Hollywood’s new “it” girl, actress Lupita Nyong’o, has just been named Galmour magazine’s ‘Woman of the Year’ for their December 2014 issue. And, with her Oscar win and promising career ahead of her, we can certainly see why Nyong’o beat out a number of A listers for the top spot.
Here are some excerpts of her interview from the cover feature.
GLAMOUR: Over the past year you’ve gone from being virtually unknown to winning an Academy Award for your first major motion-picture role. How has your life changed?
LUPITA NYONG’O: This is actually a conversation I look forward to having in 10 years, when all of this is behind me and I have some real perspective on what happened—because right now I’m still adjusting. I guess I feel catapulted into a different place; I have a little whiplash…. I did have a dream to be an actress, but I didn’t think about being famous. And I haven’t yet figured out how to be a celebrity; that’s something I’m learning, and I wish there were a course on how to handle it. I have to be aware that my kinesphere may be larger than I want it to be.
GLAMOUR: How does this change affect you day to day?
LN: I’ve had somebody say, “I want you at my wedding, but I don’t want you to pull focus, so wear jeans!” Losing my anonymity is something that’s proving to be very challenging…. It’s good for your soul to walk around unnoticed; there’s so much you can’t do when everybody knows who you are. And I so miss those little things.
GLAMOUR: Like what?
LN: Like being stupid in public. I used to enjoy doing silly walks on the street with my friends. Like, you know, you’re walking, and then you break out in something completely ridiculous, to kind of spook out the person walking by you. I can’t really do that anymore.
GLAMOUR: So you can’t have your Monty Python moment?
LN: Yeah, that’s exactly it. “The [Ministry] of Silly Walks,” the kind of thing John Cleese does.
GLAMOUR: While you were making 12 Years a Slave, did you have a sense of the impact it would have?
LN: I knew that it was going to be a powerful story, but I definitely did not think about the impact it would have on my life. I was too busy thinking, How on earth am I going to make it through filming a movie with these heavy hitters? I wanted to rise to the occasion.
GLAMOUR: It’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of rising to the occasion, since you ended up winning an Academy Award! How did that feel? You’re at the Oscars, and you hear your name.
LN: I don’t think I will ever be able to really articulate how bizarre it was to hear my name at the Academy Awards. I’d watched in my pajamas the year before! I felt numb—dazed and confused. I remember feeling light—weightless. More like limbo than cloud nine. At first I was like, This is my statue; nobody gets to touch it. And by midnight I was like, Please, someone, take this statue; it’s too heavy! So I gave it to my brother, and he went off with it.
GLAMOUR: And what about the days afterward?
LN: There was so much going on! It was overwhelming. That’s the thing: You win an Oscar, and immediately people ask how you feel. So you don’t have time to actually feel anything because you have to generate a response. And then some of the feelings you have are so intimate and visceral, words don’t really do them justice.
GLAMOUR: In more than eight decades of the Academy Awards, only seven black women have won an acting Oscar. What was your reaction to being one of them?
LN: It’s exciting and humbling.
GLAMOUR: To most people that would be the height of success. What does success represent to you?
LN: For me it’s not just one thing. Every time I overcome an obstacle, it feels like success. Sometimes the biggest ones are in our head—the saboteurs that tell us we can’t. I’ve always had that going on: “I can’t,” and then I do, so the voice says, “Well, that was an exception!” It’s a tug-of-war between two voices: the one who knows she can and the one who’s scared she can’t.
GLAMOUR: How do you deal with the fearful, doubtful voice?
LN: I say, “Sit down—I’ll get to you in a second, but let me do this first.” The more challenging life gets, the louder that voice becomes—but then I have to be friendly to it, be gentle with myself. The fearful voice is afraid of failure but also of success.
GLAMOUR: Why do you think success is challenging for you?
LN: With success comes more responsibility, a larger size of existence, which is uncomfortable.
GLAMOUR: Ron Van Lieu at the Yale drama school says that talent like yours is innate. Were you always a natural performer?
LN: I’ve always had an involved imagination. [Smiles.]
GLAMOUR: When you were growing up, your aunt used to stage impromptu performances for the family. In one skit you played a child who died, and your mother was so moved that she cried out. What did that mean to you?
LN: It meant I could have an effect on my parents. It’s like a little power had been kindled, and that kind of power is addictive. I loved duping my parents; I liked manipulating them. [Laughs.] It was a way for me to stand out. It was fun.
GLAMOUR: Was it hard to stand out in such a big family?
LN: I was the second of six children, and I was gullible, so the joke was often on me…. I was bullied by my siblings and cousins, so make-believe was a way in which I could be in charge. When I was like 10 and my sister was about five, I convinced her that she was going to jail because she used a bad word. The doorbell happened to ring, and I told her it was the police. I made her pack her bags. She was crying, and then I said to her, “I forgive you, and I’m gonna tell the cop to go away.” Then, of course, she loved me. It was terrible—she still remembers it. I had a sordid sense of humor.
GLAMOUR: Where did that come from?
LN: My mother is asking the same question! She says, “I don’t know whose child you are!”
GLAMOUR: You’ve become a role model for many girls—black girls in particular. Who were your role models, growing up?
LN: Oprah played a big role in my understanding of what it meant to be female and to really step into your own power. I wouldn’t even call her a role model; she was literally a reference point. You have the dictionary, you have the Bible, you have Oprah.
GLAMOUR: Do you feel a responsibility to young women out there?
LN: I feel a responsibility to myself and my parents and the people whose love has gotten me this far—people who were in my life before fame. That’s where I get my sense of self. It’s deadly for anyone to take on that role of a deity; it’s not sustainable. I’ve got tons of flaws. Call my mother—she’ll tell you! She keeps it real. Sometimes you don’t want to hear the truth; she’ll tell it to you out of love.
GLAMOUR: How do you react to an unpleasant truth?
LN: I like people who don’t tell you what you want to hear. I’ve got stellar friends who treat me just as they did before all this. I’ve had two friends since I was five, and then I have a group of friends from [college], and I’m very close to my classmates from Yale. I have friends who say, “You’re not leaving the house wearing that.”
GLAMOUR: But you dress so well.
LN: Not without their help! I dress according to how I feel.
GLAMOUR: You’ve received lots of attention for your looks. Did you grow up feeling beautiful?
LN: European standards of beauty are something that plague the entire world—the idea that darker skin is not beautiful, that light skin is the key to success and love. Africa is no exception. When I was in the second grade, one of my teachers said, “Where are you going to find a husband? How are you going to find someone darker than you?” I was mortified. I remember seeing a commercial where a woman goes for an interview and doesn’t get the job. Then she puts a cream on her face to lighten her skin, and she gets the job! This is the message: that dark skin is unacceptable. I definitely wasn’t hearing this from my immediate family—my mother never said anything to that effect—but the voices from the television are usually much louder than the voices of your parents.
GLAMOUR: So how did you get over believing that?
LN: I come from a loving, supportive family, and my mother taught me that there are more valuable ways to achieve beauty than just through your external features. She was focused on compassion and respect, and those are the things that ended up translating to me as beauty. Beautiful people have many advantages, but so do friendly people…. I think beauty is an expression of love.
GLAMOUR: You can’t deny that it’s also an expression of genes.
LN: Lovely genes! But to rely on the way you look is empty. You’re a pretty face—and then what? Your value is in yourself; the other stuff will come and go. We don’t get to pick the genes we want. There’s room in this world for beauty to be diverse.
GLAMOUR: You’ve become so popular that people talk about “the Lupita effect,” which includes everything from consumers running out to buy the lip gloss you’re using to designers casting more women of color on the runway. How do you react to that?
LN: I giggle. I just heard it for the first time. I’ve heard people talk about images in popular culture changing, and that makes me feel great, because it means that the little girl I was, once upon a time, has an image to instill in her that she is beautiful, that she is worthy—that she can… Until I saw people who looked like me, doing the things I wanted to, I wasn’t so sure it was a possibility. Seeing Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah in The Color Purple, it dawned on me: “Oh—I could be an actress!” We plant the seed of possibility.
Head over to mediaoutrage.com for more details and images from Nyong’o’s Glamour magazine shoot.