What You Don't Know About Asian Hair, According to Crazy Rich Asians Breakout Star Awkwafina

Splitting Hairs is our monthlong exploration of hair based on a survey of women across America. It’s like you brought a photo to the salon — we’re giving you exactly what you want.

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At first glance, fans of Awkwafina may not recognize her in Crazy Rich Asians. In this month’s blockbuster romcom, the viral YouTube rapper-turned-movie star (born Nora Lum) wears a short blonde wig to play wisecracking best friend Peik Lin — a far cry from the long, black mane she usually sports. (“Asian Ellen,” a family member quips about the look in the movie.)

But from the moment the comedian opens her mouth and drops a stream of pithy one-liners, it’s abundantly clear that it’s her. “People have an idea of what Peik Lin looks like and how she behaves,” Lum recently says by phone, referring to the major fanbase the Crazy Rich Asians book series had well before it was turned into Hollywood’s first all-Asian ensemble film in 25 years. “I hope I did her justice!” (The movie isn’t even out yet, and it already has rave reviews, nearly all of which praise Lum’s performance.)

As for her hairstyling, Lum is thrilled to rock the “Ellen” onscreen. “When people come up to me and say, ‘You got that stick straight [hair], right?’ They just assume that all Asian hair is one, and it’s not,” says the actress and ambassador for Johnnie Walker, which partnered with the premiere party. “I have my mother’s hair, which is kind of wiry but frizzy — there’s a natural wave to it. Asian hair comes in different styles, and sometimes there is a yearning for a different kind.”

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Courtesy Warner Bros. 

Ahead of the movie’s release today, Lum got candid about Asian hair, a potential Oscar nomination, and the cast’s group text. (Yes, it exists.)

On her moniker… A reporter once asked me, “Did you derive your name from the word ‘awkward’?” And I guess I did! Being awkward is not only part of my entire life, but it’s my brand. It was a happy accident. Thank you, journalism!

On Awkwafina v. Nora… There’s definitely a duality going on. Awkwafina is not something I invented — she’s an inherent part of me. Awkwafina represents someone who never grew up, with abject confidence that helps me when I feel self-conscious or I feel nervous or neurotic. I think that everyone has an Awkwafina inside them, someone that tells them, “Just do it. And do it well.” Without her, I could never perform onstage.

On playing Peik Lin… Peik Lin embodies a lot of what Awkwafina embodies. She has that confidence of her own identity. That’s why this movie and book is so powerful: Everyone struggles with inter-Asian politics. In America, people think that we go to Asia and we’re the same there, but that’s not the case. Also, Peik Lin is a good friend. I really try to be a Peik Lin to my friends.

Awkwafina Embed 2
Courtesy Warner Bros. 

On wearing a wig… It’s not the easiest. I had never worn one before — I didn’t understand what wig glue was. If I wig-glued myself, I would have no hair. No eyebrows either. But I came to love it because, whenever I put it on, I felt like Peik Lin. Plus, I was easy to spot. I was the only one without black hair. It made me really think about embracing that color.

On wearing her hair natural in day-to-day life… It’s not so much about me making a statement as me being completely lazy. I don’t pay attention to it. It’s not something on my radar. I shampoo and condition, and sometimes it comes in one bottle, and that’s what I do.

On perms… The Asian perm is a thing. My grandma has had her hair permed since the ‘70s because she wanted a different texture. I always wanted to get my hair straightened, but I could never afford it. When we were filming in Singapore, I decided to treat myself after we wrapped, so I went and got my hair relaxed. It was such a big event for me. Then I felt like it was too relaxed, like, I wanted to wake it up a bit, so I just kind of had to sit with it for a while. In the end, it worked out.

On bonding with the cast… I compare it to adult summer camp. We did everything. Henry Golding and Ronnie Chieng both grew up in Singapore, so they were our little tour guides. Ronnie would yell at me for wanting to eat chilis and Henry would take me to the bird park, where I got crapped on. There were a lot of really great memories.

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On the Crazy Rich Asians group text… It bleeds from WhatsApp into iMessage. There are multiple, and they’re all called crazy things. One is called “CRA House of Love.” That’s exactly what that sounds like.

On a potential Oscar nomination… Yeah right. I don’t think that’s gonna happen, but if it does, that would be amazing. [Director] Jon Chu really trusted me to do whatever with Peik Lin — he said that it could’ve ruined the movie or made it better. Hopefully I didn’t ruin it.

On celebrating the movie’s success… Being at the premiere with members of the community was amazing. There was an aspect of solidarity, there was an aspect of celebration, there was an aspect of a bittersweetness. It was a very emotional night. I cried several times. But don’t get me wrong — I’ve been popping all the bottles. I got blue, I got black. It’s time for celebration! It’s been a long ride and a great ride.

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