When it comes to numbers, Bella Poarch’s are staggering. Her 10.6 million Instagram followers pale in comparison to her TikTok stats: currently the third most-followed person on the platform (behind @CharliDAmelio and @AddisonRe), Poarch has 66.5 million fans and has so far amassed 1.5bn views since joining the platform in April 2020.
Her concise yet captivating lip-sync to M To The B (originally a 2016 diss track by Blackpool grime artist Sophie Aspin, inexplicably made mega-viral by TikTok users four years later) was the platform’s biggest hit of 2020, even more popular than this guy. “Yeah, that’s a lot of likes,” Poarch laughs of such stratospheric figures from her Los Angeles home. “But I don’t let the likes go to my head. It’s not that important to me. I’m just happy that people like my content and accept me for who I truly am.”
Like many influential TikTokers, Poarch mostly lip-syncs and dances to trending tracks such as TooMuch’s FYOTP. Where she’s differentiated herself, though, is via the high-end and anime-inspired fashion threaded throughout her videos, her animated facial expressions and advocacy for Asian-American equality.
Poarch is not merely a TikToker, though. The former navy vet who was born in the Philippines and moved to Texas when she was 13 is also a gifted singer and songwriter. Her debut single, Build a Bitch, produced by “creative genius” Sub Urban and written by Poarch, demonstrates both her innate musical talent and ambitions as an artist. Deftly dismantling the impossible standards of beauty that we are put under, it’s also incredibly catchy and, unsurprisingly, a hit on TikTok. “There are already 150K creates to the song in one week. “It feels pretty insane to see the reaction and all of this support,” she says.
Vogue caught up with Poarch to talk about body image, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) rights and how therapy helps heal trauma.
What themes do you explore in your first single, Build a Bitch?
“The song is about embracing imperfections and your flaws. I feel like there’s a tremendous amount of pressure that society and the internet put on people to look or be ‘perfect’. My whole message is that I want people to realise that you don’t have to be perfect. And that it’s OK not to be, too. I want to inspire people to be comfortable in their own skin and to stay true to themselves, no matter what.”
The track features some incredibly influential people. Why did you ask activist and adult film star Mia Khalifa, gamer Valkyrae and YouTuber Larray to appear in the video?
“The song is a reminder that no one is perfect. And I feel like I chose these people because they represent what the song meant based on their past, who they are, or who they’ve become. They’re all unique and talented in their own way. You can never judge a book by its cover and I really believe the people in the video embody the message of the song and being imperfect, being different, being themselves. I’m also really grateful to call each of these people in the video my friends.”
I think people can underestimate TikTok and young people in general. What do you think is the biggest misconception about your generation?
“That you can’t put us in a box or keep us in one. We’re constantly pushing boundaries and that’s what I’m most proud of about this generation.”
The single clearly sets out your intentions as an artist. What other themes will you explore in your music?
“There’s still a lot I have to say and want to talk about—mental health, my past, and more. I’ll do it at the right time. I know I’m still young, but there’s a lot that people don’t know about me and I feel like I’ve had 10 lifetimes already. I’m just getting started.”
What a shame😌
What influences you as a musician?
“Japanese culture is something I’m heavily inspired by. I was actually stationed for a few years in Japan with the navy and I fell in love with a lot of that culture, especially when it comes to fashion and art. There’s ‘Hatsune Miku’, a vocaloid [voice synthesiser character] from Japan. I’m a huge fan of hers and would love to make music together one day. I also recently got to do my first cover photoshoot with FLJ magazine in Japan, which was an honour.”
Given you’re self-made, what benefits did you see of signing to a record label?
“The navy taught me one thing: that you can’t do everything on your own—you have to have a great family of people around you to trust and achieve great things. I feel like I found my family and part of that family is the label. When I looked up some of the artists that meant the most to me musically—Prince, Dua Lipa, and Madonna—I realised Warner has helped all those people along the way, too. So I’m very honoured to have a family that gave me a chance and believes in me.”
Do you have any trepidation about making the leap from TikTok star to fully fledged musician?
“I don’t worry at all. Music is something I take seriously and it’s a dream come true. I manifested it and I told myself no matter how I get there, I will get there. There’s definitely a lot of negatives—it’s not in my favour that I started out as an ‘influencer’ and people think I’m just starting to make music when actually, I’ve been doing it my whole life. And I know there’s a lot of hate and negativity recently about TikTokers making music. But at the end of the day, I don’t give a [shit]. I’m just doing what I love to do.”
As someone with a huge audience, you’re presumably under pressure to consistently ‘look your best’. How do you balance the expectations of looking a certain way with being comfortable in what you wear and how you feel?
“Sometimes I catch myself comparing myself to others, but then I take a step back and remind myself that ‘being yourself is the best thing’. While I do try to look my best on TikTok, one of the things I’ve learned to get comfortable with is embracing my flaws.
“I went through this really weird phase where I would be uncomfortable taking pictures with fans when I didn’t have my makeup ready and I would later see those pictures online. But then I realised that I’m supposed to look like that. That’s how I look and there’s nothing wrong with that. Take the filters away and I’m still happy being me.”
You joined the US navy in 2015. Given what you’ve done for your country, it must be particularly hard when you see what some of the country thinks of you and fellow AAPI people?
“My time in the military doesn’t affect my view on what’s going on in the country within the AAPI community. I think what’s happening [anti-Asian-American violence] in our country is terrible and there are flaws in everything. But I’ll tell you one thing: if I ever see someone getting attacked, I will use everything I ever learned in the military to dismantle them.”
Can you describe your decision to join the navy?
“I wanted to be free. I wanted to be independent. As weird as it sounds, the navy allowed me to feel that way.”
You recently spoke to Vogue about the trauma that racism has had on you as an Asian person. How do you look after yourself and protect your mental health?
“I talk to a therapist frequently. I highly recommend it for everyone to protect their mental wellness. It has done things for me that you can’t put a price tag on.”
In the weeks since that article appeared, do you feel like there have been any positive advancements for AAPI people?
“I don’t know if you saw what happened in Baltimore recently, but that really hurt me to see. It was only a few days ago and so we still have a long way to go. I have seen some incredible organisations such as Gold House doing amazing things in the community. I hope to work together with organisations such as those to push for positive advancements for AAPI people.”
What do you miss most about the Philippines?
“The food, the culture, the people… everything.”
If you could tell your 16-year-old self something, what would you say?
“There are so many things I would want to say. Never give up, and even if you’re feeling like you want to give up, I believe in you. Also, don’t forget to brush your teeth, no matter how depressed you are.”
This is your first single, but you are already clearly accomplished. What are your ambitions as a musician?
“I want to make more music. I want to go on tour. And I can’t wait to go back to the Philippines. Mahal na mahal ko ang Pilipinas. [I really love the Philippines]”