The Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave star succeeds the Iron Man 3 actress for this year's title, marking her first appearance on the magazine's cover. The news was revealed on NBC's Today Wednesday.
Nyong'o never dreamed she would be the person selected for the publication's 25th anniversary issue. "It was exciting and just a major, major compliment," the 31-year-old Non-Stop star humbly admits. "And especially, I was happy for all the girls who would see me on [it] and feel a little more seen."
Born in Mexico and raised in Kenya, Nyong'o first equated beauty with what she saw on TV: "Light skin and long, flowing, straight hair," she recalls. "Subconsciously you start to appreciate those things more than what you possess." Luckily, Nyong'o says her mother, Dorothy, "always said I was beautiful. And I finally believed her at some point." Now she says the best compliments are "when I have been called beautiful with not one drop of makeup on. And also before I comb my hair or put on a pretty dress."
When it comes to beauty, Nyong'o says, "Happiness is the most important thing."
When editorial director Jess Cagle revealed the magazine's cover on Today, he explained why the staff chose the relative newcomer. "She is fantastic...She's kind of all the rage," he explained. "There was really no contest this year. She seemed like the only choice. Usually there's a lot of debate; this time, we were all in agreement. She's obviously talented, obviously beautiful, she is incredibly stylish, but the way she carries herself with such grace and such humility, I think it's what put her over the top."
"I fell in love with her right before the Oscars when she gave a speech at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon, and she spoke really frankly about...having felt unbeautiful when she was a girl. And she would pray for lighter skin. She spoke really openly about her journey to embracing the way that she looked, and then ultimately realizing that physical beauty is not what sustains you," Cagle added. "I just love her."
In a pre-taped interview with Savannah Guthrie, Nyong'o reiterated that the honor came as a surprise. "What an incredible journey to go from that feeling to being on the cover of this magazine. I mean, you could have never told me that that would happen when I was 16 and insecure about my complexion," the Yale School of Drama graduate said. "I hope it means something to more than just me, to people like me who feel unbeautiful in whatever skin they're in." And while she may look at ease at awards shows these days, that's not always the case. "The red carpet—I mean, that thing is intense!" Nyong'o admitted. "It's horrific, it's frustrating, it's painful, it's beautiful, it's funny, it's exciting and it's fun."
Winning an Oscar has elevated Nyong'o's profile, but she's yet to book another movie role. "I don't know what doors I thought would open, but it's opened doors," she said coyly. Asked if there's any casting news she wanted to share with Today viewers, she replied, "Nothing that I can speak of."
"You say it so nicely, though, that I forgive you for not telling me anything," Guthrie said, laughing.
What's been the strangest part about becoming famous so quickly? Recently, she recalled, "I was sitting, getting my haircut. Someone passed by and peered in and said, 'You're really beautiful,' and I said, 'Thank you.' And he said, 'You know that girl in 12 Years a Slave? That actress? You look just like her.' I said, 'Thank you so much,'" she said. "I was like, 'That is an interesting scenario.' But I liked that."
(E! and Today are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)
(Originally published on Wed., Apr. 23, 2014, at 5:11 a.m. PDT)