In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month, we’re celebrating powerful women who have made their marks across politics, activism and the arts. Today, famous Asian women like Sandra Oh, Chloé Zhao, Awkwafina and Lana Condor are all making historical “firsts” in the movie industry during a time when the need for more diverse representation is bigger than ever, while Filipino American musicians like Olivia Rodrigo and Ruby Ibarra are changing the music space with their versatile songs. Meanwhile, influencers like Bangladeshi-American Nabela Noor is creating unique and relatable content for her audience while also getting involved in important activist work. And of course, as the first woman in one of the highest-ranking positions in the White House, Madam Vice President Kamala Harris, who is Black and South Asian, is working toward a more progressive United States. And don’t forget boundary-pushing athletes like Eileen Gu, talented poet and author Cathy Park Hong, fashion icon Anna Sui, journalist and humanitarian Ann Curry and food expert and producer extraordinaire Padma Lakshmi. And the list goes on!
During a time when anti-Asian discrimination and hate crimes are on the rise, it’s never been more clear how important it is to support the AAPI community and celebrate their achievements. While we're focusing on modern influencers in this post, we encourage you to also learn about the trailblazers of the past, including Anna May Wong, Patsy Mink, Grace Lee Boggs, Yuri Kochiyama, Junko Tabei and Chien-Shiung Wu — just to name a few.
Ahead, you'll find just a fraction of famous Asian women who are inspiring all, now and for years to come:
A food expert, television host and more, Padma Lakshmi has been instrumental in the success of Bravo’s Top Chef, which has been nominated for 32 Emmy awards, and Hulu’s Taste the Nation, which was nominated for a 2021 Gotham Award for Breakthrough Series. In 2009, the Indian-born former model co-founded the Endometriosis Foundation of America to help raise awareness for a disease that she suffered from for decades before a diagnosis. In August 2021, her first children’s book, Tomatoes for Neela, was published by Penguin Random House.
Named to the 2021 Time 100 list for her advocacy on behalf of Asian American women, Korean-American writer and poet Cathy Park Hong also serves as the poetry editor for The New Republic and teaches creative writing at Rutgers University. Her book of essays, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, was recognized by the GH Book Club as a “must-read…if you have ever been frustrated by race in this country.”
Fifty-seven year old Chinese American Anna Sui is an icon in the fashion industry. After years of designing and selling clothes out of her Manhattan apartment, Sui’s big break came when Madonna wore Sui’s creations for a photoshoot for Vogue in 1992. Today, Sui has expanded her brand to include fashion, footwear, cosmetics, fragrances, eyewear, jewelry, accessories, home goods, and more.
Japanese American journalist and broadcaster Ann Curry is probably best known for her stints on the Today show and Dateline NBC. In 2019, she produced and hosted We’ll Meet Again with Ann Curry, a docuseries that reunited people who survived the same tragic event, on PBS. Born in Guam, Curry shared with Woman’s Day the story of how her parents met during the American occupation of Japan after World War II. On April 5, 2022, Curry will receive the Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award from Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication for her reporting in Kosovo, Darfur and Chad.
The Chinese-American, San Francisco-born freestyle skier raised eyebrows when she competed for China instead of the U.S. at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. But Gu held firm in her embrace of both cultures. “I’m American when I’m in America and I’m Chinese when I’m in China,” she said at a press conference in Beijing. “I’ve been very outspoken about my gratitude to [both countries] for making me who I am.” Gu won three medals at the 2022 Olympics.
Since 2008, the Chinese director, screenwriter, and producer has directed various short films and feature films, which have been praised for their depictions of the American West. Her film, The Rider, received nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards, but it was Nomadland that led to her becoming the second woman ever to receive a Golden Globe for Best Director. She's also the first woman of color to win an Oscar for Best Director. Next up, Zhao will direct Marvel’s upcoming superhero movie Eternals.
Filipino American actress and singer Olivia Rodrigo took the world by storm when her song “Driver's License” quickly went viral on TikTok and became the most-streamed song in the world on Spotify at the start of the year. But before she broke out with streaming records, she first got her start as Paige Olvera on the Disney Channel show Bizaardvark and currently stars as Nina Salazar-Roberts on Disney+’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.
Sandra first came to Hollywood with supporting roles in movies like Princess Diaries and Sideways, but it was her role as Dr. Christina Yang in ABC’s medical drama Grey’s Anatomy that changed her career and earned her worldwide recognition. The role got her numerous Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, including a win for Best Supporting Actress. Her role as the titular character Eve Polastri in BBC’s Killing Eve won her the 2019 Golden Globe for Best Leading TV Actress, and she was the first actress of Asian descent in 39 years to do so.
After releasing her debut album "Yellow Range", Nora Lum (Awkwafina) was featured in MTV’s Girl Code. Shortly after, she released her second album "In Fina We Trust." In 2020, she executive produced and starred in the Comedy Central series Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens. Later, she took on a more dramatic role in The Farewell, which earned her a Golden Globe award in the Best Actress category, marking the first time a woman of Asian descent has ever won in any lead actress film category. Next up, she can be seen in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and voicing the dragon in Raya and the Last Dragon.
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At just 23 years old, Naomi Osaka is a Japanese-Haitian professional tennis player who has been ranked number one by the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) and is the first Asian player to hold the top ranking in singles. In 2014, Osaka qualified for the WTA tour championship and defeated Samantha Stosur, who the world knew as the 2011 U.S. Open Champion. In 2020, Osaka won the U.S. Open herself.
Not only did Madam Vice President Kamala Harris make history as the first woman to be sworn in as the Vice President of the United States, but she is the first Black and South Asian individual to do so. Harris was elected as the district attorney of San Francisco in 2003 before being elected as the Attorney General of California in 2010 and re-elected in 2014. Before she took one of the highest positions in the White House, she served as a junior U.S. senator in California from 2017 and 2021. Throughout her career, Harris has advocated for issues such as healthcare reform, immigration laws and progressive tax reform.
The Mexican-Filipino actress and singer is mostly known on Broadway for her roles as Kim in Miss Saigon and Eurydice in Hadestown, both of which garnered her Tony award nominations for Best Actress in a Musical. But she made her feature film debut in 2020's Yellow Rose, which follows a Filipino teen that must decide to stay with her mom or leave her small town in Texas to pursue her dream of becoming a country singer.
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Over the last 30 years, Lisa Ling has become a prolific journalist in the industry. She got her first major gig as a co-host on The View in 1999 before moving over to hosting National Geographic's Explorer, and later as a special correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show. She hosted her own show, Our America with Lisa Ling on OWN from 2011 to 2014. Today, she hosts This is Life with Lisa Ling on CNN, where she travels across America and covers profound topics.
The Indian-born Canadian poet initially became popular when she began sharing her own poetry and drawings on Tumblr. In 2014, Kaur self-published her first poetry feminist book Milk and Honey on CreateSpace, where she wrote about immigration, relationships and sexual trauma. After she continued to gain more attention on social media, the book was re-released by Andrews McMeel Publishing and has sold more than three million copies nationwide. She later released follow-up books including The Sun and Her Flowers in 2017 and Home Body in 2020.
Representing Hawaii as Democratic Senator, Hirono has supported women's reproductive rights, health care reform (which was fueled by her own cancer diagnosis) and is currently leading the legislation to combat the rise in Asian hate crimes in the U.S. She was the first Asian American woman to be elected to the Senate, the first Buddhist Senator and the first U.S. senator born in Japan. Before Tammy Duckworth and Madam Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn in, Hirono was the only person of Asian descent serving in the U.S. Senate between 2013 and 2017.
Netflix’s Never Have I Ever was one of the most-talked about teen comedy series — but it wouldn’t have been what it was without Ramakrishnan's comedic, heartfelt performance as Devi Vishwakumar. The young Tamil-Canadian actress was chosen by Mindy Kaling out of 15,000 candidates who auditioned for an open casting. According to Ramakrishnan, she filmed her audition tape at a local library using her mom’s camera. From there, she was asked to send in four more videos before having a screen test in Los Angeles and finally getting the part.
A key figure in the Asian American movement, Zia is a journalist and activist for Asian American and LGBTQ+ rights. She is also the co-founder of American Citizens for Justice, an Asian American nonprofit organization that provides victims of discrimination with legal resources and advocates for immigrants. In 2008, she and her partner Lia Shigemura became one of the first same-sex couples to legally marry in the state of California. She published her most recent book Last Boat Out of Shanghai in 2019.
If you're on Instagram a lot, chances are you've seen Chen's fashion photos or relatable Instagram stories featuring her kids. As the director of fashion partnerships at Instagram, she has launched a variety of fashion and e-commerce features including the Instagram Shop account. Before she was big in the social media industry, Chen started off as the editor-in-chief of Lucky magazine and the beauty and health director of Teen Vogue.
The Indian actress, singer and film producer has been in the starlight for years. In 2000, she won Miss World — the fifth Indian contestant to do so at the time. Shortly after, she moved on to acting. Her latest roles include Alex Parrish on ABC's Quantico and Aditi Chaudhary in The Sky is Pink.
It was hard not to fall in love with Lana Condor when she took the lead as Lara Jean Covey in rom-com movie series To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. But before she landed the role of a lifetime, Condor made her debut as Jubilee in X:Men: Apocalypse in 2016. When she’s not acting, she's singing or filming videos for her YouTube channel. Soon, she'll be teaming up with Netflix again as the star and executive producer for their new limited series Boo, Bitch where she'll play a high school senior who wakes up as a ghost after making the decision to live “an epic life."
Sandoval has only three feature films under her belt, but her movies have been making waves in the film industry. Her latest one, Lingua Franca, premiered on Netflix in 2020, and it chronicles the journey of an undocumented transgender Filipino caregiver who pursues a marriage to obtain a green card. In February, her newest short film Shangri-La debuted as part of the Miu Miu Women’s Tales series. Sandoval was recently signed by the Creative Artists Agency (CAA).
A San Francisco-based rapper, music producer and spoken word artist, Ibarra first got into rap when she released her "Lost In Translation" mixtape in 2012 and debuted on Eminem’s hip-hop music station, Shade 45. In 2015, she signed with Beatrock Music and in 2017, released her debut album “Circa 1991." Most of her music explores her Filipino culture as well as social justice issues like immigration and trauma. When Ruby is not making music, she works as a scientist by day at a biotech firm in the Bay Area.
While Tran appeared in a number of short films and TV shows since 2011, she came to global prominence in 2017 when she was cast as Rose Tico in Star Wars movies The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. She later became vocal about cyberbullying and its impact on mental health after she wrote a powerful op-ed in The New York Times, where she admitted she had to leave social media after online abuse from some Star Wars fans. Tran also starred in Facebook Watch’s series "Sorry for Your Loss" with Elizabeth Olsen, and voiced for the lead of Raya in Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon.
Most known for her Netflix stand-up specials Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife, Wong also starred in and wrote romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe with Randall Park. In her 2019 debut non-fiction book Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets and Advice for Living Your Best Life, she wrote about balancing a career and being a mother and dubbed it a “life guide” for her daughters to read when they get older. Earlier this year, Wong was named one of TIME’s Most Influential People of 2020.
Since Noor launched her YouTube channel in 2013, she’s amassed over 900,000 subscribers and nearly 2 million Instagram followers. While she started out getting noticed for her makeup tutorials, Nabela has been a prominent advocate in the self-love movement. She launched her own size-inclusive clothing brand, Zeba, which challenges sizing norms and beauty standards. The influencer also launched Noor House, a non-profit that provides free housing, educational resources and access to food and water for Bangladeshi families.
As the Democratic Senator of Illinois, Duckworth has advocated for women's reproductive rights and immigration reform, plus she's been vocal about the recent spike in Asian hate crimes. She is also a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel, where she suffered severe combat wounds and injuries — including losing both of her legs. Along with being the first Thai American woman elected to Congress, she is also the first woman with a disability elected to Congress and the first Senator to give birth while in office.