How quickly I became obsessed with Netflix’s Bling Empire surprised me, because it doesn’t really aspire to be anything beyond a show that follows the formula Bravo’s Real Housewives perfected. It comes from the production company of Jeff Jenkins, who previously oversaw E!’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and doesn’t hide that it’s basically just Keeping Up with the Crazy Rich Asians.
If you watch Bravo or E! reality shows that follow wealthy people, none of what Bling Empire offers will be surprising. The establishing shots of lavish houses and sweeping hilltop views in Los Angeles. Meals in mostly empty restaurants. On-camera therapy sessions.
The reliance on interviews for cast members to make sense of what’s happening and talk behind each other’s backs. The scenes that feel scheduled by the producers, as they pair off various cast members and prompt them with topics or activities, and the cast struggles to make those feel organic.
There are petty conflicts. Thrown drinks. Empty apologies. And there are real, considerable issues that float to the soapy surface—unhealthy relationships, surrogacy, childbirth outside of marriage, cultural expectations—though they quickly pop and are replaced by extended story arcs about penis pump theft and the jewel flaunting.
Bling Empire does diverge from the formula in a few key ways. The majority of Bling Empire’s cast is Asian-American, not as blindingly white as most of the Bravo franchise’s casts.
While I have not conducted an audit on any cast member’s finances, most of them appear to be actually wealthy, versus attempting to project wealth. They also actually appear to be actual friends, not just assembled into a group of “friends” by producers.
The cast is also multi-generational, at different stages in their lives, from flirtation to a couple debating a second child.
Still, it’s a far more traditional reality show than Deaf U, which was very soapy but still broke from the formula in interesting ways. I still burned through the first half of Bling Empire’s eight episodes, and don’t want it to end so soon.
Come for Crazy Rich Asians: The Reality Show, stay for Anna Shay
The Bling Empire cast includes Kim Lee, a successful and popular DJ; Kane Lim, the son of a real estate developer in Singapore; and Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery founders Christine Chiu and Gabriel Chiu.
Kelly Mi Li is in a relationship with actor and former red Power Ranger Andrew Gray, whose manipulative and controlling behavior is almost cartoonishly transparent, which doesn’t make it less scary. “Privacy’s important in a relationship,” says Andrew, objecting to discussing the way he screamed at Kelly despite having previously been filmed barely wearing a towel and draping himself over Kelly in a bathroom, and making out with her on a bed.
Our proxy in Bling Empire’s circle is Kevin Kreider, who’s a model (of course) and new-ish to Los Angeles, and also new to Asian culture, having been adopted and raised by white parents on the east coast. He’s formed friendships with Kane and others, which actually seem to pre-date his casting on a reality show.
He’s aware of his role, and spends a lot of time being flabbergasted at prices, and seems to want to look at the camera and say to us, Can you believe this? He’s also just having fun. “It’s really hard to flex your abs all day long—you have to hold your breath,” Kevin says in an interview, after taking off his shirt to make sure we can see.
Then there’s Anna Shay, who was instantly my favorite cast member, introduced as she sledgehammers her closet while wearing an expensive gown.
She’s the daughter of a billionaire defense contractor, and like many members of the cast, she’s not exactly a household name in the United States. While I’d guess the Internet is about to be filled with stories about her, prior to the show’s premiere, I could only find one: about her selling a mansion.
Anna will be the show’s breakout star because of her no-fucks-given attitude and her ability to get her verbal sword right through the bling and to the flesh underneath.
After hearing Andrew scream at Kelly over the phone, Anna says in an interview, “First, I thought it was a joke, because nobody can be that stupid. If he has issues, don’t put it onto her.”
“There ain’t no dick that good,” she adds.
At another time, Anna says to us, “My mom was fiercely strict with me, about manners, about being a lady. But my god: Christina is a fucking pain in the ass.”
That’s what Bling Empire brings to each episode. It’s serious and comedic, balancing genuinely surprising revelations and emotional moments with a lot of playful fun between friends, too—and enough frothy drama to keep me watching.
Bling Empire: B
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