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How Awkwafina established her dramatic bona fides without disrupting her star image

In 2018, Awkwafina looked like the next Tiffany Haddish. Now she’s moved in a different direction.

Awkwafina poses with her Golden Globe at the Warner Bros. and InStyle Golden Globe after party in Beverly Hills on January 5, 2020.
Gregg DeGuire/WireImage
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

On Sunday night, Awkwafina won a Golden Globe for her performance in The Farewell, taking home Best Actress in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy. Her win was historic, making her the first actress of Asian descent ever to win in that category. And notably, although The Farewell was categorized as a comedy at the Globes, and although Awkwafina is best known for her comic turns in movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight, her work in the The Farewell isn’t comic. It’s dramatic.

Accepting a dramatic role wasn’t an immediately obvious choice for an actress in the position Awkwafina was in after her breakout year of 2018. At the time, Awkwafina seemed poised to follow in the footsteps of stars like Melissa McCarthy or Tiffany Haddish: unruly women with big, flashy personalities who built their stars by being the funniest, raunchiest part of extremely funny raunch comedies. Awkwafina’s early career as a YouTuber performing novelty raps like “My Vag” prepped her to follow the McCarthy/Haddish path to stardom. And her scene-stealing turn as Crazy Rich Asians’s Peik Lin — the heroine’s nouveau riche best friend and the only person in the movie who gets to say “fuck” — appeared to cement her destiny. Obviously, Awkwafina would spend the rest of her career doing raunch comedy.

Instead, Awkwafina booked The Farewell, and she ultimately won her first Golden Globe for playing a woman who learns that her grandmother has cancer and then has to keep it a secret from her. She’s now established her bona fides as a dramatic actress as well as a comic actress. And she’s done it without severely disrupting her star image.

That’s because Awkwafina has been hiding a secret weapon in plain sight throughout her career. She’s split her image in half, and in doing so has made it possible for her to take her career off script when she wants to.

Awkwafina has spent her career prepping us to see her as two different people

Awkwafina consistently talks about herself as two people: Awkwafina, which is her stage name, and Nora Lum, which is her birth name. She’s even titled her forthcoming Comedy Central comedy special Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens.

The split is simple. According to her, Awkwafina is her brash and loud comedic persona. Nora Lum is the person she really is, deep inside.

“Awkwafina is someone who never grew up, who never had to bear the brunt of all the insecurities and overthinking that come with adulthood. Awkwafina is the girl I was in high school — who did not give a shit,” she explained to the Guardian in 2018. “Nora is neurotic and an overthinker and could never perform in front of an audience of hecklers.”

Because of this binary, Awkwafina isn’t disrupting her unruly woman persona when she takes a dramatic role. She’s already prepped her audience to understand that her unruliness is just one part of what she can do, that she’s got sadness inside of her that she’s ready to express in non-comedically dark ways. She’s taught us not to expect her to yell, “Bawk bawk, bitch,” every time she appears onscreen; just because that’s what Awkwafina does, that doesn’t mean it’s what Nora Lum will do.

Awkwafina has bifurcated her star image since before she was even really a star. And that means that as she steps into the next phase of her career, she’s positioned herself to be as versatile as she could ever want to get.

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