"Writer. Musician. Actor. Producer. Baller." That's how journalist Allison Glock introduces Awkwafina at Marie Claire's 2019 Power Trip, a two-day networking conference designed to celebrate, inspire, and bring together influential women. The theme for their conversation is "The Power of Transformation," a particularly prescient topic for Awkwafina, real name Nora Lum, who has seen a meteoric rise over the past two years—one that's included viral YouTube rap videos, star turns in a handful of blockbusters, and, as of next year, her own show about her life, the hotly anticipated Comedy Central series Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens.
But her personal transformation, Awkwafina tells Glock (who interviewed Awkwafina for Marie Claire's October cover story), hasn't really come from any of that—"I think it's more from within." Which isn't to say she hasn't been transformed. "I think I go through transformations constantly," she says. "As an adult, as a women, there definitely are changes that you always face."
She explains, for example, that she's learned a great deal from both executive producing and starring in Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, expected to hit Comedy Central in 2020. Hiring her own writer's room was an intense learning experience: "There really is this belief that, oh, we want [diverse and women writers], but they're not out there. What I learned was: They're out there!" She learned, however, why they weren't making it to the writer's rooms. "They don't have that initial platform. That initial, 'Yes, you're in the door.'...We need to give people that first chance, because that's what you need."
Growing up, Awkwafina couldn't pinpoint what that initial platform, for her, would even look like. The lack of minority representation in popular culture in the '90s, she says, was a "huge part of that." She loved Air Bud, the 1997 Disney movie about a basketball-playing dog. "And I would think, 'It would be so cool to be the Air Bud kid!' But then I realized, it would be impossible, we'd have to recast the parents...I didn't see it." Aged seven, she caught a segment from comedian Margaret Cho, which was "so powerful for me"; she later saw Lucy Liu star in Charlie's Angels, who become another icon. "I was looking for idols," she explains.
In some ways, creating and executive producing a TV show based on her own life and community represents a full-circle change. "When we're in charge of our own stories, amazing things happen," she says to Glock. "And I think that very often, we're not."
Along with her co-executive producers in this project, Awkwafina cast BD Wong as her father, Lori Tan Chinn as her grandmother, and Bowen Yang as her live-in cousin. Her real-life family are bursting with pride these days, she says. So, asks Glock, who does Awkwafina want to make proud now? "I want to make myself proud," she says frankly. "I think that's something I've always struggled with."