Lupita Nyong’o on Winning the Oscar, Becoming the Face of Lancôme, and Her First Cover of Vogue
In little more than a year, Lupita Nyong’o has made the leap from serious student to Oscar-winning actress and head-turning fashion star. Hamish Bowles catches up with Hollywood’s newest golden girl.
Marrakech in May is unseasonably tagine-hot. Hapless tourists are being felled by sunstroke merely from sauntering across the city’s pulsing medina square, which is all but abandoned by the native food and trinket traders, snake-charmers, and storytellers who will throng it in the desert cool of evening.
But in the oasis sanctuary of the Ksar Char-Bagh, all is balmy dolce far niente. A luxe spa hostelry built in imitation of a castle-like fort in the middle of the Palmeraie, it has crenellated towers that hide a private dipping pool and afford views down to a central marbled courtyard modeled on Granada’s Moorish Alhambra, and across the palm groves to the distant Atlas Mountains. Guests are lounging poolside in the shade of an allée of date palms, seemingly oblivious of the Academy Award–winning deity in their midst, who is the focus of the Voguecover shoot in full fluster around them.
Lupita Nyong’o is cucumber-cool, as beautiful and hieratic as an ancient Egyptian statue of a cat goddess, dressed in Prada’s magenta Deco-print dress licked with silver that is dazzling against her luminous skin. Lupita instinctively falls into graceful attitudes; she can’t help herself. “She knows the camera, she knows her angles,” notes an approving Phyllis Posnick,Vogue’s Executive Fashion Editor, who, it should be noted, does not suffer fools gladly but is in some kind of awe of this particular subject.
It is easy to see why. Lupita, 31, is as preternaturally poised as a prewar debutante, with a carefully modulated, cut-crystal accent and a quaint use of English to match. When she discusses one of the most harrowing scenes in the infinitely harrowing 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s magisterial movie in which she made her unforgettable screen debut as the tormented slave girl Patsey, she describes her character, delicately, as being “completely disrobed.”
At the BAFTAs at London’s Royal Opera House in February, I happened to follow Lupita’s blindingly flash-lit entrance on the red carpet as she artfully manipulated the emerald-green organza Dior ball gown billowing around her. There was nothing in this swanlike apparition to suggest how stressful the relentless awards-show circuit can be. “Still waters run deep,” she explains with an enigmatic smile.
In all, Lupita attended 60-some promotional events during a grueling five-month odyssey that began with the Toronto Film Festival in early September 2013 (where she first blazoned the promise of fashion stardom in Prada’s white jersey goddess dress, trellised with golden sequins). Small wonder that The New York Times’s Guy Trebay noted the “military precision” with which her management and stylists approached the campaign to conquer the red carpet and burn Lupita’s image into the collective consciousness—garnering her, among other things, a lucrative contract with Lancôme. (As Isabella Rossellini, the international face of the brand for more than a decade, beginning in 1983, describes it, “Having this contract is winning the lottery” and provided her with “the freedom to make only the films that I liked and not the films I didn’t.”)
Lupita appreciates the fact that Lancôme’s brand ambassadors, who currently include Julia Roberts, Kate Winslet, and Penélope Cruz, “are very different, unique women—it’s not about conforming to an already established idea of what is beautiful, and I like that.” In her meetings with the beauty house’s executives, she echoed powerful sentiments she expressed in a speech earlier in the year at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon. “I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful,” she told the audience that day, and described the sensation of having a flower bloom inside her when the Sudanese-born Alek Wek appeared on the modeling scene in the mid-nineties.
Over dinner at Le Tobsil, a spice-colored riad restaurant in the medina, she tells me, “I felt how valuable and vital such representation is.”
As we are serenaded by the hypnotic chant of the Gnawa musicians in the adjoining courtyard, I suggest to Lupita that she must have had a completely surreal year. “Indeed I did,” she says, laughing. “It just feels like the entertainment industry exploded into my life. People who seemed so distant all of a sudden were right in front of me and recognizing me—before I recognized them!” Her first real intimation that her life was changing—probably forever—came after the SAG Awards in January, when she arrived late one night at the airport and was mobbed by paparazzi. “For a split second I looked behind me to see who they were flashing at—and it was me!” she remembers. “That was, I think, the beginning of the end of my anonymity.”
Though, as she recalls with a laugh, she lived for three years as a student in pants and a sweatshirt, Lupita has always enjoyed fashion. Growing up in Kenya, she designed many of her own clothes “because it was cheaper than buying retail,” including her own prom dress when she graduated from the all-boys high school she attended in Nairobi—girls were accepted only in two advanced-placement classes. “It was a velvet miniskirt with a matching little top and an iridescent silver translucent fabric that flowed to the ground,” she remembers. “It was kind of ridiculous, but it was fabulous at the time.”
Lupita realized that she needed a more considered approach to her fashion choices as she prepared for the formidable season of appearances for 12 Years a Slave. She had worked with and befriended Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary) on Non-Stop (a rollicking suspense vehicle for Liam Neeson that was released two days before the Academy Awards, with Lupita—in what more than one critic described as a meager role—as a flight attendant alongside Dockery). Dockery introduced her to her stylist, Micaela Erlanger, a protégée of the late Annabel Tollman, who helped shape the red-carpet personas of Scarlett Johansson and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, among others.
Lupita arrived for their first meeting armed with a Pinterest board of fashion ideas that appealed to her: “Bold color, interesting print, interesting silhouette—simple but architectural and feminine,” Erlanger remembers. “Elegance, but with a sense of humor.”
The pair proceeded to meet for “epic six-hour fittings,” says Lupita. “It’s a job; it’s work, you know!” she tells me. “We’d just try, try, try, try, try, try, try. At first it was very daunting, but I ended up really having fun with it.” Their choices have run the gamut from Christopher Kane and Sacai to custom Prada and Chanel Haute Couture. Most times, she adds, “especially for the bigger awards, the dress let me know it was going to be worn. It’s quite scary when you fall in love with a dress, because it’s nothing to do with your brain. It’s like a gut reaction.” The caped scarlet Ralph Lauren gown for the Golden Globes was a case in point: “We got goose bumps,” remembers Erlanger of that fitting. “I told her, ‘This is going to be a game-changer.’ And it was.”
Lupita was cast in Miu Miu’s spring campaign alongside Elizabeth Olsen, Elle Fanning, and Bella Heathcote, and attended the label’s fashion show in Paris, dressed in a collared burgundy sweater under the sort of stiff little coat that Britain’s royal children have traditionally worn—the prim Good Girl foil to her front-row neighbor, Rihanna, who was working an eighties banjee-girl look in a runway-fresh Prada shearling coat, a plunging décolleté, and a Cleopatra bob.
As for Lupita’s short crop, which she has worn since she was nineteen, hairstylists Ted Gibson, Larry Sims, and Vernon François have worked such iterations as a two-pronged Mohawk, a Grace Jones flat-top crew cut, a widow’s peak, and a Gumby. The bold and adventurous makeup choices she makes with Nick Barose, meanwhile, annex beauty as a virtual accessory to her wardrobe. “You spend so much time with your glam squad,” says Lupita. “Their energy is the last thing you experience before you leave the hotel room—and they make it fun and light and manageable.”
Before she embarked on her fashion marathon, “everyone said, ‘Brace yourself, Lupita! Keep a granola bar in that clutch of yours!’ ” she confides. “I didn’t really understand what they meant, and it was only once it was past that I realized 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.” She considers for a moment. “I hope they don’t make that the big quote!” she says, laughing. “Because that would be sad! Tell them not to do that!”
It is understandable that Lupita would hesitate to trivialize the idea of internecine strife. Her current beau, the Somali-born rapper K’naan, has a preternatural serenity of his own that belies a childhood of unimaginable ferocity in his civil war–torn homeland, when he saw playmates die. (He fled with his family to Toronto, where, like so many of his disenchanted, rootless compatriots, he turned to a life of petty crime before reinventing himself through music, achieving global recognition when he adapted the lyrics of his anthemic “Wavin’ Flag” to become Coke’s official 2010 FIFA World Cup song.)
Lupita’s childhood, though privileged, was hardly settled. Her father, Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, a political-science professor, opposed the government of Daniel arap Moi, whose turbulent presidency lasted 24 years. Nyong’o’s brother “disappeared,” and Nyong’o was eventually self-exiled to Mexico, where Lupita was born in 1983. (Her name, in the symbolic Luo tradition, is a play on the word luo itself, which means “to follow,” and Peter is her father’s name, so that run together they suggest “I followed Peter to Mexico.” Lupita also speaks Swahili.) The family eventually returned to Nairobi, where her father continued to face intermittent persecution by the system, which changed with the election of Mwai Kibaki in 2002. He is currently a senator in the Kenyan parliament. He is also, let it be noted, an actor manqué, with a passion for Shakespeare, instilling in his daughter, along with her five siblings, an appetite for performance since childhood. “My family is very close-knit,” she explains. “My aunt, who was an actor herself, would get all us children together to write and perform plays. I loved manipulating my parents’ emotions.” When her mother, Dorothy, cried out at the tragic denouement of one of the plays, Lupita remembers “feeling very powerful.” They are clearly close; Dorothy has often accompanied her to awards shows, as have her siblings, including her acting-mad little brother, Peter. In Morocco, hearing that Dorothy fretted that her daughter wasn’t eating enough, Lupita spelled out I Love You with her Ksar Char-Bagh breakfast fruit and sent it to her as a charming freeze-frame iPhone video on Mother’s Day.
At fourteen, Lupita secured her first legitimate role, playing Juliet with the Phoenix Players, Nairobi’s “vibrant semiprofessional theater,” and experienced the same thrill when the performance brought the audience to tears at the end. “That was when I realized that I really loved this thing called playacting.”
Lupita’s father has a master’s degree and a doctorate from the University of Chicago, and, like many middle-class Kenyans, Lupita was expected to continue her higher education abroad. So in 2003, at the age of 20, she began taking classes in film and African studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts—an experience that she found to be “a major culture shock” after her self-described “very conservative” schooling in Kenya. “I felt like I needed rules,” she says, “but in the end, it taught me that I am very self-motivated—I can make my own rules!”
While at Hampshire, Lupita went home to Kenya and managed to finagle herself into working on the set of The Constant Gardener, which was shooting there. She met its star Ralph Fiennes and confided in him her passion to act. He firmly told her not to pursue it as a career unless it was something “I couldn’t live without”—advice that, as she admits, “gave me pause.”
In Kenya, as she notes, acting “wasn’t a viable career path; it’s not necessarily seen as a prestigious profession.” Expectations ran high: Her cousin Isis Nyong’o (a former VP and managing director of the African operations of InMobi, the independent mobile advertising network) has been cited by Forbes as one of Africa’s most successful women.
After undergraduate studies, Lupita returned home to Kenya, and she experienced something of an existential crisis before having “this vivid image of myself at 60, looking back at my life and really regretting that I hadn’t tried to be an actor. That was the dawn that I needed to start pursuing this.”
She applied to Yale; if it didn’t work out, she would return to production. She had already written, directed, and produced a documentary for her Hampshire thesis project: In My Genes, about a friend’s experience living with albinism in Kenya, where the condition is considered a bad omen and those born with it are subject to discrimination—and worse (“I traveled all those thousands of miles just to learn about my next-door neighbor!” says Lupita).
Without a theater library in Nairobi, Lupita reverted to her Juliet, and to high school pieces to perform for her Yale application, which involved auditioning on one day and waiting to hear whether you were going to be called back a month later.
During the interview, she was asked when she was planning to return to Kenya. “After callbacks,” she replied. “They laughed, but it was true. I had to make that call, and that was of course very scary and presumptuous, but I was not going to sell myself short.” Lupita was accepted but delayed her arrival to appear in Shuga, the groundbreaking Kenyan soap opera that was produced by the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, in collaboration with the Kenyan government, intended to promote “responsible sexual behavior and tolerance.” (It was aired in 46 African countries and subsequently in over sixteen more around the world.)
When she finally arrived at Yale, among so many dedicated students, the experience was revelatory, even if the schedule was unforgiving—“In one day you’re playing five different characters,” and between class and rehearsals she was often studying from 9:00 in the morning until 1:00 the following morning. But even so, as she prepared for her final-semester showcases (presented in New York and Los Angeles to a packed house of agents, managers, producers, and casting directors), she was also working on an audition tape for the role of Patsey.
By his account, Steve McQueen had already seen “thousands” of actresses for the role, but when he saw that tape, as he told Vogue, “It was like looking for a piece of glass on a sandy beach and finding a jewel. . . . She has this aura about her.”
Working with his cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt (“They are like tango dancers,” notes Lupita), and filming her scenes in an almost documentary way, McQueen (who won Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize in 1999 as a video artist) potently captured that aura onscreen.
“I was really nervous about seeing myself in 12 Years a Slave,” says Lupita, “because it had been such a profound experience in all ways. I remember it being one of the most joyful times in my life—and also one of the most sorrowful. I didn’t want my experience to be a vain one. But I will say that when I watched it, my heartstrings were pulled so tight for Solomon that I couldn’t go into the ego trip. I cried—I mean, I was inconsolable. I wept for an hour after the movie.”
Lupita’s tears were the beginning of a journey that led to her Academy Award. “I had already gotten the nomination, which was truly, truly astounding, and enough,” she remembers. “Even in my dreams of being an actor, my dream was not in the celebrity. My dream was in the work that I wanted to do.”
When her name was read out, the experience was, as she recalls, “very confusing, very numbing. I was just repeating my name in my head, so I didn’t know whether I had said my name or they had said my name! And then my little brother screamed, and time was suspended and it was just noise in my head.”
As Lupita gathered those voluminous silk georgette pleats of her custom Prada skirts, she remembers that all she could think was “Don’t fall on those stairs” because, as she drolly explains, “it’s not cute if you follow Jennifer Lawrence—it’s not cute if you’re the second one!”
“People are still filling me in on what happened after,” she adds. “My mother says I cried during the speech; I don’t believe her.”
Those waters do indeed run deep: She was memorably poised, her acceptance speech a model of erudition. “When I look down at this golden statue,” she said, “may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”
So it was that Lupita appeared to spring into our lives fully formed, both as a consummate movie actress receiving her profession’s highest honor and as an intriguing fashion star and superlative beauty icon. She is quick to note that her “red carpet” self “is just one aspect of me; it doesn’t represent the entirety of me, which I am at peace with.”
She keeps her private life just that. “The safest thing is when I’m indoors in my world,” she says, which for the moment is an apartment in Brooklyn. When she isn’t cooking at home (“I like to cook whole fish. And I make some mean salads”), she is enjoying the borough’s unpretentious restaurants and bars.
The complicated question of how to follow Lupita’s dream debut is one that has clearly been exercising the actress and her management, who recently confirmed that she will be providing the voice for Raksha in Disney’s live-action/CGI hybrid revisiting of The Jungle Book. The news that she’d also been cast alongside Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, and Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie in J. J. Abrams’s Star Wars: Episode VII, out Christmas 2015, meanwhile, sent the Internet into a collective frenzy. “I’m going to a galaxy far, far away,” Lupita told me with a laugh as the announcement was made in early June.
In the meantime, she says, “I’m really hungry to get back onstage. It flexes muscles that you need to do the more subtle film work.” She is particularly keen on the writing of the actor-playwright Danai Gurira and loves her plays Eclipsed, about the Liberian civil war, and The Convert, set in southern Africa, about the birth of Christianity on the continent. Like her boyfriend, K’naan, she is very engaged by the myriad issues confronting their homelands. She recently signed on to both coproduce—in partnership with Brad Pitt’s Plan B and two other partners—and star in an adaptation of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s acclaimed novel about the African immigrant experience, Americanah. “The book blew me away,” she tells me. “This was a project I wanted to work on, and I pursued it with all my being. It’s an unabashedly romantic book, really inspiring and uplifting. I found myself in her pages.”
On top of all that, she has a yen for some more Shakespeare. “I thought I’d had my fill at Yale, but . . . oh, boy, I guess there’s nothing like the Bard!” she says, laughing. “I absolutely adoreTwelfth Night.” She adds that in the future, Cleopatra and “Lady M” are top of her wish list.
As a child watching Star Wars for the first time, Lupita was intrigued by R2-D2 and C-3PO. “They just resonated with me,” she says. “Being able to convey emotions with just a few digital sounds—it speaks of good storytelling.” That storytelling is still holding her in thrall. “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.”