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Stand-up comedy still scares 'Insecure' actress

Nigerian-American actress Yvonne Orji went from performing stand-up in a beauty pageant to starring in HBO's "Insecure."

Posted: Jan 2, 2019 9:45 PM
Updated: Jan 2, 2019 10:21 PM

Ordinarily, you won't hear a lot of comedians crediting Jesus for getting them into comedy. Of course, there's very little that's ordinary about Yvonne Orji.

The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she entered the Miss Nigeria in America pageant as a young woman, unaware there would be a talent portion of the competition. Partly, that's because as a self-admitted tomboy, she didn't watch a lot of pageants.

"I was raised in a Nigerian household," Orji recalls. "We just don't sit around having talents. Our talent is getting straight A's, that's what my talent is. They were like, anyone who competes needs to have one, so I found myself stuck because I already bought the dress. I was really geared to win."

A devout Christian, Orji says she prayed on it and actually got an answer. The Holy Spirit, she says, told her to perform comedy.

"I said, 'No, you meant me? Where did that come from? Try again, it's me, Yvonne, your other daughter, how many do you have?'" she remembers asking God.

But Orji listened. Her performance was a hit and she was quickly hooked on comedy.

At the time, she was pursuing her master's degree in public health, and her parents wanted her to become a doctor -- not a "jester," as her mother called comedians.

She decided she'd stall and signed up to volunteer in Liberia.

"It was easier to go work in a war-torn country than just confess and tell my parents I'm not going to do medicine. I don't even like blood. I was like 'No, take me to the war,'" she remembers.

That only bought her so much time. Eventually, Orji surrendered to her passion, despite the fact that stand-up comedy still scares her.

"Stand-up is the thing that I know God wants me to do, but we want to do the safe thing," she said.

Comedy may not have been the safe bet, but it turned out to be a good one.

Orji's animated and hilarious stand-up work led to a starring role as creator Issa Rae's best friend, Molly, on HBO's "Insecure."

"I have the opportunity to have this phenomenal human being that I get to portray and I get to tap into," Orji says of her brilliant but romantically challenged character. "Every time I meet the real life Molly, it's like thank you for being so messy, I appreciate you for just figuring life out because now I get to figure life out through your mistakes."

For all those "Insecure" viewers waiting on Molly to figure out love, Orji is too.

"I don't need a whole season of happy Molly, but two, three episodes," Orji recalls telling the show's writers. "They in no uncertain terms told me that'll never happen, because if Molly's happy, then the show ends. I was like, really?"

Orji, however, radiates happiness. She says she feels fortunate to be living a dream that once seemed crazy and out of reach to a young Nigerian-American woman.

"I think we need comedy now more than ever, because there is just so much hatred. It's not even division, it's just actually hate," Orji says about the political climate in America. "We need conversations that are real and honest and hopeful and hope filled, and I think we need comedy that's bred in peace and in love to really kind of pierce through some of this hate."

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