What Does It Take to Be the Black ‘It’ Girl?

Lupita Nyong’o is this season’s “it” girl. But will Hollywood continue to celebrate her brand of looks and talent?

Actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o attend the 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Jan. 18, 2014. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

In some ways, Lupita Nyong’o fits the fashion-plate standard of beauty that’s changing, ever so slowly, but still frequently looks for a certain type: She’s thin and sculpted, with regal cheekbones and bearing to match. And her accent doesn’t hurt, either, in an America that’s still New World enough to be impressed by such things.

In a word, she’s gorgeous.

But in other ways, she’s something apart from the blond icons—from Jean Harlow to Marilyn Monroe to today’s ubiquitous Jennifer Lawrence—whom Hollywood normally presents as the ideal. Nyong’o—the 30-year-old, Mexican-born Kenyan who stepped out of the Yale School of Drama into fame and an Academy Award nomination—is dark-skinned, with a short, natural haircut, and no apologies.

In a blur of red-and-white Stella McCartney, she stands out on the cover of New York magazine’s Spring Fashion issue, which calls her the new “it” girl. And indeed, she is known, as the chosen often are, by just one name, “Lupita.” Her heart-wrenching performance in 12 Years a Slave as Patsey—exploited and abused but with an untrammeled spirit—made everyone take notice.

Then she dazzled in bright prints and jewel colors at movie openings and on red carpets. She was consensus best-dressed in a Ralph Lauren red cape dress at the Golden Globes, where she lost, and followed it up with a striking blue Gucci gown at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where she won.

And in a Vanity Fair Hollywood layout that made news because of its diversity—something the magazine was definitely not known for—Nyong’o held court, resembling an Oscar in shimmering gold. (Her triumph, though, was not without backlash, as some wondered whether the magazine had retouched her skin color.)

Whether she wins or loses as best supporting actress when the Academy Awards are announced March 2—Lawrence is among her competition—everyone will be dying to see what and who she is wearing.

It’s Lupita’s world, and she has been handling all the fuss with poise and modesty. Many of my friends, particularly those used to the indignities described in the documentary Dark Girls, especially love her elevation as the epitome of style.

But the canonization of Nyong’o follows a pattern of picking one style icon, one “it” girl—one “it” black girl—the one who’ll crowd out everyone else. The bar is set pretty high, and I wonder, if she were a fraction less thin, or her flawless, dark-chocolate complexion were anything other than perfectly blemish-free, whether it would be enough.

There has always been room for all kinds of beauty. But let’s face it: There is a thumb on the scale for certain types, whether on the screen or in the pages of fashion magazines. I remember when the definition of “all American” good looks didn’t veer too far from a Christie Brinkley, and any reference to a “dark beauty” meant a brunette like Christy Turlington.