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Bella Poarch
Bella Poarchvia Instagram (@bellapoarch)

Bella Poarch can wear the ‘TikTok pop star’ badge with pride

With 69 million TikTok followers, Bella Poarch’s visibility is undeniable – now her first single ‘Build a Bitch’ is topping the charts and building a credible pop career with it

2016 was a notoriously cursed year, between the EU referendum, a new administration in the White House and, most importantly, the death of Harambe, the internet’s beloved Cincinnati Zoo gorilla. But buried among the misery of the most gaslit, gatekept, girlbossed year on record, was Blackpool Grime Media, a British culture staple.

In what now feels like a fever dream, Blackpool Grime Media was the king of collateral damage back in the 2010s, employing figures as young as 12, such as Little T, Sophie Aspin and Millie B to stoke the fires of scandal on the seaside circuit. As 2016 drew to a close, Millie B’s “M to the B (Sophie Aspin send)” was somewhat of the finale to an exchange of diss tracks, before both teens began to distance themselves from the grime scene altogether.

With lyrics like “you’ve shagged bare lads, you’re a little sket” and a music video filmed in KFC,  you can imagine the UK’s collective surprise when the song enjoyed a 2020 global revival of monumental proportions, all thanks to TikTok. So, who was responsible for putting Blackpool on the map? Enter: Bella Poarch. 

In many ways, Bella Poarch does not fit the bill for the archetypal TikTok success story, who for the most part, are white high schoolers who quickly metamorphosise into poster children for Bang Energy. But drink this in: Bella is a 24-year-old US Navy veteran who moved to Texas from her native Philippines when she was 13. Arguably, not the usual recipe destined for influencer stardom, which is exactly what Bella has become  – claiming her podium position as the third most followed person on TikTok in the world.

So, how did we get here? Bella left the Navy after three years of service in 2020 and soon set up shop on TikTok, posting her first video in April. Like most creators on the platform, Bella’s early content was largely unremarkable; with gamer girl skits that name dropped Animal Crossing and Minecraft, set to trending sounds. Turns out TikTok had other plans for Bella. Within the space of just four months she would become the most unforgettable face on the platform, creating the most-liked TikTok of all time and the global phenomenon that came with it – a record that still remains unrivaled.

That’s where Blackpool Grime Media comes in. In August 2020, “M to the B” was thrust from British internet culture obscurity to international recognition, courtesy of Bella Poarch. Since blowing up thanks to Bella’s now-trademark lip sync, the song currently soundtracks 5.8 million videos, with more than half a billion views for Bella’s original. For context, Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love” which sampled 2020’s most popular TikTok sound, has been used in six million videos on the platform. 

In the trend’s tailwind, both Millie Bracewell (the actual M to the B) and Sophie Aspin (the track’s nemesis) gained more than a million followers each, reentering popular culture as adults this time. The track was released on Spotify and has been streamed more than 25 million times. By the end of the summer, Bella had become known for serving face, quite literally. But what happened next illustrates the calculated genius of a creator planting the seeds of their future fortune. 

Refusing to be pigeonholed as a one hit wonder, Bella wasted no time in doing the exact opposite of what you’d expect: she ditched the lip sync for actual singing. In a video captioned “i was really nervous filming this because not a lot of people know I love to sing,” Bella reintroduced herself to the world as a creator who’s far more than a caricature.

While testing the appetite of her audience with more musical teasers, Bella was making money moves elsewhere in the music industry. With valuable TikTok real estate up for grabs, it was inevitable that spon con would come knocking, but Bella was selective about who to share her newfound spotlight with. Among the first collaborations were Tyga and Justin Bieber, both recognising Bella early on as a driver of culture, while using her platform to promote their new music.

Though rarely speaking in her TikToks, Bella continued to establish herself as an undisputable part of the cultural conversation happening on the platform. Promotional partnerships followed with BLACKPINK and Selena Gomez, as well as music from Dina Saeva, the “face of Russian TikTok”. By December 2020, when Bella hit 50 million followers, Benny Blanco was in her comments asking “will u put music out already!!!????” In March this year, Bella made a cameo in Sub Urban’s “Cirque” music video, a fellow musician and TikToker who enjoyed massive hits on the platform with “Cradles” and “Freak”. 

Despite the incoming music career hiding in plain sight, it’d be another four months before we saw original material from Bella. But good things come to those who wait, right? Meanwhile, the influencer-to-popstar pipeline was becoming an increasingly well trodden track. Dixie D’Amelio, Addison Rae and LILHUDDY, all of whom were founding members of the Hype House, were busy building their music industry chops in public... to mixed reviews. 

While it may seem like music is the inevitable destination for TikTokers looking to extend their 15 minutes for at least a hot second, not all influencers are created equally. LILHUDDY’s debut “21st Century Vampire”, released in January, is yet to hit ten million views on YouTube. Same goes for Dixie’s last two songs, “Roommates” released in December and “Fuckboy”, released at exactly the same time as Bella’s “Build a Bitch”. While it’s easy to fall into the familiar rhythm of “who wore it best” when it comes to music career stardom, this is important in contextualising the phenomenon of Bella’s debut. 

On the same night as releases from Bella and Dixie, Gen Z sweetheart Olivia Rodrigo, a fellow Flipina-American, also dropped “good 4 u”, the third single from debut album “SOUR”. Yet not even Olivia, who has earned the biggest streaming debut for an album on Spotify released in 2021, could topple Bella’s viewership.

24 hours after the release of “Build a Bitch”, it became the most watched music video on global YouTube, with over ten million views. Now, with 87 million views and counting, “Build a Bitch” debuts at #1 on the global YouTube songs chart. Just like Bella’s TikTok viewership, these are numbers industry veterans could only dream of (unless you’re BTS, of course). 

“While ‘TikTok musician’ is often used to invalidate the credibility of creators trying to infiltrate the biz, it’s a title Bella can wear with pride after her record-breaking debut”

Bella’s secret sauce, just like her consistency with brand building and curation on TikTok, was evident in recruiting the internet’s top talent when her own cultural capital was at an all time high. “Build a Bitch” cameos made for a thrilling game of spot the creator, with appearances from Valkyrae, Mia Khalifa, Bretman Rock, Zachary “ZHC” Hsieh, Dina Saeva, Larray, Rakhim, and Sub Urban. Yes, the same Sub Urban who featured Bella in his own video back in March. It also helps that he co-wrote the song and provided creative direction for the music video.

While ‘TikTok musician’ is often used to invalidate the credibility of creators trying to infiltrate the biz, it’s a title Bella can wear with pride after her record-breaking debut. On the journey from “M to the B” to “Build on Bitch”, Bella’s notoriety has been, albeit accidentally, linked with music from the start – and that’s a narrative here to stay. Bella played her all her cards right in building her brand with a selective stream of collaborators, ahead of going solo. Despite cries from the comments that she only got famous for “moving her head”, it’s clear that Bella is now the one all up in the bank with the funny face. What can we say, it’s a great time to build a bitch… and a career while you’re at it.