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Nora Lum, the multi-named, multi-talented, multi-hyphenate star of the groundbreaking Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, has some (literal) tricks up her sleeve.
Awkwafina taught me a magic trick, and no, I’m not going to tell you how it works. Mostly because I can’t tell you how it works, because this interview took place this spring, when the world was on the brink of maybe, possibly, kind of reopening, when we still couldn’t be in the same room together, and honestly, it is damn impossible to learn magic over Zoom. I mean, I could attempt to describe it (and tell you that it involved some tape and a pair of scissors and tarot cards), but we’d all be better off imagining an alternate reality instead: that I was hanging out at a party with Nora Lum, the 33-year-old comedian, actor, rapper, and writer from Queens, New York, who, as the story goes, gave herself the stage name Awkwafina to channel a more confident version of herself and also because it was funny (but you can still call her Nora). And at said imaginary party, she whipped out some cards and was like, “Wanna see a magic trick?” and I was like, “Um, extremely yes, person-I-was-not-expecting-to-suddenly-do-magic-at-this-party-with-me.”
Nora: Alright—I don’t know if I’m going to get sued by the magicians’ union for doing this. There’s an unspoken code.
Lane: I don’t know the code?
Nora: You’re not supposed to! You know those jokes where the point of the joke is that it took an hour to get to a punch line? That’s what magic is.
The origin story of a lot of comedians takes a sudden detour at some point, usually childhood, to magic. For Nora, it happened as an adult in a very weird year. Like the rest of us, grasping for something sublime to distract from the grim reality, Nora got seriously into magic tricks—not the “tigers for no reason” or “women in bikinis needlessly getting sawed in half by some guy named Dave” kind, but just straight-up card tricks, including the one she’s currently trying to teach me at this “party.” We first met pre-magic, more than seven years ago, as two NYC comedians at a podcast festival. As is so often the case with women, we liked each other but worried the other person didn’t feel the same way. Still, we ended up talking for hours about I-don’t-remember-what on city steps that, in hindsight, were probably covered in dog urine (and also human urine). I do remember that she was just someone who got it. Someone who was hustling just as much as I was to get to the same dream. Who already knew with everything she had that this is what she was meant to do, that there was really no choice because it’s this or it’s nothing.
She came by that knowledge honestly, starting at the ultra-competitive Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City (the movie Fame—google it—is based on it; Nicki Minaj is also an alum). Nora trained in classical and jazz music (she played the trumpet) while experimenting with hip-hop, writing, and producing. She’d been raised in Queens by her grandmother and father after her mother died when she was just 4 years old, and Nora felt like she was fuelled by her history, even at a young age. “When I was growing up, I knew how I was socioeconomically classified,” Nora says now. “I knew that my grandma was a working-class immigrant and my dad was a single dad. I knew that I would have to get through in my own way. That taught me a lot of lessons, like you really have to humble yourself, doing waitress jobs and applying to really hip stores and not getting the job and feeling like, What is even out there? You have to really hit a kind of rock bottom to really want it, to fight for it.”
Lane: Oh my god, I just realised something. You got rejected for a job by Beacon’s Closet [the aforementioned hip store, a Brooklyn-based consignment chain] the same way so many of my clothes have gotten rejected there. They’re like, “Ew, no, we won’t be taking this.”
Nora: Much respect to Beacon’s Closet, but I would bring hauls of clothes there. I remember taking them back home and pulling out the rejects and giving the clothes a pep talk, like, “You were really cute.”
Nora’s first job job was at a book publishing house, where she was hired and promptly fired after going viral with her first big trick: the music video for a rap song she’d written called 'My Vag.' In the video, which now has more than 6.3 million views on YouTube, she deadpans lyrics like, “My vag like a operatic ballad / Yo vag like Grandpa’s cabbage” and “It’s time that we let the world know / Bitch, ya vag look like Janet Reno / Awkwafina’s a genius / And her vagina is fifty times better than a penis,” between lo-fi scenes of her getting her nails painted by a gun-wielding tough guy and playing pretend gynecologist, wearing a doctor’s head mirror and pulling chips out of a pair of open legs. As one commenter noted: “This song was totally worth you getting fired.”
Of course, not everyone thought “My Vag” was a fireable offence. MTV called and gave Nora a year-long stint as a panellist and co-host on its riff-filled talking-head commentary franchise Girl Code. Next came an acting role in Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising. By 2018, Awkwafina and her brand of street-smart-meets-proudly-messy humour was “suddenly” everywhere: stealing scenes from Hollywood A-listers like Sandra Bullock in Ocean’s 8 and Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians; hosting Saturday Night Live. In 2020, she received a Golden Globe (not to mention a ton of Oscar buzz) for her performance in the indie dramedy The Farewell.
All this landed Nora her very own series, Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens (airing on iPlayer here in the UK), which debuted in January 2020 and is loosely based on her life —except that the TV version of Nora is still in her late 20s, still living in Queens, still working and hustling and failing her way toward adulthood. Good thing, because in the US, Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens was the Comedy Central’s highest-rated prime-time series launch in more than three years.
Somehow, someway, writing and starring in her very own television show hasn’t slowed down Nora’s film career. Earlier this spring, she voiced Sisu, the glowing, wisecracking dragon in the Disney animated hit Raya and the Last Dragon. And now I give you eight words: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, out in UK cinemas now. A full-blown Marvel superhero movie — and the highly anticipated origin story for the comic book character of the same name, about a martial artist/trained assassin confronting his past — with Nora as one of its stars. And yes, she’s doing her own stunts.
Nora: Dangling off of things and flying, falling backward… it’s really different from, say, an indie rom-com. It’s really cool.
Lane: That sounds, while I can’t relate at all, f*cking awesome.
Nora: It’s so weird to switch from “friend mode.”
She means playing the role of The Funny Sidekick (see: Crazy Rich Asians). Or maybe she means The Funny Dragon Sidekick (Raya and the Last Dragon). Or The Funny Slacker-With-Big-Dreams-Who-You-Wish-Were-Your-Real-Life-Sidekick (Nora From Queens). And breaking out of that pigeonhole has been like pulling off a complicated trick unto itself—but that’s all part of Nora’s magic, of course: the work is there, very much so, but you can barely see it because you’re so distracted by her charm. By how she appears so effortlessly human and warm while also, yes, driving a speeding sideways bus in a Marvel movie.
And then there’s her impact. That Golden Globe? Nora is the first Asian American performer to win in the lead actress category for a film. And it’s hard to overstate the cultural significance of Shang-Chi, the first Marvel film to star an Asian superhero. To have that — and the thrill of celebrating Asian cultures and peoples — happen now, this year, after the absolutely brutal wrongs the AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) community has faced… “these movies make me so proud, just as a watcher, because they contribute to visibility, which I do think has real-life effects,” says Nora. “When the AAPI community is seen as not ancillary characters, it’s almost like, then people will know that we’re here, you know?”
That said, it’s all a lot of pressure — especially when, despite your newfound Marvel status, you’re still known for being that hilarious person everyone wants to be friends with. And when the more well known you become, the more it can feel like, Wait, you expect me to be funny all the time?! But sometimes I am napping? I wonder out loud about the message so many comedians get, that they’re valuable only when making people laugh. “Yeah,” says Nora. “There’s always going to be the immediate want that is, ‘Okay, well, I’m going to do this because I want you to feel joy right now.’ But ultimately, a lot of comedy is grounded in really long periods of solitude and really crazy contemplation.”
That’s the thing about “being funny”: It actually, often, comes from struggle and trauma—from being doubted, being told you’re too much, being told you’re too little. It comes from people assuming that because you’re funny, you can take a punch that really didn’t need to be thrown.
Nora: There’s something that happens when you’re criticised or someone calls you ugly…
Nora: You don’t listen to them, whatever, and you come home and you look in the mirror and you’re like, Am I ugly?
Sure, yes, success can be a good — a very good — thing. Nora now has a bigger fan base. More people are listening to what she has to say. She can pay her bills on time. But it’s come with a side of intense criticism and aggressive focus on Awkwafina, the person Nora presents to the world. It’s a complicated duality, really, and one she’s intent on continuing to navigate. (“The sacrifices I make,” she says, “I make because I love it so much. And I want it so much.”)
But she’s stopped looking for validation in tweets or YouTube comments or reviews, turning instead to “actual people I love and respect, to myself and my own achievements.” Maybe it’s maturity, she muses, or maybe it’s just the natural armour you grow when you’re a celebrity who’s had her breakthrough moment and survived to tell the tale.
Not that she’s done trying hard or stressing hard. “I don’t think I’ll ever get to that point,” she says. “Before, I’d do anything because I was waiting, being lost, knowing that things could change tomorrow or they might never. I didn’t know that it would work, and when it started to, I realised this is something that could actually happen. It’s like when you step into Oz and you start to see one magical thing and you’re like, How does that even exist? But then it numbs you to crazier, more magical things.”
Which is maybe why, at this point, it seems like second nature for Nora to surprise us with something we never saw coming.
Nora: I’m going to get absolutely f*cking—
Lane: …railed by the magic community.
Nora: But it’s literally a game of improvisation and red herrings and thinking on your feet and misdirection and… can I show you one more?
Cosmopolitan UK's October/November issue is out on 14th September.
Stylist: Cassie Anderson. Hair: Kylee Heath at A-Frame Agency using R+Co. Makeup: Kara Yoshimoto Bua at A-Frame Agency using Chanel. Manicure: Thuy Nguyen at A-Frame Agency. Fashion assistant: Katie Collins. Production: Crawford & Co Productions. Featured car: 2022 GR 86 provided by Toyota.
On Awkwafina: Stair look: Loewe top and skirt. Ana Khouri earrings. Michelle Fantaci Fine Jewelry necklace. Tom Wood ring. Chair look: Louis Vuitton parka and skirt. Giuseppe Zanotti heels. Ana Khouri earrings. Anita Ko necklaces. Fernando Jorge ring. Outdoor look: Gucci jacket and pants. BVLGARI earrings, necklace, and rings. Cereal look: 3.1 Phillip Lim shirt and pants. Manolo Blahnik heels. Anita Ko necklaces and rings. Car look: Gucci shirt. Nikos Koulis earrings and ring (right middle finger). Michelle Fantaci Fine Jewelry rings (left ring finger and right pinkie). Fernando Jorge ring (left middle finger).
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