Bling Empire’s Kelly Mi Li is well-versed behind the camera. The Netflix star, as millennials would say, is a total “boss lady.” As a producer, she has at least eight projects slated over the next two years, and she’s one of the few self-made people on her series, which she also executive produced.
Despite Mi Li’s unyielding drive, Bling Empire is a whole different beast, one that’s at odds with her very private cultural values. The hit reality show, which follows the lives of astoundingly wealthy Asians and Asian-Americans in Los Angeles, marks the entrepreneur’s first time on screen — and it’s safe to say that it’s going well. Since its debut in January, the series has drawn comparisons to an IRL Crazy Rich Asians or Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise. It’s one of the few reality shows to land a 100 percent critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s also made history as the first reality series with an all-Asian cast.
When Mi Li sat down with The List over Zoom, she exuded excitement and optimism for her Netflix debut. She wore a headband, which could easily be misconstrued for a crown through the grainy footage of our momentarily shaky internet connection. She is, indeed, the queen of her own Bling Empire, which she built from the ground up. In this exclusive interview, the Netflix star dishes on her relationships, her prolific career, and everything Bling Empire.
Kelly Mi Li puts the 'real' in reality TV
I haven’t watched all of Bling Empire yet, but I watched a lot of your show, and I absolutely love it.
Good. Thank you for watching.
It’s so good. I was wondering if that’s really how it is. Are you guys all friends? Is this true?
Yeah. I’ve been friends with everybody for a very long time. I think I know Christine [Chiu] and Kane [Lim] the longest, and I think I know them for almost 10 years now. Jamie [Xie] and Kevin [Kreider] I met about three years ago, so they’re probably my newest friends, but we’ve all known each other for a long time.
That’s so cool. What was it like filming something like that?
You know what? Filming was a very amazing experience. It was a little scary at the beginning just because you’re opening up your whole life to the world. And in our Asian culture, it’s always been like, stay low-key, stay private, don’t air all your dirty laundry, kind of thing. But just very grateful that we had this opportunity. And towards the end of it, you kind of forget the camera’s there. Our crew was so great, you kind of just forget they were even there.
Bling Empire's cameras forced Kelly Mi Li to face her relationship's demons
I know a lot of the show focuses on very emotional moments, particularly between you and your boyfriend [Andrew Gray]. How was that sharing that because, you’re saying from your culture, that’s usually more private?
We got so much out of it. The show kind of forced us to face our problems instead of keep hiding it or keep downplaying it. So, I learned so much, and I grew so much from the process, and the same thing for him. That, for him, I think, is also… he’s able to watch it from a third person [perspective], where he realized there was a lot of trauma in his childhood.
And then for me, I’ve learned to set healthy boundaries. I never learned how to do that. And then another thing I learned was to be able to talk about my feelings and put them in words, because I never learned that growing up. Because, again, in Asian culture, we don’t really talk about our feelings. So when I feel a certain way, I just feel a rush of sadness or angry or whatever, but I couldn’t put into words.
So, end of day, I think we got out stronger than ever, and I just grew so much from it. So I’m very, very fortunate and very grateful for the experience.
It sounds so rewarding, especially from that perspective. That seems like so valuable. I’m assuming you guys are still together and you’re doing good?
Yeah. After the show, we actually took about a five-month break where we didn’t really see each other. We separated our household. I think it’s during the show as well. So we’re still living separately.
During the five months of not seeing each other, we really worked on ourselves. And for me, I grew up so much during that time. I really [dug] into — like you know, dig deeper and like why I am the way I am, and really dig into, also, our culture, the way we were brought up.
And after the five months was up, we got back together, and we started spending more time together. I don’t want to say we got back together, but we started spending more time together. And it’s been phenomenal. We’re still individually going to therapy, which I think is very important. And then we’re going to start coupling therapy as well, soon, once we get there. But yeah, it’s been a great experience.
Cultural differences caused tension in Kelly Mi Li's relationship
That must be a little bit difficult having cultural differences in the way you handle things. How has that impacted your relationship together?
Absolutely. So again, with the Asian culture, we really don’t talk about feelings. We kind of hide it and we just have to deal with it. We suppress it, that’s what the Asian culture has always taught us.
And with him, he’s from a Latin family, so they’re loud, they’re always fighting. And one of the things he brought up was that just, the way he was speaking to me in episode one was how he grew up. That’s all he [sees] his mom and his dad do. And he thought that was a normal way of communicating, but he was like this for 30 years of his life. And for him to be where he is now, which is super calm, and during some of our fight — not fights, but sometimes when we have arguments, disagreements — he’s the one that’s calming me down, which is like the complete opposite. So, yeah, I’m just really proud of him. And how far he’s came.
The truth about Kelly Mi Li's divorce
So, if I remember correctly, you had an ex-husband [Lin Miao] that had a scandal go down. Can you tell me a little bit about your ex-husband and all of that?
Yeah, absolutely. We met at a very young age. I think I was 21, at the time; he was 20. And then we were just friends, nothing happened. I think about three years later, I was 24 and he was 23, and that’s when we really explored it, and then we ended up getting married. And he was a self-made person as well, which I really respected. I’ve always been an entrepreneur, I’ve always kind of made my own money, but he was a different level of wealth that I think opened my eyes up in like, okay, I can do this. I should do this, I can reach out myself in a sense, even though he didn’t do it legally.
So, at that time when I found out [about the legal trouble], we were actually already separated. We were living in separate households, but we [hadn’t] formalized our divorce at the time. It was difficult due to the reason that all of a sudden your life’s upside down, where you’re used to spending half a million on a black Amex every month, where you’re going to get gas, and you’re like, “Oh my God, my credit card doesn’t work. They shut it down.” But, end of the day for me, once when we moved to the U.S., we had to start all over again. So I’ve been there, I’ve [struggled]. It was definitely [an] adjustment, but [I] got through it and then came back up.
You built your business after that happened, which is so unbelievably impressive. Can you talk about how you did that and what that was like?
So I have a few different [businesses]. I’ve invested in over 20 different startup companies, and I’ve invested in real estate. I used to be in food and beverage. I had my food and beverage restaurant when I was 24 years old. Had a private nightclub as well, sold that, and invest in tech. And then I built a company called Greyscale Lab, which does merchandising, import-export business. I had that for about, probably, almost six or seven years now, great partner that I work really well with. And then I also just started my own production company for scripted TV and film. So, I think for me … I was just really lucky. I have great people around me. I have a great team around me. I have great partners around me. So I want to give them the credit for that.
How Kelly Mi Li thrives as an Asian woman in Hollywood
I wanted to ask you specifically about your production company, because it’s definitely not a secret that Hollywood is super white and male. I was reading a UCLA report that said 3.4 percent of directors were Asian, and that’s not even [noting] the small amount that were women. So, what was that like for you, building a business in a place where, historically, it’s difficult to enter?
I’m very used to a male dominated industry. As soon as I turned 18, I got my life insurance and my health insurance license, I worked for New York Life. And that was a male-dominant industry in finance. And then, food and beverage was a male-dominated industry. Tech startup was a male-dominant industry.
I think for me, just like, hey, do not step down, know your value, and stand your ground and just be very confident. You have to work twice as hard to get to where they are. But end of the day, all we can do is just… step by step, day by day, and hopefully [this] changes in the future. I try my best to support female filmmakers, same thing with minority filmmakers. And hopefully, this show is a way that we can give the underrepresented Asian community a voice as well.
Yeah. And the show is, like I said, so good. I love shows like that, so I’m definitely your target audience. I already told everyone I know to watch it.
Oh good. Thank you so much.
Bling Empire star Kelly Mi Li's biggest splurge
When you were with your ex, you were saying that you spent half a million. I think on the show, you said you spent like $400,000 a month on credit card bills. And for someone like me, and most people, that’s an unimaginable amount of wealth. How do you spend that much money in a month?
We traveled a lot. We flew only private for a couple of years. And then, Park Hyatt Presidential Suite in Tokyo, $30,000 a night. So there are definitely ways to spend. Art, we loved collecting art at the time. And that’s kind of outside the budget, we had a different art budget. We were one of the top buyers at Tiffany’s, so Tiffany’s treated us really well, but we did spend a lot of money there, and we bought a lot of jewelry at the time.
Well, what is the biggest splurge you’ve ever purchased?
I haven’t purchased individually, by myself. I don’t know. Just because I know how hard it is to earn a dollar, so for me, I like to, instead of buying jewelry or buying that kind of thing, I’d rather invest in a property. I’m building a house right now in Zihuatanejo [Mexico] that I’m really excited about, and then I’m also in the process of getting a 55-acre blueberry farm in Michigan. For me, this is more fun instead of buying jewelry.
Behind the scenes of Bling Empire
That sounds really fun. So, I’m going to ask you some more questions about the show, specifically. What were the biggest feuds on the show from your perspective? Obviously, we see what happens, like the part with the penis pump, that was pretty heated.
It’s like famous! Okay. I named it, I personally named it. I personally named it Willy. I think the dynamic between Christine and Anna [Shay], it’s interesting to me. Anna lives in her own world. She doesn’t live by any rules because she doesn’t need to, so she’s not competitive. She’s kind of doing her own thing, where I think Christine was a little competitive, and she wants to have the title of Queen Bee in Beverly Hills. I think that fuel and that fire was interesting to me.
Okay. And what was the best and worst part about filming?
The best part of it really was how much I got out of it afterward, where I just really, again, learned so much about myself. Those therapy sessions were amazing, but that was also the hardest part, which is when you’re in the moment, you’re like, “This is so bad. What am I doing?”
So, during that time it was really difficult just because me and Andrew were doing really bad. So personally, I was doing bad, and I got to show that to the camera, so that was really hard for me. That was probably, quote unquote, the worst part, but it was also the best part after it settled.
That sounds really nice. Sometimes the hardest stuff ends up being the best.
Yeah. Everything happens for a reason, blessing in disguise.
Was there anything that happened on the show while you were filming that we don’t get to see?
Yeah. I mean. Okay. So remember that trip that Anna took us to in Paris? So what was not shown, which I wished they did [show], is that, as a surprise, she shut down the Palace of Versailles, the whole place, for a private walkthrough. They said that only one — the Obamas, whoever it is — did that before. I don’t know how she does it, but yeah. So, we were able to do the whole Palace of Versailles, complete private, which is just, it was unbelievable. And then when we left [they were like], “Come back any time.” I’m like, can I just move in?
Yes, Kevin Kreider is staying in the friend zone
That’s amazing! I have one more question for you. Just because, if I remember correctly, Kevin said that he wanted you to dump Andrew and that he would totally date you. What’s your relationship like with Kevin? Would you consider him?
So Kevin and I, we’ve been friends and we’re still friends. We still talk like once a week, if anything, so I just see him as a brother. And now I give him relationship advice, and I’m always telling him to settle down, find a real girl, find somebody with depth, find somebody you can connect with, and stop playing around, settle down. So, I’m happy he’s still in my life.
That’s awesome. He is quite a lovable character. Anyway. Is there anything else? What are you up to next?
Oh my goodness, I have a lot of stuff going on this year, I don’t even know where to start. I’m in post-production right now for a thriller I just shot during COVID called Amp House. Going in pre-production with a feature film. Then starting pre-production on a feature true story called Afterward with Aaron Eckhart, Terrence Howard, George Lopez. And then we’re finishing up a music documentary called Immediate Family, and then starting a TV series called Interface in Australia and Taiwan. So that’s all Q1, Q2 next year. And then launching my TV show, Cipher, in the U.S. in early March, which is really exciting. It launched internationally already, and it did phenomenal. So I’m really excited for it to launch in North America. It will be soon.
So yeah, just a lot of good stuff, and just end of the day, last thing I just really want to add is that I just really hope that our show can bring so much joy and laughter to people’s homes, especially during this difficult time.
Season 1 of Bling Empire is currently streaming on Netflix.
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