However, the tweet was more accurate than saying Yeoh was the first – because before Yeoh there was Merle Oberon: a biracial actress who was nominated for Best Actress in 1936 for her role in “The Dark Angel” (1935).
Born in what is now Mumbai in 1911, Oberon was the daughter of a mother of mixed South Asian descent and a white British father. In an effort to succeed in an industry that often rejected people of color, especially women of color, Oberon glossed over her hometown and biracial identity. The casting of non-white actors was not only unpopular, but in many cases was effectively banned under a set of self-imposed industry rules known as the Hays Code, which banned interracial romance, among other things.
Born Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson, Oberon grew up in India and began reinventing herself in the nightlife scene in what was then called Bombay. She began wearing white makeup—then a popular accessory for other mixed-race Indian women—and took on a British accent. She also used skin-bleaching products, which use chemicals to suppress the concentration of melanin that makes skin appear darker, according to the podcast “You Must Remember This.”
The guise continued when she moved to Britain. Oberon took her grandmother, Charlotte Selby, and had Selby pose as her maid. Selby was originally thought to be Oberon’s mother, but her mother was later revealed to be the woman allegedly Oberon’s sister, who was a teenager when Oberon was conceived, according to the journalist Halley Bondy, who covered Oberon’s life on the podcast wrote.
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Oberon told people she was born in Tasmania, the remote Australian island nation. Her birth certificates? Destroyed in a fire, she told the people. Oberon claimed she moved to India after her British father died. She said that’s where her “exotic” nature came from, according to Halley.
Her big break as an actress came after she caught the attention of Hungarian filmmaker Alexander Korda, who cast her as Anne Boleyn in the 1933 film ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’. She was nominated for the 1936 Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Kitty Vane in ‘The Dark Angel’. which chronicled a World War I love triangle between Oberon and two soldiers. But she was perhaps best known for starring as Cathy in the 1939 film ‘Wuthering Heights’ produced by Samuel Goldwyn.
Oberon’s facade lasted after her death, in 1979, until a 1983 biography, “Princess Merle: The Romantic Life of Merle Oberon,” revealed her parentage.
The mold was over, but Oberon went on to have a long, storied career and died with her secret intact. For years, even after her form disappeared, Tasmanians held her off as a daughter of the island.
And so, with only her family and close confidants knowing of her true identity in 1936, it was likely that she was nominated for Best Actress in 1936 as a white woman. (She lost to Bette Davis.)
Just as LGBTQ athletes and politicians are often described as the first “openly gay” or “openly bisexual” person of their profession – and many before them later revealed to be closeted – it is correct to say that Yeoh is the first Asian-identifying woman to be nominated for the best actress category.
Moet Yeoh, a favorite of with many Asians around the world winning the category at the Oscars on March 12, she would be the first to do so, outright, 87 years after Oberon began clandestinely paving the way.