The Role Model: Yvonne Orji

Long before she was swapping one-liners with her TV best friend Issa on HBO’s Insecure, Yvonne Orji was making audiences laugh — just on a slightly smaller stage. In college, she prayed and asked God what her special talent should be for a pageant she had entered. His answer? “Comedy.”

“I was so confused, like um, God, this is Yvonne, not D.L. Hughley speaking!” she remembers. “But I kept at it, and soon I was doing stand-up with routines about growing up Nigerian-American. What kept me going was when an Indian and an Asian guy came up to me after a show and said, ‘You’re describing my mom, just with a different accent!’”

Insecure’s creator Issa Rae first discovered Orji when she came across one of her YouTube sketches in 2008. The two kept running into one another at events in Los Angeles, and when Rae’s show was greenlit a few years later, she encouraged Orji to audition. Five weeks later, Orji had booked her first television show.

Insecure isn’t just inspiring for viewers; it’s inspiring for me!” Orji says. “It’s rare to have a Black lead in something, and when they do, the best friend is usually white or racially ambiguous. But this is a show with two Black, dark-skinned leads. And it’s successful. So now, people can see this is a formula that works.”

Orji is looking forward to season 3 of Insecure, out later this year. She’s also starring in the September film Night School with Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish and is working on a book. And she’s not done with stand-up.

“A lot of times comedy show hosts will say, ‘Y’all ready for a female comic?’ But I just want them to say ‘Y’all ready for Yvonne Orji?’ That’s the goal.”

Black Is The New Black is Refinery29’s celebration of 20 Black women who kicked down doors in their fields this past year. Black women who are reminding the world that we are not a trend or “a moment.” We’re here — and we’ve been here. Check out the full list.

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