Remembering Naya Rivera's best Glee performances, from Smooth Criminal to Valerie

Getty Images
Getty Images

The cast of Glee and the show’s many fans have paid tribute to star Naya Rivera, who died at 33 years old after drowning in Lake Piru on a boating trip with her 4-year-old son.

As the likes of Kevin McHale remembered her as “the most talented person I’ve ever known” and members of the cast gathered by the lake to say goodbye, many have also chosen to remember some of Rivera’s career highlights and performances.

Although Rivera’s character Santana on Glee wasn’t initially one of the programme’s standout characters, she brought complexity to the role of a stereotypical cheerleader and was a pillar of representation for the LGBTQ+ community as Santana came to terms with her sexuality onscreen.

Naya Rivera played cheerleader Santana Lopez on Glee (Getty Images)
Naya Rivera played cheerleader Santana Lopez on Glee (Getty Images)

As the series went on, she stole the show with emotional powerhouse performances with covers of divas like Tina Turner and Adele - while finding space for moments of vulnerability as she dealt with her feelings for fellow cheerleader Britney.

Here are some of Rivera’s best performances below.

Smooth Criminal

This showdown between Santana and rival Sebastian (played by The Flash’s Grant Gustin) was pure Glee drama, as the pair stalked one another around rings of elaborately laid out chairs and two furious cellists. It was a real character building moment for Santana who refused to let Sebastian’s attack on Blaine (Darren Criss) slide, leading to the fiery duet. Although the focus started on Gustin, Rivera and her black fedora swooped in towards the end with powerful roaring vocals - completely upstaging him.

River Deep Mountain High

Determined to prove themselves real contenders, Santana and Mercedes (played by Amber Riley) delivered a joyful, high energy performance that left their cast members in the dust. This was one of the first times we got to see exactly what Rivera was capable of as she belted, danced and harmonised magnificently to the Tina Turner hit, holding her own against fellow diva Amber Riley.

Rumour Has It/Someone Like You

No Glee roundup is complete without a mashup and this was one of the show’s better ones, combining Rumour Has It and Adele’s Someone Like You. While it may have been just another stage show for the glee club, it was a deeply emotional and intense for Rivera whose character grappled with her sexuality and school rumours that she’s a lesbian. Easily Rivera’s best performance.


This Fleetwood Mac cover (featuring Gwyneth Paltrow) was one of Santana’s more vulnerable moments as she essentially confessed her feelings to fellow cheerleader Britney. As Paltrow strummed away on a guitar and the girls harmonised, Rivera’s nearly tearful performance drew focus - even if she only had a couple of solo lines.


Rivera’s cover of this Amy Winehouse hit was so good, it landed New Directions a place in Regionals. As one of Santana’s early solos, she brought the fun in a soulful performance as Britney and Mike took centre stage with a dance number.

Don't Rain on My Parade

Santana swept the rug out from under Rachel Berry’s feet as she auditioned to be her Broadway understudy for Funny Girl. Throughout the song, she still managed to find hilarious moments to bring out Santana’s cattiness before standing centre stage - affirming that it was exactly where she belonged. Though the song may have originally been one of Lea Michele’s biggest numbers, Rivera absolutely nailed it.

If I Die Young

When Cory Monteith died, Glee filmed a heartbreaking episode full of tributes to the late star. Given that Rivera was discovered on the anniversary of Monteith’s passing yesterday, this performance feels all the more powerful now as she begins full of bravado before dissolving into tears.

As the rest of the choir rallied behind her, she was eventually overcome and fled to the school theatre where she and Kurt (Chris Colfer) had a moving conversation remembering Monteith’s character Finn.