Courtesy of Jennifer Ngo

Jennifer Ngo's hilarious TikTok videos increase visibility for the disabled

Vietnamese American comedian Jennifer Ngo stares intently into her phone's camera, tapping the screen repeatedly to the bouncy beat of the viral TikTok song "So Pretty" by Reyanna Maria. She first appears sans makeup, her bleached blonde hair in disarray until her she ‘magically’ reappears transformed. The big reveal focuses on her chest, which has ballooned into massive, misshapen double Ds. It’s not until the 23-year-old smirks at the camera and shakes her legs that you realize her knees are tucked into her tank top.

While the video may draw attention to her chest, it’s more notable for what it doesn’t draw attention to — her disabilities. Living with acute scoliosis, Goldenhar syndrome, and only one lung, Ngo aims for a more authentic, everyday representation of disability that specifically rejects “inspiration porn” — content that portrays and highlights a creator’s disability.

She’s finding tremendous success, too, with her most popular video earning 7.6 million views — more than double her 3.8 million followers.

This virality was unexpected. “I originally downloaded TikTok just to stalk my little brother and see what he was posting,” Ngo tells Mic. “Then I posted a couple of videos which got some exciting traction. I decided to focus on posting comedy videos, and it kept snowballing; the followers poured in.”

Comedy comes naturally to Ngo, who was born and raised in San Diego. “I was always the comedian in my family and the goofy class clown. It’s always been in me to make people laugh, and being funny distracted people from my looks,” she says. Her sense of humor and lighthearted nature helped her to cope with life’s difficulties.

“Growing up was hard,” she says. “My parents were sometimes embarrassed by me. When we would go out to eat, they wanted me to wear long sleeves to hide my body. Sometimes it’s still traumatic, but now I wear whatever I want.”

During her sophomore year of high school she needed surgery because the increasing curvature of her spine was endangering her life. “After I first entered the hospital, we didn’t get the surgery right away. I was there for three months because I had to wear a Halo-Gravity Traction. They attached screws to my head, and it pulled my body up with gravity and weights to loosen the spine for surgery.” The surgery was risky but a success: Ngo entered the hospital at 3'10” and exited at 4'4."

Ngo’s severe scoliosis left her with permanent facial asymmetry. “I was insecure about my scoliosis, but it resonated with my audience,” Ngo said. “They found me unique and different physically. I realized my disability could help others. So I made a post about my scoliosis surgery last October.” The video is set to Justin Bieber’s song “Lonely,” and captioned, “my Facebook reminded me it’s been 8 years today since my scoliosis surgery 😌.” It features a montage of photos highlighting the incredible transformation of her body before and after surgery. “Afterwards, I started to get DMs asking about the surgery. I discovered that this is something that I can educate people about.”

That education made an impact with her followers. One user shared in the comments, “I’ve never met anyone with a spine like mine! I’ve met 3 great doctors who all denied to do the spinal fusion on me…one told me I have to deal w it😕”

Another wrote, “Girl I had the same thing oh wow I’m so glad you posted this, I don't have the strength to post something like it.”

Ngo takes special care to reply to these followers, but this type of video is not the focus of her channel. Out of the hundreds of comedic videos she’s posted, only a couple address her ailments. Most of the time, she’s just having fun and cracking jokes. Her success on TikTok has inspired her to pursue a career as an influencer. She’s currently building out her YouTube channel and hopes to create a clothing or makeup line in the future.

In one of her popular viral videos she’s wearing a white crop top and hotpants while ordering a drink at Starbucks. When she reaches for her wallet the barista interrupts with “oh the person in the front just paid for you. Ngo replies with “that’s so sweet, I’ll pay for the car behind me and do a little bit of charity work.” But when she’s told the order is $15 — more than she expected, she mutters under her breath “where are my keys.” Then she tries to quickly drive off, not realizing her car is in reverse and almost crashes into the car behind her.

The viewers ate it up, the video has over 8.6 million views and has been shared over 5100 times. One of the most popular pinned comments with over 30,000 likes says “THE ENDING WAS WORTH IT😂😂😭”

TikTok has afforded Ngo the unique opportunity to grow an enormous following without resorting to “inspiration porn.” Instead, she’s simply performing funny skits, lip syncs, and posting ‘what I eat in a day’ videos — all while wearing whatever she wants. She’s currently sponsored by Fanola, fielding multiple sponsorship deals, and earning a regular income from TikTok’s Creator Fund.

“I really thought I would end up working in an office. I never thought all this would be a thing, you know?” Ngo exclaims.

She’s even feeling the impact whenever she steps outside her door. “I live across from my high school and sometimes I’ll be sitting in my car and kids will deadass come up to me and will say ‘I love you, I’m a fan.’ It’s unbelievable. TikTok has changed my life.”