Breaking News from the Daily Mail: Lupita Nyong’o can play a sexpot onscreen, and not just roles that call on her to look downtrodden and enslaved. In an article with a title that leaves little to the imagination (“Before she was famous: Lingerie-clad Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o juggled two men in sexually-charged Kenyan soap opera”), the Mail Online’s reveal infers that Nyong’o, whose “exotic beauty and heart-wrenching portrayal of tormented slave Patsey in 12 Years a Slave catapulted her into stardom” is hiding the dark secret of her sexy past as a soap actor in “Shuga, a sexually-charged MTV Base Africa soap opera in which she juggled two men.” Call the Oscar Police!
First of all, this is not a secret. Anyone could google Lupita’s bio and find references of “Shuga”–which first aired 5 years ago–and you can watch all the episodes online on Vimeo. Second, there’s no shame in an actor getting their start in a soap. Many, many Hollywood people did: Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Christopher Reeve, Meg Ryan among them. Who cares? So an actor does sex scenes on a hot soap. Sex scenes are the bread and butter of soaps – and soap actors do sexy love triangles and fraught boardroom table sex every week.
However, Daily Mail insists that this is News You Should Know: in Shuga, Nyong’o “played ambitious go-getter Ayira, who sleeps with her boss at Maverick Advertising,” and yes, also her boyfriend; she does some steamy scenes in showers, and on the boardroom table. She runs about in lingerie and knickers, juggling school and a part-time job, all the while supporting her mum. In a lapse of judgement, she has sex with her boss without using a rubber. This storyline then develops into something far more serious: her character deals with facing an HIV+ diagnosis, and the show goes on to illustrate that she lives with HIV; that there is life and living to do.
All of this is eventually acknowledged by the Daily Mail “writer” – after a series of still shots where Nyong’o is seen in various states of undress. The writer does finally admit that “The show’s numerous steamy sex scenes proved a great way to raise HIV/AIDS awareness, and by the third part Ayira discovers she might have contracted the deadly disease.” Erm, I thought the whole point was to take the focus away from the “deadly” and move us towards the understanding that HIV’s like any other chronic illness that one can live with, if one has access to proper treatment?
Mostly, the “article” is an image-heavy/minimal writing summary of the soapie series, attempting to out Nyong’o as a pretender to the Oscar Throne. Its investigative journalism tactics go something like this: see! Nyong’o was a Bad Girl on TV. On Low Culture African MTV. So don’t go putting her on the pedestal reserved for Very Special Black Persons. And oh, the horror! She isn’t the 21st century’s version of Grace Kelly that you think you know and adore! (BTW, Grace Kelly was no white-gloved virgin: it’s well-documented that she pursued her costars and directors – Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Ray Milland, Bing Crosby and William Holden among them, many of whom were married or attached – long before she married Mr. Prince of Monaco.) If you still don’t get the message, the writer adds that “The Miu Miu model…used to have a labret piercing.” WTF is a “labret” you ask? A lip. Lupita had a lip piercing. As do ½ of my students.
So is Nyong’o now sullied because instead of being a demure, “serious” actor, she’s been a sexpot in a sex-plot heavy health/awareness drama? All this breathless rhetoric outing Nyong’o as a pierced vamp is about relegating her to the position of black sex object, removing her intellect, formal training, and talent. Her integrity and character are in question, according to the obvious nudge-wink inferences made here. It’s like she can’t play both roles — gracious person of strength, and sexy vamp (and I stress play; after all, Nyong’o is acting in both the soap and the film that made her world-famous, rather than being “herself”, whatever and whoever that is).
Note to the Daily Mail: Lupita’s been seen by millions as hot stuff long before she got the “gracious black woman” role on the red carpet, and you all decided to exoticise and fetishise her blackness.