In some ways, Lupita Nyong'o fits the fashion-plate standard of beauty that's changing ever so slowly, but still frequently pinpoints a certain type.
She's thin and sculpted, with regal cheekbones and bearing to match. And her accent doesn't hurt, either. In a word, she's gorgeous.
But in other ways, she's something apart from the blond icons -- spanning from Jean Harlow to Marilyn Monroe to today's ubiquitous Jennifer Lawrence, whom Hollywood normally presents as the ideal.
Nyong'o -- the 30-year-old, Mexican-born Kenyan who stepped out of the Yale School of Drama into fame and an Academy Award nomination -- is dark-skinned, with a short, natural haircut, and no apologies.
She stands out on the cover of New York magazine's Spring Fashion issue, which calls her the new "it" girl. Indeed, she is known, as the chosen often are, by just one name, "Lupita." Her heart-wrenching performance in "12 Years a Slave" as Patsey, exploited and abused but with an untrammeled spirit, made everyone take notice.
Then she dazzled in bright prints and jewel colors at movie openings and on red carpets. She was possibly the best-dressed (in a Ralph Lauren red cape dress) actress at the Golden Globes, where she lost. She followed up that appearance wearing a striking blue Gucci gown at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where she won.
And in a Vanity Fair Hollywood layout that made news because of its diversity, Nyong'o held court, resembling an Oscar in shimmering gold. Her triumph, though, was not without a backlash, as some wondered whether the magazine had retouched her skin color.
Whether she wins or loses as best supporting actress at the Academy Awards on March 2 (Lawrence is also a nominee), everyone will be dying to see what, and who, she is wearing.
It's Lupita's world, and she has been handling all the fuss with poise and modesty. Many of my friends, particularly those accustomed to the indignities described in the documentary "Dark Girls," especially love her elevation as the epitome of style.
But the canonization of Nyong'o follows a pattern of picking one style icon, one "it" girl -- one "it" black girl -- who will crowd out everyone else. The bar is set pretty high, and I wonder, if she were a fraction less thin, or her flawless, dark-chocolate complexion were anything other than perfectly blemish-free, whether it would be enough.
There has always been room for all kinds of beauty. But let's face it: There is a thumb on the scale for certain types, whether on the screen or in fashion magazines. I remember when the definition of "all-American" good looks didn't veer too far from a Christie Brinkley, and any reference to a "dark beauty" meant a brunette such as Christy Turlington.
As Viola Davis famously said at a Newsweek actors round-table, in a comment that hit age, gender and race issues, "I'm a 46-year-old black actress who doesn't look like Halle Berry -- and Halle Berry is having a hard time getting cast in Hollywood." That's when Charlize Theron cut her off with a presumably well-meaning quip: "You have to stop saying that, because you're hot."
The real test will come after the Oscars. That's when we'll see if all the Nyong'o love translates into romantic leads with substance, like the ones offered other, usually white, actresses. Patsey was a great role, as was Davis' turn in "The Help." But there is much more that these actresses can do.
With Kerry Washington making waves with "Scandal" -- and on fashion-magazine covers -- and "Saturday Night Live" adding Sasheer Zamata to its ensemble, the "12 Years a Slave" star isn't alone. True onscreen equality, though, means a lot more than just one star; it encompasses beauty and talent in all sizes, shapes and colors, and Nyong'o's shoulders are far too slim to carry the hopes of black women in Hollywood and beyond.
As style icon Iman (another one-named beauty with roots on another continent) has said: "Since I've been in America, I've always been intrigued by one phrase: 'She is beautiful, like the girl next door.' I have always wondered whose neighborhood they were talking about."
In a changing neighborhood, perhaps Nyong'o can be more than a single, beautiful flash.