Eighteen years ago, a young Asian girl stood outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza on the night that Lucy Liu hosted “Saturday Night Live.” A few weeks ago, that same young Asian girl returned to 30 Rockefeller Plaza to do something that only very few have done.
That young Asian girl’s name was Nora Lum.
The self-called “Asian trumpet player turned rapper turned actress” was born and raised in New York, and lived with her father and paternal grandmother in Forest Hills, Queens. During her teen years, Lum began her rap career. By day, Lum attended LaGuardia High School where she was known as just a trumpet player. By night, however, Lum created her own alter ego. She had always known that some part of herself was missing.
Although Lum’s passion was for music, she decided to attend college at SUNY Albany to study journalism. After graduating, she became a PR assistant yet continued to produce her own songs. Her breakout song, “My Vag,” came out in 2012 and gained over 3 million views on YouTube. Releasing her music video did give her some other opportunities, but it resulted in her getting fired from the only job she ever knew. Before Lum started rapping, playing trumpet and journalism were the two things that she was good at, but she knew she couldn’t be the best in those either of those fields. Lum always had a “bad” habit of telling dirty jokes, leading her to pursue acting as another way to make a name for herself. She pursued her passion of rapping and continued telling jokes but credited herself under a new name, the name that most people today know her as — Awkwafina.
After the PR-debacle and some deliberate thinking, Awkwafina started hosting the online talk show “The Tawk,” which led to a minor role in the comedy “Neighbors 2.” A few years after playing minor roles in various films and television shows, the Asian star got her first big break when she was asked to be cast as one of the main roles in the reboot of the “Ocean’s” series. Awkwafina played pickpocket Constance in “Ocean’s 8” this past year.
Earlier this summer, Awkwafina also played the role of Goh Peik Lin in the Warner Brothers film, “Crazy Rich Asians.” Director Jon M. Chu had Lum at the top of his list when it came to his dream cast. In fact, being a part of a film like “Crazy Rich Asians” wasn’t just what Hollywood needed, but what Lum herself needed.
Playing Peik Lin allowed the Awkwafina side of Lum to become more prominent and further allowed her to explore her audacious and fearless side — a side that never existed in Nora Lum before. Any time the cameras would go off, the playful Awkwafina hid away and the shy Nora returned. Lum herself said that “[Awkwafina] is kind of a lifesaver.”
Now, Lum has altered into Awkwafina. As she gets more comfortable with the attention and cameras, Awkwafina is who we see nowadays, and her career is just getting started. Over the next few years, she has big plans as an actress and a rapper. She is set to be featured on the big screen with films like “Paradise Hills, “The Angry Birds Movie 2” and a possible sequel to “Crazy Rich Asians.” It was also recently reported that Awkwafina and Tiffany Haddish could be starring in the next “Jump Street” film. Following the releases of her solo rap albums, “Yellow Ranger” and “In Fina We Trust,” Awkwafina has also been working on producing another album. Along with her feature films and music, Awkwafina is also an executive producer and writer for her own untitled show on Comedy Central.
The premise of the series follows Awkwafina as a young adult living in Queens. The show is said to be loosely based off of her personal life and will star BD Wong, Whiterose from “Mr. Robot,” as Awkwafina’s father and Lori Tan Chinn, Chang from “Orange is the New Black,” as her grandmother.
Awkwafina credits this project and her past success to the people who believed in her when she didn’t believe in herself. She shared this gratitude during the Women in Entertainment summit, presenting an award to the producer of “Crazy Rich Asians,” Nina Jacobson. During the presentation, Awkwafina said that Jacobson has been “fighting relentlessly to give traditionally silenced groups a voice.”
Over this past year, Hollywood realized that inclusion isn’t an illusion anymore; it’s what many people have been fighting for and this year was just the start of a longer journey ahead.
Awkwafina is confident that her success story was just the beginning for a new era of diverse storytelling. In an interview with Variety, Awkwafina shared her thoughts on Hollywood, saying, “It really takes discussion about whitewashing to realize America is not one color. It’s a giant melting pot, and there are so many ways people can relate to movies, to music.”
Whether people realize it or not, what is shown on the big screen does have an impact on the younger generation. If nobody who looks like them is represented on screen, how can they still feel like their voice is being heard? Inclusion isn’t just good for business; it celebrates the diversity that we see every day. “This might sound weird, but I think that I was looking for someone like me when I was little, just to feel less alone,” she told The Hollywood Reporter.
Awkwafina is breaking barriers for young Asians around the world. In fact, she broke the stigma of Asians only pursuing careers in STEM or medicine; she created a standard for the new generation that never existed before: be confident in who you are and who you want to be.