At Glamour’s 2018 Women of the Year Summit, Yvonne Orji opened up about how her faith led her to a starring role on HBO’s Insecure. Her story, below.
I’m Yvonne Orji. So some of you may know me as Issa Rae’s very messy best friend Molly on HBO’s Insecure. Thanks for watching! But what you may not know is that the journey to get there was entirely faith-led. Like, y’all, I could not have this life or anything. Nothing about the six-year-old girl who emigrated from Nigeria to America who was destined to be a doctor…if you know anything about Nigerians, you’re a doctor, lawyer or engineer. My mom is still praying, “Just one day. Maybe just one day…” It’s like, no. But nothing about my story pointed anywhere to comedy.
And that is where God comes in. Y’all that was all His idea.
I was raised as a Catholic, so God was always kind of a part of my life in a way. But as a freshman in college, I attended a Bible study that completely changed my life. That’s where I became a born-again Christian. Now, I know some of you are like, “In college?” Yes, because nothing about freshman year says Scripture, OK? Because I had a plan, so I was like, where are the boys? But I attended a bible study, and the minister there kept referring to God as, “Daddy.” I’ve never heard anybody refer to Him so intimately, and I’m really competitive—I have three older brothers—so for no reason I was like, “I want what she has.”
One night, when I was trying to figure out what was next and needed some clarity, I heard Him say, “Do comedy.”
I wanted that level of intimacy, so I said yes to the invitation—and from that, I too developed a very intimate relationship where I hear God. And one night, when I was trying to figure out what was next and needed some clarity, I heard Him say, “Do comedy.”
I’m sorry, what?
Because I wasn’t funny. I was like, nobody laughs at me. They used to laugh at me. Nobody was like, “That Yvonne is SUPER funny.” But at that point, I was on my way to becoming a doctor. I was stalling because I got my masters in public health. This is what you do when you’re the child of immigrants—you go to school to avoid going to school. And then after I got my masters, I was still not ready to be a doctor. I wanted to go to Liberia, which was just finishing a war, because it was easier for me to go to a war-torn country than tell my parents that I wasn’t going to be a doctor.
So I was wrestling. I was wrestling with God’s words. I was like, “What do you mean you want me to do comedy?” Here’s the thing, how many people have challenged God and won? You know, you can’t wrestle with Him. I’m not a fighter, look at me. So clearly I took His advice and I did comedy.
Sounds daring and fun, but pretty soon after I moved to New York I found myself with zero dollars and zero leads. Let me tell you right now: That’s not sexy. OK? Because Sallie Mae wants her money, like all of it. So one day I found myself incredibly hungry. I was in Harlem, and if you live in New York you know about 2 Bros. Pizza. It feeds the artist and the homeless, guys. It was $1 a slice of pizza, and if you’re really fancy you can get two slices and a soda for $2.75. I see some people shaking their heads. 2 Bros. Pizza is where it’s at! But here’s the kicker: I’m living in Queens at the time, and I didn’t have the $4.40 to take the subway to get there and back. Here I was, 25 years old, with two degrees, and not even the $7 to get a slice of pizza.
I was like, was this really the life I risked it all for? I have a family that loves me and cares about me, and I am broke. I am poor.
But God must have sensed my doubt because, in that instant, I promise y’all I got a download from Heaven…I grabbed a pen and paper, and I wrote everything I heard as He dictated plans for my life. And in that moment, it was like, this is amazing…I took a nap, and when I woke up I was like, I’m just going to say yes.
What followed was a series of saying yes. Because if He has plans for me, then I should just go with it. So I said yes to the temp job I hated but allowed me to perform comedy at night. I said yes to taking over a stand-up show in New York City. I said yes to a residency in a college production in Richmond, Virginia, that gave me two days to get there. I said yes to being a writer in the writers room for a TV show in L.A. At the time I didn’t know what that was, but, guys, it’s pretty self-explanatory. That’s what Google is for.
Say yes. What’s the worst that could happen?
So there was a lot of hustle and there was a lot of setbacks. I’m not going to front. The road to comedy was not sexy. I make it look very sexy now, but it was hard. That show that I was writing on got canceled—but from that point forward, I just kept listening. … I put every idea I had into creating the trailer for a show called First Gen, a series about a Nigerian girl who drops out of Med School to become a comedian (sound familiar?). This was back in 2016, and the trailer for First Gen became my audition tape for Insecure. It’s what Issa was able to see and turn to the producers and say, “Give her a shot.” I didn’t have an agent, manager, anything, I had never acted. So this is HBO—Home Box Office—this is not like, a small production. And this thing that I hunkered down and accomplished was what Issa was able to be like, “Let’s try her out!”
So, I’m not a surgeon, I’m not. Don’t get sick around, I’ll probably just give you Advil. But I’m definitely fulfilling my purpose. Inside all of us exists some kind of compass—whether it’s divine or otherwise—but it’s something desperately trying to navigate you and all of us to the life we know we were destined to live. So I think the choice is pretty simple: Keep letting fear sidetrack you or take what you’ve been given, maybe even told from God above, and say yes. But whatever it is, keep going. Keep doing it. Why not? That’s what Glamour Women of the Year is all about—women who are not afraid to go after what they want.
Say yes. What’s the worst that could happen?
Find out more about Glamour‘s 2018 Women of the Year here.