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Lupita Nyong'o On 'Sulwe'


Actress Lupita Nyong'o became a household name playing Patsey in "12 Years A Slave," and then "Black Panther" brought her worldwide fame. Her characters are strong, and they are undeniably gorgeous. But growing up as a dark-skinned girl, she didn't always feel beautiful. Now she's written a children's book called "Sulwe" about a little girl a lot like herself.

LUPITA NYONG'O: Five years old, I had a younger sister who was born, and she was very light-skinned.


NYONG'O: With that came the cooing and the cawing and her being called pretty. And just - there was a obvious preference for her skin color. So that was the first time that I started to feel unrelated to the word beauty. The teasing started in my teenage years. You know, it wasn't a lifetime of teasing, but it was definitely a subconscious recognition that lighter skin was better for one.

KING: In the book, Sulwe is very jealous of her sister, and she sort of makes clear that she wishes she could be like her. What was your relationship with your sister like?

NYONG'O: I have a very, very close relationship with my sister. She's actually come all the way from Kenya here to just support me as this book comes out. And I was always close to her. I had an envy for her complexion, but I didn't necessarily take it out on her. You know?

KING: (Laughter).

NYONG'O: And she has such a good head on her shoulders. And she never, ever bought into the idea that for some reason she was more special because of the color of her skin. And these things - you know, it's because of the prevalence of whiteness, Eurocentric standards of beauty that we experience this. You know? And it is subconscious. Colorism is the daughter of racism. But sometimes it seems like racism has had amnesia (laughter). You know? And so that's why I wrote this - to hopefully bring it to the fore and people can address it.

KING: In the book, Sulwe tries several different ways to lighten her skin. She tries a pencil eraser. She tries eating foods that are all light, like bananas and milk. When you were a kid growing up and you were feeling this discomfort in your own skin, did you ever try to lighten your skin?

NYONG'O: Well, I may have tried to erase a layer or two. (Laughter) I...

KING: Oh, no.

NYONG'O: I definitely think I had the imagination to do that. But the one thing that I did do is I did pray to God to lighten my skin.

KING: You did?

NYONG'O: I was raised Christian, and my mother and father told me that God performs miracles. And I took that quite literally.

KING: How old were you when you were doing that, when you were praying to be lighter?

NYONG'O: Five.

KING: Five - so you were a little girl.

NYONG'O: Mmm hmm.

KING: Did your parents know you were doing that?

NYONG'O: No, I don't think they did. My mom - I think I finally opened up to my mom about those kinds of things when I was a teenager. You know? And she was extremely supportive. The character of Mama is definitely based on my mom because she would just have none of it.

KING: What gave you the courage, when you were a teenager, to tell your mom how you were feeling? 'Cause that's an age where girls in particular often keep secrets from their parents.

NYONG'O: Yeah, but I was close to my mom. And my mom is very compassionate and loving. And her line was, you can't eat beauty. It's this idea that what you look like externally should not be the extent of your value - that you have to work on what's coming from inside because that is the beauty that is eternal.

KING: What was the school like - the school where you were bullied?

NYONG'O: Well, I went to an all-girls Catholic school for the first six years of my life. And when I was in the second grade in that Catholic school, one of my teachers said to me - how are you ever going to find a husband? Your husband's supposed to be darker than you.

And so these things were happening, you know, these things. And people don't recognize what they are doing when they say these kinds of things. You're just perpetuating things that you've heard, and you think they're harmless. But they actually do - they are quite harmful and damning to a little girl in a world where there's very few reminders that she is valuable just the way she is.

KING: In the book, there's a lovely twist where Sulwe goes on a magical adventure. And she starts to understand where this hatred of darkness comes from. It's a beautiful passage. And then, at the end of the journey, she realizes that she is in fact beautiful. And I wonder - when did you realize that you are in fact really beautiful?

NYONG'O: Well, you know, it was definitely a longer journey than the one Sulwe goes on.

KING: (Laughter).

NYONG'O: But it took time. And I think it took, you know - it definitely took the support of my family, the love of my family. And then it was little things like - or big things, like Alek Wek, the supermodel who was strutting the runways.

KING: British Sudanese, yeah?

NYONG'O: Yes. And Oprah Winfrey saying that Alek was beautiful, her appearing on the cover of magazines - these were suddenly these mirrors of darkness that I could identify with. You know? Being able to see yourself reflected in imaginative and aspirational material is so important because, I think as human beings, we see ourselves when we see ourselves in others.

KING: Here's a question I want to ask you because I rarely get to ask something like this. But I mean, you are one of the most beautiful women in the world. You've been on the...

NYONG'O: Thank you.

KING: ...Cover of Vogue. You've done - you've been the face of Lancome. And I bet when you walk into a room or walk through an airport, there are so many women looking at you and thinking - God, I wish I looked like her. What is it like to be that pretty (laughter)?

NYONG'O: (Laughter) It feels really good.

KING: Yeah? (Laughter).

NYONG'O: It feels really, really great. You know, I think about it. And I've honestly been considered beautiful on this earth longer than I have felt or been considered un-beautiful. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

But also, I find a lot of gratitude in my first years on this planet because having to identify - or having to not rely on how I look like to seduce or to get by in life really meant that I had to cultivate other aspects of myself - my personality, my character - and get a sense of self-worth from something other than people complimenting what I look like. And now, after that, I relish in the compliment. But I do know that external beauty will fade. And hopefully, I have cultivated and I continue to cultivate enough internal beauty to sustain me through the years when I am not such a hot pick.


KING: Never going to happen, Lupita - never going to happen.


NYONG'O: Thank you.


KING: That was actress Lupita Nyong'o. Her new children's book is called "Sulwe." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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