In the last two years, we’ve witnessed the meteoric rise of Awkwafina from YouTube rapper to silver screen darling with the uncanny ability to make audiences gut-laugh and weep into their popcorn.
You might recognize her as Rachel Chu’s off-the-wall quirky college roommate Peik Lin in Crazy Rich Asians or thoughtful writer Billi in The Farewell.
This year started on a sweet note for Awkwafina, whose real name is Nora Lum, too: In January, she became the first Asian woman to win “Best Actress” at the Golden Globes for her performance in The Farewell.
“I need there to be more people in this industry, people of color, people like me,” she tells PEOPLE in this week’s Women Changing the World issue. “By doing that, by being yourself, it encourages people and means a lot to me.”
But when the actress, 31, reflects on her sudden stardom, she doesn’t think of red carpets or awards ceremonies.
Actually, it’s the earliest days of her career — when she was still working at a New York City bodega and rapping in small venues throughout the country — that had the strongest impact on her.
In 2012, Awkwafina had her first paid gig — a rap performance at Sarah Lawrence College. “It wasn’t good,” she recalls, “but the kids were very supportive.”
One of the students nervously approached her after the show. “I was probably just as nervous as she was to have this interaction because there hadn’t been a lot of them, and she reminded me of me when I was in college,” she says. “She came up to me and said, ‘Thank you for existing, [but] it wasn’t a good show.’”
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She continues: “She said, ‘Thank you for existing because I never thought there would be someone like you,’ and I remember going away with that because we need to see ourselves growing up. That was one of the most very special moments in my career that I’ll always kind of think about.’”
Fast-forward a few years later to The Farewell’s premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival when another young fan approached Awkwafina, holding back tears.
“She was trembling, and she told me that she just watched her grandma in a similar way [as Billi does for her grandma in The Farewell],” Awkwafina recalls. “I’ve always thought of representation in this way of, we’re all people of color, we’re all doing this, but this … is a specific kind of representation and I don’t think those two experiences have ever left me.”
Now she’s a boss, starring in and producing the Comedy Central show Nora from Queens, inspired by her own childhood. (Lum was raised in Queens by her Chinese-American father and grandparents after her Korean-American mother died when she was 4.)
She’s using that power to work with a diverse cast of writers and directors, including Russian Doll actress Natasha Lyonne, who directed an episode.
“People say, ‘We want female writers, writers of color, but there aren’t any,’” Lum says. “There are so many; if we are going to carve out this new generation of creators, they need a chance to get through the door.”
Nora from Queens airs Wednesdays at 10:30 pm EST on Comedy Central.