Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong'o had guests at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon moved to tears as she recalled how she had struggled to accept her dark complexion as a child and used to pray for lighter skin.
The 12 Years A Slave star opened up about her self-confidence battles while picking up the Best Breakthrough Performance Award at the annual event on Thursday (27Feb14), when the Kenyan actress admitted it had taken her years to feel comfortable in her own skin.
She started her acceptance speech by reading out a letter sent to her by a young fan, who wrote, "Dear Lupita, I think you're really lucky to be this black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia's Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me."
Recalling her response to the note, she told the audience, which included fellow actresses Kerry Washington, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Bassett and Naomie Harris, "My heart bled a little when I read those words."
Nyong'o then remembered how she had been "teased and taunted" about her "night-shaded skin" as a youth and how she had prayed every night for a little help from God.
She said, "My one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I was the day before."
The actress revealed it was only when she laid eyes on Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek that she recognized the beauty in her own skin color.
She continued, "When I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty."
Nyong'o concluded her speech by addressing the young fan whose letter had so deeply moved her: "I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shame in black beauty."
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization behind the Oscars, was also honored at the Essence luncheon.