Birthdate: August 6, 1962
Birthplace: Ipoh, Malaysia
Ranked in 2008 as the greatest female action star in movie history*, Michelle Yeoh is an iconic Asian star with rare international reach in her diverse fan base. Before her, East Asian female movie actors (a bit more rigidly than their male colleagues) tended to be slotted into one particular genre or another. Yeoh broke the mold, as a major star of wide-appeal action and wuxia movies, as well as serious drama and auteur cinema.
That she has maintained her iconic status for decades is even rarer for an East Asian actor, perhaps matched only in fan popularity by Jackie Chan, with whom she co-starred in Police Story 3: Supercop (1992). A recent sign of this appeal is her starring role in Jon M. Chu’s megahit Crazy Rich Asians (2018), her co-starring spot in Marvel’s first Asian-set epic, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), and Dan Kwan’s and Daniel Scheinert’s science fiction comedy for A24, Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022).
With her training in dance, Yeoh gained an early reputation for being able to do her own stunts. She quickly attained star status in Corey Yuen’s Yes, Madam (1985) but was billed as “Michelle Khan” to appeal to Asian audiences. After her marriage to Hong Kong businessman Dickson Poon, she retired from acting. She only resumed her acting career at age 30 after her divorce from Poon, uniting with Chan, who first discovered her during the making of a TV commercial.
After a string of successful wuxia movies, Michelle Yeoh hit the Hollywood big time as a “Bond Girl” in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) with Pierce Brosnan, who dubbed her a “female James Bond,” since she did her own fighting scenes, even though she was prevented by producers from doing her own stunts.
Yeoh’s great international success came in the year 2000, under Ang Lee’s direction in the renowned Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yeoh brought gravitas, elegance, and ferocity to the wuxia epic, marking a moment in world cinema history when a Chinese-based genre, formerly a cult specialty, became a worldwide phenomenon. Yeoh became the new face of modern Asian cinema that combined action, beauty, grit, intelligence, and character depth of a sort that hadn’t previously been widely received by Western audiences.
Michelle Yeoh parlayed this triumph into Hollywood and European-produced projects with her name above the title, including Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), and Luc Besson’s The Lady (2011), in which she portrayed Burmese civil right activist and future politician, Aung San Suu Kyi. She made a rare shift to TV in her recurring role in Star Trek: Discovery (2017).
Yeoh has recently made a strong box office resurgence in the hits Crazy Rich Asians and Marvel’s Shang-Chi, but perhaps Yeoh’s biggest audience-grabber is soon to come, in her co-starring role as Dr. Karina Mogue in James Cameron’s Avatar 2 (2022), Avatar 3 (2024), Avatar 4 (2026), Avatar 5 (2028) as well as her co-starring role in A Haunting in Venice, co-starring director-producer Kenneth Branagh (as Hercule Poirot), Kelly Reilly, and Tina Fey.
Michelle Yeoh was born to parents Janet Yeoh and bus magnate Yeoh Kian-teik in 1962 in the former Federation of Malaysia, in the capital city of the state of Perak, Ipoh. She is of both Cantonese and Hokkien descent. She attended London’s Royal Academy of Dance after her family moved to the U.K. when she was a teenager.
She quit her first love, dancing, after a spinal injury, and switched to studying acting. She has been married once, to Hong Kong luxury goods businessman Dickson Poon. Her current partner is French motor racing industry executive Jean Todt. She is a Buddhist.
Miss World: After being named Miss Malaysia, Michelle Yeoh competed for Miss World in 1983 with future fellow Asian superstar Maggie Cheung.
Hong Konger: Although a Malaysian citizen, Yeoh also has acquired permanent residency in Hong Kong.
Beauty: Michelle Yeoh was named by People magazine in 2009 as one of the “35 All-Time Screen Beauties,” and in 1997 was a People magazine pick for one of the “50 Most Beautiful People in the World.”
High Profile: Michelle Yeoh was selected as a profiled artist in the BBC’s annual “100 Women” series in 2020.
Green: Yeoh is an active supporter of environmental causes in her homeland of Malaysia, and is a patron of the “Save China’s Tigers” project.
Look it Up: Yeoh is the subject of entire chapters in several books on the rise of female action stars in Asian cinema, including Rikke Schubart’s Super Bitches and Action Babes: The Female Hero in Popular Cinema, 1970-2006.