Nyong’o was born in Mexico City, Mexico, to Dorothy and Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, a politician in Kenya. It is a Luo tradition to name a child after the events of the day, so her parents named her Lupita (adiminutive of “Guadalupe,” Our Lady of Guadalupe). She is of Luo descent and is the second of six children. Her father was the former Kenyan Minister for Medical Services. At the time of Lupita’s birth, he was a visiting lecturer in political science at El Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City, and her family had been living in Mexico for three years.
Nyong’o moved back to Kenya with her parents when she was less than one year old, when her father was appointed a professor at the University of Nairobi. She grew up primarily in Kenya, and describes her upbringing as “middle class, suburban”. At age sixteen, her parents sent her back to Mexico for seven months, to learn Spanish. Nyong’o lived in Taxco, Mexico, and took classes at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico’s Learning Center For foreigners.
In 2013, her father was elected to represent Kisumu County in the Kenyan Senate. Nyong’o’s mother is currently the managing director of the Africa Cancer Foundation and her own communications company.Her cousin Tavia Nyong’o is a scholar and professor at New York University. In 2012, her older cousin, Isis Nyong’o, was named one of Africa’s most powerful women by Forbes magazine. Her uncle, Aggrey Nyong’o, was a prominent Kenyan physician, killed in a road accident in 2002.
Nyong’o currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. She is fluent in English, Spanish, Swahili, and Luo.
Education and career
Nyong’o grew up in an artistic family, where family get-togethers often included performances by the children in the family and trips to see plays. She attended an all-girls school in Kenya and acted in school plays, with a minor role in Oliver Twist being her first play. At age 14, Nyong’o made her professional acting debut as Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” in a production by the Nairobi, Kenya-based repertory company Phoenix Players. While a member of the Phoenix Players, Nyong’o also performed in the plays “On The Razzle” and “There Goes The Bride”. Nyong’o cites the performances of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey inThe Color Purple with inspiring her to pursue a professional acting career.
Nyong’o attended college in the United States. After graduating from Hampshire College with a degree in film and theatre studies, she worked on the production crew of many films, including Fernando Meirelles’sThe Constant Gardener, with Ralph Fiennes, Mira Nair’s The Namesake, and Salvatore Stabile’s Where God Left His Shoes. She cites Fiennes as another individual who inspired her to seriously pursue a professional acting career.
She starred in the 2008 short film East River, directed by Marc Grey and shot in Brooklyn, New York. She returned to Kenya in 2008 and starred in the
Kenyan television series Shuga, an MTV Base Africa/UNICEF drama about HIV/AIDS prevention. In 2009, she wrote, directed, and produced the documentary In My Genes, about the treatment of Kenya’s albino population, which played at several film festivals and won first prize at the 2008 Five College Film Festival. Nyong’o also directed the “The Little Things You Do” music video by Wahu ft. Bobi Wine, which was nominated for the Best Video Award at the MTV Africa Music Awards 2009.
She subsequently enrolled in the acting program at the Yale School of Drama. At Yale she appeared in many stage productions, including Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrewand The Winter’s Tale. While at Yale, she was the recipient of the Herschel Williams Prize “awarded to acting students with outstanding ability” during the 2011–2012 school year.
Nyong’o landed her breakout role when she was cast in 12 Years a Slave immediately before graduating from Yale with an MFA in 2012. The film was released in 2013 to great critical acclaim. Nyong’o received rave reviews for her film-debut performance as an actress, and has been nominated for several awards including a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress and two Screen Actors Guild Awards including Best Supporting Actress. She will next be featured in Liam Neeson’s upcoming film Non-Stop.
On 18 January 2014, Lupita won the Best Supporting Actress award at the 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards for her work in the film, 12 Years a Slave.
In 2014, she was chosen as one of the faces for Miu Miu’s Spring 2014 campaign, with Elizabeth Olsen, Elle Fanning and Bella Heathcote. She has also appeared on the covers of several magazines, including New York’s Spring 2014 fashion issue and UK magazine Dazed & Confused. She has also been a regular on Harper’s Bazaar’s Derek Blasberg’s Best Dressed List since Autumn 2013.