‘Bling Empire’ Star Kelly Mi Li on Building the Asian-American Dream
Shallow? Gaudy? The early trailers for Netflix’s Bling Empire — an unscripted series about uber-wealthy Asian and Asian-American friends across Southern California, in the vein of the film Crazy Rich Asians — generated some bad buzz. But since the full eight episodes dropped January 15, the response has been largely positive. Not only are viewers happy an all-Asian and Asian-American reality show even exists, but beyond the fancy cars and lavish parties, diamonds and couture, there is heart and relatability.
Cast member Kelly Mi Li, a TV and film producer, is the one who brought the concept to Jeff Jenkins, an executive producer on reality shows from Keeping Up With the Kardashians to Mariah’s World and Living Lohan (about Carey and Lindsay, of course). After a solid three years of development, filming finally wrapped on the first season in late 2019. Here, Mi Li, who also is an EP on the show, opens up about her experience — and where she stands with boyfriend (or is that ex-boyfriend?) Andrew Gray.
You’ve upended some expectations for this show. What do you think Bling Empire does for cultural representation?
Kelly Mi Li: The show breaks down another barrier to having real diversity across media channels, and in this case Asian and Asian American representation. Bling Empire shows a rare vulnerable perspective within a culture that generally likes to hide their emotions and not talk about feelings.
You’re behind-the-scenes and in front of the camera. Was it easy to make the switch?
It was an adjustment. I’m a scripted producer, so I’m used to sets, but I’ve never been in front of the camera until now. The whole crew was amazing in making you feel comfortable. After a while, you forget the cameras are there and you’re yourself.
Did you know most of the cast beforehand?
Most of us have known each other for a while. I’ve known Kane [Lim] and Christine [Chiu] for almost 10 years. Jeff and I were looking for a strong, good-looking Asian male to represent that part of the Asian culture. I saw Kevin [Kreider], who speaks so well and has passion — we ended up having a mutual friend. He hung out with us for a year or year and a half, so by the time cameras rolled, we were all very comfortable with each other.
Your rollercoaster relationship with Andrew is a big part of the season. What was it like revisiting those tough moments?
It was difficult to relive a breakup and probably one of the darkest times time in my life. But I was appreciative and grateful for how far I’ve come and how I’ve changed.
What kind of reaction have you seen on social media?
There was definitely a lot of concern. Supportive messages, too. I’ve gotten pages-long messages and DMs saying we remind them of relationships they were in — or are still in, people who’ve been married for 10, 20 years and have kids together. It’s sad to hear there are so many people, especially women, who can relate. I pray and hope for healing for those who have endured trauma.
You two went to couples counseling, and other cast members also sought different types of therapy to address their own issues. Why was that important?
There is still a bad stigma about mental health, especially in the Asian community. Culturally, we’re supposed to hide our dirty laundry or anything negative. We are supposed to come out perfect and not talk about our problems. I’m really happy Andrew and I did therapy. I’m still going right now.
Watching the season, what have you learned about yourself?
That back then I didn’t know how to set healthy boundaries. I didn’t like telling people “no” because I didn’t want to let them down. I would walk on eggshells, in a way. For me, [now] it’s about speaking up and voicing my emotions.
There are fans who wanted to see you end up with Kevin.
Kevin and I are really good friends. We talk about once a week. I always tease him about his dating life. I tell him he needs to find a good person to settle down with!
The season ends with you going to Andrew’s house, where it seemed you two were getting back together. Where do you stand today?
Andrew and I are working things out. We took about five or six months to work on ourselves. We’re living in separate households, but we are spending time together as these new versions of ourselves. I can’t say enough good things about him. We’ll see how things go.
Are you up for Season 2?
I think all of us are. We all had a really great experience. Fingers crossed!
Bling Empire, Netflix