Although Lupita Nyong'o might seem like an overnight success story at first glance -- she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her feature-film debut, 12 Years a Slave -- her meteoritic rise is really the product of an artsy, globe-hopping upbringing and a tremendous amount of hard work.
The second of six children, Nyong'o was born on March 1, 1983, in Mexico City to Kenyan parents Peter Anyang' and Dorothy. Her father was a visiting lecturer in political science at the Colegio de México at the time, and according to the Kenyan custom of naming children after current events, her parents chose the Spanish name "Lupita" (a shortened version of "Guadalupe").
The family returned to Kenya the following year, and Nyong'o grew up in a middle-class community in Nairobi. She got the acting bug early on, appearing in school plays and making her professional debut at 14 as Juliet in a performance of Romeo and Juliet by the Phoenix Players, a Nairobi-based repertory company.
At 16, her parents sent her back to Mexico, where she learned Spanish while studying at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México's Learning Center for Foreigners (in fact, she's fluent in four languages total: English, Spanish, Luo, and Swahili). She went to the United States for her undergraduate education, earning a degree in film and African studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. Afterwards, she worked as a production assistant on a number of movies, including The Constant Gardener, which filmed near Nairobi. During the shoot, star Ralph Fiennes gave her the following advice when she said she wanted to be an actress: "Only act if you can't breathe without it." Nyong'o said those words stayed with her, reminding her of how difficult and volatile her chosen profession could be.
Deciding to commit herself fully to acting, she enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program at the Yale School of Drama -- just after appearing in the Kenyan TV series Shuga and writing, directing, and producing a documentary about Kenya's albinos and the discrimination they face. During her time at Yale, she acted in such productions as Uncle Vanya and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, and won the Herschel Williams Prize for "acting students with outstanding ability." Her extraordinary talent did not go unnoticed for long: Only weeks before graduating, she was cast in 12 Years a Slave as Patsy, the role that would win her an Oscar.
Since then, she's appeared in the 2014 thriller Non-Stop, and brought to life the CGI character Maz Kanata in the 2015 blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens. She is also known as a style and fashion icon: In 2014, she was named the new face of Lancôme cosmetics, and was touted as the most beautiful woman in the world by People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" issue. At the same time, Nyong'o continues to support causes near and dear to her heart, serving as an ambassador for the conservation organization WildAid.