The Untold Truth Of Awkwafina

Awkwafina (real name Nora Lum) is quickly turning into an icon. The musician and actress has starred in blockbuster movies like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, winning a prestigious award for the latter. Among her many accomplishments is the show Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens and her career as a rap artist.

Awkwafina may be a relative newcomer to Hollywood, but she has taken it by storm. If you aren't familiar with this talented actress yet, you will be soon. Awkwafina has disrupted the industry with her relentless authenticity, and her star is on the rise.

Who is Nora Lum? And who is Awkwafina? Hint: they are not exactly the same person, but you'll have to learn more about the performer known as Awkwafina to understand why. From her early years growing up in Queens to her history-making win at a certain award show, here is the truth about Awkwafina.

The sad reason Awkwafina turned to the arts

Awkwafina first began performing after she lost her mother at the age of 4. The actress' mother passed away from pulmonary hypertension, and the loss left a huge impact on Awkwafina. "My earliest memories of my mom are from when she was already sick," Awkwafina wrote in an essay for People, adding that she felt like she was a "fixture of sorrow" after she passed. She added, "Family members would come up to me and cry, and I didn't like that."

To escape the sadness, Awkwafina developed a sense of humor. "I tried to do this sideshow of, 'Hey, let me make you laugh,'" she said. "I needed people to feel joy. That's [how] all this began. I was the class clown all the way." She noted, "I think all the time, what would I have been doing if my mom hadn't passed? I don't think I'd be here, because I think that I had to face a certain level of trauma to be so joyously self-deprecating and so free."

In an interview with The Guardian, Awkwafina said that she "was always the crazy one."

Awkwafina was raised by her grandmother

After her mother's death, Awkwafina was primarily raised by her grandmother, although her father was still an active parent. According to People, her grandmother, Powah, moved to Queens to take care of her. Powah ran a strip mall restaurant. "At the restaurant I was spoiled, because I was the owner's grandkid," Awkwafina told Rachael Ray Every Day. "I'd go back there, and what I loved eating was white rice with just soy sauce on it. I would take my own spoon, and I'd open the egg drop soup and eat directly from it."

Awkwafina's mother was Korean, but she grew up more connected to her Chinese heritage because of all the time she spent with her Chinese grandmother. For years, she felt disconnected from her Korean heritage. "I really didn't talk to my Korean family," she said of growing up multicultural. "It's different meeting your older relatives. They're talking to you in Korean and you can't really understand it, but you know you're Korean and there's a connection. It really wasn't until I met this group of Korean rappers, who are my best friends now, and they really reintroduced me to the Korean culture."

This is what Awkwafina was like growing up

Awkwafina was quite the tomboy growing up. "I climbed trees, was very rambunctious, like complete energy," she told Marie Claire. "Looking back, I would think of myself as a nightmare. At every fancy event, after coming out of the bathroom, my entire dress would be tucked into my pantyhose. I was messy."

The Crazy Rich Asians star added that her trademark raspy voice has been one of her defining characteristics ever since childhood. "People are not going to believe this, but I have sounded this way since I was a toddler," she said. "I would pick up the phone as a kid, and people didn't know if they were speaking to the man of the house. ... I never sounded right."

Awkwafina's voice has often taken people off guard, and she uses this to her advantage. "When I got my driver's license, men would try to cut me off or do the 'Asian driving' bit, that whole thing," she said. "I'd roll down the window and start going in on them, just screaming, really hard-core aggro. And they would be shocked. Every single person, like, 'Oh my God, I did not expect that.'"

These women are Awkwafina's biggest inspirations

Awkwafina's comedy chops were partially inspired by fellow Asian American actress and comedian Margaret Cho. "She was incredibly important to my upbringing because she was the one guiding light that said, 'It is possible. I did it. It's okay [to not fit in]; I don't care,'" she told Forbes.

Another reason Awkwafina was inspired by Cho was because she disrupted stereotypes of Asian Americans. "The way that media portrays people is the way that they are then treated in real life," she told The Guardian. "Anything I grew up being taunted with ... those are generated from characters or the way we are spoken about in standup comedy." She added that she "latched on to strong Asian-American idols" that "represented us as truly authentic beings."

Another of Awkwafina's role models is Lucy Liu. In 2018, Awkwafina became only the second Asian American woman to host Saturday Night Live. Liu had been the first. As a child, Awkwafina was so inspired by the actress that she waited outside the SNL studio hoping to see her. "I was obsessed with Lucy Liu, especially after Charlie's Angels; that movie changed my life," she said.

Awkwafina's early career beginnings

Awkwafina's roots in the performing arts run deep. She began playing the trumpet when she was in the fifth grade. "I wanted to play the drums but then like 15 other people wanted to, so I was like, 'OK, what's the next loudest instrument?'" she told Variety.

Awkwafina was so good at the instrument that she attended LaGuardia High School, a performing arts high school. While she excelled in music, she didn't shine in academics. "I was such a bad student, my dad had a parent-teacher conference and my teacher told him, 'For some people, the best thing that will ever happen to them is getting into LaGuardia,'" she told Time Out. "And I remember it resonated with me. What happens after this? ... Where do I go? That road led me here."

According to The Guardian, after high school, Awkwafina went to college where she majored in journalism and women's studies. She also studied Mandarin in China before getting a job at a video rental store and later an air-conditioning company. She finally landed at a publishing company, which is where she was working when her performance career began to take off.

Awkwafina got her start on YouTube

Before she was a movie star, Awkwafina was making waves on YouTube. Her music video "My Vag" was released in 2012 and went viral. "I didn't intend it to get more than 30 views from like my entire family," she told NPR.

The video also caused an uproar, and Awkwafina was fired from her job at the time. "There was a chance that I could never get a 9-to-5 job ever again, because all it takes is one Google search and then that comes up," she explained. "So I knew that there was no turning back. But I had nothing to lose, and that's when the best things happen."

Awkwafina threw herself into music and acting. Her early screen appearances include Girl Code and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. After appearing in the film Dude, she caught the attention of Gary Ross, who cast her in Ocean's 8, introducing Awkwafina to a wider audience. The role of Constance, a street hustler, was created just for Awkwafina, who starred in the movie alongside the likes of Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, and Mindy Kaling. "[Gary] saw a rough cut of Dude and hired me on FaceTime, so that's how that happened," said Awkwafina.

Awkwafina isn't just a stage name... it's an alter ego

Awkwafina adopted her stage name when she was just 15 years old. According to Elle, the name was originally "Aquafina," like the bottled water brand, but she changed the spelling to avoid copyright infringement (and a potential lawsuit). "I just thought it was a funny name," she told The Guardian. "And it was fitting that it had 'awkward' in it, because I am awkward."

The moniker is just as much a stage name as it is an alter ego. In real life, Awkwafina goes by her given name, Nora. Awkwafina is just a persona she puts on for the outside world. "I think I channel her to gain confidence in situations where I'm insecure," she told Time Out. "Awkwafina is what I present to the world, and Nora is who I go home to."

In an interview with NPR, Awkwafina said that her alter ego is a vital part of her career. "I would not be able to perform onstage without Awkwafina; Nora could not perform," she said. "All the neuroses, all the self-consciousness that comes with adulthood, Awkwafina doesn't have that."

Awkwafina learned this for her role in The Farewell

Even though she grew up in a Chinese household, Awkwafina never became fluent in the language. In order to prepare for her role in The Farewell (as noted by Deadline, the film is in English and Mandarin), she had to do some intense language study. "When I got the script, I wanted ... I needed to do this movie," she told Vox. "I didn't care if it was drama, I didn't care what it was — it felt like it just came to me in an auspicious way. So I studied really hard. Six-hour days of just drilling it in, getting the accent right. It meant that much to me. I really wanted to work for a character like that."

Awkwafina hired an international student to coach her. She explained that she needed to understand what she would be saying in the film "structurally" and in terms of vocabulary. She shared, "You have to know not only what you're saying, but you have to know the verb, and what 'I' means, and what this new word here means." She noted that she studied "just talking" because she didn't "think that [her character] was supposed to talk well."

Awkwafina made history when she won a Golden Globe

Awkwafina won a Golden Globe for her role in The Farewell – and it was Awkwafina's first Golden Globe nomination! Winning a Golden Globe wasn't just a personal win, though. Awkwafina also made history when she won the award as the first Asian woman to win the award for best actress in a musical or comedy. In her acceptance speech, Awkwafina thanked her parents and her grandmother, as well as the film's writer and director, Lulu Wang. "You gave me this chance, the chance of a lifetime, and you've taught me so much," she said (via HuffPost). "Just filming this story, being with you, is incredible."

Awkwafina was surprised to even be nominated for the prestigious award. In an Instagram post following her nomination, she wrote, "This week has been so surreal. Incredibly honored to wake up to the news this morning ... Can't believe I am nominated alongside such insanely talented women."

Being a New Yorker keeps Awkwafina grounded

She may now be a household name these days, but Awkwafina isn't letting fame go to her head. Even if she was tempted, living in New York helps her keep her rooted in the real world. "Being a New Yorker grounds you in every way," she told Time Out. "Before you walk out of the house, you can dress in the nicest clothes and be whoever you think you are, but when you're on those streets, you're just in the school of fish."

Awkwafina has always been determined to stay authentic, as she shared, "I rap about what I know, always."

Not everyone is on brand with Awkwafina's brand of authenticity, though. She has been accused of cultural appropriation for speaking in African American vernacular English, colloquially called the "blaccent." The accent was notably employed in Crazy Rich Asians (via Vulture), in which Awkwafina starred alongside Fresh Off the Boat's Constance Wu.

Awkwafina feels a responsibility to the Asian American community

While Awkwafina initially resisted being labeled as an Asian American artist, she eventually grew to accept it. "Nobody wants to be 'the Asian,'" she told NPR. "They want to be 'the artist.' And at first, I really didn't want the burden of representing [the Asian-American community]."

Still, Awkwafina recognizes that her race will always be seen and is determined to be a good role model. "The only thing I can do... is to represent them well," she said. She noted, "I'm definitely not [representing] all Asians but the thing that I've always done is aggressively been myself. And I think that by being yourself, you don't dictate what an Asian-American is ... You just add to what we are as a diverse people."

Being in Crazy Rich Asians was important to Awkwafina because she recognized the impact a show featuring an Asian cast would have. "I told my team: 'I know this is going to be important,'" she said to Time Out. "'I don't care if they cast me in it — the fact that it's happening at all is important. I made it a point to tell them that."

Awkwafina wants to help kids get involved in music

Awkwafina's passion for music helped her achieve superstardom. It also led her to partner with NYC nonprofit Building Beats, which provides equipment, workshops, and mentoring for disadvantaged students who want to go into music production. "It also teaches you structure, how to be in charge of your own destiny and how to apply those tools later if you do want to go into the business of selling your music," Awkwafina told Variety.

Through Building Beats, Awkwafina wants to help kids who might not otherwise have the chance to pursue their dreams of working in the music industry. "I've been to a lot of workshops with Building Beats, and these kids really care," she said. "They remind me of me back then, you know? Though they go to after-school programs, which — man, you couldn't have paid me to go to an after-school program!"

She added, "Without certain tools, if you want to compete in a market, you won't be able to. But talent and passion don't discriminate."

Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens is a win for representation

In 2018, it was announced that Awkwafina would be getting her own comedy show, Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens. The Comedy Central series is based on Awkwafina's own experiences growing up and stars the actress, who is also one of the show's executive producers. "I've been watching Comedy Central since I was old enough to hold a remote, and so many of their shows have defined who I am today," Awkwafina said in a press release. "I am so honored to be given their platform to tell the story of an Asian American girl against the backdrop of the city I was raised."

Not only is Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens a win for Asian American representation (Asian Americans are underrepresented in film and television, per The New York Times), but it's also notable because it has an all-female writer's room. According to Awkwafina, this wasn't a deliberate move. "I just wanted to assemble a team of brilliant writers, and they all just happened to be women," she wrote on Twitter.