Teen Vogue:
Yvonne OrJI

Yvonne Orji shines as Molly in Insecure,” but her dream as a come­dian was almost deferred. Here, she shares how the wishes of her tra­di­tional immi­grant family almost directed her toward sci­ence instead of your TV screen.

I grew up in a place called Port Harcourt, Nigeria, the youngest of four. What I remem­ber most about Nigeria was the ease. I would play by the pool, have fun with friends. When my mom got a job at Howard University, she went to America, and we came a year later in the dead of winter. It was very cold and dif­fer­ent from any­thing we had expe­ri­enced in Nigeria. School started, and because I had an accent, I was bul­lied by other black kids. I was like, Wait, I came from a coun­try where every­one was black!” My immi­grant par­ents said, You did not come here to make friends. OK? You came here to study, so just read your books.” But I kind of wanted some­one to sit next to in the cafe­te­ria!
At that point, I found solace in being the best stu­dent and making my par­ents happy. I thought, I can’t con­trol it if people don’t like me, but I can con­trol get­ting the heck outta here — by earn­ing a col­lege schol­ar­ship — so that was where my focus went. I remem­ber the words of encour­age­ment my par­ents gave me: One day, these people making fun of you, they will be work­ing for you. You will be their boss.”
By the time I got to George Washington University, I had been a straight-A stu­dent in high school. I majored in soci­ol­ogy and double-minored in biol­ogy and public health (my par­ents wanted me to be a doctor). I thought, I’ll take the pre­req­ui­sites for a career in med­i­cine, but it’s not gonna work out.” I took organic chem­istry, and I got my first-ever F. I ended up going to summer school, and the whole time I’m think­ing: I am not good at sci­ences.” The only way I’d go to med school is if I got into GW’s early-accep­tance pro­gram where you could fast-track your med­ical degree. I didn’t get in. So I went to grad school because that’s what you do, right? Nigerians like edu­ca­tion.

I got my master’s in public health and even worked in Liberia just so I could pro­long the inevitable — which was me taking a dif­fer­ent path. In 2006, in the midst of get­ting my master’s, my brother asked if I wanted to be in this pageant that his friends were putting on. But I didn’t have a talent! I can’t sing, I was not tribal danc­ing, and the last thing I learned on the piano was Mary Had a Little Lamb.” I prayed on it and came up with comedy, which I had never done. But all those years I was bul­lied meant I didn’t take rejec­tion lightly. I ended up writ­ing a five-minute set about grow­ing up Nigerian in America. To my sur­prise, people laughed.

People who were famil­iar with my story told me, We know that mom. We’ve been there with that dad.” It sparked some­thing. Six months later, I per­formed at GW in a con­test, D.C.’s Funniest College Student. I ended up win­ning for GW, and part of the prize was doing a set at DC Improv. Two guys in the audi­ence told me later, Your sto­ries are like my mom, just with a dif­fer­ent accent.” I was like, Maybe there’s some­thing here.”
So I saved up $425 to take an acting class in New York City and bought a bus ticket. I told my par­ents, I’m gonna go give this enter­tain­ment thing a shot.” This was not the path they approved of. My mom started crying, and my dad yelled before dri­ving me to the bus sta­tion. But I fig­ured if it takes eight years to become a doctor, give me eight to make it in comedy. If I fail, I have a degree that doesn’t expire.

When I got to New York, comics were being paid $5 for shows. I was broke a lot. But I reminded myself: You have a mis­sion; you need to stay the course. My L.A. jour­ney began as an unpaid intern­ship in a writ­ers’ room. I was host­ing African-related open mics. Friends told me, You’re so good — we’re not wor­ried!” I was five sec­onds from giving up. I’d respond, Please worry. I haven’t eaten in two days!” I had a melt­down on Sunset Boulevard. I kept think­ing, I’m doing my best, but it’s not work­ing — I gotta rene­go­ti­ate this plan.

At a point when I felt so for­got­ten, Issa Rae remem­bered me. After I put out the trailer for a show I devel­oped about my family called FirstGen on YouTube, which a lot of people related to, I con­nected with Issa. She had been fol­low­ing me. We had an organic con­nec­tion — two cre­ative black girls in Hollywood, appre­ci­at­ing each other from afar. So when the pilot of Insecure was green-lit, she told me I’d be great as her best friend. After coming off one of the hard­est points in my life, I was so grate­ful that she reached back to me. My life has changed, and my par­ents are proud of me, but I won’t let them watch Insecure because they’re still con­ser­v­a­tive!
The moral of the story: Don’t take it per­son­ally if you’re met with oppo­si­tion. Work hard anyway. The thing that dis­pels worry is your suc­cess, right? Believe the voice inside and not the ones telling you that you can’t do some­thing.