Soldier, Tiktokker, pop star: The stratospheric rise of Bella Poarch (2024)

Soldier, Tiktokker, pop star: The stratospheric rise of Bella Poarch (2)

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Weeks after the release of her first ever EP, Dolls, the singer speaks to writer Nana Baah about trauma, the military, and why she’s finally ready for her ‘villain era’

In 2020, Bella Poarch posted a TikTok that secured her supernova status on the app. Armed with the Zoom filter, Poarch went viral by miming along to Millie B’s “Soph Aspin Send”, cartoonishly crossing her eyes and bobbing her head to the beat. Somehow, the 13-second clip became the most liked TikTok at the time. That video, tied with her more regular content – most of which shows her playing Minecraft and Fortnite – has helped her attract well over 91,000,000 followers.

Despite this success, becoming a music artist has always been the plan for 25-year-old Poarch. “My first TikTok was me singing ‘Raindrops’ by Ariana Grande and I was hoping to go viral. It didn’t. It got like 100 views and then I took it down because I was just sad,” she tells me over Zoom. “But [TikTok] wasn’t serious at first. I downloaded it because my friends kept sending me funny animal videos.”

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In 2021, Poarch released her first single “Build a Bitch”, a half lullaby, half middle finger to the unfair pressures put on women. “It was so hard because when I started teasing music on TikTok, everybody just came after me. They were like, ‘No, not another TikTokker making music. I remember [asking] my managers if we’re sure we want to do this?” Since then, the single has been used over 4,000,000 times on TikTok, and the music video has over 416,000,000 views on YouTube. “Now I get comments that say, ‘I used to hate you, but I love you now because of your music,” she says. We are speaking in late August, days after Poarch releases her first ever EP, Dolls. It’s 8:30 AM in LA, and the singer is getting ready to go to the studio – she’s working on something that she promises will be “entirely different”.

Poarch’s music has mainly been informed by her life before TikTok. Born and raised in the Philippines, she lived with her adoptive parents until she moved to the US in her early teens. Poarch has been candid about the years-long physical and verbal abuse she suffered at the hands of her father and, at 17, she joined the US Navy to escape him, serving for three years as an Aviation Ordnanceman. She then left, moving to LA in 2020. “Every time I meet new people and I tell them I was in the military before TikTok, they’re always shocked,” she says. “I learned so much from it. The military taught me to be mentally strong, like I can pick up an 80lbs machine gun, it’s all in my head that I can’t. It taught me not to give up. But really, it was a way for me to just run away from my abusive parents.”

Along with joining the military, making music was an escape from her traumatic home life. Throughout high school, she would write lyrics to express her emotions – almost like journaling – and throughout her deployment would play songs on a ukelele. “It’s always helped me whenever I’m going through a hard time. We would be deployed in the middle of the ocean and I would look outside and just come up with lyrics.”

“The military taught me to be mentally strong, like I can pick up an 80lbs machine gun, it’s all in my head that I can’t... But really, it was a way for me to just run away from my abusive parents” – Bella Poarch

Poarch’s childhood abuse is touched on most intimately in “Living Hell”, a track from her new EP. “It’s a very personal song. It shows a very vulnerable side of me that I don’t really show in my other music.” In the video for the single, Poarch turns to a mirror and sees the younger version of herself – but she admits it’s still difficult to reflect on it. “I feel so much stronger now. It’s so hard for me to talk about, whenever I tell people my trauma, my childhood story it’s hard to say without crying. It was easier to sing it than say it for me,” she says. “A lot of people reached out to me saying [the song] is helping them. And so I’m just glad that, you know, people can relate to the song and just be reminded that they can all just come out of the living hell and be stronger.”

On her EP, Poarch is like a siren, pairing her signature high-pitched melodic voice with themes of revenge, and the accompanying music videos are dark and dystopian. “I take a lot of inspiration from Tim Burton films and anime. The darkness really comes from that,” she says. For the “Build a Bitch” video, Poarch enlisted a cast of friends to appear, including Mia Khalifa and Valkyrae, as a group of factory-made women gone rogue. The video for “Dolls” acts as a sequel and the cast is even more star-studded, with Grimes, Chloe Cherry and Madison Beer all making an appearance. For Poarch, spotlighting women in her videos is important. “I love empowering other women,” she says of her famous friends appearing in her videos. “Being in the military, there were only a few women and you just had to support each other because you only have your sisters. I think women protecting each other is a beautiful thing.”

For Poarch, Dolls is about subverting the expectations placed on you, making it the perfect soundtrack for when you’re in your villain era. It’s where she sees herself too, sometimes. “Villains in movies are just misunderstood. All they want is revenge because they’ve been through something. But I feel like you can step in and out of it. I think you can choose when to be the villain,” she says. “As an Asian woman, it’s crazy because people, especially men, expect you to be quiet, shy and submissive. It just pisses me off. I’m like, ‘No I have a voice, I’m vocal – and I can be unapologetic’.”

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Soldier, Tiktokker, pop star: The stratospheric rise of Bella Poarch (2024)

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