Everything you should know about Crazy Rich Asians star Awkwafina
Standout roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians have put rapper Awkwafina on the brink of movie stardom — but who is she?
Photography by David Titlow
Shortly after I sit down to interview Awkwafina, real name Nora Lum, we get into a debate about what I should call her in the piece. “My friends call me Nora,” she says. “So that? Or Awkwafina? Or both? Would that be confusing?” A little. Just writing down what she does—rapper-actor-comedian-author-talk-show-host—carries the risk of running out of hyphens. And that’s before you get to Brooklyn-based and Asian-American. She’s a complicated person.
I’m with the 30-year-old performer in the lobby of a swish London hotel, to talk about her unusually abrupt arrival into the world of mainstream entertainment. I had trouble spotting her at first, largely because she’s not wearing the beanie hat and Bill Gates spectacles that have become her trademark. When we do connect, we spend valuable time deciding what to call her, and more time deciding how to refer to her breakout rap video, whose title is a bit too saucy for this magazine. “Oh,” she says, discharging a hoarse, slightly wicked cackle. “Let’s just call it that video.”
You may only have a vague inkling of who Awkwafina is, or possibly no inkling at all, but she does have a dedicated core of fans. It all started with the video she recorded in 2012, to accompany a witty, scrappy, anatomically-incorrect hip-hop number she’d written to amuse her friends—a parody of male braggadocio in the genre. Her decision to put it on YouTube changed her life, and not in an entirely positive way.
At the time, Lum worked in the publicity department of a Manhattan publisher, a job she describes as “the best I ever had,” despite the fact that she was bad at it. “I’d come in and slink around on Facebook and take naps in the book room,” she says. “I was not an intrepid publicist at all.”
But the job had a gloss to it—at least compared to her stint at an air-conditioning firm. It fit with the lifestyle she was pursuing, which also included laying down hip-hop tracks that, according to the abiding laws of the music industry, should have been heard by no more than 30 or 40 people. But then that video went viral, her bosses got wind of it and Nora Lum got fired. “I’ve never felt any pleasure from losing that job,” she says, flagging down a waiter to order a beer. “To this day, I still feel disgraced.”
Don’t feel too bad for her. Lum has flown into London today from Barcelona, where she is filming the upcoming sci-fi thriller Paradise Hills. Next month, she has a scene-stealing supporting role in the buzzy rom-com Crazy Rich Asians. She also appeared as one of the lovable thieves in last month’s heist flick Ocean’s 8, along with Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway and Sarah Paulson.
Her role in the latter movie in particular—big budget, studded with A-listers—appears to have caught people off guard. In recent months, Billboard, Vanity Fair, Us Weeklyand E! Onlinehave all published Awkwafina cheat sheets (“Five Things You Need to Know … ”). The Los Angeles Timesand Timeboth ran headlines about her containing the words “this summer’s secret weapon.” The overriding theme in all these stories is: Awkwa … who?
To answer this question, you need to go back to the time she lost the best job she ever had.
After the publishing house canned her, Lum fell into a funk, working menial jobs, drawing unemployment and pondering the lifestyle options available to the destitute. She also kept an eye on how many views that video was accruing (there was a slight thrill when it hit 700), but only as a matter of pride. “Working in entertainment is a privilege, a class and cultural privilege,” she says. “I did not have the funds to quit work and pursue YouTube dreams.”
But the numbers kept rising, up to one million views, then two million and more. She has since made a number of follow-ups, including “Green Tea,” a collaboration with the comedian Margaret Cho, but it’s the video that cost Lum her job that introduced her to the world—or, at least, the student body of Sarah Lawrence College, which not only invited her to do her first ever rap show, but paid her for it. “That was the first time I thought, ‘Ooh, maybe I can do this for a living.’”
Soon afterwards, Awkwafina got a slot on Verizon’s go90 streaming service as the host of Tawk, a short-format talk show broadcast from local bodegas and other unlikely locations. The guests were often obscure, the viewing figures were small, but the series provided an ideal showcase for Awkwafina’s anarchic energy, improvisational flair and inexhaustible sense of fun. If her satirical rap videos revealed a knack for set-piece comedy, Tawkshowed that she could command a room—albeit one with tins of Dinty Moore stew on display.
In 2014, Awkwafina released her debut album, Yellow Ranger, and a year later published a travel guide, Awkwafina’s NYC, an early indication that she was becoming a brand. She also landed a role on MTV’s racy women’s-issues show Girl Code, and was profiled in the 2016 hip-hop documentary Bad Rap. Yet she was still confined to a very specific niche. Moreover—and this is a recurring theme with Lum—she was still very far from being financially secure.
“I was hustling every day,” she says. “How am I going to make money? How am I going to pay the rent?” Even when she scored a couple of movie roles—as a voice in the animated film Storks and as one of the sorority girls in the comedy Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising—Lum couldn’t relax. “Even now, I’m constantly thinking things like that. Even when life is going great, I forget. I forget.”
I ask Lum, given that she’s starring in a blockbuster summer movie, if she’s upgraded her lifestyle at all, maybe moved into a nicer apartment, and she laughs. “I think about it, but I’m too scared,” she says. “I consider all the money in my account to be the only money I’ll ever have. So my life is the same—where I wake up, where I go to the bathroom, the sheets I sleep on, none of that has changed. I still buy most of my clothes at Target.”
Nora Lum was born in the Forest Hills section of Queens, to a Chinese-American father and a South Korean mother. “Queens is the most diverse borough in all of New York City,” she says. “I grew up with every flavor of person, to the point where I didn’t understand racism.” When asked if she had a happy childhood, Lum shifts in her seat. “It was a good childhood, um, besides the obvious event, it was good, yeah.”
The “obvious event” concerns her mother, a painter, who died when Nora was four. “No, no,” she says, noticing that it’s me who’s squirming now. “This is something I talk about very openly.” In fact, she adds, losing her mother may have made her funnier. “A lot of comedians have faced adversity, or some traumatic thing, and for me that makes total sense. I used humor to distract people from the sadness, to keep things casual.”
By the age of five, Nora was doing standup for family and friends. “I enjoyed entertaining people,” she says. “I would do impressions of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny. I would sing ‘It Takes Two’ in her voice. I’d say things to adults that they would never expect a child to say.”
Though her dad was still in the picture, Lum was raised mostly by her grandmother, who was not only her primary caregiver but also her main source of inspiration. “The thing with my grandma, she was just not that vision of the Asian woman that I’d been fed growing up,” she says. “She was strong, stronger than a man. She took care of so many people, financially and emotionally. And she allowed me to be funny. If I told a dirty joke, she would laugh. She nurtured that. She loved that I was funny as a kid.”
Later, Lum taught herself to play the trumpet, eventually enrolling at the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan—the inspiration for the 1980s TV show Fame. “It wasn’t really like that,” she deadpans. “We weren’t dancing on cabs.” Lum also learned that being a star player in junior high means nothing when you’re in a school filled with even brighter stars. “That killed the trumpet dreams,” she says.
In college, Lum studied journalism and women’s studies. It was around this time she created Awkwafina—not as a stage persona but as an alter ego, or coping mechanism. “She was the part of me that didn’t grow up,” she says. “When you go to college, you learn to be disciplined, to function as an adult human being in society. Awkwafina represented the high school girl who is loud, who doesn’t care, who screams and screeches. She’s definitely a part of Nora, but a different part.”
Years later, when Lum entered the world of entertainment, she brought Awkwafina with her. “I needed her as a stage persona, because I wouldn’t be able to perform as Nora,” she says. “Nora would have an anxiety attack on stage, so I’d have to leave it up to her.”
Lum remains close to her grandmother, who has played right along with the alter ego—she had a spoofy “Ask Grammafina” segment on Tawk, and sometimes serves as a kind of bare-knuckle creative advisor. “She calls me to this day: ‘Why haven’t you made a better song than your first one? Your first one was your best song!’” Even so, Grandma is the person Lum turns to when her insecurity gets the better of her.
“I was talking to her last night,” she says. “I’ve been having these freak-outs where I get scared and anxious. She gives me the best advice.” The fears that haunt Lum at such times include: being exposed as an imposter; turning into “the king who finally gets power and becomes this crazy paranoid person who says, ‘Kill them all!’”; and becoming unemployed again.
“This is why the actor’s lifestyle messes with my head a bit,” she says. “I’ll wake up on a Tuesday with nothing to do and think, ‘Why aren’t you out there getting a job?!’” Sometimes, she adds, she and her grandmother will sit on the couch in silence, just staring at each other. “She doesn’t know what to do with her time either. She is also confused. We are entering the same phase together.”
When asked if there are any enjoyable moments, Lum recalls being on the set of Ocean’s 8one evening last year—“a crisp, beautiful New York night”—and spotting the building she used to work in, the offices of the publisher that sacked her. “That was one of the most amazing moments I’ve ever had,” she says, clapping her chest. “I’m here, [bleeps]!”
And she is. Seemingly out of nowhere, Awkwafina is rubbing shoulders with the Hollywood elite. Moreover, she has achieved all this without putting on a fresh movie-star face—there isn’t a huge difference between the brassy pickpocket in Ocean’s 8and the saucy host of Tawk. As for Crazy Rich Asians, she has some of the funniest lines in the film, and some of these are just Awkwafina making it up as she goes along. “We need women like her,” Sandra Bullock has said, “women who are unafraid to be who they are.”
It’s hard to say whether Bullock was referring to Lum or Awkwafina here. It’s a complicated situation, made more so by the fact that Lum’s biggest fear—that she’ll say the wrong thing and get drummed out of the business—derives from the brash, outspoken alter ego that made all this possible in the first place.
“I had a dream the other night that I was videotaped talking about something controversial, and it went viral,” she says. “I got 904 hits, and I was instantly dropped from the movie I was making. Some people have nightmares about serial killers; this is mine.” She smiles and adds, “Then, Awkwafina comes in and says, ‘Have a beer, you’re good.’”
Before we wrap up, I ask Lum if she ever thinks of retiring Awkwafina. She is, after all, working in an industry that tends to favor focus over mad bursts of inspiration. She is also—ahem—not a kid anymore. “I ask myself that all the time,” Lum replies. “I think I’ll be hilarious as an 85-year-old woman, but I don’t know if I’ll be rapping in a subway station.”
For the second time today, I feel bad for being insensitive. I tell Lum that what I’m suggesting sounds kind of disloyal. “What,” she says, “that Awkwafina might die at some point?” And there’s that laugh again, like a crow with a sore throat. “I think the day I shelve her is the day I become so satisfied and rich I never have to leave the house again. And I’m not sure I will ever get there.”
On working with celebrities
“Neighbors 2was the first time I’d ever been on a movie set. One night, standing in front of me were Seth Rogen and Zac Efron. I was like, what’s going on?”
On releasing a new album after a break of over four years
“I’d taken a look at my place in hip-hop. There was this idea that I was making a mockery of the genre, so I had to decide whether to do parody rap or take it in a serious direction. The music I’m about to release is a Frankenstein of the two.”
On being an “Asian-American” actor
“I tend not to take any roles that are just serving the purpose of being Asian-American. I don’t want to be an actor who doesn’t have any lines but makes a nice multicultural addition. That, to me, is more insidious than if they’ve just blatantly given you the role of Long Duk Dong.”