What’s behind the clever management of Lupita Nyong’o’s career and what can we learn?


Credit: George Pimentel/WireImage

It goes without saying that when you’re handed the part of a lifetime, you play it to the hilt. In the case of Lupita Nyong’o, the 31-year old Oscar winner — born in Mexico, raised in Kenya, educated at Yale and vaulted to what seemed like overnight fame — the part of the slave Patsey in “12 Years a Slave” was just a preamble for a far larger role.

Unlike many ingénues struck by show business lightning, this one came prepared to turn her allotted 15 minutes into a more durable and moneymaking run. Rather than looking upon the grueling award-show season as a never-ending slog — a “Groundhog Day” loop of dinners and speeches and red carpet treks — Ms. Nyong’o and her management approached the five-month span between the film’s debut at the Telluride Film Festival (and gala premiere a week later at the Toronto Film Festival) and the Academy Awards with what, in retrospect, looks like military precision.

“I’ve always said having this contract is winning the lottery,” said Isabella Rossellini, whose 14-year run with Lancôme allowed the actress, a single mother, to educate her two children and, she said, gave her “the freedom to make only the films that I liked and not the films I didn’t.”

By becoming a brand “ambassadress” for Lancôme, Ms. Nyong’o’s career has “totally changed,” according to Ivan Bart, the head of IMG Models. As the man who took a bosomy teenager with little more than a viral video to her credit and turned her into the branding phenomenon known as Kate Upton, Mr. Bart has a particularly shrewd perspective on the proper deployment of fame.

“The fact that Lupita won the Academy Award means she’s going to be offered more high-profile projects,” he said. “The fact that she has Lancôme means she’s never going to have to do ‘Porky’s 4.’ ”

Seen from afar, the journey of Ms. Nyong’o from unknown to fashion darling looked uncommonly organic and easeful. And without question, say those who have worked with the actress, her intelligence and composure, like her luminous beauty, are true and innate. Yet it takes more than talent and well-distributed pixie dust to seduce the public into viewing a woman who, by her own account, grew up insecure about her African cast of features and dark complexion — prey to the “seductions of inadequacy” — as the cynosure of all eyes.

“I started checking online and YouTube,” Silvia Galfo, senior vice president for marketing at Lancôme, said by telephone from Paris.

“What was interesting was the build, was what whoever worked with her did, positioning her as a style icon,” Ms. Galfo added. “She came out of nowhere and suddenly you see her being the most coveted ‘It’ girl.”

It was as if, truly suddenly, the mysterious arbiters Ms. Nyong’o referred to in a moving speech written for the Essence Black Beauty Awards as “the faraway gatekeepers of beauty,” had become aware and realized what Lancôme executives also did when they signed Ms. Nyong’o to a contract likely to be worth millions (Lancôme declined to disclose precise terms). They awoke to “the deeper business of being beautiful inside,” as the actress put it in her Essence remarks, and the obvious truth that beauty has no single shade of skin color.

“It’s difficult to say what exactly we look for, though it’s not necessarily perfect beauty,” Ms. Galfo said. “We want women who have their own authenticity, and with Lupita, it was obvious from the first that she was not fake, that she was not someone hiding behind a great dress and great makeup.”

To the credit, in other words, of the people who spent five months putting the actress in that makeup and those dresses, their work remained largely invisible to Ms. Galfo and others. They stayed on the sidelines, allowing, as Ms. Hardison said, “Lupita’s little star to glimmer and shine.”

article appeared on April 13, 2014, on page ST8 of the New York edition of the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/

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