It’s hard to imagine asking the question, “Who is Awkwafina?” now.
With a handful of blockbusters under her belt, a history-making Golden Globes win for her role in The Farewell, and a string of viral hits, the woman once-known as Nora Lum from Queens is anything but unfamiliar. In fact, her swift rise to fame with films like Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians and the creative influence she now wields with shows like Nora From Queens is so renowned, it’s almost impossible to remember a time when she wasn’t disrupting Hollywood norms by way of feminist hip-hop odes to her vagina and diss tracks directed at former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York soda ban.
But it’s important to remember where Awkwafina came from because her success story, however unlikely, is proof that representation is worth fighting for. That, to win that fight, you have to be able to adapt, to roll with the punches, and yes, to get fired from you office job for unapologetically comparing your genitals to an operatic ballad.
It all started on Youtube. (Doesn’t everything?)
Well, really it started before that. Lum, the daughter of a Chinese-American father and a South Korean mother, was predominately raised by her grandparents in Forest Hills after her mother died when she was young. She turned to music at a young age, studying classical and jazz trumpet at New York’s LaGuardia High School. When she was in her teens, she created the alter-ego “Awkwafina” a riff on the bottled water brand that also rebranded her awkward comedy into a moniker of self-confidence. She received a degree in journalism and women’s studies from SUNY before taking a series of odd jobs including (but not limited to) vegan bodega worker, newspaper intern, an employee of an air conditioning company, and publicist for a book publishing firm.
That last is the position she was ultimately fired from after her single “My Vag,” a decidedly feminist take on rapper Mickey Avalon’s tribute to his own genitalia, went viral in 2012, netting over 400,000 views on Youtube. The song, a comedically infused, unashamed homage to that specific body part began, like many of Awkwafina’s great ideas seem to do, as a joke. She taught herself to compose beats on her Macbook when she was 19-years-old and quickly penned the song, creating a music video with some friends to accompany it and uploading it to the internet a couple of years later. She’d follow it up with similarly bawdy, unfiltered riffs on everything from gentrification in New York to soda bans and collaborations with comedy icons like Margaret Cho that poked fun at Asian stereotypes. Eventually, her viral fame ended up costing her a 9-5.
“I was working at an office company and my boss somehow figured out that I made a video and she immediately fired me. So, that was pretty sad,” Awkwafina told Galore. “But then, it was like, ‘Yo, I gotta do this because not only did I just get laid off, but I have this video out. So, if I walk into Cleary and Gottlieb for an interview, they’re definitely going to be like, ‘Oh my god, do not hire her.’”
She’d float for a while after that, starring on an MTV series, producing her debut album Yellow Ranger, connecting with other Asian-American rappers in the game, and even taking part in a documentary called Bad Rap that landed at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. She hosted a truly unhinged (in the best way) web talk show titled Tawk set in bodegas and laundromats around the city and featuring her grandmother, “Grammafina,” doling out sage advice in leather-arm-chair supporting interludes.
But as passionate as Awkwafina was about her music — she once described it as the only thing she has complete control over — she recognized early on that to build a lasting career in Hollywood, she’d need more than a handful of Internet-famous accolades.
“It was a career that was completely new to me that I felt I was blessed and completely lucky to have to the point where I didn’t trust that it would be a lasting career,” the artist told The Ringer. “Life doesn’t work that way. It couldn’t be that good. What happened was not that I became luckier, but I learned that it is a career and it is a job and you have to work to preserve it.”
And so she pivoted, harnessing her innate comedic sensibilities to land bit roles in feature films like Neighbors 2 and shows like Hulu’s Future Man. When the news of her Ocean’s 8 casting came along — the announcement that had Reddit boards and established entertainment writers querying just who the hell Awkwafina was — the once organic transition from comedy hip-hop to acting took on new meaning. Suddenly, Awkwafina was a name that resided on the same casting sheet as Academy Award winners like Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, and Cate Blanchett, not to mention pop idols like Rihanna.
Then came Crazy Rich Asians, a rom-com featuring an all-Asian cast that managed to dominate the box office and give audiences a moving, authentic portrayal of Asian culture and the importance of family at the same time. The experience shooting the film prompted Awkwafina to become more vocal about the need for inclusion and diversity in the projects she was being pitched.
“Here I am with an all-female cast and an all-Asian cast,” she told The Guardian. “I’m fairly new to this industry and I have not experienced some of the struggles I’ve heard about. Time’s up and it’s about time. No more bullshit characters for women, especially Asian American women. Don’t piss off whole communities of people.”
Awkwafina has gone on to make history a handful of times — as the first Asian-American woman to win a Golden Globe for a major acting role in a drama film and as just the second Asian woman to host an episode of Saturday Night Live in the show’s 40 plus year run. She’s created a popular comedy series loosely based on her own life for Comedy Central, voiced characters in multiple Disney films, been tapped for a role in Marvel’s first Asian-led superhero flick, released an NYC guidebook, and become a leading figure in the Times Up movement.
And she’s done it all without following in other’s footsteps, remaining true to herself while pushing the limits that were once delineated for her. Oddly enough, even with that eclectic resume, we have the feeling she’s just getting started.