There were only two topics that should have dominated any conversation about actress Lupita Nyong’o last Thursday. That morning (and after much hype), she was officially nominated for an Academy Award for her first film role as Patsey, an enslaved woman abused by her sadistic owner, in 12 Years a Slave. And that evening she gave an emotional speech that moved many to tears as she accepted an award for best supporting actress from the Critics’ Choice Awards.
But that day, there was a third topic swirling around Hollywood’s newest “it” girl. Like W and Dazed & Confused magazines, which recently featured Nyong’o on their covers, Vanity Fair was eager to capture her. Evidently, someone had seen folks fawning over her beauty, talent and grace, and the magazine wanted to add to the fervor.
From the Vanity Fair Twitter account came a picture of Nyong’o wearing white and surrounded by white balloons. Her complexion was noticeably off. Nothing as bad as the before-and-after images of the Nigerian pop star Dencia making the rounds. The entertainer had used Whitenicious, a “skin toning” product, to remove her melanin. But Nyong’o was a weird, much lighter shade than the deep-brown hue the public had grown accustomed to seeing on-screen and in Miu Miu ads. She looked … off.
“Lupita has a very rich skin hue, which would translate in ANY light,” one woman wrote on my Facebook page after seeing side-by-side pictures of Nyong’o on the red carpet and her latest magazine photo. “Vanity Fair has lightened, brightened AND added some flawed undertones. Instagram on heroin.”
This isn’t the first time black women have complained or been outraged by black celebs’ complexions being toyed with by magazines and advertisers. L’Oréal infamously caught hell for allegedly lightening Beyoncé’s complexion in advertisements. But oddly, it’s the first time I can recall anyone other than a black woman making a fuss about the issue. In a rarely seen act of white-woman solidarity, the Gloss’ Julia Sonenshein went off about what was either Vanity Fair’s bad lighting or its lightening of Lupita.
“In an industry where every single detail is manipulated to be perfect, it just isn’t possible that everyone fell down on the job and forgot that her skin tone was totally off,” wrote Sonenshein. “There’s just not a chance that this was an accident.
She added, “To perpetuate an idea that the most flattering picture of a black actress is one where her blackness is altered is straight up racist, and if you don’t see that, then you’re frankly part of the problem.”
I never worked in the photo department when I worked at magazines, but I have been on my fair share of sets. The photographer, the director of photography and editors present see the images immediately after they are shot. In the best-case scenario, if the lighting was off and it affected how Nyong’o was photographed, it’s an easy-enough fix for a professional photographer that somehow wasn’t corrected. In the worst of instances, she was photographed in her correct shade and the image was botched later. Both are shameful.
Nyongo’s hue of black is unquestionably beautiful, and part of the recent draw to her is because everyone knows there are too few black women in Hollywood—or, heck, all of entertainment—who look like her. We get light-skinned women by the dozens, brown ladies by the pound and very few dark-skinned women to celebrate the complete spectrum of black beauty. Nyong’o brings talent to the table but also a missing piece of an incomplete puzzle. It’s important that we celebrate her beauty—especially her complexion-—as is.
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life and the upcoming Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love. Follow her on Twitter.