The 31-Year-Old ‘It’ Girl: Lupita Nyong’o and Aging in Hollywood

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Photo: Jeff Vespa/Getty Images

It's hard to count how many times Lupita Nyong'o has been called an "It" girl this awards season. “Lupita Nyong'o Crowned New 'It' Girl at Oscars 2014,” proclaims ABC News. Variety calls her “this year’s ingenue.” Nyong’o “has everyone talking, and we mean everyone,” chirps Paper Magazine. Vogue named the “rising style star” to its 2013 best-dressed list, and she’s the face of Miu Miu’s spring collection. The New York Times dubbed her “the most traditional ingenue” in the pack of Best Supporting Actress contenders — surprising, given that her competition included reigning popularity queen Jennifer Lawrence, who is 23.

Which is curious, because Lupita Nyong’o is 31.

The woman who’s just been declared the freshest young thing in Hollywood is just a few years away from the age at which The Atlantic typically suggests a woman start worrying about her barren uterus. It’s even more surprising given that this is the movie business, where 31-year-old actresses are old enough to start worrying about neck wrinkles and being cast as the mother of an actor who’s barely younger than they are. They’re rarely the ones dubbed ingenues, which Merriam-Webster defines as “an innocent girl or young woman.”

Is Hollywood catching up to a shift that the rest of us have long come to accept? It used to be that adulthood began in your late teens or early 20s. And “It" girls — beautiful media darlings credited with “capturing the moment” in fashion and culture — were correspondingly young. Their résumés have traditionally consisted of little more than a few modeling gigs. Thanks to a crippling recession and stagnant job market, most young people today don’t start coming into their own until their late 20s or early 30s. And with Nyong’o, there’s finally an "It" girl who reflects that.

Or is Nyong’o the exception that proves the rule — that the retro-fabulous "It" girl is still synonymous with effortless, overnight success? As one young fan wrote to her, “I think you’re really lucky to be this black yet this successful in Hollywood overnight.” Nyong’o’s skin color is probably part of the reason her age has gone relatively unmentioned — either because we expect success to take longer for dark-skinned women in Hollywood, or because we expect black women to look better as they age. (Insert “black don’t crack” joke here.) Journalists, though quick to dub her an ingenue, have opted to highlight her flawless style, her radiant smile, or her gracious attitude rather than dwelling on whether she looks her age — and what she’s spent the past ten years doing.

As it happens, the Mexican-born, Kenyan-bred Nyong’o’s work history isn’t so different from that of most upper-middle-class people who spend their 20s trying to succeed in a fiercely competitive creative industry— the Hannah Horvaths of the world, rather than the Edie Sedgwicks. After graduating from a small liberal-arts college, Nyong'o worked entry-level production-crew jobs. She acted in one obscure short film in Brooklyn before moving back home to Nairobi, where she starred in a television series, directed and produced a documentary about Kenyan albinos, and directed a music video. Then she went to grad school at Yale before landing her Oscar-winning role as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. She confesses that even then, on set, she suffered from “acute impostor syndrome” — the feeling that she didn’t really deserve to be there. Her Wikipedia page makes clear that "It" girl success took time: “Years active: 2004-2014.” A full decade.

Ten years of hard work in the less sexy corners of the entertainment industry is not part of the classic "It" girl narrative. In the past, ingenues were beloved for the fact that they were successful but still wide-eyed innocents, providing a breath of fresh air to cynical industry insiders. According to a how-to book published last fall by Alexa Chung (who, at age 30, is already looking back on her ingenue days), the "It" girl makes everything look easy because there’s nothing less cool than trying too hard. (One reason Nyong’o may just be the first dark-skinned "It" girl is that, for women who aren’t thin and white, hard work is an absolute requirement.)

Meanwhile, Sunday's awards ceremony offered a striking example of what awaits on the other side of "It"-girl-dom. Consider all of the sneering tweets from viewers repulsed by actresses with obvious plastic surgery. The audience lauded women who appeared to be aging gracefully (“No snark about Sally Field. Still looks good,” tweeted Howard Stern), but snarked at those who were clearly Botoxed. The reaction to Kim Novak’s ill-advised injectables was especially brutal. For the first time, it might be worse to look like you’re trying too hard to look young than it is to look your (advanced) age. “Aging gracefully” sets its own kind of sexist impossible standard. But maybe, just maybe, if Hollywood is ready to acknowledge a hardworking 31-year-old as a fresh-faced ingenue, there’s hope for actresses who are 20 or 30 or 40 years older than Nyong’o to rewrite the beauty rules, too.