphy’s high school musical drama would become one of the past decade’s most defining shows. Set at the fictional William McKinley High School, the series was centered around the school’s Glee Club, the New Directions, a ragtag band of students from all walks of life. 

Through the ensemble, viewers were introduced to Santana Lopez, the frosty Queen Bee of the Cheerios cheer squad who was initially tasked with infiltrating the glee club. Played by Naya Rivera, Santana quickly broke apart from the pack as fan-favorite for her snarky quips, sharp sense of humor, quick wit, vocal skills, and comedic force as the FOX television series progressed. In later seasons, viewers got to see beneath her icy exterior as we watched Santana grapple with her sexuality and come into her own as a performer. Santana became a trailblazer for LGBTQ+ representation as one of the few openly, lesbian characters on the show during its six-year run up to 2015. 

Glee would not be the same without the energy brought to that character by Rivera. In remembrance of the actress, who died at the age of 33 from accidental drowning while trying to save her 4 year old son, Josey, during a boating trip, we’re taking a look back at some of her most memorable Glee performances.

  • “The Boy Is Mine”

    The 18th episode of season one, “Laryngitis” simultaneously marked the first of many team-ups between Rivera’s character Santana and Amber Riley’s character Mercedes. The pair took on Brandy and Monica’s 1988 R&B classic, “The Boy Is Mine,” amid their battle for Glee club bad boy Puck’s affection. This was also one of the first episodes to showcase Santana’s vocal prowess which would become essential in later seasons.

  • “Valerie”

    Starting from season two and beyond, Santana’s vocals was put on full display with her rendition of Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronso’s retro tune, “Valerie” during episode nine, which remains one of her most popular covers from the show. It marked Santana’s first solo performance at the group’s sectional competition, and showed off her character’s versatility, with Rivera perfectly embodying the late singer’s raw grit.

  • “Rumor Has It / Someone Like You”

    Hailed as one of most definitive moments of Glee’s entire run, Mercedes and Santana were paired up together again for a harmonious mashup of Adele’s “Rumor Has It” and “Someone Like You.” The number opens with Mercedes taking the lead with “Rumor Has It” before Santana takes over with “Someone Like You.” At the same time, Santana is dealing with being outed in front of the entire school by Finn (played by the late Cory Monteith). The number poignantly captures Santana’s feelings of hurt and betrayal and offers a rare glimpse of the cheerleader’s more vulnerable side. It’s regarded as one of Glee’s most impactful performances.

  • “Smooth Criminal”

    After Sebastian (played by Grant Gustin) almost sabotaged the New Directions’ performance ahead of Regionals injuring member Blaine Anderson’s (played by Darren Criss), Santana comes to his rescue in the third season’s 11th episode. With this performance, Santana proved why she’s the one character you don’t want to cross. Donning a black fedora and matching power suit, she confronts Sebastian at Dalton Academy and effortlessly steals Sebastian’s thunder on his home turf in what has been declared one of the show’s most iconic moments. It also showed why Rivera was one of the show’s most versatile vocalists.

  • “Mine”

    In one of the more pivotal moments of her arc on Glee, Santana breaks up with Brittany (played by Heather Morris) by serenading her with Taylor Swift’s “Mine.” Throughout the series, Santana left a mark with powerhouse vocal performances, but in this instance, she showcases a more tender, vulnerable side of herself. The stripped-down cover beautifully shows off the beauty of Rivera’s voice.

  • “Girl On Fire”

    Following graduation, Santana makes the decision to move to New York City to pursue her dreams as part of the New Directions trio in season four episode 14. Her journey is encapsulated through Alicia Keys’ anthemic 2012 song, “Girl On Fire.” Santana powerfully belts her heart out in the empty high school auditorium before transitioning to her singing in the streets of New York.

  • “River Deep, Mountain High”

    Anytime the show creator’s put Santana and Mercedes together, the result is pure magic. In arguably one of the show’s more memorable moments, the two take on Ike and Tina Turner’s classic, “River Deep, Mountain High,” in the second season’s fourth episode, aptly titled “Duet.” The two women brought their A-game because their energy will make you want to get up and move, proving why Santana and Mercedes were the undisputed dynamic duo. The electrifying cover also showed that Rivera was more than capable of holding her own as a singer, matching Riley note-for-note.

  • “If I Die Young”

    Filmed during the series’ fifth season, in this titular episode dedicated to late Glee star Cory Monteith, who died from an accidental drug overdose on July 13, 2013, Rivera delivered a heartrending cover of The Band Perry's ode, “If I Die Young” that still resonates with many today. In this emotional number, Rivera artfully captures Santana’s raw emotions as she’s unable to finish the song, breaking down in tears. The heartbreak takes on new meaning in an eerie state of coincidence as Monteith died seven years to the day that Rivera's body was found on July 13.

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