Jessica Val Ortiz was a graduating musical theater student at Penn State University when the COVID-19 lockdown set in in 2020. With no certainty of when the opportunity to be on stage would return, she looked to TikTok. Since then, Val Ortiz has amassed more than 8 million followers on the platform with a steady output of comedic content that spans from dating woes to fashion show absurdity.
This summer alone, she’s in Pittsburgh-based productions of Drowsy Chaperone, Sister Act and Kinky Boots and in between rehearsals, she found time to catch up with LA Confidential.
Your first musical was Oliver when you were 5. How did you get into performing in the first place?
It was a really crazy experience. Growing up, just with my family always put me in theater, it always stuck with me. It's funny because they tried to make my sister do it because she's the one who started the whole thing with theater and dance and everything, but she did not like it. But I was the one who stuck with it.
They were very surprised that it ended up being me because I was so shy and timid growing up and for me to want to be on stage was just a really surprising thing for them. But I just loved it so much. I wanted to do everything. I really wanted to dance classes, voice classes, acting classes. I was so excited whenever I made and dance team and dance competitions, but then when I hit high school, I wanted to strictly focus on just musical theater. And that's when I started doing it professionally in high school, and then I auditioned for colleges and I ended up going to Penn State University for musical theater, which I learned was one of the toughest programs to get into. It's one of the top 10 musical theater schools in the country, which I was very fortunate enough to get into. I'm still doing it to this day and I just finished a show and I'm in rehearsals for another show and it's been really, really great. I’m very fortunate.
You got into TikTok during lockdown. Was it a way to pass time and have fun or was it more like a creative outlet substitute because you couldn’t be on stage?
It really happened at such an insane time. I had heard of TikTok whenever a thing because a bunch of people at school were on it, but I just thought it was a little bit past my time. I was 22 whenever I downloaded it, but then once the pandemic happened, there was literally nothing else to do. That's when I was like, “You know what? Yeah, that's gotta be like my one creative outlet.” And so I just started making funny content and it was really something that didn't really skyrocket for me. About a year and a half after I was on the app is when I started doing it full-time and I signed with my first agency, which was really super cool. I've worked with so many brands and I've added a lot of my own personal work and I write scripts for brands and make commercials and advertisements for them, and it's such a dream come true to be able to do this as a living. It's become like a new dream of mine, which I never in a million years thought would happen because for 22 years in my life, it was only theater. I would eat, sleep, breathe it. And now this is like a new dream, but it’s also amazing because I can do both. I can still have both of my passions be something that is still in my life.
What do you enjoy about being an entertainer on stage versus TikTok?
A lot of the time with TikTok, probably 90 percent of my videos are videos of just me being alone and filming alone. I do a lot of my work solo, but because of that it, it can be like it can feel a little lonely in a way because like I'm making this content by myself. But then whenever I see people react to it, like seeing someone comment and say like, “You made my day,” and people have said you're the reason why I'm still alive and people have battled with such dark, deep depression and especially over these past couple years with COVID, for me to be able to change someone's life, it has been absolutely amazing having this platform and being able to do that.
Being on stage has been such an amazing feeling to get back into an audience and just being surrounded by the ambiance of a live audience and having people clap for you and cheer for you and root for you. I would have to say it's a little bit more fulfilling in a way because it's all right there in front of you and you get to experience a lot of music, work with other amazing actors and hear their stories and how they've gone through their lives and their careers. And there's a lot to look up to. Sometimes you can get a little lost looking at your phone and just scrolling and scrolling. It's not the same, but I do still really love it and I hope that it can lead me to more opportunities that are live or film.
You’re in a number of performances this summer, including Kinky Boots. What has being part of the production been like so far?
I am featured in the ensemble of the show. It is an absolutely amazing experience. I am working with a lot of new people and a lot of people that I have worked with a lot in the past. But it's amazing because we're performing at the Benedum Center here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is one of the top regional theater companies in the country. Over 3,000 people auditioned for the summer season, so it's really special to me, knowing that I was handpicked as one of five girls to like be featured in this show when so many people have auditioned. It was a really grueling process, but I am really thankful to be here and to be around such amazing, quality energy and people. Everyone is just so amazing. So many people in the cast have been on Broadway and have been on tours. It's really great to be around that and work with them.
You had plans to move to New York after graduation that were stalled by the pandemic, but now you’ve moved from X to Washington, D.C. Why the change?
I definitely would love to try it at some point in my life to move to New York and try to audition and whatnot. Maybe next year, maybe the year after that. It's definitely on my bucket list. I absolutely think that it was time for a change.
Times are so different now with the way that people audition for things and the way that people get opportunities. A lot of things are virtual now. If you want to go audition for a show or a TV, a film, something, you can do it all from home.
I think social media and being able to send YouTube links and Google Drive and all of that has really just changed everything… I think it is really great for a lot of people who can't afford to travel to L.A. or New York for a giant callback because it does break the bank for a lot of people. I actually do think it is very useful to be able to get in self tapes and auditions and communicate with people virtually. I think it's great.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photography by: Julianna McGuirl