Ali Wong Shares the Story Behind That Stand-up Special Dress
"I’m not a hider," she says. But there's way more to it than that.
When I was growing up, my parents didn’t care what people thought of them. Over time, I’ve become the same way. My mom is an immigrant, and she never let the other moms from my private school intimidate her with their Birkins and their brunch dates. She was really proud of the fact that while they were eating things like peeled asparagus and poached eggs, she was boiling pig’s feet for us. She was so confident, and by example she taught me how to be confident. I think that’s why I’ve always been so comfortable in the spotlight.
I was 22 when I started doing stand-up comedy in San Francisco. I struggled at first trying to figure out what to wear onstage. But I’ve always thought that stand-up is not about looking your best — it’s about being yourself and being funny, period. I can look pretty in a picture at a party later, you know? I wanted people to take me seriously as a comedian and not see me as a sexual thing. So, naturally, I chose to dress like a kid. I got sponsored by a local skate company, and they hooked me up with T-shirts and hoodies to wear during my act. I was also obsessed with anything that resembled Aaliyah’s style, so I would rock that sort of Minotaur look of being feminine on the top but ultra-masculine on the bottom, wearing big cargo pants with boys’ underwear peeking out. I wore my hair in two topknot buns a lot. Yup, that was a choice.
I stopped wearing double buns around the time I was 27, and that’s when I met my husband. I got pregnant in 2015, and during my stand-up act, I couldn’t wear pants anymore because I had to pee all the time. Plus, I wanted to pick clothes that accentuated my baby bump because, you know, I’m not a hider. I was never one of those women who wanted to wear a tent. I wanted you to know what’s going on in there. Like, I wanted you to open doors for me. I wanted you to offer to pay for lunch.
I was eight months pregnant when I filmed my first Netflix special, Baby Cobra. Nobody knew who I was, so the expectations were really low. The entire special cost, like, $2 to make. When it came time to choose what I was going to wear for the taping, I went with an $8 striped dress from H&M. It was one of those things where even though I was super-pregnant, I still felt kind of hot in it.
The special came out, and I had no idea how many people had even watched it because Netflix doesn’t release any of its metrics. And then Halloween came around, and somehow my $8 H&M dress and I had become a Halloween costume. I couldn’t believe it, because it wasn’t just Asian-American women who dressed up as me looking extremely pregnant. There were groups of gay black men, white men, and husbands and wives who were both dressed as me. It was insane! That was the moment when I knew my life had changed.
The truth is, people weren’t used to seeing a female comic perform pregnant, especially an Asian-American one. So it was fun for me to surprise people. What was even more surprising was that the Smithsonian asked me to donate my dress to the National Museum of American History. That’s where the Fonz’s leather jacket lives, along with Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. At first I said no because I was like, “I think my daughter’s going to want that dress.” But then I had another daughter, and I was like, “OK, fine, I need to give it to the Smithsonian because I don’t want this to be another thing they will eventually fight over.”
Of all the fashion phases I’ve gone through, perhaps none has been more dramatic than when I became a mom. It was like all of a sudden, I didn’t want to wear anything that was just meh. I wanted to put on something that would make me feel alive even when I hadn’t showered for days.
So I turned to sequins and shiny leopard prints and shimmery gold pants because I needed that extra little sparkle in my life. Now, even my eye shadow must have shimmer. My bronzer must have shine. I want to be a disco ball.
Because you know what? That shiny leopard-print dress I love gives me not only the ferocity to deal with whatever is going on with my kids that day but also the energy to handle the broken water heater. I chose a leopard dress when I filmed my next Netflix special, Hard Knock Wife, too. I was pregnant with my second daughter and wanted something comfortable and tight and cheesy enough that people could dress up as me for Halloween again.
These days, the best part about getting dressed is the reaction I get from my daughters, who are now 2 and 4. Recently, when my oldest, Mari, saw me getting ready for a movie première, looking so drastically different from our day-to-day life, she looked at me the way you wish a man would look at you on your wedding day. She had sparkles in her eyes. She came over, sort of stunned and frozen, to touch my dress and my hair and said, “Mommy, you look beautiful.” And just like that, my ovaries were burning.
—As told to Jennifer Ferrise
Wong’s book, Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets & Advice for Living Your Best Life, is out now. For more stories like this, pick up the December issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Nov. 22.