Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.
Our 10-hour photoshoot can’t wrap until false eyelashes are applied to a plush alpaca for one final shot. A make-up artist – with equally large lashes – races around a hillside bungalow nestled near the Angeles National Forest, north of Los Angeles, looking for the perfect pair. Somebody’s phone is blaring a playlist of trending songs, while the skittish homeowner flaps around the photographer, who has placed TikTok’s Bella Poarch on top of a marble kitchen island our house-proud host is worried will break.
Poarch – who is tiny – is unfazed. Despite being the reason the 20-person crew is here, she draws the least amount of attention to herself. In fact, when the photographer declares the shoot over, Poarch hardly reacts.
Perfectly styled pigtails aside, the 24-year-old doesn’t seem like someone who’d spend hours filming herself doing anything. But once I hit record, her face lights up and she begins sustained, wide-eyed eye contact, perfectly fitting the platform on which she’s the fourth most followed person on the planet, and the reason for her fairytale transformation into a popstar.
Like plenty of fairytales, this one begins with a little girl singing while doing chores on a farm. But there is no magic, no Fairy Godmother and no Prince Charming. There is only Bella Poarch and a video-sharing app.
Poarch never knew her biological parents. Born in the Philippines, she lived with her grandmother in poverty until she was three, when she was adopted by a white US Army veteran and his Filipina wife. The youngest of four adopted siblings, she spent long hours working alongside her brother on the family farm in the province of Pangasinan every morning before school. “I cleaned up a lot of shit. That’s actually when I fell in love with music,” she says.
Listening to Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars on the radio, Poarch sang to herself while working on the farm from three to 6am. Her adoptive parents (she refers to them as “step”) forbade her from participating in any extracurricular activities, but she secretly entered, and won, dozens of singing competitions and talent shows in elementary and middle school. She was punished, but persisted: “I was a hard-headed kid.”
Poarch describes her parents as strict and her childhood as rough, sometimes laughing as she recounts their rules. But on YouTube’s H3 podcast in June, she detailed treatment that she eventually categorised as abuse. Some days her stepfather wouldn’t allow her to shower before school after her pre-dawn shift on the farm, leading to bullying from her classmates.
In a TikTok in November 2020, a fan asked Poarch why she had so many tattoos. She explained that she was using the art to cover her scars from years of physical abuse.
Swamped today in a massive Balenciaga hoodie, Poarch is shy, covering her hands with her mouth as she laughs. But when she speaks, she is firm and clear. Still getting used to the spotlight, she assures me that her shyness was “much, much worse in high school”.
When she was 14, her stepfather’s health complications led the family to the US, where they settled in Fresno, a city of half a million in the central valley of California. By this point, Poarch was fluent in English after years of her stepfather not allowing her and her siblings to speak their native Tagalog at home. But in high school, she was forbidden to hang out or go anywhere after class and struggled to make friends.
Graduating early, she took a job at a local Target, lasting a few months before realising she needed to think bigger. “I said to myself: ‘I can’t do this. I might have to go to college or do something with my life.’” In 2015, without money to move out and fearful of getting into debt, Poarch took the advice of her enlisted brother and decided to join the US Navy.
In bootcamp, Poarch had to carry machine guns as big as her five-foot frame while, at night, she slept in a room with 20 other girls. “It was my first sleepover,” she recalls, smiling. As girls cried themselves to sleep missing home, Poarch was happy to have gotten her ticket out. “Joining the military gave me my freedom.”
When an officer asked if any of the girls could sing soprano, Poarch’s disbelief quickly gave way to relief. She and her fellow high-voiced recruits were asked to join Triple Threat, a bootcamp choir and drill team that performed at graduations.
After training, Poarch was stationed in Japan. On her off-days she travelled to Tokyo to admire colourful, outlandish street fashion. Her signature look – two super-high, super-long pigtails and glowy make-up on her cheeks and nose – is inspired by anime characters and the local street style there. “People used to bully me for how I did my make-up,” she tells me. “Going out in public with ponytails, I’d get told: ‘You’re a grown-ass woman, what the fuck?’”
In what turned out to be her last year in the Navy, Poarch was stationed in Hawaii, where she learned to play the ukulele in just one month. She began writing and recording songs on her phone, occasionally uploading them to SoundCloud but receiving minimal interaction. Despite enjoying her new adult life, Poarch was struggling.
“I had a lot of battles with my mental health,” she admits. The Navy provided a therapist who diagnosed her with depression and PTSD. “I didn’t even know what depression was until I joined the military. Especially in the Asian community, mental health is not very talked about.”
At the end of her four-year contract, she wanted to enlist “for 10 more years” but her therapist recommended against it, suggesting Poarch take a break while she figured out what to do next. Which is how she ended up living in Hawaii, with free time and freedom, on the brink of a global pandemic.
“When I was in the Navy we weren’t allowed to download TikTok because of, um, the Chinese stuff,” Poarch says, a reference to the app’s Chinese owner, ByteDance. After completing her service, she had a Facebook page and Instagram profile, but no other social media. In April 2020, her friends pushed her to download TikTok, which she initially used to share funny animal videos with friends. For her first video, Poarch sang Ariana Grande’s Raindrops.
“At that time I didn’t know how to record. I didn’t know that lighting was important, that sound needs to be crispy. But I uploaded it, got 100 views and decided to take it down. I was embarrassed, I got anxious. I thought people must not like this because it didn’t go viral.”
Undaunted, Poarch started to play the TikTok game. She took advice from videos on the app’s For You page about what sounds and filters were popular. She stumbled upon the Face Zoom filter that would go on to be her signature and, arguably, change her life. The filter tracks users as they move around the frame, following their gaze with the camera, seamlessly timing zooms and angle shifts with the movement of the face. Over time, some of Poarch’s Face Zoom videos, in which she bops around, her anime babyface moving to the latest TikTok trend, reached a million likes. Still, it felt like a fluke. Her next video, however, was different.
On the afternoon of 17th August 2020, Poarch was bored at home. She kicked her friends out of her bedroom so she could record a TikTok, claiming it would only take a few minutes. Soph Aspin Send, known on TikTok as M to the B, a 2016 diss track by Blackpool rapper Millie B, was trending. She threw a plaster over a spot on her chin and started recording, turning her head to the beat, smiling deadpan at the camera, then crossing her eyes and pursing her lips to end. Her hair is half up, half down, and she is wearing natural make-up, bar some glittery highlighter on the tip of her nose.
None of these details are the sole reason the video exploded. Poarch isn’t even sure why it did. “It took me two hours. I did 100 drafts just to make sure I got the perfect one.” She chose wisely. The TikTok reached a million likes in a day and rose to be the most liked video on the platform. It still holds that record, with more than 50 million at the time of writing.
Poarch continued to do TikTok trends, garnering tens of millions of views per video, without singing or even speaking to camera. She and her alpaca plushie (Paca now has almost 200k Instagram followers and a collaboration with streetwear brand Ripndip) danced, lip-synced and made half-cute-half-deranged facial expressions for months. Poarch locked down a manager to help secure brand deals (she’s worked with skincare brands like Eos, La Roche-Posay and CosRx) and, during what was initially her therapist-prescribed work hiatus, began carving out a lucrative career as an influencer.
But with the attention came the bullying and harassment she’d experienced at school – now multiplied tenfold. Her videos were racking up the inevitable trolls and violent, hateful comments. “I was reading all 10,000 comments one by one,” remembers Poarch, whose depression got so severe that her therapist suggested she stop uploading altogether. But Poarch’s plans to pivot from viral videos to music meant she had to keep going. “I thought, this is probably an opportunity for me. If I start letting my fans know that I love music and that I want to be an artist, maybe it will work out.”
Spliced between dozens of anime facial expressions, Poarch began posting videos of herself singing and playing ukulele, including a re-do of Raindrops (with improved lighting and sound quality). The videos got millions of views and likes, but paled in comparison to her typical TikTok content (think between one to five million likes compared to 10 to 30 million on her average trend post). She worried about being taken seriously as a musician and artist.
“There are a lot of talented people on TikTok, but switching to being an artist is really hard for them,” she says. There’s also a lot of less talented people on TikTok becoming artists, scooped up off an audience and a look by major labels for big record deals. “I’m a TikToker but I can sing, too,” Poarch states. “It will work if I put my passion into it. I told myself that if this doesn’t work out, I can do something else. [Or] if it doesn’t work out this year, then maybe next year.”
In May, Poarch signed to Warner Records and released her debut single, Build a Bitch. Inspired by a lockdown trip to Build-a-Bear, she calls the song a “fuck you” to bad people, including the guy who cheated on her and left her for a “hotter girl”. A self-love anthem, the track addresses the classic Madonna/whore complex over a nursery rhyme melody: “Curvy like a cursive font/Virgin and a vixen/That’s the kind of girl he wants/But he forgot/This ain’t build a bitch.”
“I’m grateful to have such a fun working relationship with her,” says labelmate Sub Urban, a 21-year-old artist and music producer who was brought on to help execute Poarch’s dark-pop vision. “Bella came to me with the concept for Build a Bitch and we wrote and developed it with [fellow TikTok singer] Salem Ilese and a few other friends.”
Urban also creative-directed the music video, which follows Poarch through a dystopian factory where men can build their perfect woman, down to hair and eye colour and breast size. Animatronic Bella, along with her fellow she-robots, fights back against the male customers in a pyrotechnic battle reminiscent of the innocent brutality of Gogo Yubari, the mace-swinging schoolgirl of Kill Bill.
With more than 15 million views in its first day, Build a Bitch became the most viewed debut music video in YouTube history. It’s easy to say it happened fast but, to Poarch, it was both a whirlwind and a 24-year dream realised. Little wonder she’s been beaming almost the entire interview.
“I’m the happiest I’ve been in my entire life,” she insists, smiling so hard I see all her teeth. Now based full-time in LA, Poarch is recognised at restaurants and on the street. “Before, people used to say they loved my TikToks and now they’re saying they love my new song. I’m so happy they tell me they love my songs instead of just making faces.”
Her follow-up single, Inferno, a duet with Urban, warns listeners through the story of a siren luring men to the gates of hell. “You do her wrong and she will fuck you up,” says Poarch. When asked if she operates under the same policy, she shows me a scar on her knuckle from knocking the teeth out of a male Navy recruit who picked her up without consent.
As catchy as Build a Bitch is, Inferno is a radio-ready banger, highlighting Poarch’s sexier side and unlocking a vocal range not highlighted in her debut. Now, Poarch is working with vocal coaches and choreographers to gear up for her first tour, where she’ll go full pop star, singing and dancing live on stage.
Urban believes that Poarch is an exception to the TikTok-to-musician pipeline, a move he says is “typically made by rising influencers purely looking for career longevity. I can confidently say that Bella is not one of those cases.” The pair call each other perfectionists, recounting long days in the studio finalising the tiniest changes. “She has a vision for herself and her music, and she’s got an incredible work ethic. Bella is a force to be reckoned with.”
Even though Poarch will head home after our photoshoot to film more TikToks, her confidence as an artist beyond the platform is the strongest it’s ever been. “I know there are a lot of people who are doubting me but I’m working so hard. After I released Build a Bitch, my confidence just shot up. I go through my messages and people have said the song helped them with their confidence… That’s why I’m making music.”
This confidence has allowed Poarch’s relationship with haters to change. She’s way too busy to go through every hate comment. In fact, she’s grateful: the sheer amount of them is what prompted the TikTok algorithm to boost her videos in the first place.
“Now I’m doing this,” she says, shrugging. In Bella Poarch’s case, her fairytale ending is more like a beginning.
HAIR Donovan Domingo MAKE-UP Faith Nachor PRODUCTION Christo Arsenio STYLIST’S ASSISTANT Gizzelle Burciaga