Nora Lum, known by her stage name Awkwafina, may have an estimated net worth in the millions, but she still lives with the mindset that she just needs $500 per month in order to get by, she recently told E. Alex Jung in the February cover story for Harper's Bazaar.
Lum, 32, says the money philosophy stretches back to the early days as she was building her Awkwafina musical and comedy persona, which she used as a creative outlet while working a day job in book publicity.
At the encouragement of a friend, she recorded a music video for "My Vag" on her 24th birthday, all but certain it would give her employer reason to fire her (she adds she was a "horrible assistant" regardless).
She did get fired, but at the same time, the song got picked up on The Hairpin, circulated the internet, led to a $1,500 gig at Sarah Lawrence (the most money she'd ever made at the time, Lum says) and more performance opportunities. Lum decided pursuing entertainment was worth a shot.
She started with a goal of making enough to cover the basics. "I went into this mode of, if I can make $500 a month, that's all I need, because that's how much my rent was at the time," she tells Harper's Bazaar. "To this day I feel like I'm still in that 'All I need is 500-a-month' mindset."
"I made just enough, and I was able to do something that I loved doing so much. I just wanted it so bad," she continues. "The truth is that the best years of your life are when you're waiting for something big to happen."
By 2018, as she landed breakout roles in "Ocean's 8" and "Crazy Rich Asians," she resisted giving up her cheap railroad apartment in Brooklyn, New York — her first apartment out of college, where she initially rented a room for $500.
When filming for "Crazy Rich Asians" took her to far-flung locales, Lum recalls: "I remember walking around Singapore in these malls being like, 'I can't afford anything in these malls.' And then seeing these crazy houses. And it's like literally, 'Who am I?'" she said to Harper's Bazaar. "Those were the days. It just felt like I must be really lucky to be here."
Still, in recent years, Lum has been outspoken about how her thrifty behavior hasn't quite caught up with her rising star and earning power. She's been known to shop for clothes at Target and not splurge "on literally anything."
She credits her spending philosophy to being raised by her grandmother in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens, New York, after her grandparents' restaurant went bankrupt and they lost their house. Lum remembers money being tight at home, and staying up with her grandma late at night, who worried about paying the bills.
Lum says she still keeps a "just the basics" mentality even though she's now in a better place financially to support herself and her family. She's kept busy acting in the years since, including launching her own Comedy Central series and becoming the first Asian-American to win the Golden Globe for best actress, for her lead role in the 2019 drama "The Farewell."
Her upcoming works include Marvel's "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings", Disney's live-action remake of "The Little Mermaid," a Netflix comedy with Sandra Oh, and the Apple TV+ movie "Swan Song" starring Mahershala Ali.
"Yes, I always feel impostor syndrome because there are so many talented people out there," Lum tells Harper's Bazaar. "But I'm not going to today because I worked really f------ hard."
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