Lupita Nyong’o (born March 1, 1983) is a Mexican-Kenyan actress and film director. She was born in Mexico, but was raised in Kenya. She attended college in the United States, earning a Bachelor’s degree in film and theater studies from Hampshire College.
Nyong’o started in the film industry as a production assistant on several Hollywood films. In 2008, she made her acting debut with the short film East River and subsequently returned to Kenya to star in the television series Shuga (2009). In 2009, she wrote, produced and directed the documentary In My Genes.
Nyong’o later completed a master’s degree in acting in 2012, from the Yale School of Drama. She had her first feature film role in Steve McQueen’s historical drama 12 Years a Slave (2013), winning an Oscar for it as Best Supporting Actress. Nyong’o is the first Mexican and first Kenyan actress to win an Academy Award. In 2014, she was named “The Most Beautiful Woman” by People and “Woman of the Year” by Glamour.
Nyong’o was born in Mexico City, Mexico, to Dorothy and Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, a college professor turned politician from Kenya. Nyong’o identifies as Mexican-Kenyan.It is a Luo tradition to name a child after the events of the day, so her parents gave her a Spanish name, Lupita (a diminutive of Guadalupe). She is of Luo descent on both sides of her family, and is the second of six children. Her father is a former Minister for Medical Services in the Kenyan government. At the time of her birth, he was a visiting lecturer in political science at El Colegio de México in Mexico City, and her family had been living in Mexico for three years. They returned to Kenya in 1983. Lupita dedicated her Critic’s Choice Award to the memory of her uncle, Aggrey Nyong’o, a noted pathologist who died in a car accident in 2002.Her family was forced to leave Kenya because of political unrest. Another uncle, Charles Nyong’o, was thrown off of a ferry-boat in 1980.
Nyong’o and her family moved back to their native Kenya when she was less than one year old, as her father was appointed a professor at the University of Nairobi. She grew up primarily in Kenya, and describes her upbringing as “middle class, suburban”. When she was sixteen, her parents sent her to Mexico for seven months to learn Spanish. During those seven months, Nyong’o lived in Taxco, Guerrero, and took classes at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México’s Learning Center for Foreigners.
Nyong’o (seated, fourth from right) in a photo with her classmates taken at St. Mary’s School, Nairobi in 2001.
Nyong’o grew up in an artistic family, where family get-togethers often included performances by the children in the family, and trips to see plays. She attended Rusinga International school in Kenya and acted in school plays, with a minor role in Oliver Twist being her first play. At age 14, Nyong’o made her professional acting debut as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet in a production by the Nairobi-based repertory company Phoenix Players. While a member of the Phoenix Players, Nyong’o also performed in the plays “On The Razzle” and “There Goes The Bride”. Nyong’o cites the performances of American actresses Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in The Color Purple with inspiring her to pursue a professional acting career.
Nyong’o later attended St. Mary’s School in Nairobi, where she received an IB Diploma in 2001 before attending college in the United States. She graduated from Hampshire College with a degree in film and theatre studies.
Nyong’o started her film career working as part of the production crew for many films, including Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener, with Ralph Fiennes, Mira Nair’s The Namesake and Salvatore Stabile’s Where God Left His Shoes. She cites Fiennes as another person who inspired her to pursue a professional acting career.
She starred in the short film East River (2008), directed by Marc Grey and shot in Brooklyn. She returned to Kenya that same year and appeared in the Kenyan television series Shuga, an MTV Base Africa/UNICEF drama about HIV/AIDS prevention. In 2009, she wrote, directed, and produced the documentary In My Genes, about the discriminatory treatment of Kenya’s albino population. It played at several film festivals and won first prize at the 2008 Five College Film Festival. Nyong’o also directed the music video The Little Things You Do by Wahu, featuring Bobi Wine, which was nominated for the Best Video Award at the MTV Africa Music Awards 2009.
She enrolled in a master’s degree program in acting at the Yale School of Drama. At Yale she appeared in many stage productions, including Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and The Winter’s Tale. While at Yale, she won the Herschel Williams Prize for “acting students with outstanding ability” during the 2011–12 academic year, and graduated.
Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender at the 2013 New York Film Festival
The next year Nyong’o landed her breakthrough role when she was cast for Steve McQueen’s historical drama 12 Years a Slave (2013). The film, which met with wide critical acclaim, tells the historical account of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwitel Ejiofor), a free-born African American man of upstate New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Washington, DC in 1841.
Nyong’o played the role of Patsey, a slave who works alongside Northup at a Louisiana cotton plantation; her performance met with rave reviews. Ian Freer of Empire wrote that she “gives one of the most committed big-screen debuts imaginable,” and critic Peter Travers added that she “is a spectacular young actress who imbues Patsey with grit and radiant grace”.Nyong’o was nominated for several awards including a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress, a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and two Screen Actors Guild Awards including Best Supporting Actress, which she won. She was also awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, becoming the sixth black actress to win the award, the first African actress to win the award, the first Kenyan actress to win an Oscar, and the first Mexican to win the award. She also became the fifteenth actress to win an Oscar for a debut performance in a feature film.
She also played a brief role portraying a reserve flight attendant alongside Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore in the action thriller Non-Stop (2014).
Back in June 2014, Nyong’o was cast to star in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015). On May 4th 2015, photographer Anne Leibovitz revealed Lupita’s character as Pirate Maz Kanata in Vanity Fair’s June Edition issue. In the spread, Nyongo was pictured wearing CGI gear with dots on her face, confirming Kanata’s character will be a motion picture. Lupita later revealed on instagram that she will be playing the newly announced character.
Nyong’o will also produce and star in a film adaptation of the novel Americanah.
Deadline announced that Nyong’o is in negotiations to star in Mira Nair’s Queen Of Katwe, a biopic based on the true story about the rise of a young African chess prodigy.
In 2014, she was chosen as one of the faces for Miu Miu’s spring campaign, with Elizabeth Olsen, Elle Fanning and Bella Heathcote. She has also appeared on the covers of several magazines, including New York’s spring fashion issue and the UK magazine Dazed & Confused. Nyong’o is on the July cover of Vogue, making her the second African woman and ninth black woman to cover the magazine. Nyong’o also appeared on the cover of July’s issue of ELLE (France). She has also been a regular on Harper’s Bazaar’s Derek Blasberg’s best dressed listing since the autumn of 2013. In 2015, Nyong’o appeared on the covers of March’s issue of Lucky Magazine and Harper’s Baazar’s (United Kingdom) May issue.
In April 2014, Nyong’o was announced as the new face of Lancôme.
Nyong’o resides in Brooklyn. She is fluent in Spanish, Luo, English, and Swahili. On February 27, 2014, at the Essence Black Women In Hollywood luncheon in Beverly Hills, she gave a speech on the beauty of black women and talked about the insecurities she had as a teenager. She said her views changed when she saw South Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek become successful. She mentioned receiving the following letter from a girl she had inspired in turn:
“I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.”
—Lupita Nyong’o quoting a letter written to her by an unidentified little girl from Africa
Nyong’o comes from a highly accomplished family. In 2013, her father was elected to represent Kisumu County in the Kenyan Senate. Nyong’o’s mother is the managing director of the Africa Cancer Foundation and her own communications company. Other family members include: Tavia Nyong’o, a scholar and professor at New York University; Dr. Omondi Nyong’o, a pediatric ophthalmologist in Palo Alto, CA; Kwame Nyong’o, one of Kenya’s leading animators and leading technology expert; Isis Nyong’o, a media and technology leader who was named one of Africa’s most powerful young women by Forbes magazine.
In 2014, the National Trust for Historic Preservation recruited Nyong’o in an effort to oppose development, including a new minor league baseball stadium, in the Shockoe Bottom area of Richmond, Virginia. The historic neighborhood, one of Richmond’s oldest, was the site of major slave-trading before the American Civil War. On October 19, 2014, Nyong’o sent a letter to Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones, which she posted on social media sites, asking him to withdraw support for the development proposal.
Nyong’o was mentioned in Christian rapper Lecrae’s song “Nuthin'” from his 2014 album Anomaly and was referenced by Jay Z in his verse from Jay Electronica’s song “We Made It”. She was also mentioned in the parody song “American Apparel Ad Girls” of the drag queens Willam Belli, Courtney Act and Alaska Thunderfuck.