What getting fired and making $9 an hour at a bodega taught ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ star Awkwafina about success

Actress Awkwafina attends 'Crazy Rich Asians' Atlanta Red Carpet Screening on August 2, 2018.
 Paras Griffin | Getty Images

Nora Lum is best known by her stage name Awkwafina, her cocky, unabashed, aviator-glasses-wearing alter ego. But this summer has marked an important shift for the actress, rapper and comedian as she starred in two major motion pictures: the star-studded "Ocean's 8," and "Crazy Rich Asians," the first major motion picture in 25 years with all Asian leads.

"This is probably the best year of my life," Lum said.

Lum's work life wasn't always filled with red carpet interviews and selfies with Mindy Kaling. Lum has been open about her humble roots — and the long road to professional success.

In an open letter on Twitter Monday, the Queens native explained what she learned from the rejection she faced throughout her 20s and what the experience taught her about hard work.

"I remembered those days when I got fired from my job for Awkwafina, when I was broke for Awkwafina, when I got kicked off line-ups because 'Awkwafina is a joke,'" the 30-year-old multi-hyphenate wrote.

Lum, who had produced her own rap tracks since her teens — released her first song as Awkwafina in 2012 after graduating from the State University of New York at Albany. Though Lum attended LaGuardia High School, the 'Fame' school for performing arts, Lum didn't anticipate going into show business. "I never knew I would go into acting, let alone that my music would ever be a career," she said.

When she uploaded the music video for her first song as Awkwafina to YouTube, she was sure it would flop, making her "the laughing stock of every job interview ever." Instead it went viral, hitting hundreds of thousands of views in just a few weeks and coverage from publications like Gawker and New York Magazine.

But with every step forward came another step back. Not long after the video's release, she casually mentioned the song to her boss at her corporate job where she worked as a publicity assistant. She immediately got fired, making it her "last real job" for a few years.

Lum then worked a number of side gigs, including a stint at a Japanese restaurant and a vegan bodega, where she earned $9 an hour as a cashier. "When I realized Awkwafina was bigger than I thought, I didn't work [those jobs] anymore," she said.

When an executive talent scout from a major record label reached out to Lum, she was sure it would be her big break. Lum even listened 'Dreams' by Fleetwood Mac on the way to the meeting. It wasn't to be. "He listened to two of my songs and never called again," Lum wrote on Twitter.

Lum didn't let these false starts keep her from putting her unique stamp on comedy and music. She continued to produce songs, broke into acting with her role in "Neighbors 2," appeared on MTV's "Girl Code," hosted a now-defunct online talk show and starred in a recent Netflix film. In May, she released her second EP, "In Fina We Trust." She has also been working on a Comedy Central show titled "Awkwafina," a half-hour scripted show inspired by her experiences growing up in Queens.

Michael Tran | Getty Images

She reflected on those tough early days this week. On Twitter, she explained how her life has changed after years of rejection. "I'm in an Escalade in a gown, driving down Hollywood Boulevard that they shut down for 'Crazy Rich Asians.' And I asked the driver for the aux [cord] to play 'Dream' by Fleetwood Mac. I became teary, thinking about this moment, what it meant."

"Crazy Rich Asians" is expected to be a summer blockbuster hit, with a projected $20 million debut at the box office come August 15.

"Awkwafina was a dream I was chasing, and in some ways, I am still chasing her. But we need to take risks. We need to go broke. We need to prove them wrong, simply by not giving up," Lum wrote.

"Awkwafina wasn't supposed to exist, but somehow she does. And I think about it everyday, that she was born for reason only — to show every person out there, that it is possible."

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