#WCW: Actress, Activist, and Inspiring Humanitarian Lupita Nyong’o

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Lupita Nyong'o 2014 Oscar Award Ceremony
Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

There is a moment happening in culture as we speak. Women are finally claiming their power, using their voices to address systemic problems of gender inequality and racism, and attempting – once and for all – to right the wrongs perpetrated by the patriarchal status quo. With strong, outspoken women claiming their moment in the spotlight, it would be neglectful not to champion one of the #MeToo movement’s most inspiring figures: Lupita Nyong’o.

Not only does the Oscar-winning actress have a long history of political and humanitarian activism, but she has also spoken out against Harvey Weinstein’s predatory actions towards her. As one of Hollywood’s most talented women, Nyong’o is using her high-profile status across multiple sectors – think: speaking out against Hollywood’s lack of diversity, participating in anti-poaching campaigns, and issuing rousing feminist speeches. She’s operating as an unstoppable force for good in the world, and her every action deepens our #womancrush.

Nyong’o was born in Mexico City, Mexico to prominent Kenyan parents – her mother runs the Africa Cancer Foundation and her father is a current senator and former professor. She identifies as a Kenyan-Mexican with dual citizenship, which is why her first name is Spanish and her surname is African. Her family arrived in Mexico City in 1981 after her father took a teaching position there, but they quickly returned to Nairobi. It was here that Nyong’o was raised until she was 16, when her family was forced to leave the city due to political upheaval.

From as early as kindergarten, Nyong’o was taken with acting and she was performing in musicals by the time she was in high school. With a family that readily encouraged her artistic interests, she was supported in all of her creative endeavors. Through a combination of natural talent and familial encouragement, Nyong’o was able to land her first professional acting role as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at the age of 14 with Phoenix Players, a Nairobi-based acting company. She later studied film and theater at Hampshire College in the US and went on to earn her master’s degree at the Yale School of Drama, where she was awarded the coveted Herschel Williams Prize in 2011.

Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

Although Nyong’o quickly landed multiple roles in television and film, it wasn’t until 2013 when her big breakthrough made her an overnight sensation. In 12 Years a SlaveSteve McQueen’s heartbreaking adaptation of the slave memoir by the same name – Nyong’o was tasked with portraying Patsey, a slave who was favored for her beauty and systematically raped and abused by the plantation owner.

Imagine arriving on set as an unknown actress, only to take on the most difficult acting challenge imaginable in front of legendary luminaries like Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch. But Nyong’o was more than capable of handling the role, and the dual fragility and strength that she depicted not only landed her an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category, but it also brought home the statuette.

If this sounds like a fairytale start to a career, Nyong’o regards it as such, never taking for granted the fact that she is one of only seven African-American actresses to win an Academy Award. Overnight, she was a style icon, a role model for women of color all over the world, and one of Hollywood’s most sought-after stars. In 2014, N’yongo appeared on 66 red carpets, snagged a dozen magazine covers, and was named People magazine’s “Most Beautiful”.

Since her stunning performance in 12 Years a Slave, Nyong’o has balanced a career as an actress with her humanitarian passions. On the acting side, she has appeared in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and co-starred in Queen of Katwe as Nakku Harriet. Most recently, she plays Nakia in Marvel Comics’ Black Panther, a film that is a significant milestone in cinema due to its entirely black cast. Nyong’o also provoked a riveting turn on Broadway as “the girl” in Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, playing a 15-year-old orphan who was forced to become the captive wife of a Liberian rebel officer. Clearly, she does not shrink from difficult roles.

On the humanitarian side, there are many issues that Nyong’o devotes her time and attention to. For example, she has worked to preserve the historical slave-trading site Shockoe Bottom, declaring, “Evidence of America’s slave history simply must be preserved as the legacy of slavery affects all American people. The tactic of the enslaver was to systematically erase all memory of the African’s past; let us not repeat this ill by contributing to the erasure of his past in America too.”

After penning a riveting op-ed about her experiences at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, she passionately concluded, “Though we may have endured powerlessness at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, by speaking up, speaking out and speaking together, we regain that power. And we hopefully ensure that this kind of rampant predatory behavior as an accepted feature of our industry dies here and now.”

Today, Nyong’o regularly delivers speeches in support of gender equality, women’s rights, cultural diversity in Hollywood, and more. Additionally, Nyong’o has worked with Global Citizen, Save the Elephants, WildAid, and African Wildlife Foundation. She has also supported Salima Visram, who creates solar-powered backpacks that can power LED lamps for impoverished children. As for her astonishing beauty? The actress landed a contract in 2014 as the face of Lancôme.

However, unlike most A-list celebrities who rely on a signature look, her sense of style is all over the place – and impossible to pin down – which makes her one of the most intriguing figures on the red carpet. Early in her career, she opted for solid-colored column dresses and gossamer gowns, which earned her high praise from fashion critics and fans alike. But as her sense of style developed, she has started courting bolder patterns, African prints, and headscarves that speak to her identity as a Kenyan.

We’ve found that Nyong’o is an incredibly adaptive chameleon and tends to align her style with the occasion. This means that you might find her in a futuristic LED light-covered dress while promoting Star Wars, an African-batik wrap dress while representing Queen of Katwe, or a stunning royal-purple look to underscore the regal origins of her character in Black Panther. Click through the gallery below for visuals of her incredible red-carpet appearances.

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