The screams coming out of Kelly's iPhone are jarring. "Would you want me to do that to you? Yes or no?" yells her boyfriend Andrew over speakerphone, enraged that Kelly, his girlfriend, left him at their hotel in Paris to go shopping with her friend Anna while he slept. "I don't want to hear anything but 'yes' or 'no,'" he interrupts as she tries to explain she wouldn't care. "'Yes' or 'no'! Keep it simple!" he screams, and continues to berate her. Finally, in a voice that can only be described as sounding like Heath Ledger's Joker during a horrific hostage scene, he screams, "I don't fucking treat you that way!" Kelly hangs up, visibly rattled about the interaction, as is Anna, who was listening along.
Since its premiere, Netflix's Bling Empire caught the attention of reality TV fans. Its real-life (with a grain of salt, of course) take on the blockbuster 2018 rom-com Crazy Rich Asians falls in line with hugely popular reality franchises built off of successful scripted content, like Real Housewives, which stemmed from ABC's Desperate Housewives, and Laguna Beach, which was inspired by The OC. It's also one of two new Asian-focused reality series modeled after Crazy Rich Asians; HBO Max also has House of Ho. Like those shows, Bling Empire follows wealthy people in Southern California (specifically Los Angeles) as they spend more money than most people's rent on soup ingredients and start petty drama over Louis Vuitton necklaces. But like many other reality shows in the rich people doing rich people things canon, it features at least one toxic relationship that's arguably abusive. And frankly, it's hard to watch. In a genre that's meant to be lighthearted, campy entertainment, abuse and toxic relationships are far too often part of the story, and it raises serious concerns about whether volatile relationships should be portrayed on TV at all.
On paper, Kelly Mi Li has everything a reality star needs: she's beautiful, she has a juicy backstory that includes an ex-husband who was arrested for running "one of the largest cyber scams in American history," and she built herself into a successful Hollywood executive. She also has a conventionally hot actor boyfriend, Andrew Gray, whose most notable role is the Red Ranger on Nickelodeon's Power Rangers Megaforce. What initially came off as a fun, sexy storyline quickly took a turn during the trip to Paris, where Andrew berated Kelly. And the outbursts didn't stop there. There were multiple fights throughout the season over the Paris situation and Andrew's anger issues, but just as unsettling were the conversations that followed their fights, which were full of gaslighting, blaming, excuses for Andrew’s behavior as a result of trauma and abandonment issues, and tearful guilt-tripping. Andrew would also isolate Kelly from friends, overwhelming her with expressions of love and devotion, and every other manipulative play in the bad boyfriend book.
Viewers have shared their concern for Kelly, their hatred of Andrew, and they’ve commented on the toxicity of their relationship on social media. Meanwhile, Bling Empire has been renewed for a second season, and season one left us with Kelly and Andrew seemingly reconciling. There's been speculation on their relationship status, but no clear answer from either of them if they're together. Still, since the premiere, Andrew's Instagram posts have been filled with comments calling him an abusive narcissist, and telling him to seek therapy.
While we can hedge that perhaps he's not receiving the fairest edit, it's hard to argue with the evidence on screen, especially when Kelly openly admits that it's far from the first time Andrew has been volatile and reactionary with her. It's easy to echo Anna's reaction to the call—"First I thought it was a joke, because nobody can be that stupid," she says in a confessional. "If he has issues, don't put it onto her. There ain't no dick that good." But that fails to capture just how abuse works in relationships, and places the blame on Kelly for staying with Andrew as opposed to understanding the manipulation abusers use to keep their partners under their control. The cycle is hard to break, and no one, regardless of class, social status, wealth, or race, is immune. The highs are so good, that when the lows come it's only natural to want to frame those moments as the exception as opposed to the standard. Other cast members ganging up on Kelly, asking when she's going to dump him or why she puts up with him, also add to the cycle of isolation. Granted, it's a TV show and even in real-real life, that's a hard conversation to have with a friend who may not be ready for it. And yet, it's a plotline on a silly little show. Airing their couples therapy doesn't offer a reprieve either, even though the nice therapist in the pink suit clearly wants Kelly to run for the hills. The relationship between Kelly and Andrew that we see isn't a compelling viewing experience, or even an entertaining one. But it's distressing, and it's far too common in reality TV.
The cast of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills were shaken when in season two, it was revealed that housewife Taylor Armstrong was being abused by her then husband, Russell Armstrong. Russell died by suicide prior to the premiere of season two. RHOB spin-off Vanderpump Rules has also prominently featured toxic relationships. Former series star and habitual liar Jax Taylor has screamed, gaslit, and fought with every woman he's been in a relationship with on the series (and with some who he hasn't), and his confrontations with now-wife Brittany Carmichael have been the epitome of toxic. VPR's Tom Schwartz and wife Katie Schwartz have also had some notable fights, including one in which he called her an "idiot" and said "nobody gives a shit about your opinion. I've never been more turned off in my life," after she voiced distaste over a prank involving a fake arrest. Going back to that old classic Laguna Beach, who can forget Stephen Colletti berating his ex Kristin Cavallari at a club in Cabo San Lucas after she drunk dances on the bar, calling her a "slut" and "bitch." Ron and Sammy's destructive fights on Jersey Shore became something of legend, but watching back years later it's impossible not to fear for Sammy's safety. And then there 's The Bachelor and its frequent romanticizing of toxic behavior, to sometimes dangerous outcomes, including the alleged sexual assault of cast member Corinne Olympios and the restraining order Cassie Randolph placed against former Bachelor and then-boyfriend Colton Underwood.
The examples are endless. What is the purpose of watching people, most often women, be treated like garbage or abused by terrible partners for entertainment? Producers have long needed to reckon with the safety and protection of their cast, and viewers have voiced their opinions when these relationships appear on screen. It's easy to just say "Andrew sucks, and so does his stupid soft boy voice, ugly yacht bro outfits, and shithead personality," but that, while a correct take, doesn't capture the insidiousness of putting someone like that on screen for entertainment.
Alex Zaragoza is a Senior Staff Writer at VICE.