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Lupita Nyong’o: Kenya’s girl causing ripples in Hollywood

Lupita Nyog’o accepts her Screen Actors’ Guild Best Supporting Actress Award last weekRising star: It’s not everyday that an African becomes the darling of Hollywood. It is awards season and all lights are on Kenya’s Lupita Nyong’o who has been nominated several times for her role in the movie 12 Years A Slave.  Christine W. Wanjala chronicles her rise to stardom. 

You know how motivational speakers and everyone who aspires to be one throws around this phrase “God can take you from zero to hero”? Yeah I am sure someone who knew Lupita some years back is reminded of it and is now probably losing sleep over that statement. Specifically the ones who knew her in 2005 when she was working on the set of film The Constant Gardener which was being shot in Nairobi.

Started from the bottom
The emerging Hollywood it girl, the Oscar nominee, the 30-year-old who is causing so much buzz and has the world eating from the palm of her hand was just a production runner during The Constant Gardener shoot. Basically a production runner or production assistant is an errand boy or girl who could be a  cleaner today, secretary tomorrow, tea girl  … there is no end to it. That was her first foray into the film industry and look where she is now. On the Oscar nomination list, a nominee on almost every award event worth its salt in Hollywood, in magazines and on magazine covers, basically at the top making people bite their tongues trying to pronounce her second name Nyong’o.

Oscar nominee
Last week she earned our neighbours Kenya their very first  prestigious award nomination after her name appeared on the Oscar nominations list for Best Supporting actress for her role as Patsey in the movie 12 Years A Slave. Let us not even split hairs and say Oscars or Golden Globes. Actors this side of the  world do not ordinarily make it to these lists, so even a mere mention is more than enough.

It is definitely an inspiring story, though Lupita’s is not exactly a rags to riches tale. Lupita’s father is a prominent figure in Kenya’s academia and politics who was working as visiting professor in Mexico at the time of her birth. The sketchy details about her early education  say she was educated partly in the US.
It is old news now that Lupita is a graduate of Yale  School of drama. But that she went to audition and got the role that has earned her so much acclaim, in Steve McQueen’s 12 years A slave  before she even graduated is not widely known.

She had already graduated with her first degree in Film and African studies from New Hampshire University in 2007 and  had actually worked as part of The Constant Gardener crew while she was still in school. It is also mentioned that she worked on the production crew of Mira Nair’s The Namesake, which was shot in New York, this time as a post production intern.
It is in 2007 with the documentary film In My Genes, that Lupita moved higher up the credits roll. She directed the film which told the  stories of several Kenyans living with albinism. It was also her thesis for  her first degree and it was chosen for several film festivals including New York African Film Festival in 2009 and Zanzibar Film Festival in 2008 according to the film’s own website. By 2009, then 26-year-old  Lupita was about ready to be on the other side of the camera.

Getting in front of the camera
While by Hollywood standards Lupita is a breakout star, here, her face may not be so new. Especially if you watched the MTV mini-series Shuga. True she may not have had the hair and makeup people she has right now  but the fresh face, the flawless complexion that has become such a hit in Hollywood and the childlike beauty was always there. She brought the character Ayira to life, a highlife loving, college girl who lived by the mantra ‘go after what you want’. The series was a hit  in Africa and there was season two during which Lupita who was now already pursuing her Masters in Yale was a co-director to South African Tebogo Mahlatsi as well as an actress.

Before getting the gig in 12 Years A Slave, Lupita featured in a 17 minute silent film called East River, where she played a photographer in New York.
Come March 2, and if the  30 year old actress  actually bags the most prestigious movie award, at the very least Uganda will have the bragging rights of saying they come from a country right next door to where Lupita who won an Oscar comes from. Kind of like Obama’s Kenyan heritage raised the profile for a big chunk of Africa and black people for at least a few months.

In the meantime and even if she bags that first Oscar for East Africa or not, the bragging rights are already here, the girl next door is out  there wowing as a fashion icon on the world stage(have you seen the fashion blogs take on her style?), carrying designer brands (she is already one of the faces of Miu Miu), and causing a stir in the entertainment world. For all aspiring talented East Africans, Hollywood success just moved much closer!

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