The Complete Evolution Of Michelle Yeoh

Michelle Yeoh didn't make her way to an Academy Award all at once in 2023. Her global stardom has been many years in the making — 40, to be precise. But the skilled stuntwoman has never been one to back down from a challenge, be it jumping off a ledge suspended in the air or rising like a phoenix through the ashes of racism. Admittedly for Yeoh, the waters weren't calm when she first dipped her toes in Hollywood. She made a smashing debut in a James Bond film, a kickstart many young actors would kill for, but it didn't exactly spell the end of stereotypes attached to her Asian identity. By rejecting labels, boxes, and myopic roles, she (in her own words) "frickin' broke the glass ceiling." 

The resounding success of her career-defining film "Everything Everywhere All at Once" could signal a bend in the road for the American film industry, which has struggled with inadequate ethnic representation for years. Yeoh knows she deserves to be where she is right now, at the top of her game and in people's hearts. "We found ways and means to get better so that we could be seen, and so that we could improve. That's why we're here," she told Deadline. A true blue icon, we say. Let's take a look at Michelle Yeoh's life and what it took for her to climb up to her golden moment. 

Michelle Yeoh had a multicultural upbringing

Michelle Yeoh is a product of many cultures. Born in Malaysia, she traces her heritage back to China through her parents. Spending her time between her home country and London during her formative years, Yeoh was exposed to many cultures and picked up on a lot — except Cantonese. Her lack of this particular traditional aspect attracted some very annoyed reactions, especially in London's Chinatown, when she was in a teenage student in the city. "We had the Chinese look at us in disgust ... we were told off when we were kids," she recalled for Yahoo Movies UK. Eventually, she became fluent in Cantonese, just one of many languages she can speak, besides Malay and English.  

Yeoh's mother Janet Yeoh, however, was intent on her daughter living by the customs of her culture — even if that meant accompanying her on dates. As a teenager, she was once at the movies, sitting between her date and her mother who had tagged along. Each of them had their hands in Yeoh's lap: "They both thought they were holding my hand when they were holding each other's," she told You magazine. Now that Yeoh is older and can go on dates — alone! – romance has taken her across the world. Especially to Geneva and Paris, two places she calls home, courtesy of her longtime partner Jean Todt. 

She grew up with dreams of becoming a ballerina

Like many natural talents who accomplish great heights in their acting careers, Michelle Yeoh did not start off wanting to be a movie star. She dreamt of becoming a ballerina with a dance studio of her own. During her teens, she set off in pursuit of her ambitions to the United Kingdom. A college peer of Yeoh's from Cheshire recalled her as being a mysterious, "unassuming," friendly presence who enjoyed watching horror films. "She had to come to the country to engage in serious dance training," one Steve Barlow told the BBC. Yeoh notably attended classes at London's prestigious Royal Academy of Dance. She took her aspirations and ran with them until she was 16, when an unfortunate spine injury put an end to her ballet dreams.

"People talk about seeing their dreams shattered, but that really happened to me," Yeoh told The Guardian. A true believer in the power of physical expression, Yeoh was dismayed to hear that she couldn't pursue ballet any longer. Though she saw her degree through to the end, Yeoh had to make the switch from ballet to choreography studies. She also studied drama, of which she wasn't exactly a fan. Stage fright gripped her and, as she revealed to The Hollywood Reporter, she bunked classes frequently. In fact, she said her professors "would have bet their last dollar" that Yeoh wouldn't become an actor. We'd love to know what they made of her Oscar win.

Her mother launched her career in showbiz without her knowledge

Michelle Yeoh's mother, Janet Yeoh, was a diva in her own youth. It was perhaps her desire to pass her legacy down to her daughter that compeled her to kickstart Michelle's modeling career while she was young. In fact, it wasn't unusual for her to find her own face looking back at her from magazine pages, according to Town & Country. After her stint in London, the younger Yeoh made her way back to her Malaysian homeland. There, Janet ushered Michelle into the 1983 Miss Malaysia pageant and, like a good daughter, she went, performed, and conquered. Her first crown opened the doors to more pageants, but modeling was a path Yeoh didn't pursue much longer. 

Having their mother pick out a career option for them — by going the length of forging signatures, no less — would be an unfathomable idea to many. Not to Yeoh, whose mother expresses love by doing things for her. "She still treats me like I'm six ... If we were back home right now, she would have laid some clothes out for me," the 60-year-old Oscar winner told Deadline. With all the glory to her name over the last four decades, Yeoh has little reason to begrudge her mother for escorting her into showbiz — and it's something Janet won't ever let her forget. Michelle repeated her mother's words to T&C: "It's me, I created her, I gave her this." 

Her screen debut was an ad with Jackie Chan

Few actors have the fortune of getting a jump-start with a superstar during their debut years in an industry as competitive as showbiz. Michelle Yeoh got hers with someone who became one of the most sought-after action heroes in the world: Jackie Chan. At the insistence of her mother, Yeoh had only just set off down the path of modeling when the opportunity of a lifetime was presented to her. According to Elle, it was all thanks to a friend who put Yeoh in touch with the right people that she memorably appeared in an advert for Guy Laroche watches alongside Chan. The commercial, dating back to 1984, was Yeoh's first screen appearance. 

Something of a starlet, who had already imprinted herself in the fashion and television world, Yeoh came to the attention of the production company D&B Films. The Hong Kong-based enterprise — co-founded by Dickson Poon, whom Yeoh eventually married — gave Yeoh a start in films later that year. Yeoh and Chan came together in 1992 to co-star in "Police Story 3: Supercop." Both high-kicking martial artists who achieved international stardom, Yeoh and Chan didn't lose touch over the years. In fact, they josh around quite a bit. The makers of "Everything Everywhere All at Once" initially approached Chan for a role — a detail he made sure reached Yeoh, per The Guardian. And Yeoh replied, "Your loss, my bro!"  

Action films breathed new life into her childhood passion for dance

Michelle Yeoh found her girlhood dreams of ballet and dancing coming back to her full circle, as she flung herself deep into the realm of action films. "Yes, Madam" in 1985 marked her first major film appearance as a lead star, followed by a flowering '90s decade with standout titles like "Police Story 3: Super Cop," "Magnificent Warriors," and "Wing Chun." As Yeoh trained for her films, parallels between the two schools of physical movement she was adept at were hard to miss. "Audiences just see the punch going outwards in kung fu, but it has to come from within you first," she told the South China Morning Post back when "Tai Chi Master" was released in 1993.  

Though her background in ballet was a testament to her physical strength, Yeoh was not handed high-intensity action roles at the earliest stages of her career in Hong Kong's industry. From the sidelines, she watched the boys perform what, to her, looked like "an elaborate, choreographed dance piece, except there's no music," she told The Independent. By her second film, she convinced the industry that she was as good an action star as the men, if not better. In 2000 came Ang Lee's Oscar-nominated feature "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which universal agreement contends is one of the best representations of Yeoh's lyrical movements. 

She briefly stepped away from acting to prioritize her marriage

Less than a decade into becoming an actor, Michelle Yeoh hit pause on her career to tend to other dreams. After playing a millionaire in the 1987 film "Easy Money," Yeoh stepped back from acting and got married to well-known businessman Dickson Poon a year later. Her decision was apparently personal, influenced by her struggle to juggling many roles at once. "I couldn't understand how I could have a full [career while] being married," she told Bustle. Yeoh was looking forward to a domestic life busy with motherhood duties, calling it her "new career move." But life had other plans. 

Yeoh could not conceive children, and the circumstances accounted for Yeoh and Poon parting ways in 1991. The divorce was amicable, with Yeoh recalling her time with Poon fondly and even undertaking the role of godmother to his daughter, Dee Poon. Asked by Tatler to name her idol, Dee gushed about her godmother: "She's the most generous and warmest person in the whole world." When Yeoh was ready to return to acting after her hiatus, the Hong Kong industry welcomed her back with open arms — and the rest, as they say, is history. She did find love again in 2004, with French auto racing honcho Jean Todt. The couple has been engaged for nearly two decades.  

From dangerous stunts to deportation — she has gone to great lengths for her career

Being an actor (and an action star at that) comes at a great price, and heaven knows Michelle Yeoh has paid more than her fair share. Despite the lack of any formal martial arts training, Yeoh flourished as an actor who did her own stunts. She was at the top of her game in the Hong Kong film industry in 1995 when she took a perilous 18-foot plunge during production on a movie incidentally titled "The Stunt Woman." It was a common cinematic trick she was trying to pull off — falling off a great height onto a passing truck — but as Yeoh told The New York Times, "When it's an easy stunt, that's when things can really go wrong." She was left seriously injured. 

Her risk-prone profession hasn't deterred Yeoh from giving it her all. "When you have injuries, you have to work doubly hard to make those parts stronger," she explained to The Columbus Dispatch. With age, though, she's more willing now to hand over the more back-breaking stunts to her team. Physical strain isn't the only consequence of Yeoh's work. In 2011, she portrayed Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi in "The Lady," which led Myanmar to blacklist and deport her from the country. 

She was a pioneering Bond girl

Ask any James Bond fan to list their top female leads from the acclaimed spy-action series and Wai Lin will likely find a ranking. Played by Michelle Yeoh, the pioneering character made an appearance in the 1997 film "Tomorrow Never Dies" as the franchise's first Asian heroine. It also marked Yeoh's Hollywood debut. The characterization was pathbreaking in more ways than one, with Wai Lin fighting the bad guys shoulder to shoulder with Pierce Brosnan's 007 — and in attire that wasn't pulled out of the archetypal Bond girl's sexy wardrobe. "It's about time he met his equal," Yeoh told The New York Times soon after the film premiered. 

Director Roger Spottiswoode gushed about how Yeoh, as a "centered, extraordinarily gifted athlete," was tailor-made for the role of Wai Lin. While she managed to dent sexist traditions within the Bond universe, Yeoh's acclaimed role didn't solve all the challenges of racism. Almost three decades after her Bond break, she told People that Hollywood neither bothered to educate itself about her ethnicity nor hid its prejudice. "They would talk very loudly and very slow," she recalled. Choosing to decline work that drew on Asian stereotypes left Yeoh without any major releases for two years after that. 

Her early stint in Hollywood didn't come without racial stereotypes

Hollywood has carried the stain of racism on its legacy for decades — and Michelle Yeoh can testify. For the top-billing Malaysian actor, building herself up from scratch in a foreign industry in the 1990s didn't come without hurdles, the most prominent one being racism. The blatant way that the notorious industry bias played out isn't something Yeoh seems to have forgotten, evoking the memory during her acceptance speech at the 2023 Golden Globes. "Look at this face. I came here and was told you're a minority," she said, going on to recall people expressing shock at her English-speaking skills. "Yeah the flight over here was about 13 hours long so I learnt," she quipped. 

Yeoh's prolific Hollywood career boasts many powerful characters with identities of their own — she managed to outshine Pierce Brosnan in a Bond film after all — and token Asian roles irked her in particular. "Don't speak about diversity and just have us there because you want to make it look like it's diverse," she asserted to Harper's Bazaar. Yeoh has been vocal about the winds of change, as far as inclusivity is concerned, only being a recent development in Hollywood. She was appreciative about being cast as Madame Morrible in the upcoming "Wicked" fantasy films — a role that, she told People, would have gone to a Caucasian actor in the past. 

She's not as intimidating as she looks

Despite her megawatt smile, Michelle Yeoh has a notorious reputation for intimidating people — and we don't just mean on screen. While her character of Eleanor Sung-Young in "Crazy Rich Asians" was universally deemed terrifying, similar opinions have also been relayed to Yeoh in real life, she told the Los Angeles Times. The time she was first pitched her career highlight film, "Everything Everywhere All at Once," was an exhibit. When directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert approached Yeoh with the story, she sensed they were unnerved. "If we can't convince Michelle to do this movie, I don't think we have a movie anymore," she repeated their words. Yeoh is not sure what about her leads people to believe she is intimidating. 

We bet it's her track record as a badass martial artist who can take anyone down. Or maybe the fact that she isn't shy about flaunting her physical strength: "Shut up, please. I can beat you up, okay? And that's serious," she casually told the crew cuing the music pushing her to wrap up her acceptance speech at the 2023 Golden Globes. Yeoh's colleagues have often gushed about her agreeable nature, including Scheinert ,whom she apparently daunted. Talking to The Hollywood Reporter, the director recalled being playfully teased by Yeoh for the script: "It was like she was our aunt right away."  

Yeoh almost didn't play her iconic role in Everything Everywhere All at Once

"Everything Everywhere All at Once" is a history-making film in many ways, one of them being Michelle Yeoh's path to an Oscar after nearly 40 years as an actor. And to think that the role of Evelyn Wang that won her global acclaim almost didn't come to her. The script originally included a lead reverse, with the titular character being male and intended for none other than Yeoh's longtime friend and martial arts legend Jackie Chan. "I think it is a comfort thing to write it for a man, because it's an action movie," she mused to the Los Angeles Times. Eventually, the makers of the film came around and flipped the gender of the lead character, which went to Yeoh. And the world couldn't be more grateful for it.

Evelyn Wang was an everyday woman and a skilled combatant all at once, and it wasn't the easiest task for Yeoh to find the fine balance. The action star's portfolio is dominated by characters who don't crack a smile so easily. "Everything" was new terrain: "I get to do comedy, physical comedy, drama, romance, it's a love story," she told Elle. The film is as avant-garde as they come, and the eccentricity of certain scenes had Yeoh rolling on the floor with laughter. The Hollywood Reporter observed that to settle more naturally into the role, Yeoh forfeited makeup for the most part. 

Her Oscar win isn't simply a personal victory for her

Michelle Yeoh may have been the one to go up on stage and accept the Oscar statuette for Best Actress, but it's not a victory she claimed all for herself. Her history-making win for the acclaimed whimsical sci-fi "Everything Everywhere All at Once" was a symbol of success shared with the whole community of Asian people "who have felt unseen, unheard," Yeoh declared backstage at the Academy Awards. Throughout her career, Yeoh has fought long and hard for a place at Hollywood's homogenous table. "Everything" was a vehicle toward that goal, and she drove it across the finish line. 

"For all the little boys and girls who look like me, watching tonight, this is the beacon of hope and possibilities." The opening line of Yeoh's Oscar speech is one for the books, especially since she told the Los Angeles Times about people putting their hopes in her: "You have to do it for us." NBC News pointed out that Asians tally up to just about one percent of all Oscar nominations. The tide is, hopefully, changing. As Yeoh said post her landmark win: "Finally, after 40 years, I get this [Oscar]. It just goes to show we will win the battle and that's what we're doing."

She shares a great relationship with her parents

It became abundantly clear that family is a top priority for Michelle Yeoh when she delivered a heartfelt tribute to her mother (and everybody else's) from the Oscars stage. "I have to dedicate this to my mom, all the moms in the world, because they are really the superheroes," she said. "And without them, none of us will be here tonight." Even more moving than Yeoh's acceptance speech was her mother's reaction to her Oscar win, which went viral on social media. An emotional Janet Yeoh exclaimed jubilantly when her daughter's name rang out across the room in Malaysia, where Yeoh's whole family watched her make Hollywood history, per ABC7

Yeoh has been generous in her praise for her parents, who were perpetually supportive of her career in the arts and showbiz. One of the most uplifting pieces of life advice she ever got came from her late father and personal hero Yeoh Kian Teik. "My father told me to be appreciative, contented and never afraid to live my life," she told Evening Standard. Nevertheless, Yeoh's celebrity doesn't insulate her from the motherly rebukes every daughter endures. As the action star told Vanity Fair, one of the first things she has to hear from Janet every time they meet is a lecture about her hair: "Why didn't you cut it?" 

Age is no bar to her awesomeness

From the time she stepped into films, Michelle Yeoh has been a vocal crusader for giving women their due. From racism to sexism, she has kept up her advocacy for roles that neither stereotype nor objectify. As she grew older, she added another cause to her dossier: ageism. Of course, she's right on point. The annual report titled It's a Man's (Celluloid) World, prepared by San Diego State University, observed in 2021 that American films overwhelmingly favored more youthful representations of women on screen. For the 9% of male characters aged 60 and above, there were only 5% of female characters in the same bracket.

Yeoh threw a punch at this all-pervasive prejudice when she won her first Oscar at 60, telling listeners to dream big. "And ladies, don't let anybody tell you, you are ever past your prime. Never give up." Much like her own success story, her award-winning role as Evelyn Wang — a middle-aged immigrant who could love and fight with the same intensity — was a masterclass in the potential of older women. She told the Los Angeles Times that the suggestion for female actors to take early retirement is common and manifests as the lack of good roles for senior stars. As ever, Yeoh tackles it with spunk: "Do not tell me what to do. I should be in control of what I am capable of, right?"