Before playing slave Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, Lupita Nyong'o was virtually unknown. Now, as a supporting actress Oscar winner, she's become a breakout star.
Her first words on accepting the award Sunday night will go down in Oscar lore: "Thank you to the Academy for this incredible recognition. 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.''
Her background is as fascinating as her rapid rise. Her father, Peter Anyang' Nyong'o, was a political science teacher in Kenya and an advocate for democratic reform of the nation's autocratic political system in the 1980s. Fearing for his family's safety, he relocated his family to Mexico City. It was there that Nyong'o was born on March 1, 1983. Her name, Lupita, is a diminutive of Guadalupe. The family returned to Kenya before she was a year old.
Nyong'o says her parents encouraged her and her five siblings to "find out what we were called on this earth to do and then do it to excellence."
Nyong'o's father is now a senator in Kenya and her mother, Dorothy Nyong'o, is the managing director of the Africa Cancer Foundation.
At an Essence magazine luncheon in Los Angeles last week, Nyong'o said she repeatedly prayed to God asking for lighter skin during her adolescence, because she thought having dark black skin was a curse. "Every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before."
She says the success of Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek helped boost her confidence. "When I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny."
Her family sent her to study in the United States. She earned a degree in film and African studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and collected diverse credits, ranging from production runner on the 2005 film The Constant Gardener to star of a Kenyan TV mini-series, Shuga. (She is fluent in her native Luo, Spanish, Swahili and English.) Nyong'o auditioned for Slave while preparing to graduate from the prestigious Yale School of Drama.
Now, with all eyes on what she'll do next, Nyong'o refuses to stress about securing another role that's equally as celebrated. "The bar has been set very high externally and internally," she says. "But I don't want to feed into that pressure of expectation. This film was so fulfilling and artistic. I've tasted that and I obviously want to experience that kind of creative fulfillment again, but I also know that I can't replicate that. I want a varied acting experience and that may include some failure and that's healthy."
Actually, Nyong'o's next film is already out. She plays a flight attendant opposite Liam Neeson in the action-thriller Non-Stop. "It was the perfect antidote to 12 Years a Slave,'' she says. “It was a different genre with different demands."
Nyong'o's striking beauty and bold fashion choices have made her one of the most talked-about celebs on the red carpet. Never the girl who thumbed through Vogue (now she appears in the magazine as the face of fashion house Miu Miu), Nyong'o began buying fashion magazines in preparation for all of the formal events she expected to attend following the success of 12 Years.
"I was like, 'Okay, I have to research,' " she told USA Today.
Her brother also became a bit of a star Sunday night. Peter Nyong'o, a freshman at Stetson University in DeLand, accompanied his sister to the Oscars and managed to get himself prominently featured in the selfie engineered by host Ellen DeGeneres.
Reporting: Associated Press, tmz.com, Orlando Sentinel