Rivera was born and raised in the Valencia neighborhood of Santa Clarita, California, and has lived in or around Los Angeles for most of her life. She is of Puerto Rican, African American, and German descent. Her parents are Yolanda, a former model, and George Rivera. Her 3-year-younger brother is NFL tight end Mychal Rivera, and her 7-year-younger sister is runway model Nickayla Rivera. At 8 or 9 months old, Rivera began to be represented by the same talent agent as her mother, who had moved to Los Angeles to pursue modeling.
Rivera appeared in commercials for Kmart as a baby, but her first significant acting job was at age 4 when she appeared as Hillary Winston in The Royal Family sitcom in 1991. The show received positive reviews and high ratings initially, but it was canceled soon after star Redd Foxx suffered a sudden heart attack on set. Rivera received a Young Artist Award nomination for her performance in the series.
Between 1992 and 2002, she had small roles in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, Live Shot, Baywatch, Smart Guy, The Jersey, House Blend, Even Stevens and The Master of Disguise. In 2002, she also appeared in the music video for B2K's "Why I Love You". She was hired for a single episode guest appearance on The Bernie Mac Show in 2002, but she was brought back to work on a further ten episodes throughout all five seasons. She was later featured in episodes of 8 Simple Rules and CSI: Miami. In between auditions and roles, Rivera worked jobs as a telemarketer, a nanny and a greeter at an Abercrombie & Fitch store. In 2006 and 2007, Rivera took part in a production of Mark E. Swinton's play, U Don't Know Me: The Musical, both in Los Angeles and when the production was taken on national tour. Rivera auditioned for an unspecified season of American Idol during the San Francisco auditions, she was cut in the first round.
In 2009, Rivera was cast as Santana Lopez, a high school cheerleader, on Fox's musical comedy series Glee, about a high school glee club. Rivera's character comes off as a cold-hearted and vicious cheerleader, who often shows her softer side to fellow cheerleader Brittany (played by Heather Morris). Rivera auditioned for the opportunity "to sing, dance and act all in the same show," and because she was a fan of co-creator Ryan Murphy's previous work on Nip/Tuck. Rivera drew on her own high school experience of unpopularity to prepare for the role, as well as watching films such as Mean Girls to "really get in the zone and feel like a bitchy sophomore." She has described Santana as "your typical high school cheerleader, for the most part," explaining: "She's really mean and loves boys. She's really witty so I love playing her." She has characterized Santana as "a bit of a bad girl" who is "really snarky and always has these really witty one-liners she throws out there." Rivera enjoys the fact Santana is competitive and headstrong as she herself shares those traits, but dislikes Santana's mean streak. She finds the show's pacing challenging, especially the dancing, and commented in June 2009 that her most memorable moment on Glee was performing the Cheerios' glee club audition piece, "I Say a Little Prayer". Santana played a more prominent part in the last nine episodes of Glee's first season. Rivera commented: "Santana's been wreaking havoc with people's boyfriends and people's babies and teachers – she's the high school terror, and she's going to continue to be the villain."
After having her screen time and musical involvement increased in the second half of the first season, Rivera was promoted to official series regular status as of the beginning of the second season. She was given her first solo in the fifth episode of season two, "The Rocky Horror Glee Show", and performed several others as the season progressed. During the second season, Rivera's role in the show was radically changed when it was revealed that her character was a lesbian. Rivera portrayed Santana struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, with her love for her best friend, and with her inability to come out of the closet. She received favorable reviews for her performance. In January 2011, Rivera appeared in a parody of "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang", called "Nuthin' But a Glee Thang", co-written by Glee co-star Heather Morris.
In July 2011, Rivera was nominated for two ALMA Awards, in the categories of Favorite Female Music Artist and Favorite TV Actress – Leading Role in a Comedy. Rivera received a great amount of critical praise for both her acting and her singing performances in the latter part of season two and the beginning of season three. As 2011 ended, she or her character were on many "Best Of" lists, including HitFix's 25 Breakout Stars of 2011, TV Guide's Best Performances of 2011, MTV's Best TV Characters of 2011, as well as others. In the second half of the series' third season, she was given the opportunity to do a duet with Ricky Martin, and worked with Gloria Estefan, who was cast as Santana's mother. As the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards approached, Rivera was listed by many critics and media outlets as deserving of a nomination; The Hollywood Reporter included her in their "Emmy 2012: Supporting Players" photo shoot, and Rivera was also honored by E!, HitFix, TV Guide, and others. She was also chosen by the TV Academy to take part in a promotional video for the upcoming awards ceremony.
In May 2011, it was announced that Rivera had signed a deal with Columbia Records to produce a solo album. The musical duo 2Cellos released the second single to their second album, a cover of Muse's "Supermassive Black Hole" featuring vocals by Rivera. She also starred in the music video for the song. Rivera's debut single "Sorry", featuring rapper Big Sean, was released as a digital download on September 17, 2013. However, production on the album "kind of halted" due to "so many things going on," Rivera stated, "Politics got involved so I've been putting it on the back burner; there are a lot of things that I'm doing that I'm excited about."
On May 1, 2014, it was reported that Columbia had dropped Rivera because her debut single had underperformed. Rivera's representative released a statement to news outlets stating that any claims were falsified, and that legal action would be potentially taken to ensure Rivera's creditability; at the time of publishing, Columbia Records could not be reached for comment. Rivera subsequently worked on an immigrant project with Guillermo Diaz, directing a short film PSA about the effect of immigration on children and their parents. While Diaz's part is about telling the stories of young dreamers and the fear they have of their mothers being deported, Rivera's PSA is about the problems immigrants deal with or face in the United States.
At the Devil's Door (previously titled Home), Rivera's debut feature film, premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas on March 9, 2014. The film has been described by its director, Nicholas McCarthy, as "a unique kind of genre film I think, almost like a Rubik's cube of a horror movie." The film was released through video on demand on August 8, 2014, and theatrically released on September 12, 2014. The film continued to play at festivals, receiving mixed reviews. Rivera's acting, however, received praise. Edgar Chaput, of Sound on Sight, called Rivera "the standout... the most natural performance in the film," while Marsha McCreadie, of Film Journal, wrote, "At the Devil's Door doesn't pick up steam until late in the story, when Rivera carries the narrative," and Jeremy Kibler of Diabolique magazine wrote, "Coming primarily from a TV background and fun to watch as sharp-tongued lesbian cheerleader Santana on Glee, the eye-grabbing Naya Rivera adjusts to the big screen with ease in front of the camera. Her Vera is headstrong and rigid but cut with just the right amount of vulnerability."
In 2015, Rivera portrayed the recurring role of Blanca Alvarez in the third season of Lifetime's drama series Devious Maids. Rivera released a memoir titled Sorry Not Sorry: Dreams, Mistakes, and Growing Up in September 2016.
Rivera began dating recording artist Big Sean in April 2013. They announced their engagement that October, but ended their relationship in April 2014. Soon after, Rivera began dating actor Ryan Dorsey, whom she had previously dated four years earlier. They were married in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, on July 19, 2014. On February 24, 2015, Rivera announced that she and Dorsey were expecting their first child. Their son, Josey Hollis Dorsey, was born on September 17, 2015. In her memoir, Rivera revealed that she had an abortion in 2010, shortly after splitting from Dorsey, due to the fact her career was taking off with the success of Glee. In November 2016, Rivera filed for divorce after two years of marriage.
Rivera and her family reside in Los Angeles. During her appearance as a guest host on The View on January 14, 2015, Rivera alluded to her possible bisexuality. Rosie O'Donnell remarked on a recent study that showed that bisexual women were more likely to have mental health problems than lesbians, to which Rivera replied, "Rosie, no wonder I'm crazy. This just solves it all."
Rivera took up songwriting at the age of 15, declaring in one interview, "...my passion for music is one of my greatest loves." In 2008, Rivera completed an 8-week screenwriting workshop at the New York Film Academy. She has stated that if she could not act or sing, she would work as a writer.
Concerning her religious views, Rivera noted in an interview with Latina magazine that she was raised a devout Christian but is very private about it, noting the conflict that can result from revealing such information. She stated, "It's hard and sort of sad that you do feel the need to tread lightly when you say, 'Yes, I do go to church and I do read the Bible,' because once you do that, people will be like, 'Why are her boobs out? Why is her midriff showing? Why is she playing a lesbian?' I don't want to deal with that stuff, so I've never really discussed it. It's very personal."
Rivera dedicates her time to various charitable organizations: GLAAD, The Trevor Project, Stand Up to Cancer, The Elephant Project, and The Sunshine Foundation.
In 2011, Rivera hosted the San Francisco GLAAD Media Awards. In November 2011, Rivera and her Glee co-star Amber Riley performed at the 10th Annual Celebration of Dreams Event for the Dream Foundation. In December 2011, Rivera was revealed as the newest celebrity spokesperson for Proactiv. On March 24, 2012, she co-hosted the 23rd Annual GLAAD Media Awards in New York with Glee co-star Cory Monteith. Along with John Stamos, both hosts auctioned off kisses to the crowd, raising $15,000. This tradition started with Rivera when she hosted the 22nd Annual Media Awards in San Francisco.
In April 2012, Rivera was featured on the cover of Latina magazine. The following month she was also featured in the inaugural issue of Cosmo for Latinas, and was selected by People en Español for their 50 Most Beautiful list. In May 2012, Rivera made FHM's 100 Sexiest Women list, coming in at number 39. She made the Maxim Hot 100 list for the third year in a row, moving up sixteen spots to number 27. On the 2012 AfterEllen Hot 100 list, she was again ranked number 1. In May 2013, Rivera posed nude in an issue of Allure magazine.
In October 2012, Rivera was featured in the third episode of MTV's series This Is How I Made It. In the episode, Rivera recounted her childhood career as an actress and a model, as well as the lean times that came between the age of 16 and 21, leading up to her big break of being cast on Glee. In December 2012, Rivera attended the annual Trevor Live! event, where she performed a cover of the song "Silent Night". Rivera starred in an M&M's commercial that aired during Super Bowl XLVII on February 3, 2013, as the girl that "Red" is referring to (and who is essentially trying to eat him) with a cover of Meat Loaf's "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)". Rivera was ranked number 37 in the Men's Health Hottest Women of 2014.
In April 2017 Rivera will guest judge the 4th episode of season 9 of the reality competition show RuPaul's Drag Race.