Michelle Yeoh

The first Asian woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, Michelle Yeoh is also known for infusing martial arts skills and dangerous stunts into her film roles.

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Who Is Michelle Yeoh?

Born into an affluent Malaysian family, Michelle Yeoh emerged as one of the Hong Kong film industry’s top female action stars with performances in films including Yes, Madam! (1985) and Supercop (1992). Yeoh went on to garner international attention for starring in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Her performances in films like Crazy Rich Asians (2018) contributed to a wave of films showcasing Asian American talent in Hollywood. In 2023, Yeoh became the first Asian woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Quick Facts

FULL NAME: Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng
BORN: August 6, 1962
BIRTHPLACE: Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
SPOUSE: Dickson Poon (1988–1992)

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Early Years

The daughter of Yeoh Kian Teik, a lawyer, and Janet Yeoh, a housewife, Yeoh enjoyed an active upbringing that nurtured her competitive instincts: Along with her lessons in ballet and piano, Yeoh participated in basketball, swimming, and rugby, and was a junior squash champion.

Yeoh moved to England at age 15 to continue her ballet training at London’s Royal Academy of Dance, with hopes of pursuing a career as a ballerine and one day opening her own dance studio. Unfortunately, a back injury derailed her hopes of a performance career.

After returning to her home country, Yeoh entered and won the Miss Malaysia competition in 1983. A friend recommended Yeoh to Hong Kong businessman Dickson Poon, who needed last-minute talent for a TV advertisement, at dinner one night. Yeoh got on a plane to meet with Poon, and the next day she filmed a wristwatch commercial with actor Jackie Chan.

Early Hong Kong Action Films

michelle yeoh smiling into the camera and sitting cross legged, wearing a black shirt

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Michelle Yeoh in 1989

Initially billed as the ethnically ambiguous “Michelle Khan,” Yeoh made her big-screen debut as a “damsel in distress” in The Owl vs. Bumbo (1984). Intrigued by its fighting sequences, she immersed herself in intensive martial arts training and followed up with a lead butt-kicking role in Yes, Madam! (1985).

Despite lacking formal martial arts training, Yeoh’s dance training and flexibility helped her transition seamlessly into martial arts roles. She worked out eight hours a day at a gym to prepare for the part on Yes, Madam!, and although initially regarded as “just” a dancer, she learned martial arts moves on the set from instructors and choreographers and did as many of her own stunts as possible.

Yeoh delivered another impressive physical performance with films like In the Line of Duty (1986), Easy Money (1987), and Magnificent Warriors (1987). She continued performing dangerous stunts in her subsequent films, dislocating her shoulder during the filming of Royal Warriors (1986) when she was kicked by a colleague. One of her early standout roles was in Magnificent Warriors (1987), in which she displays complex martial arts moves, wields a whip, and fires a mounted machine gun.

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Increasingly Dangerous Stunts

Yeoh returned from an acting sabbatical as an Interpol inspector alongside Jackie Chan in Police Story 3: Supercop (1992). The film boasted some of her most memorable and dangerous stunts, including a scene in which she jumped a motorcycle onto the top of a moving train. During filming, Yeoh accidentally slipped during a stunt in which she was thrown onto the hood of a moving convertible. A panicked Chan tried to hold onto her from the driver’s seat, but she fell off the car. Yeoh escaped a serious injury, got up, and performed the stunt again.

She then co-starred in The Heroic Trio (1993) and cemented her reputation as an action star with Wing Chu (1994). However, her willingness to perform dangerous stunts caught up with her while filming the aptly named The Stunt Woman (1996), as one misjudged leap left her with a fractured vertebrae and cracked ribs.

International Breakout

pierce brosnan wearing a blue shirt, and michelle yeoh wearing a red shirt, sitting on a motorcycle in a city road

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Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Although Supercop was re-released in the United States in 1996, Yeoh truly broke through as an international star—and finally ditched the Khan stage name—with her role in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. The first Asian female lead in the long-running franchise, Yeoh broke the usual Bond girl mold by giving Pierce Brosnan’s 007 super-agent a formidable fighting partner.

Yeoh again wowed audiences in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which showcased her graceful physical prowess and her dramatic chops as conflicted warrior Yu Shu Lien. The role required Yeoh to learn lines in a difficult older form of Cantonese. She also sustained a torn knee ligament one week into the shooting, requiring complicated surgery that took her away from the set for three months, nearly forcing Lee to replace her with another actor. Yeoh ultimately received a BAFTA nomination for propelling the Oscar-winning film.

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After re-teaming with her Crouching Tiger co-star Zhang Ziyi for Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Yeoh branched out with roles in the sci-fi cult favorite Sunshine and the survival epic Far North (2007). A return to her Hong Kong fighting roots with Reign of Assassins (2010) was well-received, as was her decidedly non-combat role of Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady (2011).

Yeoh sizzled as steely matriarch Eleanor Young in the box-office smash Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Hollywood’s first all-Asian-headlined production since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. She then played mentor Ying Nan in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), the first Marvel movie to feature an Asian actor (Simu Liu) in the lead role.

Television Roles

michelle yeoh smiling, wearing a black shirt, standing in front of a backdrop with stars and the words star trek discovery on them

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Michelle Yeoh attends the premier of CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery in Los Angeles in September 2017.

Following 30 years of choreographed battles and sweeping dramas on the big screen, Yeoh moved to television in 2015 as a double agent on Cinemax’s Strike Back. She landed a recurring gig on the Netflix historical drama Marco Polo before joining Star Trek: Discovery in 2017 as Captain/Emperor Philippa Georgiou, a role designed to be a spin-off series.

Academy Award for Best Actress

michelle yeoh, smiling and looking down with her eyes closed, holding an academy award, wearing a white dress, and standing in front of a table in a darkened room

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Michelle Yeoh holds her Oscar for Best Actress on March 12, 2023.
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The Malaysian star’s first top-lining credit in Hollywood fittingly came with a role written specifically for her in the genre-defying Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022). As embattled laundromat owner Evelyn Wang, Yeoh drew praise for capturing the realistic struggles of an aging immigrant and for displaying varying degrees of martial-arts expertise during the more fantastical segments of the story.

Yeoh received wide praise for her performance and became the first Asian-identifying actress to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. (Merle Oberon, who was of mixed British and South Asian dissent, had earned a Best Actress nomination in 1935, but she concealed her heritage for fear that discrimination could harm her Hollywood career.) In March 2023, Yeoh won the Oscar, becoming the first Asian woman and second woman of color (after Halle Berry) to win the coveted Best Actress trophy.

Personal Life

Yeoh has been in a relationship with Jean Todt, a Ferrari racing executive turned International Automobile Federation president and native of France, since 2004. She was previously married to Dickson Poon from 1988 to 1992.

Yeoh was awarded the Malaysian title of Tan Sri in 2013 and Commander of the French Legion of Honour in 2017. The actress also earned Excellence in Asian Cinema honors at the 2013 Asian Film Awards, and in 2020, she was named to both the Time 100 and BBC 100 Women of the Year lists.

Devoted to an array of conservation issues, Yeoh has donated her time as a WildAid ambassador for endangered animals and is a United Nations Development Programme ambassador for sustainable development. She has also been involved with AIDS-related organizations and road safety initiatives.

The actress splits her time between homes in Kuala Lumpur, Geneva, and Paris. She counts food and jewelry among her indulgences (one of her rings makes a prominent appearance in Crazy Rich Asians) and enjoys horror movies.


  • You could be throwing a hard punch, but if your face doesn’t say, ‘I’m going to kill this guy,’ the audience is not impressed.
  • If given the opportunity, I just go kick ass. I’ve always had that attitude since I was a kid.
  • You fluctuate between feeling very shocked and very overwhelmed with joy but thinking, ‘How can I be the first?,’ because I know of so many amazing actresses and actors where we’ve stood on their shoulders.2023 interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
  • For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities. This is proof that dream big and dreams do come true. And ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime. Never give up.2023 Oscar acceptance speech

Citation Information

  • Article Title: Michelle Yeoh Biography
  • Author: Biography.com Editors
  • Website Name: The Biography.com website
  • URL: https://www.biography.com/actors/michelle-yeoh
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: March 13, 2023
  • Original Published Date: May 3, 2022

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