It’s not often you see Lupita Nyong’o — who may well win the Best Supporting Actress statuette at this weekend’s Oscars — in the same sentence as “unbeautiful.” In addition to her acclaimed role in 12 Years a Slave, she’s nabbed high-end fashion endorsement deals and has become one of the most-watched red-carpet regulars in Hollywood.

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But — as the actress told the crowd yesterday at the annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon organized by Essence (which is owned by the same parent company as TIME) — she didn’t always feel deserving of the attention. In accepting her award for Best Breakthrough Performance, Nyong’o took the opportunity to address her own evolving thoughts about beauty and race.

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She explained that she received a letter from…

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