Amid all the drama that unfolds in the reality show Bling Empire, one of the more light-hearted scenes has cast member Kim Lee posing during a poolside photoshoot in a luxurious Hollywood home, only to be upstaged by her fur coat-wearing mom, who shows her how to “work it.”
“My mom was a natural in the show, she is such a character and she was just herself. She really is the one who normally takes pictures of me; she’s getting better at it,” Lee, 32, told VICE in a video call from Los Angeles. “I'm very proud of her because this was her first time being on camera like that. Many Asian parents are very private and she really did this just for me and to support me.”
The Netflix hit is a lot like other reality shows. Think: Selling Sunset and The Real Housewives franchise. It’s about the lives of socialites in LA, following them as they date, party, and fight with one another. But it differs in one major detail — its predominantly Asian cast. Described as the real-life Crazy Rich Asians, the show has since garnered both passionate fans and critics. It was an instant guilty pleasure since dropping in January, but many have also called it out for perpetuating Asian stereotypes in the United States — where the pandemic has led to dangerous anti-Asian bias — even if these cliches were about being “crazy rich.”
Lee admitted that she too had concerns before joining the cast.
“Going into the show, my question to the producers was ‘Is this going to be a Crazy Rich Asian’s adaptation where we're just gonna shop all day?’, because that's just not me,” she said.
Lee, who is of Vietnamese and French descent and grew up in Orange County, is an international DJ and host of Yo! MTV Raps on MTV Asia. A co-star called her “The Asian Calvin Harris,” but Lee is the first to admit that she’s not like the others on the show.
“I don't fit into this group, to be honest with you. I'm self-made. And yes, I do like the lavish lifestyle. Honestly, who doesn't? But I felt like that (just shopping all day for the show) would have been so boring,” she said.
Lee’s co-stars have more affluent backgrounds. Apart from model Kevin Kreider, who acts as the audience surrogate, most people on the show are heirs or owners of million-dollar (sometimes billion-dollar) companies. There’s Anna Shay, whose father founded a company that deals with matters of national defense, and Jaime Xie, a fashion influencer from Northern California and daughter of cyber-security tech billionaire Ken Xie.
As if an answer to her initial apprehensions about being boring, Lee figures in some pretty intense situations. In one scene, she throws out Shay’s hydro-powered penis pump off a window, damaging their friendship — exactly the kind of drama you would expect from a reality show. But she’s also at the center of one of the most personal and emotional storylines, where she goes on a quest to look for her biological father, whom she had lost contact with at a young age.
“It was actually incredibly difficult to do that on TV,” Lee said about sharing something so delicate with millions of people. “Originally, the producers sat me down and asked me about my relationship with my parents — my mom and stepfather. I explained to them that it is very special, but that I had no relationship at all with my birth father. And they ended up saying ‘How about we help you find him?’”
While she was initially very skeptical, Lee ended up accepting the producers’ offer. “I was holding grudges against my father for not looking for me, to be honest, and I needed some sort of closure.” In her search, Lee found out that her father had actually died of a heart attack two years earlier.
“I did not expect to find out that he had passed away. It was very tough because, at that time, I felt like I didn’t have time to heal and grieve. It was a lot to just continue filming,” she said.
She now thinks that there was value in sharing her story — that of searching for family and of loss — but admits that this realization must sound unbelievable for most. After all, she was talking about a reality show.
“This is gonna sound weird, I know, but I almost feel it was meant to be, that I was supposed to be on the show to find my father,” she said. “My Instagram is full of messages — actually, paragraphs — of people thanking me for being vulnerable and sharing my story, and telling me that they reached out to estranged family members after watching the show.”
She’s not blind to the fact that people watch shows like Bling Empire for the larger-than-life scenes and low-stakes conflicts, and admits that it can get very overwhelming, very fast. She’s been criticized for her spat with Shay.
“The penis pump episode, for example, was immature of me and Guy Tang, but I did apologize in the end, and it’s impossible to see the whole story, which went a little differently, on TV.”
But, for the most part, she’s ready to play the game.
“That's the thing with reality TV, right? If you're actually being real, unfortunately, people are going to have both positive and negative impressions,” she said. “The person you saw on TV really is me.”