This weekend, Nora Lum — known by her fans as Awkwafina — will become the first Asian woman to host “Saturday Night Live” in 18 years and only the second to do so in the show’s 43-year history.
A rapper, actress and comedian, Awkwafina broke into the mainstream during a pivotal moment for Asian Americans in Hollywood, an industry just beginning to reckon with the importance of representation and inclusion. Most recently, Awkwafina was a part of Jon M. Chu’s film “Crazy Rich Asians,” which features a predominantly Asian cast and was the highest grossing romantic comedy in a decade, unadjusted for inflation.
Cover video: SNL
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Awkwafina’s movie roles in “Crazy Rich Asians” and, before that, “Ocean’s 8,” helped thrust her into mainstream popularity. But she first entered the limelight in 2012 when hit song “My Vag” published to YouTube — and went viral. In the years since, Awkwafina has developed a comedy-imbued rap style with unapologetically profane songs (“Queef,” “NYC B-----$,” “Yellow Ranger”) that challenge outdated stereotypes.
In the 2016 documentary “Bad Rap,” directed by Salima Koroma, Awkwafina talks about the realities faced by Asian Americans navigating the entertainment industry.
Salima Koroma/ “Bad Rap” Documentary
At age 15, the entertainer developed the Awkwafina alter-ego as a way to find the confidence necessary to explore what she wanted to say.
She describes Awkwafina as her hyper-expressive public self who performs in a way Nora Lum never would. Take this line from “My Vag”: “My vag speak five different languages, and told yo vag ‘b---- make me a sandwich.’”
Awkwafina/Youtube; Salima Koroma/ “Bad Rap” Documentary
But Awkwafina’s brash public persona led to turmoil in the private life of Nora Lum. When “My Vag” went viral, Awkwafina — then a publicity assistant — was fired from her job. Realizing a simple Google search could sink any 9-to-5 job interview, she decided to pursue a career in entertainment. She hasn’t looked back since.
In addition to releasing the critically acclaimed EP “In Fina We Trust” this summer, Awkwafina appeared in two major Hollywood blockbusters.
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Warner Bros.; Village Roadside Pictures
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In “Crazy Rich Asians,” Awkwafina plays the main character’s blond-wigged, finger-wagging best friend Peik Lin. Some moviegoers criticized her performance because she spoke with a “blaccent” — the colloquial term for a non-black person using black vernacular.
Some argue it’s a form of cultural appropriation. Others, though, have defended Awkwafina and attributed her “blaccent” to her upbringing in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens and her musical background. The small controversy has become part of a much larger conversation about the co-option of black culture in America.
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The name Awkwafina doesn’t seem to be disappearing from the spotlight anytime soon. She is currently developing an autobiographical scripted TV series for Comedy Central, tentatively titled “Awkwafina.” It has also been reported that “Crazy Rich Asians” will be getting a sequel (likely called “China Rich Girlfriend,” if it echoes the original book series’ next title).
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Awkwafina told Variety that while growing up as a Chinese Korean American girl, no one on TV looked or sounded like her. That is, until she came across actress and comedian Margaret Cho.
“The first time I saw Margaret Cho on Comedy Central, she was like a unicorn. She was an Asian woman who had a perfect American accent, something I wasn’t used to seeing.”
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More than a decade after seeing Cho on TV, Awkwafina has become the same kind of representative figure for a new generation of Asian Americans.