Michelle Yeoh, 60, never thought she would walk the red carpet. Now she is making Academy Awards history as the first Asian-identifying woman to be nominated for an Oscar in the best actress category. The nomination is thanks to the groundbreaking indie movie Everything Everywhere All at Once.
The movie, by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, has relaunched Yeoh’s career. The Golden Globes awarded her the gong for Best Actress, TIME magazine named her “icon of the year” and Vogue has singled her out for “out-dressing everyone” on the red carpet.
“Teenagers will come up to me at the supermarket and say, ‘You’re cool! Can we have a picture with you?’” Yeoh told LA Times. “Outwardly, I’ll smile and say, ‘Of course!’ But inwardly, I’m pumping my fist, screaming, ‘Yes! Finally! I’m cool!’”
Yeoh herself never dreamed of being a Hollywood star: she wanted to be a ballerina. Born in the Malaysian city of Ipoh to a well-off family, Yeoh was studying ballet in London when a spine injury cut her dreams short. Her mother, intent on turning her into a celebrity, entered her into the 1983 Miss Malaysia pageant. To her surprise, Yeoh took home the crown. “I think the judges were blind,” she joked in an interview with Town & Country.
Although Yeoh did not win Miss Universe, she was hired to appear in a TV ad alongside Jackie Chan – a job that kick-started her rapid rise to stardom. Combining her skill as a dancer with an intensive training regime, Yeoh became an action star, appearing in countless movies, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She was one of the few actors who did her own stunts. When asked if Chan thought “women belonged in the kitchen,” she replied: “He used to. Until I kicked his butt.”
Before Gal Gadot was winning praise for Wonder Woman, Yeoh was already wowing crowds with her moves. In 1997, she landed her first Hollywood part in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. Her performance was so impressive that director Quentin Tarantino, one of her staunchest fans, told Yeoh that he didn’t cast her in Kill Bill because: “Who would believe that Uma Thurman could kick your ass?”
But Yeoh faced an uphill battle in Hollywood, where she was shut out by ageism and racism. In her Golden Globes acceptance speech, she said it took her 40 years to finally be recognized as a leading actress.
“I remember when I first came to Hollywood; it was a dream come true until I got here, because look at this face. I came here and was told, ‘you’re a minority,’ and I’m like, ‘no, that’s not possible,’” she said. And then someone said to me, ‘You speak English!’ [...] And then I said, “Yeah the flight here was about 13 hours long so I learned.”
Now, however, Yeoh is at the height of her career. On March 13, she is the favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actress alongside Cate Blanchett, and her next movie is no less than the third installment of the Avatar saga.
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