We will never forget 2020. Our lives were turned upside down and many of us were inspired to pursue new passions in our free time, including Bella Poarch, who joined TikTok in April. Unlike most people who merely picked up a hobby or mastered a new recipe, Poarch is now the third most followed creator and has the most-liked video on the entire platform. “I still feel like I’m the same person,” Poarch says. “Sometimes I forget I’m famous because of Covid-19 and I don’t really go out much. I’m sure it’ll be interesting when the world opens up again.”

Although she’s acquired over a billion likes and counting on TikTok, Poarch wasn’t always the popular girl. She spent her earliest years growing up in the Philippines and then, as a teenager, she moved with her family to Texas, where she struggled to fit in with her peers. “I got made fun of for the way I looked and for the Filipino food my mom would pack me for lunch,” Poarch says. “Kids even called me ‘Ling Ling.’ It wasn’t the easiest time.”

After having so much trouble fitting in during high school, Poarch wanted to get as far away from home as possible once she graduated. She enlisted in the United States Navy, a decision that not only took her far away from Texas but gave her independence, a trait she would carry for the rest of her life. “During my first year in the Navy, I was stationed in Pensacola, Florida, and I went to a bar to hang out with some people I’d met,” Poarch says. “I remember standing at the bar and this huge Marine started staring at me. He was clearly drunk, picked me up by both arms and was yelling, ‘You’re so small!’ I told him to let me go and put me down, but he wouldn’t listen.

“So I punched him and knocked out his two front teeth,” Poarch continues. “I was so scared and kept punching before eventually getting carried out. I still have scars on my hands from it. The next morning, I heard he’d permanently lost his front teeth but thankfully, I didn’t get in trouble because he was drunk and I was acting in self-defense. I have a lot of good and tough memories from the Navy, it taught me how to be brave.”

Poarch became her own person while in the Navy, and part of that process was shaking off the opinions of her family. She grew up in a strict and traditional Filipino household; therefore, getting a tattoo was a major rebellion. “I got my first tattoo during my first year in the military,” Poarch says. “It’s a heart and key. Honestly, there’s no story behind it other than I just wanted to try to get a tattoo. But, I was scared of what my family would think.”

That heart and key tattoo ended up unlocking a passion in Poarch and she soon began collecting larger and more meaningful pieces. “My favorite tattoo is the piece on my back—it’s a ship with wings,” Poarch says. “It basically represents me being in the Navy. The wings are because I worked in aviation and I was an Airman. The ship is because I was stationed in Japan for two-and-a-half years while I was deployed.”

In her time as a tattoo collector, Poarch has learned a lot. She’s learned to appreciate quality art and her collection reflects her evolution as a tattoo enthusiast. One of the most valuable lessons she’s learned is to do her research before an appointment. “My only regret has been getting a tattoo with similarities to the Japanese war flag,” Poarch says. “I was stationed on a military base in Atsugi, Japan, and the image of my tattoo was painted on our helicopters and the officers had it on their patches. I didn’t know anything else beyond that and it was my fault for not doing my research. I had it covered up with a snake once I learned it was similar to something that hurt a lot of people.”

Poarch was made aware of the connotations of this tattoo from her growing online platform, which is something she’s still getting used to. Like many who flocked to TikTok in 2020, she didn’t plan to become a viral star and have millions of eyes on her every move. Adjusting to her newfound fame has been a process she takes one day at a time. “I started my TikTok when I’d just gotten out of the Navy, it was quarantine and I was bored,” Poarch says. “The first video I posted was of me singing and I took it down because it got like 100 views. After that, I just started trying a bunch of different creative ideas and eventually started growing a following.”

One of the biggest pushes in her rise to TikTok fame was her video to the song “M to the B.” This song by Millie B began trending on the app during mid-2020 and Poarch’s rendition would go on to become the most-liked video in the history of TikTok. “I was honestly very surprised,” Poarch says. “I was not expecting my video to blow up in this way and I’m still shocked to this day. I’m proud that I could just be myself in a video and people appreciated that.”

Poarch’s TikTok continues to grow each and every day, to the point where she’s now the third most followed account on the platform. She’s also become the largest Asian-American influencer on the planet. So, where do you go from there? Back to the roots she showed in that first video she ended up deleting—music.

Over the last few months, Poarch has been making music in secret and now she’s ready to reveal her hard work to the world. She likely wouldn’t have ever pursued a career in music had it not been for the support she received online. “Ever since I was young, I was always singing around the house. But once my stepdad would catch me, he’d tell me to shut the fuck up.” Poarch says. “Growing up, I was expected to be a doctor or a lawyer. Because of Asian cultural norms, parents don’t support their kids pursuing careers in entertainment and it’s sort of seen as a failure. I used to get punished every time I stayed after school to enter drawing or singing competitions. But I won 36 medals, so the pain was worth it to me.”

As she got older, Poarch continued to hide her love of music from her family. But, that passion never went away. “Every time I was having a depressive episode, I would sing with my ukulele,” she says. “Music helped me to express myself and that’s the part of it that I really fell in love with.”

Even though opening up has been difficult, especially to millions of followers online, Poarch looks forward to being able to share a more intimate side of herself. Music is her way of being vulnerable and there’s plenty she’s not able to show in a thirty second video. “I’ve been clinically diagnosed with PTSD, depression and anxiety,” Poarch says. “There are things that are extremely hard for me to talk about, even with my psychiatrist and therapist. But music allows me to share these messages and stories in ways that I normally can’t.”

Poarch has been preparing for her musical debut for months and has spent hours in the recording studio alongside producers and writers. Along the way, she’s refined her sound and crafted her debut single, “Build a Bitch,” which will officially introduce her as a musician to the world. “This song is about not letting guys, other people or society tell you what you should look like,” Poarch says. “There are so many standards put on women these days—it’s crazy. So ‘Build a Bitch’ is about self-acceptance and independence.”

International fame is a box that Poarch has already ticked off, thanks to TikTok, so music is a way she can express herself creatively and prolong her time in the limelight. She’s also hopeful her music will make a cultural impact. “I never had any female Asian-American musicians that I looked up to,” Poarch says. “I want to fill that void for the next generation. I really care about my culture and my community. I have my own personal experiences with what’s going on now in the Asian-American community and it’s an emotional, but really important, topic for me to discuss. It’s been amazing seeing the community come together to address these issues, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

Poarch has plenty on her plate, from becoming the popstar role model she never had growing up to plans to take off on tour once the world opens back up. But, if anyone can do it, it’s Bella Poarch. She’s already done the unthinkable when it comes to breaking boundaries on social media, now it’s time for her to take her career to the next level.

Credits

styling by aquiles carmona - 3d enviornment by julio benavidesmakeup by faith nachor - nails by krista la cremehair by donny domingo and castillo batailleproduction by michael leland - photo assistance by ram gibsonPA and backstage photography by carmen calhieros  creative agency by early morning riot

Fashion Credits

Look One:

Flower Earrings, Star Ring and

Crocheted Outfit by Farradas Knits

Spiked Shoulder Harness and Bracelet by BitchFist NYC

Inflatable Pink Bow by Venus Prototype Latex

Shoes by YRU

Look Two:

Spiked Choker, Belt and Bag by Bitchfist NYCDress by Kim PetrasLeather Bodice by Marina HoermansederEarrings by Farradas Knits

Look Three:

Clothing and Accessories by Jackalope Land

Look Four:

Diamond Hair Chains, Chanel Choker, Pearl Choker and Gold Earrings by Layers Of JewelryGold Layered Chains, ‘Fem’ Body Pendant by DalmataDiamond Bracelet by Wasee JewelsGold Bodice by Graham CruzYellow Marabou Skirt by JimmyPaulBag by Papa Don’t PreachHeels by Giaro