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Awkwafina: 'No Turning Back'

Awkwafina appears on Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York.
Mike Katzif
Awkwafina appears on Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York.
Host Ophira Eisenberg interviews Awkwafina on Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York
Mike Katzif / NPR
Host Ophira Eisenberg interviews Awkwafina on Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York

When Nora Lum chose Awkwafina as her rap name, she was 16 years old, writing music in her childhood bedroom in Forest Hills, Queens in New York. At the time, she was an aspiring concert trumpeter attending the prestigious Laguardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, teaching herself how to produce beats, and writing lyrics to flesh out the songs. Over the next two years, she recorded more than 500 tracks, including "My Vag" — a response to Mickey Avalon's self-aggrandizing "My Dick."

For several years, Awkwafina was Lum's passion project, creating music in the margins of her busy schedule of college courses, internships, and study abroad programs. In 2012, she spent her 23rd birthday filming a music video for "My Vag." The low-budget video, made with the help of close friends, went viral.

"I didn't intend it to get more than 30 views from like my entire family," she told NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York. "I really thought that's where it would be. I had no idea." After publishing the video, she was fired from her job as a publicity assistant. "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. So I knew that there was no turning back. But I had nothing to lose, and that's when the best things happen."

Awkwafina followed up with witty and raunchy tracks like "NYC Bitche$" and "Queef," establishing her hybrid comedy rap style. Prompted by friends who advised her to give acting a shot, Awkwafina brought her personality to the screen in MTV's Girl Code and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. But it was her performance in the Netflix film Dude that garnered the attention of Ocean's 8 director, Gary Ross. "[Gary] saw a rough cut of Dude and hired me on FaceTime, so that's how that happened. There was a lot of presh there because, maybe he has no idea that I don't know what the hell I'm doing," Lum said. The Ocean's 8 role of Constance, a street hustler and pickpocket, was created specifically for Awkwafina.

Awkwafina's second high-profile film released just a few months after Ocean's 8: the opulent romcom Crazy Rich Asians. In the adaptation of the first installment in Kevin Kwan's best-selling book trilogy, Awkwafina plays Goh Peik Lin, the chatty best friend and confidante of the movie's protagonist Rachel Chu, played by Constance Wu. Crazy Rich Asians is the first major Hollywood film in 25 years to star an all Asian cast. "When we were filming it, I realized we were doing something there bigger than ourselves," Awkwafina said. "When it comes to representation, you don't understand how much you're lacking it until you see it and when I saw the movie, man, it was a powerful experience."

Awkwafina played a game based on her travel guide, Awkwafina's NYC, wherein she divulges the best public restrooms in New York City.


On the difference between Awkwafina and Nora Lum:

"Awkwafina induces the panic attacks and Nora takes them, [she has] a kind of abject confidence that people outgrow in adulthood."

On training with a magician to prepare for her role as a pickpocket in Ocean's 8:

"He ruined everything for me, dude. He really did, because I'd be like, 'You know David Blaine?' He was like, 'Yeah he uses invisible ink. Sorry!'"

On meeting the cast of Ocean's 8:

"The first time I met any of them it was Helena Bonham Carter. I saw her sitting yonder and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, it's Helena Bonham Carter.' And so I was staring at her and she just went, 'Come here. Give me a hug.'"

Heard on Awkwafina And Sasha Velour: New York City Queens.

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