In the past year, the 31-year-old star's life has unfolded like a fairy tale. In a series of breathtaking coups, Nyong'o won an Academy Award for her first role in a major film, 12 Years a Slave; was named a new face of Lancôme; scored the cover of People's Most Beautiful issue; and landed key roles in two upcoming films, The Jungle Book and Star Wars: Episode VII.
In truth, however, Hollywood's latest "overnight" success spent years preparing for her turn in the limelight. A member of a prominent Kenyan family, Nyong'o was born in Mexico after her father, a political activist who is now a senator and professor, briefly went into exile. The family later returned to Kenya, where Lupita was educated as a child before attending Hampshire College in Massachusetts.
Nyong'o began her career with work that was socially significant: She starred in an African soap opera, Shuga, which explored controversial subjects like rape and HIV/AIDS, and also directed a film of her own, In My Genes, which dealt with discrimination against people with albinism in Kenya.
When she graduated from Yale in 2012 with a master's degree, she had already won the role of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. "We auditioned over 2,000 women all around the world," says Steve McQueen, the director. "I always compare it to the search for Scarlett O'Hara. I had a tape of Lupita's, and I couldn't believe it. I thought, Is this person real?… She's a total professional, incredible."