Interview by
Bifen Xu

Photography by
Roy Beeson

Styling by
Diana Tsui

Naomi Watanabe, Performer/Comedian

Comedian and fashion designer Naomi Watanabe cannot walk down a street in Japan without getting mobbed. With 8.9 million Instagram followers (at the time of publication), she is one of the most popular social media stars Japan. She’s best known for her lip-syncing imitations of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé and she has her own fashion line called Punyus — a collection of playful, tomboyish streetwear — which she started in 2014 because she had trouble finding plus-size clothing she wanted to wear in Japan. Kathleen Hou of The Cut describes her best: “Mix Lady Gaga’s defiant underdog attitude and ambition with Lizzo’s body positivity, Cardi B’s social media skills, and Aidy Bryant’s sense of girlish joy, and you see why everyone in Japan — from the very young to the very old — adores her.” She’s been spending the summer in New York learning English and enjoying some anonymity with the intention of bringing her comedy to America. One of her dreams is to perform at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. In our translated conversation with Watanabe, the charismatic performer talks about her Sephora addiction, getting recognized in America, and how a Beyoncé obsession turned into a career.

Growing up with a tough Japanese mother

I was born in Taiwan but I moved to Japan very early in my life so I grew up Japanese culturally. My mother, who is Taiwanese, met my Japanese father (when she was in Japan for work), and then got pregnant with me. My father left us when I was in elementary school. 

My mom was never supportive [of my art]. She never wanted me to become a comedian. She's still like that today. My mother told me that my father has seen and criticized my performances. My mother has never complimented me in my entire life and because of that, I was super hungry and humble. And even today, I'm never satisfied with any of my performances.

Comedy as a turning point 

I grew up as a shy kid and I loved Beyoncé since age 14. I would mimic her and dance along to her songs alone in my room. But when my mother came to my room, I would stop and pretend I wasn't doing anything. I'd been performing Beyoncé for many years, and when I did the Beyoncé performance at one of my first auditions, everyone loved it and cracked up. I felt so confused because this is what I had been doing by myself for so long. That was a huge turning point for me. 

After high school, I applied to college but I didn't get into any schools. I decided to move to Tokyo and pursue my dream as a comedian. The first three years I worked at a diner and then I went to a school for comedy. At comedy school in Japan, you start your career after a year of studying. I was thinking maybe if I work at a sketch comedy theatre, someone will find me in 10 years. After you finish school, there is a big audition for comedians in Japan, all the big stars in comedy, producers, casting directors would go scope young talent. My mission was to perform and make everyone laugh. A huge star in Japan discovered me then and asked me to go on TV. That was the beginning of everything. I was 19 then. That was 12 years ago. 

On makeup and beauty

I started using makeup in middle school. I like doing my own makeup because I know my face the best. I know my flaws. Most of the time, I do my own makeup even for my performances. 

I love cleaning my face with a facial wash to take off my makeup. I use the SKII Facial Treatment Gentle Cleanser and my face feels like a cleaned boiled egg after. 

When I was in my 20s, I was very into eyeliner and lipstick. But when I turned 30, what I realized is the most important thing is my skin condition. What I'm eating, my diet — all those routines are so important. When I eat oily food,I get acne. Now I'm very careful about eating and understanding what is good for me and what is not. My skin was acting up and dermatologist asked me if I eat too much wheat, and I realized I had been eating udon three times a day, every day. I stopped eating so much udon and now my skin is clear.  Beauty and its connection to diet are very important to me.

What I would tell my younger self

Do what you want to do and trust your gut. When I was a teenager, I always thought about what other people thought about me. My big breakthrough was when I was 18 and started going to comedian school and  started having an opinion of myself. But even in my 20s, I was still listening to others. One day during that time, an older colleague told me what I should say during a performance and I took her advice. It was not successful and I got hurt by that. I wish back then I knew all I had to do was follow my gut. I wish I could say that to the younger version of myself. 

Who I most want to meet next 

Rihanna and I are the same age, and I definitely want to meet her and see her perform. 

My comfort food

If I had to pick one favorite food, it would be takoyaki from Osaka. If you eat takoyaki in Tokyo, it's totally different from takoyaki in Osaka. The texture is different, the taste is different, it's totally different. I prefer the one from Osaka.

Coming to New York

I can walk in New York more than Japan, but if I go to a store, sometimes the sales clerks look at me like I don't belong. But people will recognize me and say, "Hi, are you Naomi Watanabe and can I take a picture?" And then that's when I’d see the same salespeople start acting nice to me. It makes me very uncomfortable.

I'm not shy but I'm learning English right now; I still don't know how to speak [it well]. I came to New York to learn how to make people laugh in English.

Taking a much-needed time off

I started working when I was 15, and back in Japan, I would work, come home, sleep. [I’ve been working non-stop], work for the last 10 years. Now in New York, I take English classes, go to the gym. This is my first time enjoying time off in a long time. I love going shopping and buying make-up. Sephora is heaven. I go and fill the basket. I buy a lot of make-up, the store worker in Soho is my best friend now.  

Naomi Recommends: Beauty Favorites