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What’s the Lupita phenomenon all about?

Lupita Nyong’o. A name hardly anyone knew a short while back; one that pretty much everyone knows now. Why is Lupita such a phenomenon? Why is she suddenly in every fashion magazine, TV chat show, dinner-party discussion, social media debate?

The clues lie in what is being discussed. Last time I checked, Lupita was an actress. But is it her prowess in acting that is the subject of debate? Not really. The things under discussion are her looks, her skin tone, her dresses, and her love life. She has been acting for a while, but that body of work is rarely analysed, nor do most people seem even remotely familiar with it.

No, what is extremely interesting to the world is how she looks and how she ought to look. On that, everyone and their aunt has an opinion.

I have two serious problems with this. First, it throws us right back into the arms of the fashion and PR multinationals. In our excitement that a dark-skinned African woman is receiving such adulation all over the world, we forget where this adulation comes from. It isn’t just spontaneous, a wonderful reflection of a ‘post-racial’ world; it’s engineered and manufactured.

Make no mistake, the makers of fashion and cosmetics are rubbing their hands with glee, as is the global media machine. That’s where Lupita-mania originates: in the boardrooms of those who manipulate popular sentiment. A young lady like this one is a huge opportunity to create a new market in the world, and no budgets will be spared to get her showcasing products and promoting brands.

A dark-skinned woman making headlines and setting beauty standards is a big deal, of course it is. How can it not be, after centuries of being told, openly as well as subliminally, that real beauty was the exclusive preserve of light-skinned folks of a certain shape and symmetry? The elevation of Lupita will give fresh confidence to a whole generation of young women.

But still, I must ask: who decides? Is Lupita beautiful simply because the world marketing machine now declares she is? Or was she always so? We must not become too pleased with the fickle approval of self-serving merchandisers. We must all have our own opinions and own confidence, regardless of popular sentiment.

A second concern is this: why is everyone so very bothered by how the lady looks and what she wears? Why does humanity need to create icons and pay so much attention to them? For goodness sake, why should you even have an opinion on Lupita’s dress choices or romantic life? Is it so very difficult for us to focus on our own lives and choices, that we need to wake up bothered every day about what others are doing – or not doing? Are visuals and optics really all we care about?

I think Lupita Nyong’o has the makings of a fine actress. I admire her tenacity and perseverance in an unforgiving industry. I respect her parents for supporting her in choosing an untraditional, risky career. She is intelligent and articulate, and is doing Kenya proud out there. We should wish her well, and hope she refines her craft to an even higher standard.

But she’s just another young woman making the most of her life. She is not a game-changer, a phenomenon, a role model for millions. Those are media creations, and if allowed to, marketers will turn her into a dummy on which to hang clothes and paint make-up. This must be resisted, for it lands us right back where we started: playing by rules written by others, the victims of clever manipulations, tricked into believing you are what you consume.

Focusing more on our own lives and worlds, and being confident in them, would be a great start.

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