During the past 20 months I’ve become addicted to TV shows about women trying and failing to make it. Broad City, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 2 Broke Girls: it’s like looking in a mirror, if I could be bothered to do even that. But the absolute fabulous queen loser of all is Awkwafina, in her self-created show Nora from Queens.
Awkwafina plays a bizarro-reverse-mirror version of herself as a nearly thirtysomething bum, living in her childhood home with her grandmother and her widowed father. It’s pure lockdown comfort TV, with every petty slight and worldly favour soothed away by familial love. Nothing Nora from Queens does ever works out, and yet it’s always fine in the end. Attempted jobs, moneymaking schemes, love interests and opportunities for growth come and go, with all the wit and humour being incidental. The laughs come from off-the-cuff comments, the quickest physical reactions and scathing jibes, but the emotion is gooey and true. And that’s how I live now – with Nora from Queens as my more adorable, charismatic, sexy, funny, hipster-chic proxy. I actually have the same sloppy tracksuit bottoms, oversized T-shirts, thick dorky glasses and button-down overshirts that Nora wears in the show. If she gets up at noon every day in TV fantasyland, heck, I do it every day in reality. And if she fails at everything while refusing to leave her childhood home or embrace adulthood, well, me too – and I’m 10 years older than Awkwafina herself and 15 older than the show’s character.
So cosily attractive is Nora from Queens that it’s weird to splinter out the real, hugely successful writer and performer from the fictional loser she plays. Fictional Nora tries so hard, while Awkwafina (whose real name is indeed Nora Lum) gets profiled by Vogue, walks the red carpet and rises effortlessly to fame. And yet I still feel she’s only a quick FaceTime connection away. If she can make it, why can’t I? I mean, she first got famous with a laconic YouTube mumblecore rap hit called My Vag: “My vag like tasting heaven/ your vag manages a 7-Eleven … My vag a chrome Range Rover/ your vag hatchback ’81 Toyota.” I can do that, even though my own vag is solid Fiat Panda territory, and I don’t have her talent.
My appreciation of Awkwafina isn’t different from most people’s desire for escapist narratives under lockdown, for the lives of the rich and famous and gifted, for success stories and transformation tales. It’s just that Awkwafina’s talent and drive are presented with a relatable contemporary veneer. Politicised and witty, she has cool-girl charisma that contains vulnerability and a dark side. She lost her mother when she was very young but is from a stable and supportive background, which enabled her to excel at LaGuardia – the Fame school, whose alumni include Timothée Chalamet and Sarah Paulson. And from there Awkwafina studied journalism at SUNY (State University of New York at Albany). A street hustler she is not.
From the stasis of my Nora-from-Queens-like life, I watched her break into bona fide Hollywood stardom, going from small roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians (a scene-stealing turn) to a Golden Globe-winning lead role in Lulu Wang’s The Farewell and, most recently, starring in the global hit Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Awkwafina embodies the idea that if you rap, write and perform literally from your own street corner, you too might make it big. She’s pure wish fulfilment: the American Dream nimbly retooled for the 21st century.