Young, female, outspoken and Asian, Awkwafina (real name Nora Lum) is part of a new generation of performers redefining Hollywood. She grew up in Brooklyn, and made her name after the comedy rap single she made about her vagina (My Vag) went viral.
Since then she has parleyed the attention that video bought her into a career in Tinseltown that sees her take significant supporting roles in two of 2018’s biggest releases – Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians. Both films are part of a paradigm shift taking place in the movie industry. Ocean’s 8 was the first of the Oceans movies to feature an all-female cast. Crazy Rich Asians reflects changing times by turning outdated stereotypes on their head. The only white western characters in it are the staff.
Nora is happy to be part of the revolution. “We just want a seat at the table,” she says in her husky New York drawl. “We’re not trying to say that every movie should be a minority-led movie, just like we should make up a good percentage of them, because clearly these stories are wanted. I’m very optimistic about the change.”
In person, Nora is slight and un-starry, somewhat lost among the voluminous folds of her on-trend origami-style dress. She’s nonchalant about her rapid and unexpected rise. None of this was ever really part of her plan. She created her alter-ego, Awkwafina from her bedroom in Brooklyn while still at school.
“I never knew that it could materialise into something that I would not have to supplement with other jobs – like waitressing or whatever I was doing.” And yet, she says “my first movie role was in Neighbours 2 with Seth Rogen and he had found my videos on YouTube.”
Growing up in New York as the daughter of a Chinese-American father and South Korean mother, her upbringing was, by her own admission, “dysfunctional”.
Her mother died when she was four and she was raised mostly by her grandmother. “While my grandpa was off playing mahjong, my grandma worked two jobs to support everyone. She raised her kids, she raised me. She always represented to me a very strong person.”
Nora showed an early interest in performing and attended LaGuardia High School, famous for its performing arts programme, before going on to study Journalism and Women’s Studies at Albany University.
Meanwhile, she created Awkwafina as a channel through which to express her unruly, attention-craving unreconstructed side.
“I think every woman or girl has a certain duality about her. There’s the girl who was very loud or outspoken and then was stunted by adulthood, she had to learn social cues and she became neurotic about what she said, she became aware of political and social environments where she had to change her attitude, to normalise,” she says.
“There’s that change that every adult goes through and then there is that nagging inner child, I guess, that wants you to revert back to that careless self that never had to grow up in that way. That never had to learn to put on make up or any of that stuff. And I think that’s what Awkwafina is.
“Some people refer to her as an inner child, she’s also been referred to as raw ID. But for me she represents a certain confidence that I felt I like I had either suppressed, lost or forgot about.”
In 2012, she was working in a publishing company as a publicity assistant when she decided to spend her 24th birthday filming an absurd screwball comedy-rap all about her vagina (“my vag speaks five different languages,” she sings, “it told your vag bitch make me a sandwich”.)
Initial reaction was mixed. Her dad hit the roof and she was promptly fired from the publishing company. But her grandmother thought it was great.
“She always nurtured my spunkiness,” she says. “If I told a dirty joke, she wouldn’t yell at me. She would kind of like smile a little bit. When I showed her that video, she loved it. She didn’t think it was embarrassing, she wasn’t ashamed.”
Turns out grandma wasn’t the only one. The video has racked up nearly 3.5m hits on YouTube to date.
Music and songwriting will always be part of her life, she says, but for now she’s happy to focus on the opportunities coming her way in film.
She understands the kind of performer she is – not a chameleon that disappears into a role, but one that brings her own persona with her.
“Any role that I take, and this is also a good thing, it will need to be close to how people saw me as Awkwafina. People won’t want to cast me in just a universal role.”
But she’s not complaining. “The same things that used to make me feel weird in high school or growing up, they now make me stand out as an adult,” she says.
Crazy Rich Asians is showing in cinemas nationwide