Lupita Nyong'o and Her Path to Champion Women Around the World
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Lupita Nyong'o and Her Path to Champion Women Around the World

>In 2014, Lupita Nyong’o came from seemingly out of nowhere to swoop in and win a best supporting actress Oscar for her first-ever feature film role in 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s critically acclaimed slavery epic that also took home Academy Awards for best picture and best adapted screenplay. While many headlines declared the Kenyan-Mexican actress an “overnight sensation,” the truth is that the now-35-year-old actress — who used the Oscar podium as a pulpit to encourage young people to remain vigilant in pursuing their dreams — has been a source of empowerment since long before she shot to the top of the Hollywood A-list.

Here are just a few of the ways the outspoken feminist has been inspiring women for decades.

As a teenager, Lupita Nyong'o railed against her high school’s “archaic” rule forbidding female students from wearing makeup.

Activism is nothing new for Nyong’o — even when it comes to makeup. When asked about the connection between beauty products and female empowerment during an interview with InStyle earlier this year, Nyong’o shared a story about one of her earliest brushes with advocacy. At her all-boys high school, there was a rule that forbid the tiny number of female students from wearing makeup. “This is a school with 700 boys and a handful of girls,” she explained. “I was angry that the powers that be were trying to basically oppress and control the small female population. It infuriated me to the point that I started a petition. I said to myself, ‘Look, if a woman wants to wear makeup to school to feel confident in an environment where she’s a minority, why not? It doesn’t actually change whether or not she’s able to take in the information being given to her in the classroom.’ I personally had no interest in wearing makeup, but I just did not think it was right. So in that, and for me in my life now, I think makeup has become an accessory. It’s something that I enjoy. It’s not the thing I rely on to feel beautiful, and I hope that a lot of women feel the same.”

In 2009, Nyong’o made In My Genes, a documentary tackling the problem of colorism.

Just ahead of her 2014 Oscar win, Nyong’o was given the best breakthrough performance award at the Black Women in Hollywood luncheon, where she delivered an honest recounting of how her dark complexion had made her feel “unbeautiful” when she was younger. While she credited model Alek Wek and Oprah Winfrey for helping her find the beauty in her own skin, she’s had a lifelong interest in colorism that has informed her work behind the camera. In 2009, she wrote, directed, produced and edited In My Genes, a documentary about a woman named Agnes and several other Kenyan people with albinism, and the daily challenges and prejudices they suffer as a result of their genetic condition.

In 2014, Nyong’o was the first black woman named a brand ambassadress for Lancôme.

Less than two weeks before the 2014 Academy Awards, Nyong’o followed in the footsteps of fellow Oscar winners Julia Roberts, Kate Winslet and Penélope Cruz when she was named the newest brand ambassadress for Lancôme. But Nyong’o’s appointment was significantly more historic, as she was the first black woman to earn the honor. And the partnership was about a lot more than just being another flawless face; it’s a campaign based on self-acceptance — and giving back, allowing Nyong’o the opportunity to serve as the voice (and face) for such vital causes as worldwide literacy.

In a statement confirming her alignment with Lancôme, Nyong'o said that she was "particularly proud to represent its unique vision for women and the idea that beauty should not be dictated, but should instead be an expression of a woman's freedom to be herself." Amazingly, she admitted to THR that, "There is a part of me that will always feel unattractive."

Nyong’o used her 2014 Oscar speech to encourage young people to pursue their dreams, regardless of the obstacles.

Being a first-time Oscar nominee is a nerve-racking proposition. But being a first-time nominee for your first-ever feature film role — and winning — is something else entirely. After offering up the obligatory thanks to friends, family and colleagues, Nyong’o offered some words of encouragement to any young people who might be watching that historic moment. “When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid,” she said.

Though her work with Mother Health International, Nyong’o is fighting for better healthcare for women in underdeveloped countries.

Proving that her philanthropy is a global endeavor, Nyong’o has spent the last several years working with Mother Health International (MHI), a nonprofit organization in Uganda that provides healthcare to pregnant women in underdeveloped countries and women and children in areas affected by war, disaster and extreme poverty. In 2016, Nyong’o made a passionate case for the work that MHI does around the world, stating: “We live in a world where the war on women can be felt around the world. We are attacked upon our bodies, our choices, our agencies, but we live in a world where incredible things are happening. We are fighting back. We are refusing to be silent, refusing to shut down. We are doing the work in so many amazing ways. We are telling our story. We are creating clinics and institutions or one another. We are using our power to heal. We are using our power to lift each other up. We are gathering together and we are transforming art into our power.”

In 2017, Nyong’o came forward about her experiences with Harvey Weinstein for The New York Times.

The #MeToo movement has been a complicated time for Hollywood. As some of the industry’s biggest names both in front of and behind the camera have been accused of sexual misconduct, many veteran actors have bravely come forward to share the stories of what they’ve endured over the decades. Nyong’o didn’t hesitate to speak up about her own experiences with sexual harassment. Shortly after penning a gutsy op-ed for The New York Times on her interactions with Harvey Weinstein — whom she first met back in 2011, when she was still a student at the Yale School of Drama — Nyong’o shared her reasons for coming forward with THR. “I felt uncomfortable in my silence, and I wanted to liberate myself from it and contribute to the discussion," she told us in January. “That was just what I felt I needed to do, quite viscerally. I couldn't sleep. I needed to get it out.”

Since then, Nyong’o has become one of the Time’s Up initiative’s most familiar faces, attending events and marches and lending her support and her voice to ensuring parity in Hollywood and beyond.

In late 2017, she called out a magazine for altering her hair in a cover photo.

In November 2017, Nyong’o appeared on the cover of Grazia UK. But she took issue with some alterations the magazine made to her hair in the images, and wasn’t afraid to call them on it in the most public way possible — via Twitter. The magazine quickly issued a statement assuring its readers that they were “committed to representing diversity,” apologized “unreservedly to Lupita Nyong'o,” and promised that they had made no alterations to the images. Shortly after, the photographer confirmed that it was he who had edited the photos and that he was “deeply sorry” for his “monumental mistake.”

Nyong’o signed on for Black Panther without even seeing a script, as she knew what a important film it would be.

When it comes to choosing film roles, Nyong’o is more interested in making a difference than breaking the box office. With Black Panther, she managed to do both. Knowing that the film would be a groundbreaking effort for black filmmakers, it didn’t take much to get her to sign on. In fact, she said yes before ever even seeing a script. Earlier this year, she told THR that part of what attracted her to the project was that it was a film about "what it means to be from a place and welcome others into it. … We were creating an aspirational world where an African people are in charge of their own destiny. And that really appealed to me and had the little girl inside me jumping for joy. To just have African people, black people, at the center of that narrative is so exciting."

At THR's Women in Entertainment event on Wednesday, Nyong’o went even further, “admitting that, “A few years ago, when I was first approached to play Nakia in Black Panther, if anyone had told me this would mark a turning point for women and actors of color, I would have told them: ‘You’re damn right… Black Pantherhas shown the world what you can achieve when you make stories not just for one group of people, but for everyone.”

In 2019, Nyong’o will add "children’s author" to her growing resume.

In early 2018, it was announced that Nyong’o had signed on to write a children’s book, which is scheduled for publication in September 2019. Titled Sulwe, the story is semi-autobiographical in that it’s about a young Kenyan girl who is uncomfortable with her dark skin color. Eventually, the young girl comes to embrace her beauty.

"Sulwe is a young Kenyan girl who, though her name means star [in Luo], her skin is the color of midnight," Nyong’otold THR. "And she's uncomfortable because she's the darkest in her family and goes about trying to change that, then she has this adventure that leads her to accept herself." The idea for the book came from a speech Nyong’s gave “about my journey to accepting myself and seeing beauty in my complexion."

She is adapting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's award-winning novel Americanah into a miniseries.

Not content to let other people dictate the roles she will play, Nyong’o decided early on that she would take her acting future into her own hands — the Oscar curse would have no claim here. In 2014, the same year she won the Oscar, she purchased the rights to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, about a young Nigerian woman who comes to America to educate herself, with the plan that she would both produce and star in a film adaptation. Despite the initial buzz, few details about the project emerged following the original announcement — until just a few months ago. In early 2018 it was revealed that the feature film would now be a miniseries, with Nyong'o's Black Pantherco-star Danai Gurira set to write it. (Nyong’o is still slated to star and produce.)

Given all that the Oscar-winning actress/activist has accomplished thus, it’s hard to believe that it was only five years ago that she first arrived on the scene. And incredible to think about where she might be another five years from now.