Who Is Awkwafina?
In 2012, Awkwafina shared a video for her humorously boastful rap "My Vag" on YouTube. The video, which eventually went viral, cost her a job in book publicity but set her on the road to film and television stardom. In 2018 Awkwafina had key supporting roles in the hit films Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians. The next year she delivered an award-winning lead performance in The Farewell. She also co-created and stars in the series Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens.
Awkwafina was born Nora Lum on June 2, 1988, in Stony Brook, Long Island. She is the daughter of Chinese American Wally and Tia, who came to the United States from South Korea to study at SUNY New Paltz. Tia, a painter, suffered from pulmonary hypertension and passed away when Awkwafina was 4. Following this loss, Awkwafina began using humor to try to dispel the sadness she saw in those around her. She wrote in People magazine in 2019, "I think all the time, what would I have been doing if my mom hadn't passed? I don't think I’d be here, because I think that I had to face a certain level of trauma to be so joyously self-deprecating and so free."
Her father and his mother raised Awkwafina in Forest Hills, Queens. She's said that as a child, "My every birthday wish was, 'I want to someday be on TV.'" Yet she felt the lack of role models who looked like her until a 7-year-old Awkwafina saw Margaret Cho on the small screen. Awkwafina feels that Cho "changed my life. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be doing this." Lucy Liu was another inspiration; a young Awkwafina waited outside the Saturday Night Live studios to see Liu when she hosted the show.
Awkwafina has credited her grandmother, who never fit the stereotype of a submissive Asian woman, with boosting her confidence: "My grandma raised me with unconditional love. People used to make fun of me about my [low, raspy] voice. I’ve always had this voice, even as a kid, and my grandma told me, 'Don't ever be ashamed of what makes you weird, because that is why I love you, and that's what makes you special.'"
School and Early Career
Awkwafina started playing the trumpet in school, a choice she made because it was the loudest instrument available (too many kids wanted the drums). Her playing got her into Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School (the school that inspired the film and TV show Fame), but she agreed with her teachers that she shouldn't pursue a career with the instrument. After graduation, she attended SUNY Albany, where she majored in journalism and minored in women's studies.
Following college, Awkwafina worked as a publicity assistant but was let go after "My Vag" came out. She then took on a variety of jobs, including at a vegan bodega, to make ends meet while pursuing a career in entertainment. At this time her father urged her to consider what he believed were more secure positions, such as an air traffic controller or meat inspector. However, he came to accept Awkwafina's path as she climbed the ladder of success.
Creating the Name Awkwafina
Awkwafina came up with the name Awkwafina when she was 16, with the spelling a nod to her feelings of awkwardness. Years later, when she posted the video for "My Vag" on YouTube, "it seemed disingenuous to pick a random name to put the video under, so I stuck with what I felt was right. Then people started calling me that in real life."
In a 2018 interview, Awkwafina explained how creating a new identity has helped her perform: "She comes in, and in many ways, she represents that universal aspect of confidence — that voice you kind of reach into when you need to pick yourself up." Yet in Vanity Fair's Hollywood 2020 issue, she said her identities as Nora and as Awkwafina have become less separate, "I mean, when I first started as Awkwafina there was a more distinct duality, where this is the one that’s performing and this is the one that’s at home having a panic attack. But as I get older, I think they’re the same person. This is the one that this one hides behind, you know?"
Awkwafina developed a love of rap music when she was young, was rapping herself by the age of 13, and later began using GarageBand to produce her own beats. "My Vag" was written when she was 19, a comeback to Mickey Avalon's "My Dick." In 2012 she recorded a low-budget video of the amusingly trash-talking song and uploaded it to YouTube. The decision proved to be a turning point in her life, as she described to Rolling Stone in 2018, "I didn't expect anything to happen. There was no game plan. I had nothing to lose, y'know. And to this day, everything that has happened to me — my first movie gig, my first non-music gig — was all from that."
Following "My Vag," Awkwafina put out songs like “NYC Bitche$" and "Giant Margaritas." Her album Yellow Ranger appeared in 2014. She joined Cho to make "Green Tea" (2016), which parodied Asian stereotypes. Awkwafina was also featured in Bad Rap, a documentary that followed her and three other Asian American rappers. Her In Fina We Trust came out in 2018.
Though her acting career has taken off, Awkwafina has no plans to leave music behind. However, she feels her music may be limited in its appeal. "I've kinda given up on marketing Awkwafina for the masses," she revealed in a 2017 interview. "I decided I'm gonna continue making weird music, and my small niche fan base that is still with me to this day will continue liking it and I think people will continue to be confused by it."
Awkwafina's first film role was as a sorority sister in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016). She got the opportunity to audition because Seth Rogen, star of the movie, saw her viral YouTube video. Awkwafina next played one of a group of female stoners in Dude (2018). Dude's director, Olivia Milch, co-wrote Ocean's 8, and suggested Awkwafina join that movie's all-star cast.
Playing Peik Lin in the blockbuster romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians brought Awkwafina more fame. However, she did receive some criticism for using a "blaccent" — when a non-black person appropriates black vernacular — in parts of her performance in the film, and at other points in her career. When asked about the controversy, Awkwafina said, "I welcome that conversation because I think as an Asian American identity as a people, we're still trying to figure out what that is."
Awkwafina's star continued to rise with 2019's The Farewell. In her first lead role, she portrayed a Chinese American who struggles with her family's decision not to inform her Chinese grandmother of a terminal cancer diagnosis. Awkwafina has said that the role resonated with her in part because of the early death of her mother. In 2020 Awkwafina won the Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy for her work in The Farewell, making her the first Asian American to win a Golden Globe for Best Actress.
The Farewell required Awkwafina to speak Mandarin. Awkwafina did not grow up in a Chinese-speaking household but traveled to China as a young woman to study the language. She worked on her language skills to prepare for the role, but her character shifted from being a fluent speaker to one closer to Awkwafina's abilities. "I think that it was good," she said of the change, "because a lot of Asian American kids have that level of the language — just a conversational level, but the vocabulary isn’t there."
Awkwafina hosted the offbeat online talk show TAWK. In 2014 she appeared on MTV's Girl Code, and the following year was seen on the spinoff Girl Code Live.
In 2018, Awkwafina hosted Saturday Night Live. She was the second Asian American woman to do so.
The series Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens premiered on Comedy Central in 2020. The show, a semi-autobiographical take on Awkwafina's family and life in New York City, was renewed for a second season before its debut.
Awkwafina’s NYC, a guidebook for New York City that focused on areas off the beaten path, was published in 2015.
As a Role Model
"There are young Asian girls that really look up to me, and I say that in the most non-cocky way ever," Awkwafina told Elle in 2018. "You have to represent them well, and in doing so you can't be controversial in a way that is ignorant."
Bearing this responsibility in mind, Awkwafina is thoughtful about her career. For example, when asked to speak with a fake Asian accent during an audition she "walked right out of that. Accents in certain scenarios for characters might be necessary, but if it's not doing it in a way that's good, it's just wrong." Yet she's also acknowledged, "Turning down roles, I think, is a thing of privilege."
Awkwafina, therefore, intends to use her voice and position as best she can. "I don’t know how much I can dictate about my future," she said in 2019, "but I do know that if I gain a platform at any point, I want to help the next generation. It doesn't end here. It has to keep going on."
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