"It was exciting and just a major, major compliment," the 12 Years a Slave star said. "I was happy for all the girls who would see me on [it] and feel a little more seen."
Nyong'o, 31, was born in Mexico and raised in Kenya, where she associated beauty with what she saw on TV. "Light skin and long, flowing, straight hair," she said. "Subconsciously you start to appreciate those things more than what you possess."
The actress' mother Dorothy "always said I was beautiful," Nyong'o added. "And I finally believed her at some point."
Nyong'o, who recently landed a contract with Lancome Paris, isn't afraid to experiment with her look. As a teenager, she dyed her hair every color (except blonde) and even shaved her head all together. "It was very strange and very cold! She said. "It was scary but I like to dare myself."
Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lawrence and Julianna Marguiles also made People's 50 Most Beautiful list. What do you think of Nyong'o getting the top spot?
Missed Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave? Watch it here!