220:The Self-Empowered Woman: Lupita Nyong’o

Dear Followers,

Have you seen the current issue of People magazine? Lupita Amondi Nyong’o is on the cover, and labeled as the world’s Most Beautiful Woman.  In the magazine’s 25 years of bestowing that honor, she is only the third black woman to be chosen–Halle Berry was the first in 2003, and Beyoncé was in 2012.  You may remember the 31 year old actress for her starring role in 12 Years A Slave, for which she won an Academy Award, and her unusual life and rise to fame definitely has a fairytale aura.

She was born on March 1st, 1983, in Mexico City, where her father was a visiting lecturer in political science at the Colegio de Mexico. At the time of her birth, her family had been living in Mexico for three years, but before that her father had been the former Minister for Medical Services with the Kenyan government. Lupita is the second of six children.
When she was an infant, her parents moved briefly to New York before they returned home to Kenya. She has described her childhood there as “middle class, suburban.” She attended an all girls school, where she acted in school plays–her first acting experience was a minor role in a school production of Oliver Twist. As a youngster, she was “…teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin” (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest), but by the time she was fourteen she had made her professional acting debut with a Nairobi-based repertory company called the Phoenix Players (2: An Early Sense Of Direction).
When she was 16, her parents sent her back to Mexico for a seven-month intensive language program, and today she currently holds both Kenyan and Mexican citizenship. She is fluent in her native language of Luo, as well as English, Swahili, and Spanish.  She attended college in the U.S. at Hampshire College where she received a B.A. in film and theater studies. Work as part of the production crews for a variety of films gave her behind the camera exposure to the world of movies.
One of those films was The Constant Gardener, which starred Ralph Fiennes. She had originally been inspired by Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple, but also credits Fiennes as a real inspiration to pursue a professional acting career (4: Supportive Someone).
She began to get roles in short films, and in 2008, returned to Kenya where she starred in a TV series. The next year she wrote, directed and produced a documentary, In My Genes, about how albinos are treated in Kenya. It won first prize at the Five College Film Festival. She also directed a Wahu music video which was nominated for the Best Video Award at the MTV Africa Music Awards in 2009 (11: Risk Addiction).
After having lived in Mexico. Kenya, Amherst and New York (and then Kenya again) she enrolled at the Yale school of drama for her masters degree in acting. She appeared in a variety of stage productions, and during the 2011-12 academic year won the Hershel Williams Prize, which is awarded to an acting student with outstanding ability (10: The Critic Within).
Immediately before her 2012 Yale graduation she was cast in 12 Years A Slave, in the role of Patsey (a slave who works next to Solomon Northrup at a cotton plantation). In addition to BAFTA, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations, she won The Oscar. She became the 15th actress to win an Academy Award for a debut performance in a feature film. She also became the sixth black actress to win, the first African actress to win, the first Mexican actress to win, and the first Kenyan to win (13: More Than Meets The Eye).
Earlier this year, at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon she gave a speech and talked about how (when she was younger) she used to pray every night that god would make her skin lighter (6: Life Is Not A Beauty Pageant). She told the audience that she used to feel “unbeautiful,” but now she is celebrated as a fashion icon, and has just been hired by Lancôme cosmetics as its first African spokeswoman (8: Turning No Into Yes).
Looking forward to your comments…
About Marilyn Murray Willison

The author of six non-fiction books, Willison worked as Health and Fitness Editor at the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and wrote book reviews, health, beauty, fashion, and travel articles on a regular basis for the Los Angeles Times. Her byline has appeared in a wide variety of American newspapers and magazines.