Yumi Nu’s People-Pleasing Days Are Long Gone

When it comes to fashion, relationships, and music, Yumi Nu listens to her heart.

Yumi Nu in a black puffer and pink sunglasses
Photograph by Anna Theroux Ling

You might recognize Yumi Nu as one of the foremost emerging models of the moment—one who’s walked countless runways (Jacquemus, Anna Sui, and Jason Wu among them) and landed covers for Vogue, Teen Vogue, and now, Sports Illustrated (she’s the first plus-size model of Asian descent to do so, to boot). You might even see her and think, That girl kinda looks like Devon and Steve Aoki (you would not be wrong—they are her aunt and uncle). But today, Nu is adding another title to her already robust résumé: musician. With the release of her debut EP, Hajime, the 25-year-old model introduces listeners to her bedroom pop-inflected style of hazy, soft R&B; on tracks like “Illusions” she runs through themes of self-exploration and making the decision to live her life by her own rules. “There’s a theme of losing myself and putting my work in all these different places,” Nu tells me over the phone from her home in Brooklyn a few days before the project drops. “I felt like I needed to make a mindset change in my life, because I’m a huge people pleaser. It was an exhausting way to live.”

Although this isn’t the first time Nu has released music—in 2018, she put out a series of tracks through Steve Aoki’s label, Dim Mak—Hajime marks a comprehensive dive into motifs that Nu has been mulling for years: bucking other people’s judgments, healing from generational trauma, and existing with unapologetic visibility. Below, the New Jersey native discusses being constantly inspired by family, breaking toxic cycles, and looking to Kim Kardashian and Bella Hadid for style inspiration.

What’s the story behind the name of your EP, Hajime?

Hajime means “beginning” in Japanese. I got the idea for the title because my uncle and everyone in my family have been trying to convince my grandma to write a book about her life. She’s lived this crazy immigrant life, and I feel like, at her age, it’s very normal to not talk about what you’ve been through or process your emotions, especially in Asian culture. She’s still processing, but started writing it. I was reading a little bit of her book and her first chapter is called “Hajime.” When I saw the word and the explanation, I was like, This feels really good and aligned with what I want my project to be called too. Sonically and lyrically, it feels like the beginning of this place that I’m going with my music; I wanted something that stamped the beginning of a new chapter for me. I’m always stealing inspiration from my family in that way.

When did you start working on the EP?

I started during the pandemic. For a while, I wasn’t writing because I was in this creative depression of not feeling good enough, and feeling scared that I would never write something that I liked again. That fear paralyzed me. But soon after, I was like, I need color back in my life. So I started writing again in 2020, while I was going through a period of serious self-exploration.

What did that self-exploration look like?

At that time, I wanted to make a change in terms of being a people-pleaser. I put everyone else’s opinions on a pedestal, and would follow how they felt about me. A big part of that healing was something that I call “worthy work”: I thought about, if this person likes me or dislikes me, would it do anything to how valuable or important I am in the world and to myself, to my actual worth? And the answer is always no. The illusion of worthiness in society fluctuates based on your relevance. I wrote about that in “Illusions” because when I realized that when we are grounded and we can take a step back, we realize other people’s perceptions of us don’t really matter.

I’m sure that during 2020, when work opportunities were waning, you felt this especially.

A thousand percent. American culture is a hustle culture, a no days off kind of vibe. We think it’s such a flex—it’s not a flex though! My whole family is all crazy workaholics, so I consider how productive you are as being what you bring to the table. I started thinking, what would happen if I did nothing and just enjoyed my life—enjoyed the food I ate and the music I listened to and the people that surrounded me? At the end of the day, we can’t take anything with us.

Photograph by Anna Theroux Ling

Being a people pleaser and existing for other people is a pretty universal experience for lots of people, but especially for women, and especially for Asian women.

Yeah. As an Asian woman, you are existing to be a mother, to be a wife, to serve other people. And we see that so strongly in our Asian women elders—they have had no space for themselves and what they want. My grandma would always say, “no choice,” when we’d ask her, Do you want to do this or that? Do you want to go here? We would make fun of her for that and joke around with her, but it was also really heartbreaking at the root. I’m like, but you do have a choice. This is your life.

When did you first get into making music?

I took my first singing lessons at 12, and then I started writing songs when I was 15; I made some embarrassing YouTube covers. [Laughs]. You can no longer find them, they’re gone forever, because I wanted to give my future self a chance.

Let’s get into the Style Notes questions. Describe your personal style in three words.

I would like to say timeless, minimal, and I’m trying to be edgy, but I don’t know if it’s working.

What were you wearing yesterday and why did you decide to wear it?

Yesterday, I wore a black Hervé Leger dress because I was at the White House. It was a big day, so I didn’t want to be bum vibes in front of the president.

What is the best fashion tip that you’ve picked up on set?

I realized the importance of tailoring. Working in the fashion industry, you see that everyone’s body is so different. It actually helps each person to get stuff tailored to them, because it’s very rare for something to fit perfectly to your body unless it’s stretchy.

What’s the most prized possession in your closet?

I get rid of stuff so much, because I really want to be like Marie Kondo. I’m obsessed with decluttering. I don’t keep anything. But there’s this necklace by Aeri Go Jewelry, a Korean designer. I wear her jewelry every single day. She deserves more hype.

What is your favorite fashion moment from pop culture?

There’s not a specific moment, but whenever I’m seeking outfit inspiration, I look at Kim Kardashian or Bella Hadid. Bella has really cool Nineties-inspired fashion, and Kim K has this neutrals, minimal vibe going, but she always looks really elevated and fashionable.

What is your biggest fashion regret?

I’ve always had a bigger butt, and my mom would always be like, Cover your butt! I honestly regret covering my butt, because it’s an asset. In high school, I was really shy about it. Now, the butt is out to play every day in my wardrobe. And no offense to my mom, I love her—and she has a big butt too, so that’s part of why she would tell me to hide mine. My mom is a therapist, and we’ve gone through how those comments affect us, together—she received her own comments from her mom, every generation has them.

Do you have a daily uniform?

I can’t go wrong with all black, but I’m trying to mix it up and be more experimental now—I’ll always try and wear some fun sunglasses from A Better Feeling or Bonnie and Clyde with my outfit.

What was your style like as a teenager?

I was a teenager around 2010, and I don’t think the trends from the 2010s will circle back, I’ll just say that. My style was very questionable: It was a lot of weird knee-high boots and infinity scarves. I also wore a lot of volleyball t-shirts.

Were you on the volleyball team?

I was, but I wasn’t good, and I didn’t like volleyball. This is a part of my people-pleaser narrative. I’m like, I wanna be a team member so bad that I’m just wearing volleyball merch for no reason. But just so you know, I’m not going to post any photos, ever, from that time. Let’s just say if you knew me in high school, you didn’t.