Michelle Yeoh is having a moment right now—but it’s just the latest in an extraordinary career full of shining moments. In a recent interview, Yeoh revealed that she almost gave it all up. If it hadn’t been for a certain enigmatic moviemaker, the world might not have known Yeoh’s name.
Michelle Yeoh Started Out As A Dancer
If you saw Michelle Yeoh in the early ’90s, you might recognize her as Michelle Yang, a famous martial arts actress from Hong Kong.—but that’s not where she started. In a recent interview with Town & Country, Yeoh is looking back on the extraordinary path that led her here.
At the age of four, Yeoh began studying ballet. She was a formally trained ballerina who pursued the art well into her college years. After suffering a devastating back injury, Yeoh was left adrift.
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Her mother was insistent that Yeoh would become famous, even if it was just for her looks. So, she secretly entered her daughter in the 1983 Miss Malaysia beauty pageant. To Yeoh’s immense surprise, she won.
“I think the judges were blind,” Yeoh jokes.
It wasn’t long after that she would appear in a Guy Laroche wristwatch commercial with Jackie Chan. She went on to land a movie contract in Hong Kong, and over the next few years, she applied her understanding of dance choreography to fight scenes. Almost overnight, she became one of the biggest stars in the kung fu film genre.
‘Failures Make Us Stronger’
But her rise to stardom wasn’t without struggle. As a result of doing almost all of her own stunt work, Yeoh took some hits. In the early ’90s, after fracturing several vertebrae filming a stunt, she decided to give up acting altogether.
“I thought I broke my back. I thought I was paralyzed,” Yeoh remembers from that time.
Yeoh may have ended her acting career there if it hadn’t been for a visit from a big fan. In 1994, an art house film called Pulp Fiction took the cinematic world by storm, and its up-and-coming director, Quentin Tarantino, wanted to meet with Yeoh.
“I must say, Quentin, he’s persistent,” Yeoh says. “He is who he is today because he’s full of passion and love, so he wore me down.”
Once he finally got a meeting with Yeoh, Tarantino revealed that he was a huge fan of her work. During the visit, he recounted each of her stunts in excruciating detail, and it injected Yeoh with a sense of passion she thought she’d lost.
“Suddenly we became animated,” Yeoh remarks, tearing up just a bit. “So then I thought, Maybe I’m not ready to give up on this.”
From Ballerina To Bond Girl
The unexpected visit motivated Yeoh to get back to work. Only one year later, she landed her first English-speaking role in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies. In the film’s credits and promotional material, she finally went by her birth name, Yeoh, instead of Yang.
Her career only skyrocketed from there. But given her friendship with Tarantino, many wondered why she didn’t have a role in his film Kill Bill.
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“I asked Quentin the same question,” she says. “He’s very smart. He said, ‘Who would believe that Uma Thurman could kick your ass?’”
Fair enough, but the movie-making world is certainly glad Yeoh didn’t retire all those years ago. She’s since established herself in Hollywood, starring in various well-received action movies, comedies, and dramas.
After the overwhelming critical praise Yeoh has received for Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, her star just keeps on rising. Most recently, she’s been busy filming the highly anticipated Avatar sequels, proving that she still hasn’t reached the height of her extraordinary career.