“No matter where you are from, your dreams are valid.”
Dignified, inspiring words spoken by young woman who looked like a fairy princess on Hollywood’s most spectacular night. Lupita Nyong’o won the Academy Award for best supporting actress — and black, brown and “other” women and girls all around the world exhaled with relief and cheered with delight.
The Cinderella story endures because deep down, people want to believe in improbable beauty and equal access to happily ever after. You know how it goes: A kind young girl alone and far from home is placed in a hostile environment, ignored and abused. Against all odds, she finds the power of her imagination, transforms into a graceful beauty and becomes the belle of the ball.
That’s one of the scores of daily posts on every social media platform about the breakout actress, mostly from women and girls of color. The image of Nyong’o is feeding an old hunger familiar to the hearts of women of African decent and quenching a newfound thirst for everyone else.
She is refreshing. She added, as they say in the fashion world, a “pop of color” to the neutral landscape of types in the 2014 awards season.
The beginning of Nyong’o’s fairy-tale rise to Hollywood’s new It Girl began with her brilliant portrayal of Patsey, a filthy, psychologically abused and violently beaten slave in the best picture winner, “12 Years a Slave.” And yet in a matter of months, the prevailing image of her is an exquisite beauty queen conquering every red carpet and glossy fashion page she’s graced. And there have been many.
The Golden Globe Awards were Nyong’o’s first major glamorous arrival. She didn’t take home the best supporting actress award for which she was nominated, but from Vogue to tumblr, she reigned on all the best-dressed lists.
It was a Cinderella moment. It wasn’t the stunning fire-engine-red winged column dress by Ralph Lauren Couture that made her splash so significant. It was her unlikely beauty, her exquisite “otherness” that made the style media explode with excitement. And she has been slaying every other appearance ever since.
Hollywood can be a hostile and stubborn place for diversity: Only 31 black people have won an Oscar in the 85-year history of the Academy Awards.
It can be especially treacherous and narrow when it comes to images of women. And the women on the silver screen set the gold bar for the standard of beauty for much of the world’s media.
Analyze any parade of actresses on any major awards show red carpet, and the message is clear: The criteria for a position in the elite clique of beauties are to be white and thin, with hair that blows in the wind.
Though Nyong’o certainly has a near-fatless body, her deep, rich skin tone and the length and texture of her hair are a sharp detour away from the standard. Unfortunately, it’s not rare that just one woman of color was nominated for major acting awards this year. Out of her many nominations, in addition to her Oscar win, she’s also won the Screen Actors Guild Award for best supporting actress, the NAACP Image Award for outstanding supporting actress and the Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for best supporting actress.
Other black women who have won the Academy Award in the best supporting actress category are Hattie McDaniel, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’nique and Octavia Spencer.
What stands out about Nyong’o is that she is top-model gorgeous, classically trained and impossibly elegant and has an indisputable African name. She’s the first black African to ever win.
Nyong’o can wear practically any gown that has ever been on a couture runway. She fits the high-fashion role while simultaneously expanding it. She is old-Hollywood elegant and new-school African.
At the Oscars, it was her dark, luminous skin and short, tightly coiled hair that made the billowy cornflower princess gown by Prada look so dreamy. Like art and life, beauty without contrasts isn’t interesting. Nyong’o is a ravishing contrast against the pale landscape of beauty possibilities most women and girls are given from Hollywood and high-fashion media. She represents a possibility of another kind of dream girl.
Young women of color from Nairobi to New Orleans can see a bright star that reflects them.