I’ve always been considered different. Growing up, I used to get bullied in school for being a tomboy, but my grandma encouraged me to embrace the parts of me I was trying to hide. She knew that’s what made me unique. Then Awkwafina rose from a bunch of old Virginia Slims ashes. The events that led up to her are not normal.
Whereas Nora [Lum, Awkwafina’s given name] is the timid one who feels self-conscious and hesitant to take risks, Awkwafina embodies confidence. Music was the perfect creative outlet, and hip-hop always spoke to me — it’s a way of expressing angst. I was working as an assistant at a publicity firm when I came up with “My Vag” [the 2012 YouTube song and video that went viral]. It was so crass, I knew it wouldn’t look good to my co-workers. I was persuaded to wear glasses to conceal my identity and go under this name, Awkwafina, so that’s how she came about. I never wanted to rap about stuff that was shockingly dirty; I wanted to rap about being bold. I didn’t intend for the song to become a feminist anthem, though at its core I knew that’s what it would be because nothing like it existed at the time. The biggest risk I ever took was pressing “publish” on that music video, but in some ways I had nothing to lose.
When it came out, it was really un-pioneered land. I inevitably lost my job because of that video, but it set me on a new path. Art, acting, and music all became very fluid at this point, especially with the underlying theme of humor. A year or two after “My Vag” dropped, [actor-producer] Seth Rogen and [director] Nick Stoller came across the video online and asked me to audition for Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. I pretended to be a really gross sorority girl named Moonstone who never did the dishes. That was my first movie. From there I wanted to do more and see if I could pull it off.
Then 2018 happened, and my phone activity picked up a bit. Ever since I did Crazy Rich Asians, I’ve had moments when I wake up and think it’s all been a dream. It took a while for everything to really sink in. But I’m still the same me. It’s not raining glitter. I still buy clothes at Target. I never really had a road map. This still feels like a rollercoaster ride that I hope will never end.
I took on The Farewell [her latest film, a dramedy directed by Lulu Wang] for multiple reasons, but mostly since it had such a personal connection to me because of my relationship with my grandma, who raised me. I’ve read a lot of scripts, but I’d never seen one like that. It’s a new way of telling Asian stories.
Every time I walk into a room, I know everyone has an expectation of who I am, and I have to work hard to convince them otherwise. It’s really easy to lump Asian-American girls together without knowing that we’re a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and stories. My voice helps — it’s so unfitting for a 5-foot-1-inch, 120-pound woman — but I’ll continue to fight perceptions.
When it comes to choosing projects, I actively seek out roles that don’t evoke the dated Asian-American tropes my generation is trying to avoid. I’m very wary of those characters. If it’s an ensemble cast, I’ll ask myself, “Is it geared toward representation or just the façade of diversity? How many lines does the minority have? Is she a glorified background?” Accents are necessary in some scenarios, but not when they’re used to belittle people.
I’ve never thought of myself as a renaissance woman, but it feels nice! I definitely have done different things over the years, and they’re all connected. In the end, all I want to do is have an impact and inspire people, as cringey as that sounds. So, yeah, I’ll own renaissance woman. Maybe I’ll even go to the fair! — as told to Claire Stern
Awkwafina stars in The Farewell, in theaters July 12.
For more stories like this, pick up the July issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download June 14.
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