If celebrities really were just like us, they would all be Nora Lum. The exhilarating rollercoaster ride that the rapper and actress has been strapped into for the entirety of 2018 is slowing down, pulling into the final stretch, and Lum – who left her stomach back there on the track round about when the loop took her onto the red carpet for Ocean’s 8 – is windswept, mind-blown, and worried that she might never get a chance to go around again. In the past 12 months, the 30-year-old, who goes by the stage name of Awkwafina but away from the cameras is definitely a ‘Nora’, has premiered three movies, two of which – Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians – were among the biggest films of the year. She also released her second album, In Fina We Trust, and became the second-ever woman with Asian heritage to host Saturday Night Live.
Her route to fame, while it has elements of the routine – a childhood love of entertaining; attendance at LaGuardia ‘Fame School’ in New York – is bespoke. Born and raised in Queens, the daughter of a Chinese American father and South Korean mother, she pins her performer personality to the death of her mother when Lum was four. “I really do, looking back now, attribute whatever comedic sensibility I have to that traumatic event,” she says, with a degree of discomfort borne as much from talking about herself as discussing that childhood game changer. “I think I developed and used humor very early as a defense mechanism, to make people around me feel joy instead of sorrow. That was when I started to perform.”
Luckily, young Nora had – still has – a guardian angel in the form of her paternal grandmother, a woman who “really ingrained in me at a young age that it’s okay to be weird”. She was seven when ‘Grammafina’ stepped in because her father was so often at work, and, although money was scarce, the laughs were plentiful. “My Grandma nurtured whatever comedic sensibility that was [in me], because she loved that I was spunky. No joke was ever too dirty, I never got in trouble. I would say vulgar jokes, really lowbrow jokes,” she laughs. “She loved them all.”
“I developed and used humor very early as a DEFENSE mechanism, to make people around me feel JOY instead of sorrow. That was when I started to PERFORM”
‘Awkwafina’ emerged during college, while Lum was majoring in Journalism, born in part, she says, out of what she was learning in Women’s Studies: “Intersectional racism, institutional racism, the plight of [transgender people]… It gave me a sense of empowerment and a realization that a lot of women out there are not embracing their own power.” Right from the start, her work had shock value. The songs she produced and released on YouTube – or, as she calls it, “the Asian Hollywood, because there’s no gatekeeper” – were never intended to be feminist anthems, but they depicted a woman unafraid to go her own way and ruffle feathers in the process. Her family’s reactions were mixed. “My dad flipped a s**t, went crazy. But my grandma? Never. She bought me a DJ controller and a mic.”
Lum grafted, writing raps in 20 minutes, convincing mildly famous faces to appear on her YouTube comedy show, and spending the day interning at media companies. Then, in 2012, one of those hastily scribbled songs – a belated response to US rapper Mickey Avalon’s song My D**k, entitled My Vag – lit the touchpaper (these days, the quite frankly incredible lyrics and low-fi yet unforgettable video of Lum removing a series of bizarre objects from a vagina that, no, we do not actually see, is heading for four million views on the platform). Ish. Things were still scrappy: there was a book, Awkwafina’s NYC; a solo album, Yellow Ranger, in 2014; and appearances on TV. The touchpaper song got her fired from her job as an assistant in a publishing house and did not go down well with Dad – “He was horrified. Well, it wasn’t even the song, he was just horrified about my career move. He wanted me to be an air traffic controller because they make the best entry-level salary” – but, eventually, he came around. “He wanted the best for me and he did not believe that Awkwafina would ever become a thing,” she explains. Did she always believe, then? “Not at all, no. But I did know that if I didn’t try, I would grow old thinking, ‘Maybe life could’ve been different’.”
“I didn’t believe Awkwafina would EVER become a thing. But I did know that if I didn’t try, I’d grow OLD thinking, ‘Maybe LIFE could’ve been different’”
The difference between Nora and Awkwafina, as Lum is now very used to explaining, is that the latter is a no-holds-barred, speak-first-think-never version of Lum that she (clearly somewhat reluctantly) left behind in her twenties when more awareness and a tendency towards over-thinking set in. The persona allows her to do things that Nora would shy away from. Take her recent stint as host of Saturday Night Live: “You’re on live TV, you know that everyone you know is watching, so that’s when Nora’s eyes roll back and she just, like, falls, and Awkwafina comes out and does her thing.”
It’s certainly hard to imagine the woman who practically shuffled out of yesterday’s photoshoot, seemingly somewhat embarrassed at the whole procedure, happily taking center stage on one of the most critically judged TV shows around, or spitting out lyrics about the superiority of her genitalia. But Awkwafina does that, and more, with astonishing, endearing aplomb. Although the SNL appearance clearly had even her ballsy alter ego feeling very emotional – at one point Lum explains that, aged 11, she stood outside the SNL studio while Lucy Liu made history as the first Asian American woman to host the show, because she fully appreciated the weight – and the wait – of that moment. “It meant so much to me,” she sighs now. “I cried when she said that she was the first Asian female to host it. To be the second is just…arghghghgh!”
Of even more weight, though, was this summer’s runaway hit, Crazy Rich Asians – the first film since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club to feature a predominantly Asian cast set in the present day. So pivotal was the film, that the executives, including director Jon M. Chu, passed up a mega deal with Netflix to debut the film online, because they wanted to prove that viewers would turn up to the box office for this project and this cast. They made their point. As of now, it is the top-grossing romantic comedy of the past 10 years, with an audience made up of Asian, Caucasian, Hispanic and African American viewers – a great story translates, just as Asian audiences, who have been fed little but white-centered movies for decades, could have told the studio heads. “In the Asian American community, every year we say, ‘Oh, this is the year, Asian Americans are coming up’, but it never really happens,” explains Lum, who stole every scene as Peik Lin Goh, the best friend of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu). “And I think this year…it happened,” she smiles.
“In the Asian American community, EVERY year we say, ‘Oh, this is the year, Asian Americans are coming up’, but it NEVER really happens. And I think this year…it HAPPENED”
Her recent introduction to the mechanisms of Hollywood means that Lum has not endured the indignities of many Asian American actors; the parts she is offered, she says, are not thin or stereotyping – she would refuse them if they were. “Every movie I’ve done, it’s not even that they’re tiptoeing around it – it just hasn’t come up,” she says. But the issue of feeling ‘other’ in her home country is one she is indelibly familiar with. “I think growing up, [Asian Americans] always wonder, what am I?” Even the term is an insult. “‘Asian American’ is such a wide umbrella of so many different countries – the only thing we all have in common is discrimination. Every single one of us has seen the slanty eyes in elementary school; everyone has been called, you know, some racial epithet by some car-driving guy. We’ve all experienced it and we’re all made to feel less American.”
Lum is conflicted about Hollywood’s current ‘cancel culture’: a fear that if you say the wrong thing, cast the ‘wrong’ person, your show – or you – will be canceled. “If you were to say the same things you’d said in 2012 or do some things, it would just be like a cancel [now],” she says. “But [acting out of] fear… Is that the right thing? Or should you just do what’s right? Not throw people under the bus, not do s**t that’s messed up, not abuse minorities… [I guess] sometimes it takes being canceled to understand.”
She has stated more than once that she would never accept a role if it required a stereotyped accent. An easy proclamation to make once you have your pick of jobs, but was she always so principled? “I would never. You have a responsibility. It’s funny, because if you go to a white dude and ask, ‘Do you have a responsibility to other white dudes?’, it’s just not a question for them. For me, I have a responsibility to my community to represent them because there are so [few] of us. For years before Crazy Rich Asians and all this, there were Asian American actors, working actors, who had no choice about what they could take. So when you say no, that in itself is a privilege.”
“I have a responsibility to my community to REPRESENT them because there are so [few] of us. So when you say NO [to a stereotyped role], that in itself is a PRIVILEGE”
One thing she’s looking forward to about the end of 2018? Hopefully people will stop telling her it’s the best year of her life, the best it’s going to get. “It’s been crazy,” she agrees, shaking her head in wonder. “But every year that I’ve spent as Awkwafina, even when I was making $10,000, was always the best year of my life.” So, what has been her proudest 2018 moment? Not what you expect. “When I was fired from my job for shooting My Vag, I felt disgraced, shamed, and I never got over it. Recently my old boss wrote me this email congratulating me. I still carry that sadness, so it gave me a level of closure.”
Lum’s next movie role is also one that explores Chinese culture. In this case, about a family who hide a terminal diagnosis from their grandmother, because of the belief that once you are told you are dying, you give up and the prophecy self-fulfills. She admits that she was drawn to The Farewell because of her own bond with Grammafina, and says that the tears she had to produce during filming were easy to come by. It’s the closest she’s come, she ventures, to feeling like a ‘real’ actor, though she’s not quite there yet. Her reticence to see what she does as true acting – despite her performance in Crazy Rich Asians being called out as one of the best of 2018 – is symptomatic of her remaining disbelief that this is her career now. “I always expect it to end tomorrow,” she says, more than once. “I always expect that all the money I’ve made – not a lot – will disappear and Buzzfeed will write a ‘Whatever happened to…’ article about me. I’ll be coughing loudly in some cubicle, saying, ‘I was Awkwafina once…’ But if it does go away, I won’t be mad. Because it happened, you know, and that’s a privilege.”
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