As the recently named public face of Lancôme Paris, Nyong’o’s beauty is well known, but she said she used to feel “unbeautiful” and literally prayed to God when she was younger that her dark skin could be lighter.
In addition to winning the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role in the critically acclaimed film “12 Years a Slave,” Nyong’o took the award for “Best Breakthrough Performance” at the Essence Magazine Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon in February.
During her acceptance speech, the Mexican-born Kenyan star revealed a letter she received from a young female fan who struggled to feel beautiful about her darker complexion but drew inspiration from Nyong’o’s example, and how that letter triggered her own memories and feelings of inadequacy.
“I remember a time when I, too, felt unbeautiful,” the 31-year-old actress said to the crowd in February, according to a transcript posted online by Essence. “I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin, and my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first, and every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before.”
Nyong’o reflected on how she found inspiration seeing a role model in Alek Wek, a Sudanese model who became a runway sensation in the mid 1990s.
“A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact,” Nyong’o said of Wek. “I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden, Oprah was telling me it wasn’t.”
Today, Nyong’o hopes to be an inspiration to others.
“What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you,” she said. “That kind of beauty inflames the heart and enchants the soul.”
“I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey,” she added. “That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade in that beauty.”