The emotional torment that Oscar-winning actress Lupita N’yongo used to endure because of her dark-brown hue was so crushing that she used to beg God to make her skin lighter so she could be considered prettier and more normal.
The 12 Years a Slave breakout star recalled her sorrow-filled childhood of rejection and desperation for acceptance while being honored for best breakout performance at Essence magazine’s seventh annual Women in Hollywood luncheon in Beverly Hills, Calif.
“I got teased and taunted about my skin,” Nyong’o began on stage in a ballroom at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “My one prayer to God was that I would wake up lighter skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of the mirror because I wanted to see my face first. Every day I would feel the disappointment of being just as dark as the day before.”
Nyong’o even wanted to make a deal with God by vowing to stop eating sugar cubes and to never lose her school sweater again, if she could only see a change in her skin tone. It wasn’t until she discovered Sudanese British supermodel Alek Wek that she began to believe in her own beauty.
“She was dark as night and was in all the magazines and on runways,” Nyong’o said. “My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me.”
Nyong’o said she would also like to inspire young women.
“I hope that my presence on your screen and my face in magazines may lead you, young girls, on a beautiful journey,” she said. “That you will feel the validation of your external beauty, but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside.”
Essence also paid tribute to Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first black president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who was presented with the trailblazer award by Sidney Poitier and Oprah Winfrey.