Women’s History Month: 5 Modern Asian American Women Who Went From Struggle to Success
By Ernestine Siu
March 17, 2020
In honor of Women’s History Month, here is a list of some of the most epic, bad-ass, trail-blazing, modern Asian American women out there.
Not only are these Asian American women powerhouses in their own right, but they also have some incredible stories of survival that everyone can relate and learn something from:
Michelle Phan – OG beauty YouTuber turned founder and icon
What better way to kick off a list of some of the most successful modern Asian American women than with the true multi-hyphenate, Michelle Phan? Most people know her as the OG Beauty YouTuber, or as the respective founder and owner of Ipsy and Em Cosmetics. However, what is less known about Phan is her story. Like many of the most successful people in the world, she had a very unstable early life, dealing with family qualms and times of poverty. She found her solitude in art and beauty.
Phan was born in April 1987 in Boston, Massachusettes, to two Vietnamese refugees, according to Biography.com. Phan’s father was a gambler, which subjected Phan’s family to become reliant on food stamps from time to time. Phan told Glamour: “Every few months we’d get evicted and move…then one night after a big loss, my father just disappeared. It was more than 10 years before I saw him again.”
Phan’s mother moved from Vietnam to the States after the war. She arrived in the new country with less than $20 bucks and no knowledge of English. She became a beautician and did nails for a living. Phan grew up in this setting, inspired by the way her mother was able to make other women feel beautiful. According to ABC News, “She went from growing up on food stamps to building a nearly $100 million empire. And it all started on YouTube.”
She was also the first woman to reach one billion views on YouTube. Today, Phan is back on YouTube after a 3-year hiatus. In 2017, she left Ipsy, the beauty subscription service that she founded, and purchased Em Cosmetics from L’Oreal, according to Inside Edition. She is also an avid investor of BitCoin and spends her free time speaking up on issues that matter, and studying space with her telescope.
Awkwafina – actress, and breaker of stereotypes
Nora Lum, who is better known as Awkwafina, grew up as the daughter of a Chinese American father and a South Korean mother in Queens, New York, according to Highsnobeity. She began her career posting rap videos on YouTube. Her 2012 song “My Vag” went viral, launching the hilariously authentic rapper into the spotlight. In the years following, Lum released several other singles, including “NYC Bitche$”, which has racked up over 3.5 million views to date.
In 2018, Lum took on the extremely fitting role of Goh Peik Lin in the box-office shattering, history-altering film, “Crazy Rich Asians.” In hindsight, it is almost as if the character was created specifically for Lum. Following this film, Awkwafina took off. She made history after taking home a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for her starring role as Billi in Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell”.
Today, the actress stars in her own Comedy Central series, “Awkwafina is Nora from Queens“. The show has scored as the highest-rated new series premiere in the last three years for Comedy Central, according to Deadline, and has already been renewed for a second season. Lum is upheld as an icon of Asian American representation, breaking stereotypes left and right with her personality and talent. She created room for herself in an industry infamous for its rigid and dull standards.
Margaret Cho – comedic powerhouse, inspiration, and survivor of sexual abuse
If we are going to mention Awkwafina, it is almost an obligation to also mention the comedic icon Margaret Cho. She has been cited by many of the greats as their inspiration. Awkwafina, along with YouTuber, activist, and musician, Anna Akana often cites Cho as one of their childhood inspirations, according to the LA Times.
Cho is a renowned comedian, one of the first of her kind. She is known for her stand-up, however, what is less known about her, is that she grew up enduring sexual abuse. For years of her childhood, Cho was raped by a close family friend, according to HuffPost. The Grammy-nominated artist said: “I was raped continuously through my teenage years, and I didn’t know how to stop it.”
Ever since coming out with her story, Cho has been very outspoken about her experiences with abuse, in an attempt to ignite a conversation around sexual abuse and rape. In 2015, Cho released a music video entitled “I Want to Kill My Rapist”. In regards to her song, Cho said: “I do not condone violence but cathartic rage has its place in art,” adding, “abuse leads to self-abuse, drug addiction, depression, eating disorders, suicide. I want to kill it before it kills me,” according to The Cut.
Today, the comedian, designer, musician, and activist, hosts her own podcast, “The Margaret Cho“. Cho is a true multi-hyphenate inspiring some of the most influential Asian American women out there.
Evelyn Yang – mother and sexual assault survivor
Evelyn Yang, most recently known as Andrew Yang’s greatest supporter, is a boss babe in her own right. This Columbia University graduate was a marketing executive at L’Oreal before diving headfirst into her husband’s historic run for president. Along with this, she is the mother of two boys.
In a recent exclusive story for CNN, Yang came out about her experience with sexual assault in 2012. Yang was pregnant with her first child when she decided to visit the office of Columbia University’s OB-GYN, Dr. Robert Hadden. Yang told CNN that as months progressed, Hadden began to ask her inappropriate questions about her sexual relationship with her husband. Hadden became more and more inappropriate until it was seven months into Yang’s pregnancy, where it reached the height of the assault. Hadden forcefully undressed Yang and proceeded to examine her internally. She said: “I remember trying to fix my eyes on a spot on the wall and just trying to avoid seeing his face as he was assaulting me, just waiting for it to be over.”
Yang’s decision to share her story took an immense amount of bravery and vulnerability. Since sharing her story, other survivors of sexual assault have been inspired to come forward as well. According to The Hill, nearly 40 other women have come forward to the attorney, Anthony DiPietro, about their stories with the same OB-GYN.
Constance Wu – from waitress to household name
Many know Constance Wu as the star love interest of the breakout film, “Crazy Rich Asians”, but Wu’s story has had some less-than-glamorous moments. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia to her Taiwanese parents, Wu studied acting in college, according to CNBC.
In 2010, Wu moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of becoming an actress, only to meet a time of struggle. For years before she got a lead role in the ABC sitcom, “Fresh Off the Boat”, Wu was tens of thousands of dollars in debt. She told The Cut: “I was at a point where I was still waiting tables, nannying, being a personal assistant, struggling to make ends meet, going through heartbreaking audition after heartbreaking audition, and I had a moment where I had to ask myself, ‘If you’re still a waitress when you’re 45, is that cool?”
She persisted, out of love and passion for her craft lo-and-behold, has become one of the recognizable names in Hollywood. Today, Wu is an outspoken advocate of Asian American representation in the media.
During a time where it seems like the world is falling apart with the coronavirus and all of its effects, these stories are here to instill some hope. The stories of these women show that anything is possible. The struggles that they have faced equipped them with the tools necessary to be the icons that they are today.
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