From YouTube Sensation to Star of Ocean’s 8, the Story Behind Awkwafina’s Rise to Stardom

It all started when Nora Lum covered a Mickey Avalon song

Nora Lum hosting her talk show, Tawk, on go90. - Credit by Credit: go90
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Musician. Comedian. Actress. YouTube personality. TV host. Nora Lum, who goes by Awkwafina online and as a musician, has almost done it all over her relatively short career. But her next step reaches the peak of the traditional entertainment world: Hollywood.

Lum has been cast as one of the stars of Ocean’s 8, the all-female reboot of the Ocean’s 11 franchise.

Fittingly, her journey began with YouTube, or as she calls it, “Asian Hollywood.”

“It’s a place for minorities to go to really take the reins of whatever project they want to be doing without getting passed by some kind of gatekeeper,” Lum said.

She joined YouTube after graduating college to cover a song by Mickey Avalon, producing her own beats for the version. That kick-started her music career as she went on to produce, mix and engineer most of her first album, which she released in 2014.

After her first video’s viral success, she started to create more of her own beats and music videos while developing her point-of-view online.

“Asian-American women felt empowered by what they saw from me, but I was just being me,” she said. “I’m a girl with no shame.”

Part of that “no shame” aesthetic allowed her to pursue her “weird sense of humor” within her career. According to Lum, people don’t know if she’s a musician or a comedian, and she thinks that’s the coolest part of all.

Eventually, this online persona translated into bigger roles on the small screen.

Lum became a frequent commentator for MTV’s Girl Code, a show that features comedians relatably ranting about topics important to a young, female audience. She also hosts her own talk show on Verizon’s go90 platform, Tawk, which recently premiered its fifth season.

“I don’t consider myself an influencer,” said Lum. “I only had a few hundred Twitter followers when Judy McGrath [founder and president of Astronauts Wanted, which produces Tawk for go90] called me up.”

“As a creator, I want to make things of note,” she said. “I don’t want to go mainstream just because that’s an option. You should be able to do things you think are really cool.”

Lum recognizes digital creators want to transition to TV, but TV creators are still trying to figure out the digital space.

“TV executives know that one episode of their show won’t get one-fifth the views that a 15-second video of a dog farting on a lizard can get on Facebook,” she said, “but there’s a lot more depth to the talent online than you realize.”

“Millennials want to escape the typical ‘9-5’ jobs, and that’s what happened for me,” said Lum. “I get to do what I wanted to do my whole life, and I’m so grateful.”


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@samimain Sami Main is social editor for Adweek, where she posts Adweek content onto social platforms and looks for creative ways to communicate what's new.