Code Switch
7:22 pm
Wed April 23, 2014

Why Lupita Nyong'o's 'People' Cover Is So Significant

It has been a very good 12 months for Lupita Nyong'o: piles of awards (including an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her portrayal of Patsy in 12 Years a Slave), a contract to be the face of Lancôme Paris cosmetics, and now this: the cover of People's annual "50 Most Beautiful" issue.

Counting Nyong'o's new crowning, there are now three black women who have been on People's cover in the 25 years the "Most Beautiful" issue has been published. Halle Berry was first in 2003, followed by Beyonce in 2012. But as Wall Street Journal columnist Teri Agins says, Nyong'o is not racially ambiguous: "She has African features, she's dark-skinned with nappy hair. And — she's beautiful."

"Validation by the mainstream media is what makes this big," says Agins, who has been on Lupita Watch for months. People's accessibility and reach is part of the reason why Nyongo's newest title is so significant. "It's the ultimate validation that someone of deep color, with African features, has been declared beautiful," Agins says.

Although Nyong'o revels in her looks now, that hasn't always been the case, the actress told an audience at Essence magazine's recent "Black Women in Hollywood" luncheon. She said she had received a letter from a young black girl who was preparing to buy bleaching cream to lighten her skin. "You appeared on the world map and saved me," the letter said. The account moved many audience members to tears.

"I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful," Nyongo told the pin-silent room. "I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin." She went on to say she used to pray to God each night for lighter skin. She'd awaken with anticipation about her new creamy complexion, inch over to the mirror, "and every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before."

What saved her was the appearance of Anglo-Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek, a stately, midnight-skinned beauty with closely cropped hair. Wek was being lauded — as Nyong'o is now — for how she made cutting-edge couture pop. After discovering Wek, Nyong'o said, "I felt more seen." Eventually she began to believe it when her mother told her she was beautiful.

With her height, bearing and features, Wek was considered "exotic" by the fashion and beauty world. Nyong'o is different, says the Journal's Agins, "because she has a very accessible beauty. And she's a beauty everyone can agree on, no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, orientation."

In watching other Lupita Watchers, Agins says she's astounded that "you don't find any hate for her online. None of those nasty comments by trolls, no racist stuff. That's very unusual."

Black American women have been especially euphoric over Nyongo's ascendancy. It is, says Agins, reminiscent of some of the same reaction she saw when Michelle Obama emerged as a potential first lady. When I was reporting on voter reaction during the 2008 presidential campaign, black women volunteered, over and over, how thrilled they were to see that Barack Obama had a deeply brown wife. They loved her style, her confidence, and the fact that she might well become the first black first lady. There is some of that in the reaction to Nyong'o, too: Brown Girl Rising.

For her part, Nyong'o hopes the accolades will send a message to more little girls who look like her. In a world where beauty is often portrayed with pale skin and flowing hair, she told People, she loves that this has happened "because of all the girls who would see me ... and feel a little more seen."

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