Awkwafina’s Rise to Fame Came With Road Bumps That Would Scare Anyone Out of Show Business

Sun Apr 24 2022

Meet Awkwafina. What started as a middle school band alumna became a comedic legend. She’s been making a name for herself throughout the years as an up-and-coming comedian of Asian-American heritage who challenges standards of how women should be portrayed in media. This became her inspiration, but it also nearly became her downfall.

Though she is a minority performer herself, she has often been criticized for cultural appropriation throughout the years – even as recently as this year. She was nearly canceled – and in the eyes of some pop culture aficionados, she already has been. We’ve taken a look at her history and her paths to both success and failure, and she is certainly resilient, to say the least.

Meet Nora Lum, Best Known as Awkwafina

Before she was Awkwafina, rapper/comedian/actress extraordinaire, she was known as Nora Lum. Born in the Long Island, New York town of Stony Brook, she’s a New Yorker in every sense of the word. She’s the daughter of South Korean and Chinese immigrants, a cultural connection she has embraced and appreciated throughout her life.

Though she was born on Long Island, she spent her entire life in Queens. She grew up in Forest Hills, which is also the home of the legendary rock band, The Ramones. Her father ran a family Cantonese restaurant in Flushing, New York, a Queens neighborhood nearby with a large population of Asian immigrants. This neighborhood still has a large influx of immigrants from nations across the Asian continent, with many street and business signs reading only in languages like Cantonese and Korean.

She Learned to Embrace Her Quirks

Known for her raspy voice, Awkwafina learned to embrace every part of herself throughout the years. She knew was smart – her father worked in information technology and she was ultimately raised by family members who opened a business from scratch. She understood the importance of hard work and did her best to follow in her family’s footsteps.

Watching her family members thrive only inspired her to strike out into something many would fear to attempt. She started her pursuit of a career in the arts as a teenager. When she was just 13 years old, she began rapping and adopted the “Awkwafina” persona. This turned into her admission into one of New York City’s greatest performing art high schools.

She Studied to Connect With Her Chinese Roots

Aside from her art school education, she wanted to study more about her ancestry and learn the language that came with it to connect with her grandparents. She studied Mandarin from 2006 to 2008 at the Beijing Language and Culture University in order to connect with her roots and really jump into everything her ancestral culture could provide.

She’s passionate about her roots and wanted to be able to embrace them not only in roles she hoped to one day create for herself but through being able to connect with her grandparents in ways that were easiest for them. She understood the importance and really wanted to see things from their point of view. Her fluency in Mandarin only further proved her passion and love for her family.

She Felt Like Something Big Was Lacking in Hollywood

Whether it was her musical passion or aspirations to work in comedy and entertainment as a whole, Awkwafina knew she hadn’t seen many people that looked like her on screen. She wanted to be part of the change she wanted to see, and she also wanted to see it quickly. So, as she slowly advanced her career, she also made important social progress.

One way that she slowly made changes was through music performance. She played trumpet and studied classical music and jazz at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Other major stars who attended this school include actor Timothee Chalamet and rapper Nicki Minaj.

Her Earliest Heartbreak

Awkwafina’s mother, Tia, was a painter who she loved dearly. Tia had emigrated to the United States from South Korea with her parents, Awkwafina’s maternal grandparents. She, unfortunately, passed away from pulmonary hypertension when the future comedian was only four years old. This became her very first heartbreak in life.

As a result, she was raised primarily by her father, Wally, and his parents. In much of Awkwafina’s character work, the mother figure has either passed away or just wasn’t there. That’s how she coped with such a loss so early in life – it wasn’t really a figure that she had the privilege to grow up with due to tragedies beyond her control.

She’s Been Criticized for Her Dictation

As a racial minority, you might expect that someone like Awkwafina might be the one pointing out injustices. Well, as it turns out, this time she’s on the receiving end of the critique. The Asian-American rapper has been widely criticized for her dictation and the way she speaks, claiming that she speaks in a “blaccent,” appropriating cultures of BIPOC people in the USA and beyond.

She’s been called a cultural appropriator for the way she speaks and these criticisms have received vastly different responses from each other. She has spoken out herself about the way she speaks, citing that her immigrant family background gave her a unique insight into appreciating another culture in the way that she’s been able to, ultimately influencing the way she pronounces words.

She Gets It – But This is Who She Is

While under fire for her “blaccent,” or “Black Accent,” the rapper issued a lengthy statement on Twitter, pseudo-apologizing for the way things were perceived, though not really correcting what people thought was wrong. She simply gave context. “My immigrant background allowed me to carve an American identity off the movies and tv shows I watched, the children I went to public school with, and my undying love and respect for hip hop,” she wrote.

She continued, “I think as a group, Asian Americans are still trying to figure out what that journey means for them — what is correct and where they don’t belong. Though I’m still learning and doing that personal work, I know for sure that I want to spend the rest of my career doing nothing but uplifting our communities. We do this first by failing, learning, acknowledging, hearing, and empathizing… And I will continue, tirelessly, to do just that.”

She Struggled to Find Asian Role Models in Hollywood

Unlike many others, Awkwafina felt she had really lacked in finding other people who looked like her in the entertainment business. She didn’t see many characters who had similar features and she really wanted to find others who looked like her to become her mentors in Hollywood as she rose through the ranks.

She felt fortunate to have people like Sandra Oh and Lucy Liu to look up to. As she grew older and gained more experience, she continued to realize just how underrepresented her community was. The best way for her to help develop that part of the industry was to find more people like her and collaborate on projects, and seek their guidance whenever she possibly could.

She’s a Born and Bred New Yorker

Awkwafina was born in Stony Brook, Long Island, New York. This small university town in the suburbs of New York City has history and character, and it is unknown whether or not she feels a connection to it as her hometown or not. Needless to say, she was raised as a city kid, living and dying by the code of Queens dwellers alike.

New York is so engrained in Awkwafina’s life that not only did she create her show Awkwafina is Nora From Queens centered around her home neighborhood, but she’s even released Awkwafina’s Guide to New York City. This book gives a local’s point of view that you just can’t get from other celebrities. Additionally, she’s had characters in films like Ocean’s 8 with the same deep NYC roots that she has in real life.

Those Who Were Once Her Role Models Became Her Peers

As Awkwafina rose through the ranks, she found herself working alongside actresses that, once upon a time, were the only people she saw on TV that looked even a little bit like her. Suddenly, she was becoming friends with stars like Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, and Sandra Oh, to name a few. She was floating on cloud nine but knew it was time to come up with something allowing for further representation.

Not only did she find herself in projects playing Sandra Oh’s sister, she also found herself spending girl’s nights out with Priyanka Chopra, Margaret Cho, and Jimmy O. Yang. She successfully supported the other actors and actresses of Asian descent as they rose to fame alongside her, making sure that she was able to give roles to others with the same background as her.

Awkwafina is Nora From Queens

After a steady yet exciting uphill battle to establish herself in the music and comedy worlds, she started to have the stars align in her favor. She was working toward a solo career that would allow her to sprout wings and fly through the comedic field. Luckily, after a few breakout roles in movies like Bad Neighbors 2 and Future Man. Then, something amazing happened.

She signed a deal with Comedy Central to make an original series about her life in Queens. In her multi-season show, Awkwafina is Nora From Queens, she created a fictionalized version of her life. She incorporated many other up-and-coming comics of all races, sexualities, and gender identities to help advance the careers of others around her.

Her TV Family Makes Her Feel Nostalgic

Call it a sitcom, call it a modern-day comedy; whatever you call it, this show is absolutely crushing it across the board on reviews. It follows a fictional version of her life, where Nora lives at home in her late twenties with her grandmother and father. Her character doesn’t really have much of her life sorted out as a young adult, but she’s living in an environment with all the support she could possibly need, so she’s getting there.

The guest stars on the show have really made names for themselves, especially in recent years. Bowen Yang from Saturday Night Live plays a central recurring character, Nora’s cousin Edmund. Laverne Cox plays the Voice of God, and Natasha Lyonne plays a hair salon customer. Even a personal idol of Awkwafina’s, comedian Margaret Cho, made an appearance in the second season.

As She Became Further Established, She Was Recognized For More of Her Talents

Awkwafina is photographed below waiting to head off the Emmys. That’s right, what started as a rap parody of Mickey Avalon’s “My Dick” became several award nominations and victories. Before she made it to the Emmy stage, she became a Webby winner. Though it isn’t quite Emmy fame, her Webby wins were a good place to start.

She’s now found herself with a spot at this legendary television award show, and it looks like she will be joining this crew for the foreseeable future. Though she hasn’t been awarded an Emmy just yet, she has been able to gain recognition both as an individual and part of an ensemble. The BAFTA’s even recognized her as an emerging star back in 2020.

Her Breakout Rap Parody Still Stands Out Today, But It Got Her Into Trouble

When Awkwafina was just 13 years old, she began to rap as a hobby. Well, it turns out that she would capitalize on that self-taught skill and create a rebuttal song to Mickey Avalon’s “My Dick,” a song that appeared in films like The Hangover and Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay.

When she made a music video for this song, she was working as an assistant for a major publishing house. Her music video went fairly viral, with lines like, “My vag, a Beyoncé weave; Your vag a polyester K-Mart hairpiece” and “My vag, like tasting heaven; Your vag manage a 7-Eleven.” However, her boss saw the viral video, and Awkwafina was consequently fired.

She Struck Gold (Literally) With Crazy Rich Asians

When Awkwafina landed her role in Crazy Rich Asians as Goh Peik Lin, the Singaporean college roommate of protagonist Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu), she was truly getting recognized for her talents as a rising comic genius. So much so that Rolling Stone even did a feature profile on her history and proven ability to rise to the occasion.

The movie put many actors and actresses of Asian heritage not only on the map but in a position to play the most authentic version of their cultures. That’s right, there were no fake accents to be had by anyone. She recalled an instance where she was asked to do a fake accent at an audition. “I 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.” 

She Finally Wasn’t the Only Asian-American On Set For Crazy Rich Asians

For the first time in her career, Awkwafina was not the only Asian on set. In an interview, she divulged this new reckoning. “It’s not a period piece, it’s not trope-y. It’s just a good movie that coincidentally has an Asian cast,” she stated. When she was asked how it felt not being the only Asian on the call sheet, she said “It was never spoken of. How could tokenism ever exist on a set like that?”

She has always seen her rise to success as a good way to be inclusive and inspiring to other Asian performers, as well as young girls. “I want everything that I do to uplift and not to set them back,” she told USA Today. Whether she’s setting standards for Asians in Hollywood or she’s inspiring young women to rise up, Awkwafina has become their absolute biggest cheerleader.

Her Ocean’s 8 Role Paved Her Way in Hollywood

When appearing in the reprise of the legendary Ocean’s trilogy, Awkwafina played Constance. Constance was almost exactly like Awkwafina in real life; she’s street smart with a bit of a mysterious side. Who would have thought that Awkwafina’s normal persona would help characterize her role in one of the most unique film franchises to this day?

Constance was a street performer who had ways of swindling people out of their money. She knew how to play a long con and was an expert pick-pocketer. She really took her street character’s persona to a whole new level because she was able to model her character off of the people she grew up seeing on her corner of the neighborhood.

She’s Becoming More Acclaimed, But Not Letting It Get to Her Head

Awkwafina isn’t really that old. She’s still in her early thirties and grew up watching movies and listening to music that all incorporated the stars she acted alongside in Ocean’s 8. Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling, Anne Hatheway, and Rihanna… ARE YOU SERIOUS? Imagine one of your first breakout films allowing you to work alongside your idols?

Well, that was real life for her. She was acting alongside the people she looked up to for years on years and now, they were more than just the stars she listened to, they were more than the stars who entertained her on screen. Now, they were the people she was working alongside, as peers. She was now well on her way to becoming one of them.

She Helped Carve Out the Market for Asian Stardom

The market was always there, and while it may be many years later than it should have been, Awkwafina and Simu Liu, a Canadian actor, are helping to carve out more roles for Asian actors and actresses in mainstream media. Disney knew their progress couldn’t simply stop at the release of the animated film Mulan in 1998, and years later, they released something groundbreaking.

The Marvel Universe took many steps forward through the production and release of Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings. Coming out with a film with an Asian set of superheroes helped set a standard for a new normal. There are so many races in the world that it has never been fair to depict superheroes as falling into one or two categories. Luckily, Awkwafina was part of such important progress.

She’ll Be Appearing in a Dracula Film

This girl has been working a lot lately. It seems like project after project, despite being criticized for the way that she speaks and sometimes presents herself, she’s remaining consistent with the amount of work that she’s having offered to her and what’s been coming up on her horizon. She’s quite the lucky lady if you ask us.

One of the biggest projects she’s worked on in recent years is the film Renfield. This Universal monster film is a spin on Dracula and truly brings gore to the next level. Awkwafina will be appearing alongside Nicholas Cage and others, as he plays the coveted role of Dracula himself. It’s hard to say just what she will be doing in this film, but she’s certainly been able to get around.

Is Her Ego Getting Big?

It’s no secret that Awkwafina certainly isn’t at the same level as her Ocean’s 8 counterparts, nor Sandra Oh, Lucy Liu, or Margaret Cho. However, as someone rises to fame at any speed, it’s natural to wonder if their personality will be changing at all over the course of their successes and failures. So, we can’t help but wonder: is she getting a big head in the process of her come-up?

By the looks of it, she’s still the same Nora Lum from Queens, New York City. Her show, Awkwafina is Nora From Queens is merely a reflection of the life she knows for herself. Though she may be doing way more now than her character even aspires to, she still knows where she came from. She’s not afraid to poke fun at her own origin story.

Who Was Her Biggest Inspiration?

One of her biggest inspirations is Margaret Cho. For generations, there were very few Asian actresses that she could look up to, especially in the comedy space. She felt that so many people that looked like her were just at the expense of jokes, rather than the ones publicly making them. Luckily for her, she managed to produce a song with Cho!

The two produced a parody song about misconceptions about Asian cultures. From the beginning of their video, produced back in 2016 (not long after the release of her song My Vag), they play on stereotypical images of the past by pretending to smoke an old-fashioned long cigarette, but replacing it with a weed vape cartridge. Their song, Green Tea, pokes fun at every possible stereotype.

Will She Ever Leave NYC?

This is totally up for debate, though we will say that it seems like Awkwafina’s roots as Nora From Queens (both on and off-screen) are firmly planted right there in the Big Apple. She’s been working her way through the ranks over the years, not just in the comedy world, but she’s been working her up through the city that never sleeps.

From one New Yorker to the next, no matter your chosen borough, people always strive to make the most of their lives in the big city. It could be as simple as finally being recognized at your favorite bar, to moving from a walk up to a building with a doorman (and a view!) In the meantime, though,

What Should We Expect From Awkwafina Next?

After the “blaccent incident,” Awkwafina took a brief break from Twitter. She cited that the platform, along with other parts of the social media landscape, was basically a black hole that could be difficult to escape if she didn’t get out of there as soon as she could. Despite taking a step out of the social media spotlight, it seems like she’s got a ton on the horizon.

It isn’t totally clear whether or not her show, Awkwafina is Nora From Queens, will be renewed for another season. However, we know that we’re still going to at least be hearing a ton of her uniquely raspy voice. She’s voicing a character in The Little Mermaid‘s reprise coming out in 2013. She’s also been doing tons of other voiceover work through the years.