The slow-burning rise of Michelle Yeoh: How the veteran Hollywood actress went from affluent ballerina and former Miss Malaysia to becoming a first-time Oscar nominee at age 60
Tuesday morning saw the veteran actress become the first woman who identifies as Asian to land a Best Actress Oscar nod thanks to her game-changing role as Evelyn Quan Wang in Everything Everywhere All At Once.
At 60 years of age, many of the star’s fans believe the celebration of her talent is long overdue.
Indeed, the Malaysian-born star has been loved and respected by critics and viewers alike for her supporting (and often scene-stealing) turns in films like Easy Money (1987); Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000); Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997); and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005).
Michelle Yeoh has finally landed her first ever Academy Awards nomination after appearing in more that 50 titles
Her performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once has launched her four-decade long career to new heights
However, like many other actresses of color, Yeoh’s career failed to reach the heights it should have due to Hollywood typecasting and a continued lack of role offers that could showcase her full range of talent.
As the industry began to diversify in recent years, the actress has enjoyed a resurgence in her career thanks to roles in Crazy Rich Asians, Shang-Chi And The Legend of the Ten Rings, Star Trek: Discovery and Netflix’s The Witcher: Blood Origin.
But it is her work in Everything Everywhere All At Once that has changed everything for the actress. Following critical acclaim, the film helped the star win her first-ever Golden Globe Awards on January 10.
Now the stage is set for Yeoh to potentially break an Oscar record by becoming the first-ever Asian actress to win a gong for a lead role.
Here, FEMAIL looks back at how the former Miss World Malaysia used her dance and martial arts background to become one of the most formidable actress working in Hollywood.
Budding dance career dashed by injury: How the star’s hopes of being becoming a professional ballerina led to a shift in her career
Yeoh was born to affluent Chinese-Malay family, who is Hokkien and Cantonese ancestry, in 1962
She developed a love a dance from an early age and began studying ballet at the age of four
Michelle Yeoh was born in August 1962 to parents, Janet Yeoh and Yeoh Kian-teik, in Ipoh, Perak.
Her affluent Chinese-Malay family is of Hokkien and Cantonese ancestry, and her father, who died in November 2014, was a lawyer turned Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) politician.
Yeoh developed a love a dance from an early age and began studying ballet at the age of four.
It was during her teen years that the found herself moving to London with her family.
The then 15-year-old enrolled in an all-girls boarding school and continued to hone her dance skills.
This resulted in the actress studying at the UK’s Royal Academy of Dance in London, where she majored in ballet.
However, a spinal injury while she was in school put an end to her hopes of becoming a professional ballet dancer. So Yeoh then turned her attention to choreography.
She eventually graduated with a creative arts major with a minor in drama.
‘I came into this career by accident; I never once thought, “Oh, I want to be an actress.” I always thought that one day I would have my own ballet school,’ she told The Hollywood Reporter in March 2022.
The actress continued: ‘I never understood stage fright until I had to do drama. It was only when I started having to learn lines, do a monologue onstage, that I could literally hear my heart beat. I used to try to skip whatever classes I had.
‘If you had told any of my drama professors, “One day this girl Michelle is going to be an actress,” they would have bet their last dollar that it never happens.’
Stepping into the spotlight: Yeoh began competing in beauty pageants before making her official move into acting
Before she hit the silver screen, the young star took part in several beauty pageant contests
Yeoh’s mother Janet is the one who put her forward for the Miss Malaysia World contest
Yeoh won the 1983 Miss Malaysia pageant and went on to compete in the Miss World pageant in London
In 1983, Yeoh won the Miss World Malaysia content after her mother, Janet, encouraged her to compete.
‘I’m a little competitive by nature,’ the School For Good And Evil star joked to Town & Country magazine in 2022. ‘I think the judges were blind.’
When asked if her mother takes credit for her career, Yeoh replied: ‘All the time! She always tells me, “It’s me, I created her, I gave her this,” and I’m like, “Yes, Mom.”‘
The then 21-year-old beauty went on to represent the country at the Miss World pageant in London that same year, where she walked across the stage wearing a traditional gold and green costume.
She then traveled to Australia where she won the Miss International Tourism Quest pageant.
Eventually, billionaire studio head Dickson Poon recommended her for a TV commercial with Jackie Chan in Hong Kong.
He then convinced her to sign with his production company, D&B Films, which offered the 22-year-old her first acting contract.
‘I didn’t read or speak [Cantonese] very well,’ Yeoh explained to The Hollywood Reporter.
The star grew up speaking English and Malay, ‘but I’m a bit of an adventurer.’
‘The easiest thing is to say no. For sure, you won’t fail, but you won’t get anywhere either,’ she said.
When she worked for D&B in Hong Kong, they gave her the stage name ‘Michelle Khan’ with the hopes that it might make her more marketable to international audiences.
In 1988, she married billionaire studio head Dickson Poon and retired from acting
She made a celebrated return to the big screen with performances in films like Police Story 3: Super Cop (1992) alongside Jackie Chan
The actress held her own in her early career by performing all the stunts she could and fully participating her fight scenes
When her company asked her what kind of movies she’d be interested in making, she observed that action felt the most familiar.
‘To me, it was like a big dance piece. It’s all choreography, and that I understood,’ she told THR.
‘They looked at me like I was completely insane because I had long hair, I was a little chubby, I was the demure beauty queen – so cliche.’
However, her first stint at acting was short-lived after Poon asked Yeoh to retire acting following their 1988 wedding.
Speaking to The Guardian about her decision to quit her job, Yeoh stated: ‘It wasn’t a hard decision because I saw marriage as a full existence. I see someone now like Emma Thompson or Kate Winslet, who can juggle their careers and their family life, but that felt beyond me then.
‘Maybe it comes from the Asian culture, but my thinking was that I couldn’t be running around all over the world, jumping off buildings, if I was going to give my marriage 100%. When I choose to do something, I always give it my complete commitment. If I feel I’ve done my best, and it’s not going the way it should, then I’ll leave. That’s what I did with my marriage.’
When the pair divorced after just over three years of marriage, she was surprised to find her stock was still high in the film industry .
‘No one thought I’d left for good – they were keeping my seat warm for me. So I jumped back in,’ she explained.
Out of retirement and onto the world stage: The star made a name for herself with impressive performances and incredible fight scenes
Yeoh starred in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (seen) in 1997 and co-star Pierce Brosnan started to call her the ‘female James Bond’ as he praised her fighting skills
Director Ang Lee reached out for her to star in 2000’s martial arts adventure movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
The movie perfectly married her physical prowess to her subtle acting skills, helping her to win fans all over the world
Yeoh made the return to the big screen with performances in films like Police Story 3: Super Cop (1992) where she performed daredevil stunts with Jackie Chan, and Yuen Woo-ping films Tai Chi Master (1993) alongside Jet Li.
The actress suffered a horrific back injury during this time, and she has since credited director Quentin Tarantino for encouraging her to push through the depression she felt during recovery and to continue acting.
She recalled to THR: ‘The next thing I knew, we were talking and I was coming back to life. I’ll never forget it. It was like, “I do love what I do.” And that was a turning point where I felt, “I’ve paid my dues.”‘
The actress chose to change back to her real name when Hollywood came calling, with her now iconic role as Wai Lin in the 1997 James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies.
She made waves with her performance alongside Pierce Brosnan, who called her a ‘wonderful actress’ who was ‘serious and committed about her work.’
He even started to call her the ‘female James Bond’ as he praised her combat abilities.
Yeoh famously wanted to perform her own stunts for the film, but director Roger Spottiswoode felt it would be too dangerous.
In 2008, she joined Brendan Fraser in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)
Her performance in 2005 movie, Memoirs of a Geisha, also won over critics and viewers
The fact she performed all of her fight scenes meant it was no surprise when director Ang Lee reached out for her to star in 2000’s martial arts adventure movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
It was her first Mandarin-language movie and because she did not speak the language yet, Yeoh learnt her lines phonetically.
It was a role that perfectly married her physical prowess to her subtle acting skills.
The international success of the film helped make the actress more of a known name in Hollywood, while she landed herself a Best Actress nomination at the 2000 British Academy Film Awards.
In 2005, she took on a role in Memoirs of a Geisha and impressed once more by highlighting her graceful presence on screen.
She continued to work consistently and found herself teaming up again with Jet Li as they joined Brendan Fraser in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008).
By 2011, her star has risen enough for French cosmetics company, Guerlain, to name her as their skincare ambassador.
A second wind: Her career was rejuvenated by a string of well-performing films as Hollywood finally began to diversify
In recent years, Yeoh has enjoyed a second wave of success with a role as Starfleet Captain Philippa Georgiou in the TV series, Star Trek: Discovery
She also played a key role in the game-changing romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians
She is also now a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thanks to her role in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Yeoh never stopped working over the years, but it is safe to say she started to enjoy a second wave of success after her part as Starfleet Captain Philippa Georgiou in the TV series Star Trek: Discovery in 2016.
Next up was the game-changing romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians. The film was an adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s popular book of the same name.
It made more than $238 million worldwide at the box office and became the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the past decade, proving that audiences were more than happy to see new stories on the big screen.
The actress then joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe with her role in Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, delighting audiences once again with her stunt work.
But it was her role in A24’s Everything Everywhere All At Once that really got conversation around the actress started again.
In the movie, she plays laundry mat owner Evelyn Quan Wang, who was tasked with saving the universe after an interdimensional rupture unraveled reality.
It has since been revealed the lead role was originally meant to be for Jackie Chan, but as filmmaking duo, the Daniels, started to wonder who could play the star’s wife the idea of making the woman the lead come forth.
Daniel Kwan admitted to THR: ‘We were having trouble figuring out the casting for the father figure, and one of us started wondering what happens if we take Michelle’s character and flop (sic) it and she becomes the protagonist. And the film just opened up in a completely different way.’
The story suddenly felt more personal to the directors as Daniel Scheinert explained: ‘We have these very strong moms and grandmoms, and we’re also both kind of dopey, gentle guys ourselves. As soon as we switched it, we were like, “Oh, now the husband and wife characters are more relatable. Why on earth didn’t we write it this way from the get-go?”‘
The pair stated that the movie would have died if Yeoh didn’t accept the part. Thankfully for all involved, she did.
Sweeping the awards: As Yeoh makes history with her latest award ceremony wins, the actress won’t be slowing down any time soon
Yeoh is up for the award for Best Actress at the Oscars for Everything Everywhere All at Once
She won the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy at the 2023 Golden Globes
A delighted Yeoh reflected on her 40 years in Hollywood in her moving speech
Despite appearing in more than 50 titles over the years, Yeoh didn’t win any major awards for her work until the Golden Globes.
During her memorable speech at the January 10 ceremony, a tearful Yeoh reflected on her 40 years in Hollywood as she stated: ‘I’m just going to stand here and take this all in.
‘This is also for all the shoulders that I stand on, all who came before me, who look like me, and all who are going on this journey with me forward.’
Now the star is poised to walk away with the Best Actress award at the 2023 Oscars.
The category is historically one of the awards body’s whitest and least diverse, certainly among the four acting races.
To date, Halle Berry is the only non-white winner after she walked away with the gong more than 20 years ago for Monster’s Ball.
Prior to Yeoh, not a single woman who identifies as Asian — incidentally, the largest racial group on the planet — had been recognized as best actress by the Academy Awards.
Some consider Merle Oberon (1936’s The Dark Angel) to be the first Asian best actress nominee, but she hid her ancestry (her mother was reportedly of partial Sri Lankan descent) and passed for white during her career.
The same thing was done by double Oscar winner Vivien Leigh, who was born in British-colonized India and whose mother might have had partial western Asian ancestry.
Yeoh, who officially divides her time between Kuala Lumpur, Geneva and Paris, has plenty more to look forward to no matter what takes place at the Oscars.
She will be seen in the next two Avatar sequels, while it has been announced that she will star alongside Ariana Grande in the Wicked musical movie.
Elsewhere, she’s also part of the Disney+ series adaptation of Gene Luen Yang’s acclaimed graphic novel American Born Chinese.
During her career, Yeoh has been a celebrity ambassador for the likes of French cosmetics company, Guerlain
Yeoh is engaged to Jean Todt, the recently retired president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobil (pictured in 2018)
The actress continues to live in Switzerland with her fiancé, Jean Todt, the recently retired president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile.
Though she would have loved to have children, her attempts to conceive during her life sadly failed.
She told THR: ‘I love kids…I really, really wanted to have a family, but unfortunately that did not smile upon me.’
Yeoh is actually the godmother to one of her ex-husband’s daughters.
Aside from her award nominations, Yeoh is being showered with praise in several different ways.
In 2022, she was placed on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Meanwhile, she became the first Asian artist to receive an honorary doctorate of fine arts degree from the American Film Institute.
She received the doctorate in celebration of her contributions of distinction to the art of the moving image.
Elsewhere, the actress also received the Kirk Douglas Award from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last year.