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The Breakthrough: Lupita Nyong’o
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  • On: January 25, 2017

A year ago, you didn’t know who Lupita Nyong’o was. Then you saw 12 Years a Slave and—wow. After this Oscar winner captivated the world, she made it her mission to redefine success and beauty. The rest is history.

Lupita Nyong’o would make a terrible spy; it’s impossible to imagine her blending into a crowd. As she strolls into the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on a cloudy fall day, she is smaller than one might expect but instantly arresting. She exudes a reserve that warns you not to get too close: Wary and poised, Nyong’o makes you feel a bit like an overeager golden retriever when you venture a polite hello.

This mysterious quality has been wowing her admirers for years. “It’s that thing called presence, which is about a person’s comfort in their own body. Lupita has that rare ability,” says Ron Van Lieu, who was chair of the acting program at the Yale School of Drama while Nyong’o was a student there. Van Lieu remembers her audition—a monologue from Romeo and Juliet—as one of the most exciting of his career, which spans four decades.

In the past year, the 31-year-old star’s life has unfolded like a fairy tale. In a series of breathtaking coups, Nyong’o won an Academy Award for her first role in a major film, 12 Years a Slave; was named a new face of Lancôme; scored the cover of People‘s Most Beautiful issue; and landed key roles in two upcoming films, The Jungle Book and *Star Wars: Episode VII.*In truth, however, Hollywood’s latest “overnight” success spent years preparing for her turn in the limelight. A member of a prominent Kenyan family, Nyong’o was born in Mexico after her father, a political activist who is now a senator and professor, briefly went into exile. The family later returned to Kenya, where Lupita was educated as a child before attending Hampshire College in Massachusetts.

 

Nyong’o began her career with work that was socially significant: She starred in an African soap opera, Shuga, which explored controversial subjects like rape and HIV/AIDS, and also directed a film of her own, In My Genes, which dealt with discrimination against people with albinism in Kenya.

When she graduated from Yale in 2012 with a master’s degree, she had already won the role of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. “We auditioned over 2,000 women all around the world,” says Steve McQueen, the director. “I always compare it to the search for Scarlett O’Hara. I had a tape of Lupita’s, and I couldn’t believe it. I thought, Is this person real?… She’s a total professional, incredible.”

Brad Pitt produced the film, and Nyong’o now counts him as a colleague as well as a mentor; she’s teamed up with Pitt and his Plan B Entertainment to make a film version of the novel Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Nyong’o will star as Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who emigrates to America and starts blogging about race in her adopted country. “Lupita read Americanah when it was first published and wrote me a lovely email about it,” says Adichie. “I could see right away she really got it.”

She has that unforgettable impact on everyone, it seems. “She is one of the great talents and spirits of our time, at the beginning of an extraordinary journey,” says playwright Eve Ensler, who once auditioned Nyong’o. “I was literally knocked off my feet,” she recalls.

Growing up in Kenya, Nyong’o used to challenge the rules at her strict Catholic school, mischievously dyeing her hair blue or green. Now that she’s a movie star, she’s arrived at our interview looking like an ultramodern Audrey Hepburn, in slim black pants and a trench coat—and green nail polish.

Fiercely intelligent and multicultural, Nyong’o is a twenty-first-century global citizen, and a consummate Woman of the Year.

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