Bella Poarch: From TikTok to the Navy to Pop Stardom - Rolling Stone
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Eman Casallos for Rolling Stone

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Bella Poarch Conquered Her Past, the Navy, and TikTok. Now She’s Coming for Pop Music.

From a painful childhood to military service to global pop stardom, the TikTok sensation keeps defying the odds

Bella Poarch had a panic attack this morning. While pulling her glossy black hair into a high ponytail and doing her makeup for a 9 a.m. appointment, the nerves hit. She wasn’t so sure she wanted to leave her home on the east side of Los Angeles, where she lives with her cat, PeePee, and French bulldog, PooPoo. Actually, she was sure she didn’t. Yet here she is, sitting across the couch from me at a studio in Culver City, the 25-year-old Navy veteran turned mega-viral creator — her bouncy lip-sync to a line from Millie B’s “M to the B (Soph Aspin Send)” from August 2020 is still the most popular TikTok of all time, with more than 56 million likes — turned budding pop star. While Poarch is a goth, combat-ready sexpot on her social pages and in music videos, in person she’s shy. Her discomfort with her newfound fame is palpable. Still, as she has throughout her life, she pushed through the anxiety and the fear — “I was like, ‘I got this,’” she says — to arrive right where she needed to be.

The transition from nobody to celebrity may be weirder for social media stars than anyone. One day you’re playing ukulele to your phone camera alone in your bedroom (as Poarch used to do), the next you have millions of followers (in Poarch’s case, 88.8 million to date). Still, creating is often a solitary business, one that doesn’t require collaborators or autograph signings with screeching fans. It’s only those who break as big as Poarch has over the past two years that find themselves suddenly thrust into a world of IRL interactions with strangers.

“It’s very overwhelming when I meet new people,” Poarch says, her girlish voice underscoring her shyness. “That’s really what I struggle with right now.”

She was just as timid when she first met her producer Sub Urban, a fellow Warner Records artist who’d blown up on TikTok. Though she says she “didn’t talk at all” during that first session, Poarch worked through those nerves, too. Together, the pair made “Build a Bitch,” her spooky-pop first single that would chart globally and top off at Number 56 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the 24 hours following its debut last May, it was the most-watched music video on YouTube, with 10 million views.

The success of “Build a Bitch” surprised many who’d seen Poarch merely as the cute lip-sync girl: It was confident, funny, dark, and weird. The video had blockbuster-movie-quality effects and featured cameos from content creators Bretman Rock and Mia Khalifa. But for every new fan Poarch won over, there were skeptics who didn’t think she could be a real artist.

“‘Why are you making music? You only make faces,’” she says of the negative comments she saw online. “They were just hating because [of me] becoming famous on social media, then wanting to make music.”

It hasn’t deterred her: Poarch has been hard at work on her debut EP, due out this year, which will feature songs with Sub Urban as well as her new friend Grimes, who calls the TikToker “super-hardcore.” In a life that’s taken her from a painful childhood to the military to global stardom, it’s just another example of Poarch overcoming steep odds and upending every expectation.

TikTok is full of theater kids, wannabe dancers, and oversharers, but when Poarch started creating on the app in the Covid summer of 2020, her content didn’t fit any of those categories. In fact, it was confoundingly simple. Making heavy use of TikTok’s Face Zoom feature, she created minimalist lip-sync videos full of cutesy, cartoonish facial expressions borrowed from video games and anime. (See the signature cross-eyed smirk that punctuates that “M to the B” hit.) She found comfort in embracing a character, something she’d learned to do as a form of escape throughout her life.

Born in the Philippines, Poarch was raised by her grandmother until she was three years old, when she was adopted by a white American veteran and his Filipino wife. She gained two sisters and a brother, all adopted too.

As she spoke about on the podcast H3 last year, when Bella was seven, life on their family farm grew troubling. Poarch’s father was tough on her and her brother, the youngest members of the family. They had to wake up at three or four in the morning to do chores, like cleaning up animal waste — a task her sisters were spared. Often, she said, they wouldn’t be allowed to shower before school, leading classmates to bully them. If her work on the farm wasn’t up to her father’s standards, she alleged, he would deny her meals and sometimes hit her. Meanwhile, she claimed, her mother stayed silent.

At school, Poarch found a way to express herself. While hiding it from her parents, she joined talent shows every month. And every month, she won. “I actually have 36 golden medals,” she says proudly. Each of those wins came from a performance of Beyoncé’s “Listen,” a song written for the film Dreamgirls, where the character Deena exerts independence from her controlling husband. It’s still Poarch’s karaoke go-to.

Poarch joined the Navy at 17 and was deployed in Japan and Hawaii before she left the service at 23. “It helped me push myself,” she says of the experience.

Poarch joined the Navy at 17 and was deployed in Japan and Hawaii before she left the service at 23. “It helped me push myself,” she says of the experience.

Courtesy of Bella Poarch

When she was 13, Poarch, her brother, and her parents all moved to the United States, eventually settling in Fresno, California (her sisters stayed in the Philippines). While she’s said her father’s physical abuse subsided there, at 17, Poarch got away from him for good: She enrolled in the Navy, like her brother had done a few years prior. Oddly enough, she found freedom in Virginia, where she attended basic training. There was discipline and structure, but also days off where she could do fun things she’d been denied at home, like go to the mall and play around with makeup. “It changed a lot for me,” she says. “I explored more about myself.”

While in aviation school in Pensacola, Florida, Poarch got her first tattoo, a small heart. She’s now covered in pieces, many of which she says have helped cover up the literal scars left behind from her childhood. But her favorite is a pair of wings that wrap around her back, with a ship in the middle, a tribute to her time as an aviation ordnance specialist.

“I was the smallest person in my workplace,” Poarch says. “My job [was] picking up 80-pound, big machine guns and taking them to helicopters and doing maintenance on them. They would make fun of me: ‘Oh, you’re so tiny.’ But it helped me push myself. It taught me that even if you’re the smallest person, you can do whatever you want. You can get through a lot of things.”

Post-deployment, Poarch settled down in Hawaii. In early 2020, she logged onto TikTok for the first time. By the time her “M to the B” video took off a few months later, Poarch had already signed with a management company that had been searching for promising nonwhite content creators. Poarch relocated to Los Angeles while in the throes of viral fame, and told her team she wanted to pursue music. At meetings with labels, many laughed in their faces, one of her managers, Aryan Mahyar, says. That is, until she showed them videos of her covering the low-fi artist Shiloh Dynasty on her ukulele. “That’s what made them believe me,” she says.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 06: Bella Poarch attends the 10th Annual LACMA ART+FILM GALA honoring Amy Sherald, Kehinde Wiley, and Steven Spielberg presented by Gucci at Los Angeles County Museum of Art on November 06, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for LACMA)

Poarch (at an L.A. museum gala in 2021), who taught herself to play pop songs like Coldplay’s “Paradise” on the piano by ear, parlayed her meteoric TikTok fame into a music career, to the surprise of industry executives who’d dismissed her in early meetings. “They didn’t really understand that I’m passionate with music,” she says.

Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for LACMA

Once “Build a Bitch” was ready for the world, however, Poarch faced a new battle: She was just another creator trying to cross over with music, alongside names like Dixie D’Amelio, Addison Rae, and Bryce Hall — all of whom were struggling to find audiences outside of the app. “Everyone was hammering home that TikTokers had no talent,” Mahyar says. But, true to form, Poarch was up for the challenge. “I think that encouraged Bella. She felt like it was an opportunity.”

Two new songs she lets me hear prove she’s taken that opportunity and run with it. They’re Melanie Martinez-inspired, haunted doll-core, full of eerie tinkering noises that add an edge to her sweet, soft vocals. She describes her new music as “dark pop” in its sound, while the lyrics are meant to inspire people to fight for themselves. All of it stems from her own journey to self-love and acceptance.

“Looking at Beyoncé, she sang songs to uplift other people,” Poarch says. “Now, that’s what I want to do.”

Her friend Grimes says Poarch’s sound makes sense: “[Bella] is calm in the face of chaos. Despite being through some deeply fucked-up stuff, she’s hyper-focused on optimism and making sure everyone wins.”

The day after we meet, Poarch will jet off to Austin for Grimes’ birthday bash. But mostly, pop’s shyest new star finds comfort in singing, writing, and meditating at home. On weekends, her brother, now 28, comes up from San Diego, where he’s still in the Navy. And she’s rebuilt a relationship with her sisters, both of whom live in the Philippines and are in their early thirties. “We were young. I don’t really blame them,” Poarch says now.

As for her adoptive parents, Poarch last spoke to them a few years ago, mostly just to tell them how she felt. Her dad left her with a “good luck” and nothing else. “That’s when I knew I didn’t want to talk to them again. He didn’t care.” She says she blocked them both and seems OK with that.

Her sights are set on bigger things. Music is the priority, but she wants to be in movies, too — an action star or a Marvel superhero. Her next music video, which she filmed after a few weeks of combat training, could prove to be the perfect audition. Not that she has anyone else to impress. As she puts it: “I’m out here to prove myself right.”

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