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Lupita and Lancôme

Nyong'o graces the red carpet at this year's MTV Movie Awards
Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Earlier this month, Lancôme announced that Lupita Nyong’o would be its newest celebrity ambassador. Nyong’o catapulted to A-list status after a remarkable film debut in “12 Years a Slave,” a movie chronicling the true story of a free black man who was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in 1841. This September, she will join the likes of Julia Roberts and Penelope Cruz in representing one of the most recognizable and respected companies in the beauty industry.

The public became enamored with her after she stunned in Ralph Lauren at the 71st Golden Globes. During the award season stretch, most actors seem to take misguided wardrobe risks, perhaps with hopes of something sticking but Lupita’s sense of style was dead center. With a petit toned frame and rich chocolate skin, she mastered a range of looks from sleek and sophisticated pants suits to structured gowns. Completely unafraid of color, we saw her in virtually every shade of the rainbow. While impeccably dressed, she put her Yale education to good use and gave a string of the most articulate, and emotionally charged speeches of any of the nominees. She won Best Supporting Actress at the 86th Academy Awards, proving she was the “it” girl.

Lupita’s partnership with Lancôme is quite significant. According to hellobeautiful.com, the last brown face to represent the brand was Dominican model Arlenis Sosa in 2008. Like Sosa, Lupita carries a great deal of international appeal that somehow transcends cultural, social, or racial implications. Her skin, natural hair, and Kenyan heritage point to a uniquely un-American blackness. Her “blackness” is an international one; it is deep, broadly realized, and authentic. Though she found success from playing a slave, her “blackness” is free from the deep scars of racial oppression as she has no traceable lineage to the African slave trade, within the American context.
Though slavery existed on almost every continent in some form, the American context is unique in that it stimulated decades of oppression, legal segregation, and a deep-seated prejudice that has shaped government and suppressed the very fundamental principles of equality. The black community has sustained severe psychological damage in regards to body image as result of this oppression. Black women in particular have struggled to achieve a Eurocentric ideal of beauty that starkly opposes most of their natural features. Nyong’o embraces her natural features and celebrates them.

The concept of “international blackness” isn’t new- it has fed the public’s infatuation with fashion icons like Grace Jones, Iman, and Naomi Campbell. However, perhaps since electing Barack Obama, has the American public reached a new plateau of favoring international blacks over “homegrown Negros?” It begs the question that if Lupita Nyong’o was from Harlem, Inglewood, or some other densely populated black neighborhood in America, and looked exactly the same, whether she would be as exoticized.

Perhaps the real question is whether Nyong’o would have been able to harness and own the confidence necessary to become the person that we know and appreciate today, had she been from the hood. That question is difficult to answer. Perhaps what’s most important is to deal with the here and now, and there is no doubt that Nyong’o is completely captivating and quite deserving of her astronomical success. She will undoubtedly be an important face for thousands of other brown girls, growing up in the hood or otherwise, to admire and emulate.