When people describe the power of the American dream, they often tell it as a rags-to-riches story. In some instances, this is true. However, thanks in large part to the power of the internet, there are similar stories with a new media twist. The latter could probably best explain how Awkwafina went from a DIY YouTube rapper to a full-fledged movie star.
Before she was Awkwafina, she was Nora Lum, the daughter of a Chinese-American father and a South Korean mother living in Forest Hills, Queens. Like many talented young New Yorkers who have gone on to become stars, Lum attended LaGuardia High School where she was a trumpet player. While the trumpet didn’t stick, a nickname did.
It was in high school that she first dubbed herself with the stage name “Awkwafina.” The name, which she dismisses as a school yard inside joke, has stuck. Why? She recently told The Guardian, “I just thought it was a funny name. And it was fitting that it had ‘awkward’ in it, because I am awkward.”
College studies in journalism and Mandarin followed by journalism and publicity internships ultimately weren’t what led her to the spotlight: it was the internet. While she was studying, she was also rapping, finding a way to harness that awkwardness and turn it into hilariousness. Awkwafina began rapping at the age of 13, and after a decade crafting bars and cracking jokes, she went viral.
Her first viral hit, “My Vag” was conceived as a response to “My Dick” by Mickey Avalon. This was the heyday of Lonely Island and “Gangnam Style” and comedy songs accompanied by slick music videos regularly did millions of views on YouTube. “My Dick” is largely forgotten (the video has just over a half million views), but “My Vag” had endured, and it is really what launched Awkwafina to stardom.
Even in the context of the era “My Vag” was special. The hilarious video, with the Brooklynite absurdity of a Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach film and a great vaudevillian vaginal sight gag, combined with her amazing lines like, “My vag squirt aloe vera / Yo vag look like Tony Danza,” felt tailor-made for the moment.
Over the next five years, Awkwafina would release an album and over a half-dozen singles. The era had a lot of comedians who couldn’t go viral twice, but Awkwafina had the magic touch. Everything she put out would get hundreds of thousands of views, and often crack the millions. Though none of her other videos would garner quite as many views as “My Vag,” they helped solidify Awkwafina’s smart, sassy, bawdy comic persona and introduced her to a legion of loyal fans.
Her next viral hit, “NYC Bitche$” became an anthem for the young women who were born and raised in a city watching their favorite haunts succumb to gentrification. The hook, “New York City bitch, that’s where I come from / Not where I moved to on Mom and Dad’s trust fund / New York City bitch, that’s how I’m rolling / You out-of-state-fakes get your iPad stolen” resonated with a generation of city kids who watched their childhood stomping grounds come back into vogue as millennial twenty-somethings fled the suburbs.
Her other singles “Mayor Bloomberg,” “Queef,” “Daydreamin',” “Green Tea,” and “Pockiez,” most of which were on her EP Yellow Ranger, further developed Awkwafina’s stage persona. Even as she’s found fame as an actress, Awkwafina has continued her rap career with a 2018 EP, In Fina We Trust.
Though Lum has said, “Awkwafina never had a plan. There was never a roadmap, it just was what it was,” her next moves following viral success are about as savvy as can be for an aspiring 21st-century comedy star. The rap videos opened the door for all kinds of digital content that would continue to raise her profile, and she was up to the challenge.
In 2014, she appeared alongside Tenacious D at their Festival Supreme. There isn’t a better model for Awkwafina’s comedy music to Hollywood trajectory than Jack Black. In 2016, she dropped “Green Tea” a collaboration with Margaret Cho. Cho, arguably the country's most famous Asian-American comedienne, has mixed media throughout her career producing stand-up, TV, film, music, and even writing two books. If you combine the careers of Jack and Cho, you can see a blueprint of where Awkwafina would go next.
Also in 2014, Awkwafina joined the cast of MTV's Girl Code. The series was a spin-off of Guy Code: both shows were attempts by MTV to leverage internet popular comedy voices into a panel show. Some other Guy Code and Girl Code alumni that used the series as a stepping stone to a bigger profile include Alice Wetturlund, Charlamagne tha God, Nicole Byer, Pete Davidson, and Desus & Mero.
Awkwafina’s 2016 short-form web series Tawk was honored by the Webby Awards, nominated for a Streamy Award and was picked up by the now-defunct Verizon Go90. Like much of her work, Tawk had a guerrilla sensibility. She would host the show from corner stores, the subway, and laundromats. But, for comedians talk shows are nothing new: just as with her music, with Tawk she took an old format for a modern spin.
Comedy music videos, web series, self-produced talk shows: this is the kind of DIY profile building that leads to fame in 2019. She was all over the internet, and given that digital content has become a feeder for the Hollywood big leagues, it only makes sense that this era of her career was followed up by a breakthrough role in Neighbors 2.
Her part in Neighbors 2 was followed by a pair of true breakout performances in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8. In these films, Awkwafina portrayed characters that aren’t far from her online persona. Her acting career to date feels very similar to when a stand-up comic breaks through into the mainstream. Her work is part character performance and part showcase for her comedic skills. In a sense you could look at her construction of the character of Awkwafina as a decade of comedic acting training. The years spent on YouTube prepared her for a bigger spotlight.
After years of digital content, YouTube music videos, and DIY projects, Awkwafina’s career has now reached new heights. Her prestige potential awards contender The Farewell opened last weekend, and her upcoming slate of projects includes films that are as big and blockbuster-y as can be: Jumanji, Spongebob, and The Little Mermaid.
Awkwafina’s varied media experience has taught her that modern stardom involves more than just a film career, and as her acting has taken off, she has kept producing other types of content. In addition to her 2018 album, she continues to make appearances in other short form production including this confessional series for Vevo.
Stardom doesn’t look radically different than it did 20 years ago, but there are more paths to get there than ever. Whereas the gatekeepers of the past may not have let an Asian-American comedienne through the door, in the era of YouTube, you can become so popular that they no choice but to let you in. When Awkwafina hosted Saturday Night Live in the fall of last year, she was only the second East Asian-American female celebrity after Lucy Liu to host the show.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Awkwafina revealed that when her second viral success came in 2013 with “New York Bitche$,” she was working in a Greenpoint deli. Back then it must have been hard to believe that half a decade later, she would be a movie star. But, in 2019, the American dream is only a stolen iPad away.