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.
As Viola Davis famously said in a Newsweek actors’ roundtable, in a comment that hit age, gender and race issues, “I’m a 46-year-old black actress who doesn’t look like Halle Berry—and Halle Berry is having a hard time [getting cast in Hollywood],” before Charlize Theron cut her off with a presumably well-meaning quip: “You have to stop saying that, because you’re hot as s—t.”
Nice of her to say, I guess, but terribly misguided—and easy for her to say—given that starring roles abound for tall, blue-eyed blondes in all manner of films.
The real test will come after the Oscars. That’s when we’ll see if all the Lupita love translates into romantic leads and star parts with substance, like the ones offered other—usually white—actresses in her cohort. Patsey is a great role, as was Davis’ star turn in and as The Help. But there is much more that these actresses can do.
With Kerry Washington making waves with Scandal—and on fashion-magazine covers—and Saturday Night Live adding Sasheer Zamata to its ensemble, the 12 Years a Slave star isn’t alone. True onscreen equality, though, means a lot more than just one; it encompasses beauty and talent in all sizes, shapes and colors, and Nyong’o’s shoulders are far too slim to carry the hopes of black women in Hollywood and beyond.
As style icon Iman—another one-named beauty with roots on another continent—has said: “Since I’ve been in America, I’ve always been intrigued by one phrase: ‘She is beautiful, like the girl next door.’ I have always wondered whose neighborhood they were talking about.”
In a changing neighborhood, perhaps Nyong’o can be more than a single, beautiful flash.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to the Washington Post’s “She the People” blog and WCCB News Charlotte. She has worked at the New York Times and the Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.