In the space of a year, 12 Years a Slave star Lupita Nyong’o has gone from unknown actress to the most buzzed about woman in Hollywood, captivating everyone on the red carpet with her ethereal style and beauty in the process. Her rapid rise to the top rungs of Hollywood culminated in her appearance at the 2014 Academy Awards, where she accepted the statue for Best Supporting Actress wearing a stunning duck-egg blue Prada gown. The event cemented her place as the new queen of the red carpet and an acting force to be reckoned with. “I don’t think I will ever be able to really articulate how bizarre it was to hear my name at the Academy Awards,” she recently confessed.
“I’d watched in my pyjamas the year before! I felt numb – dazed and confused. I remember feeling light – weightless. More like limbo than cloud nine.”
The star-studded bash was a far cry from the 31-year-old’s upbringing in Kenya. “When I look down at this golden statue,” she said during her acceptance speech, “may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”
Lupita’s childhood, though privileged, was marred by political unrest. Her father, Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, a political-science professor, was self-exiled to Mexico when he opposed the Kenyan government. The family eventually returned to Nairobi, where Lupita got her first brush with Hollywood – working as a production assistant on the Ralph Fiennes film The Constant Gardener, near the family home. “[Ralph] asked me what I wanted to do with my life,” she recalls. “And so I very shyly said I wanted to be an actor too, and he sighed deeply and said, ‘Lupita, only act if you can’t breathe without it.’”
She carefully considered these words before moving to the US to take a chance on the career that would prove life-changing. And just weeks after graduating from Yale University’s drama school, she was offered the role of Patsey, a slave on a cotton plantation in the Brad Pitt-produced film, 12 Years a Slave.
Her epic performance received rave reviews and immediately plunged her into the dazzling world of awards shows and press junkets. Overnight, she became the name on everyone’s lips. “It just feels like the entertainment industry exploded into my life,” she says. “People who seemed so distant all of a sudden were right in front of me and recognising me – before I recognised them!”
A roller coaster ride
In hindsight, she admits, nothing could have prepared her for the red carpet roller coaster that followed. “Everyone said, ‘Brace yourself, Lupita! Keep a granola bar in that clutch of yours!’,” she says. “I didn’t really understand what they meant, and it was only once it was past that I realised that my body had been holding on by a thread to get through this very intense experience. Nothing can prepare you for awards season,” she continues. “The red carpet feels like a war zone, except you cannot fly or fight; you just have to stand there and take it.”
Suddenly, designers were queuing up to dress the Kenyan girl who’d once made her own prom dress because it was cheaper than a store-bought one. (“It was a velvet miniskirt with a matching little top and an iridescent silver translucent fabric that flowed to the ground. It was kind of ridiculous, but it was fabulous at the time.”) After being introduced to her stylist, Micaela Erlanger, by her friend and Non-Stop co-star Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary), she quickly found her fashion groove wearing bold colours in elegant silhouettes. With every red carpet, the fashion plaudits accumulated, skyrocketing her to the top of the best-dressed lists.
“At first it was very daunting, but I ended up really having fun with it,” admits the star. “You spend so much time with your glam squad,” she adds, “their energy is the last thing you experience before you leave the hotel room – and they make it fun and light and manageable.”
A campaign for Miu Miu and a series of front-row Fashion Week invites followed, but it’s not just her fashion choices making waves, her bold beauty look is a major talking point too – garnering her the cover of People magazine’s Most Beautiful issue, and a lucrative contract with beauty giant Lancôme, joining the ranks of Julia Roberts, Penelope Cruz and Kate Winslet.
In what has been termed “the Lupita effect”, the actress is single-handedly redefining conventional notions of beauty, something she vocalised eloquently at the Black Women in Hollywood luncheon earlier this year. In a moving speech, she described how she had struggled with conventional beauty standards and how she once got taunted for her skin colour. “My one prayer was that I would wake up lighter skinned... And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before.” She eventually found her own self-worth through role models with a similar look, citing Oprah’s adulation of supermodel Alek Wek as the reason she was eventually able to validate her own beauty.
“My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden, Oprah was telling me it wasn’t. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me.” She now hopes to inspire confidence in other young girls who look to her as a role model. “I’ve heard people talk about images in popular culture changing, and that makes me feel great, because it means that the little girl I was, once upon a time, has an image to instil in her that she is beautiful, that she is worthy, that she can… Until I saw people who looked like me, doing the things I wanted to, I wasn’t so sure it was a possibility. Seeing Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah in The Colour Purple, it dawned on me: ‘Oh, I could be an actress!’ We plant the seed of possibility,” she says.
It’s been a steep learning curve from shy, awkward teenager to body-confident Hollywood star, she admits – one that began when she shaved her head at the age of 19. “As a teen my hair caused me so much anxiety. When I wasn’t happy with how my hair looked I’d spend recess in the bathroom because I was so embarrassed.” When she made the bold move to go for her trademark cropped hair, it was a freeing experience. “It wasn’t on a whim. I spent days thinking about it first. Once I did it, it was very liberating, but I also felt very naked.”
And while she is something of a maverick when it comes to the beauty rule book, her choices are all instinctive. “I just gravitate towards what I like. My make-up artist Nick Barose has grown my confidence in playing with colour. He’s gotten me to wear some pink lip colours that I would never have picked out on my own,” she says.
The year ahead looks just as bright for Hollywood’s new golden girl: she has been cast in JJ Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode VII, and will be providing the voice for Raksha in Disney’s revisiting of The Jungle Book. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to be working in these fantastical realms,” she says.
“They’re worlds away from 12 Years a Slave, that’s for sure – but that kind of diversity is what dreams are made of.”
As for how she is adjusting to her new A-list status? “This is actually a conversation I look forward to having in 10 years, when all of this is behind me and I have some real perspective on what happened, because right now I’m still adjusting.
I guess I feel catapulted into a different place; I have a little whiplash… I did have a dream to be an actress, but I didn’t think about being famous. And I haven’t yet figured out how to be a celebrity; that’s something I’m learning, and I wish there were a course on how to handle it. I have to be aware that my kinesphere may be larger than I want it to be.”
Stars in her eyes
Lupita starred alongside Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch in 12 Years A Slave, based on the real-life 1853 narrative of a man sold into slavery.
Bold and beautiful
Lupita’s taste for elegant, simple gowns in bold and beautiful colours designed by the likes of Miu Miu, Prada and Chanel has put her at the top of the world’s red carpet best-dressed lists.
Jennifer Lawrence lost out to Lupita for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar this year, and jokingly wrestled the Kenyan-Mexican actress for it backstage at the awards ceremony.
The best big sister ever?
Lupita took her cheeky younger brother Peter with her at the Oscars, where he photobombed the famous A-lister ‘Oscar selfie’ taken by Ellen DeGeneres.
“It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” said Lupita in her moving acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress earlier this year.