It takes a very specific kind of overnight celebrity to garner as much respect and support as Lupita Nyong’o has since the debut of 12 Years A Slave. After experiencing her critically acclaimed performance as Patsey in Steve McQueen’s film, critics and fans everywhere are beyond excited for this actress. For the past few months her name (the correct pronunciation of which she happily shared on Instagram) has been on everyone’s lips, and the sound is actually quite refreshing. As the 2014 Academy Awards approach and the Oscar buzz for her Best Supporting Actress nominee continues to hum, Paste is happy to contribute to the well-deserved hype with ten fun facts you may not know about Lupita Nyong’o.
Nyong’o is a fan girl first and a movie star, second. Some of her first red carpet Instagram selfies were of her (looking more fashionable than pretty much everyone else) with Scandal actors like Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn. And just like the rest of us, she recently marked her calendar for the June 6 premiere of Orange Is The New Black.
After seeing thousands of actresses audition for the part of Patsey, Steve McQueen received Nyong’o’s video submission. Her performance was so powerful, McQueen has said that he thought he was seeing things. On an episode of Piers Morgan Live he explained, “I first saw Lupita on tape, and at first I thought it was a mirage, in a way.” He went on to say that he actually had to bring in his daughter and wife who confirmed that he was, indeed, “looking at a great actress.”
Nyong’o was born in Mexico, where her family sought political asylum from Kenya’s then-autocratic regime. Although they moved back to Kenya when she was just a year old, her parents sent her back to Mexico for seven months when she was a teenager so that she could learn Spanish.
Before attending Yale University, Nyong’o went to one of the … how do you say … hippiest liberal arts schools in America. Hampshire has a great academic reputation, but their admissions office is literally in a red barn. Nyong’o grew up in a middle-class, suburban Kenyan home and had quite the culture shock. She told New York Magazine that she went from ironing her clothes every night to being an undergrad at Hampshire, “where clothing is sometimes optional.” It’s difficult to imagine the red carpet favorite in that environment, but it happened. And even if she was surrounded by shirtless, non-ironing folks, she did manage to focus on film and African studies, so Hampshire clearly prepared her for some great things.
While in college, Nyong’o made a documentary about albinism in Kenya. She has described albinos as the one group of people that unifies all races. A friend who was having very specific experiences related to albinism inspired the project, which went on to win first prize at the 2008 Five College Film Festival.
When she saw Whoopi Goldberg’s performance as Celie in Stephen Spielberg’s The Color Purple, Nyong’o says it was the first time she believed that she could really become an actor. For this reason, she was especially honored to join Oprah Winfrey (who also starred in the film) at The Hollywood Reporter’s annual Actress’s Roundtable.
This woman made just about every best-dressed list from 2013, and she’s now the newest face of Miu Miu fashion house. Interestingly enough, she’s confessed that she’s not actually a big fan of shopping. Luckily, she has celebrity stylist Micaela Erlanger (who also works with Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery) dressing her in everything from Christian Dior Haute Couture to Ralph Lauren and Gucci.
The first time Nyong’o ever stepped foot on a film set it was as a production assistant on the 2005 film The Constant Gardner. In an interview with New York Magazine she reminisced about the advice given to her by Ralph Fiennes: “He asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I very timidly admitted that I was interested in being an actor. He sighed and said, ‘If there’s something else that you want to do, do that. Only act if you feel you can’t live without it.’ It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but it was the thing I needed to hear.”
While the character of Patsey was primarily based on the description of the actual person in Solomon Northrup’s memoir, Steve McQueen added details to the movie, some of which came from Nyong’o herself. For example, Nyong’o suggested that Patsey—a physically and sexually abused slave—have a small hobby, and so she learned how to make corn dolls for the part.
Nyong’o may be the Oscar nominee of the bunch, but she comes from an accomplished and fascinating bunch. Her father is a Kenyan Senator, her mother heads up the Africa Cancer Foundation and runs her own company, her cousin Isis made the Forbes list of Most Powerful African Women, and three minutes on her brother’s Instagram page tells us that he is a pop culture movement in and of himself. He’s also her biggest fan.
Shannon M. Houston is a New York-based freelance writer, regular contributor to Paste, and occasional contributor to the human race via little squishy babies. You can follow her on Twitter