It goes without saying that when you’re handed the part of a lifetime, you play it to the hilt. In the case of Lupita Nyong’o, the 31-year-old Oscar winner – born in Mexico, raised in Kenya, educated at Yale and vaulted to what seemed like overnight fame – the part of the slave Patsey in “12 Years a Slave” was just a preamble for a far larger role.
Unlike many other ingenues, this one came prepared to turn her fame into a durable and moneymaking run. Rather than looking upon the grueling award-show season as a never-ending slog, Nyong’o and her management approached the five-month span between the film’s debut at the Telluride Film Festival and the Academy Awards with what looks like military precision.
Few of life’s attainments are as good as an Oscar. Not long into the awards-season process, Nyong’o was snapped up by Miuccia Prada, a canny judge of popular culture and its metrics, and signed to be the face of Miu Miu. It was certainly a plum, and yet fashion ad campaigns are ephemeral, few celebrities lasting more than a season or so.
The big prize for a rising star is not a fashion-house deal, but a beauty contract. And recently, Lancome Paris, the luxury cosmetics goliath, announced it had signed Nyong’o as its newest celebrity face, adding her to a list of highly paid A-list alumna that have included Kate Winslet, Penelope Cruz and Julia Roberts.
“I’ve always said having this contract is winning the lottery,” said Isabella Rossellini, whose 14-year run with Lancome allowed the actress, a single mother, to educate her two children and, she said, gave her “the freedom to make only the films that I liked and not the films I didn’t.”
Seen from afar, the journey of Nyong’o from unknown to fashion darling looked uncommonly organic. And without question, say those who have worked with the actress, her intelligence and composure, like her luminous beauty, are true and innate. Yet it takes more than talent and well-distributed pixie dust to seduce the public into viewing a woman who, by her own account, grew up insecure about her African cast of features and dark complexion – prey to the “seductions of inadequacy” – as the cynosure of all eyes.
“Lupita’s stylist and her team should be given a round of applause,” said modeling agent Bethann Hardison. “They put her right in your face, and you couldn’t deny anything she did. That was genius.”
It was, in a way. No other actress within recent memory has commanded the red carpet as confidently as Nyong’o did during awards season.
From Sept. 5, when the Toronto Film Festival opened, to the Academy Awards in early March, Nyong’o appeared at 66 events, which in terms of costume challenges is roughly the equivalent of being crowned prom queen three times a week for almost half a year.
“A lot of people think you just waltz onto the red carpet looking fresh-faced and fabulous,” said Micaela Erlanger, Nyong’o’s fashion stylist and a woman the Hollywood Reporter recently placed near the top of a list of the 25 most powerful in Hollywood. “But there’s a campaign behind it, a business behind it, and you’re focusing throughout on your message.”
Almost from the start, reaction to Nyong’o indicated that a star had been born. And high time it was, said Hardison, a longtime advocate for racial diversity in the spheres of beauty. “Here comes this little girl, and she’s dark, you can’t deny it, it’s undeniable,” Hardison said. “Suddenly everyone is saying: ‘Whoa! Wow! She looks good in this stuff.’ ”
Although buzz about Nyong’o’s performance in the director Steve McQueen’s film reached Lancome’s executives early, it was only after she became a consistent showstopper – now wearing burnt orange by Givenchy for the NAACP awards; now dressed in emerald Dior for the BAFTA awards; now clad in cobalt blue Roland Mouret at the New York Film Festival; now captivating in a red capelet gown from Ralph Lauren at the Golden Globes – that they took note.
“I started checking online and YouTube,” Silvia Galfo, senior vice president for marketing. “She came out of nowhere, and suddenly, you see her being the most coveted ‘It’ girl.”
To the credit, in other words, of the people who spent five months putting the actress in that makeup and those dresses, their work remained largely invisible to Galfo and others. They stayed on the sidelines, allowing, as Hardison said, “Lupita’s little star to glimmer and shine.”