God bless the anti-airhead, Lupita Nyong’o

Ah, how we love the glamour and the gravitational pull of a bright young thing, shining — as Paul Simon would confusingly put it — like a national guitar. Yes, on one level, Lupita Nyong’o is just this year’s version of breakthrough talent grasping an award — at least, I mean, to the plebs like you and me who consume the glamour of the Academy Awards, in contrast to the film industry that empowers it and the celebrities who embody it. To us, unlike them, she isn’t a peer, an employee or a pay cheque.

But if that is all she is to us, why the collective spine tingle felt across the world — and especially in Africa — brought on by her win? Because Lupita is one of us, we whisper. Oh, ja? One of us exceptionally gorgeous and talented beyond measure Oscar-winners, you say? No … but she is more us than them, and, I will argue, she is smart and proud and we need more of that on our screens.

Lupita is a firmly alternative model of beauty. She doesn’t represent the traditional archetype of beauty as constantly sold and reinforced to us. You know, the one that none of us, no matter our ethnicity or body type, can live up to. Yes, she is thin, but she is also overtly strong — those muscled arms! — in contrast to the twig-insect-limbs jostling for attention on the red carpet. She also declined to wear a weave or wig on the red carpets this award season, keeping her hair short and “natural” (there are all kinds of definitions and controversies here, so I’m chucking in the quotation marks as a kind of shorthand for “all protocol observed”). This is often perceived — when women in the public sphere do so — as an almost renegade, often political decision. News flash: we do not get to decide how people choose to represent themselves or how we should look in order to feel beautiful. A film producer should not be the arbitrator of beauty.

But — more than any of the above — we must thank Lupita for negating the beauty priority altogether.

A week prior to the Oscars, Lupita was the recipient of the Best Breakthrough Performance award at the 7th annual Black Women in Hollywood luncheon. Her acceptance speech — like her much-lauded Oscars speech — shows her as an incredibly thoughtful, intelligent and aware woman.

In her speech she talks about being this alternative model. She said: “I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you: ‘Dear Lupita,’ it reads, ‘I think you’re really lucky to be this black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me’. My heart bled a little when I read those words. I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself … ”

She goes on to talk about her own feelings of inadequacy and self-hate when she was younger, how revolutionary it was for her to see Alek Wek on the international modelling scene. “I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so like me as beautiful,” she says.

But it was her mother who said to her “You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you”. These words confused her until, she says, she realised that beauty wasn’t a thing she (you, me, everyone) could acquire, and she realised her mother meant she couldn’t rely on how she looks to “sustain” her. “What actually sustains us, what is fundamentally beautiful, is compassion — for yourself, and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul.”

She concludes: “I hope that my presence on your screens and in magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey — that you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside.”


[Watch the full video of her speech]

Let’s revel in the wonder of this unconventional model of celeb. No cardboard cut-out of a person like many reality TV celebrities who seem to value ignorance and glossiness above all, but a thinking, feeling, real and different hero for little girls and grown women alike.

Lupita — born in Mexico, raised in Kenya, with a college degree, physical strength and short hair, and a heart the size of the African continent: This is the woman I hope every single little girl has prestiked to her wall in the coming years, because Lupita — as she said at the Oscars — is proof that your, our, dreams are valid.

Image – Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o and actress Lupita Nyong’o attend the Oscars Governors Ball at the Hollywood and Highland Centre on March 2, 2014, in California, US. (AFP)

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