Since the mega-success of Everything Everywhere All At Once, Michelle Yeoh has finally been getting the recognition she deserves. Her new American fans may not know the Malaysian actress has been in the industry for 40 years.
Kicking off Women’s History Month in the best possible way, Yeoh graced People‘s cover story for “Women Changing The World 2023.” Yeoh was born on August 6, 1962 in the city of Ipoh, known for tin mining. Her father, Kian Teik, was a lawyer and politician, and her mother, Janet, was a former beauty queen. Yeoh left Malaysia at 15 to study ballet at the Royal Academy of Dance in London. A spinal injury derailed her promising dance career.
After she returned home, her mother entered her in the 1983 Miss Malaysia pageant, which she won. While appearing on The Graham Norton Show last month, Yeoh cheekily revealed that the only reason she did it was to shut her mom up. That led to an audition for a commercial with Jackie Chan for French designer Guy Laroche, which she booked. Soon after, Yeoh was cast in her first movie in Hong Kong in the action-comedy The Owl vs. Bumbo.
“When I started off in 1984, women were relegated to being the damsel in distress,” she says. “We need to be protected, according to our guys. But then I would go, ‘No, guys, I think we can protect ourselves pretty well. And if push comes to shove, maybe I can protect you too.'”
Fast forward to her first Hollywood role in 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies as Chinese spy Wai Lin with Pierce Brosnan. Yeoh says, “James Bond at that point had only been known as macho. The girls were just the ones with cutesy names.” In the film, Yeoh’s Wai Lin saves 007’s life and rejects his advances.
Offers began pouring in after the film. But Yeoh recalled, “people in the industry couldn’t really tell the difference between whether I was Chinese or Japanese or Korean, Or if I even spoke English. They would talk very loudly and very slow. I didn’t work for almost two years, until Crouching Tiger, simply because I could not agree with the stereotypical roles that were put forward to me.”
Yeoh’s recent casting as Madame Morrible in the film adaptation of Wicked is a product of the industry moving forward. “In the past, this role would’ve been for a Caucasian lady,” says Yeoh. “This is what we call diversity, inclusivity. This is how you make it work. It is a natural process — progress, evolution that we can have as storytellers.”
She’s grateful for where how far she has come. “A lot of actresses find, as the numbers get bigger, the roles start to dwindle. Over the last few years, I’m very proud that we have been breaking away from stereotypes. But it’s not just lip service. It is happening. And it’s happening to me.”
As tears begin falling, she concludes, “You go from shock to bewilderment. ‘Wow, is it me? How can it be me?’ Because I’ve worked with so many amazing actresses who should have had this privilege. So I am very grateful to be given the opportunity to sit at the table and to be seen.”