Sunday, April 13, 2014

A star – or comet – called Lupita

The NYT carries an incisive analysis of the campaign to launch Lupita Nyong’o, the 31-year actress who won an Oscar for her role in “12 Years a Slave,” into much deserved – if slightly delayed – stardom. The title says it all, and captures the Zeitgeist better than tomes of “cultural studies” drivel: “Capitalizing on Her Leap to Stardom: Lupita Nyong’o Gains the Ultimate Prize with a Beauty Contract for Lancôme.” Still, I wanted to preserve a few extra memorable lines for posterity – or at least until “the cloud” is up in the air:

Ms. Nyong’o and her management approached the five-month span between the film’s debut at the Telluride Film Festival (and gala premiere a week later at the Toronto Film Festival) and the Academy Awards with what, in retrospect, looks like military precision.

Few of life’s attainments are as good as an Oscar. But in an age of hyper-media, the ultimate prize may not be a gilded statuette for a single film performance but the career leverage, financial power and cachet to be gained from becoming an individual brand. Not long into the awards-season process, Ms. Nyong’o was snapped up by Miuccia Prada, a canny judge of popular culture and its metrics, and signed to be the face of Miu Miu. 

The big prize for a rising star is not a fashion-house deal, but a beauty contract. And last week Lancôme Paris, the luxury cosmetics goliath, announced that it had signed Ms. Nyong’o as its newest celebrity face, adding her to a list of highly paid A-list alumna that have included Kate Winslet, Penélope Cruz and Julia Roberts.

By becoming a brand “ambassadress” for Lancôme, Ms. Nyong’o’s career has “totally changed,” according to Ivan Bart, the head of IMG Models. As the man who took a bosomy teenager with little more than a viral video to her credit and turned her into the branding phenomenon known as Kate Upton, Mr. Bart has a particularly shrewd perspective on the proper deployment of fame.

“A lot of people think you just waltz onto the red carpet looking fresh-faced and fabulous,” said Micaela Erlanger, Ms. Nyong’o’s fashion stylist and a woman the Hollywood Reporter recently placed near the top of a list of the 25 most powerful in Hollywood. “But there’s a campaign behind it, a business behind it, and you’re focusing throughout on your message.”

No matter how gifted the raw material, Ms. Erlanger added, creating a coherent narrative for a budding star whose every appearance is another opportunity for brand building requires strategy. The challenge was heightened by the reality that filmgoers knew Ms. Nyong’o chiefly for her portrayal of a wretched character defined by slavery and dressed in rags.

“I started checking online and YouTube,” Silvia Galfo, senior vice president for marketing at Lancôme, said by telephone from Paris.

“What was interesting was the build, was what whoever worked with her did, positioning her as a style icon,” Ms. Galfo added. “She came out of nowhere and suddenly you see her being the most coveted ‘It’ girl.”

It was as if, truly suddenly, the mysterious arbiters Ms. Nyong’o referred to in a moving speech written for the Essence Black Beauty Awards as “the faraway gatekeepers of beauty,” had become aware and realized what Lancôme executives also did when they signed Ms. Nyong’o to a contract likely to be worth millions (Lancôme declined to disclose precise terms). They awoke to “the deeper business of being beautiful inside,” as the actress put it in her Essence remarks, and the obvious truth that beauty has no single shade of skin color.