There’s an awful lot to take in when watching Bling Empire, Netflix’s latest reality TV offering that at first reads like an attempt to capitalize on the “trend” of crazy rich Asians being both crazy and very rich in real life. Ostensibly, it is a slice-of-life reality show, featuring a group of fabulous friends who are all friends only because a producer suggested it, but also, because they are rich. Like Netflix’s other breakout reality hit, Selling Sunset, the conversations, scenarios, and storylines on Bling Empire feel mostly manufactured. But as I watched the drama unfold over a few days, becoming one with my sofa’s sagging cushions, it occurred to me that what sets Bling Empire apart from other shows of its ilk are unquestionably the babies: the true stars of a show where family is king.
I will tend to the babies’ status as icons in a moment, but first, their parents and cohorts deserve some attention. Every main character on this show is a Character, seemingly pulled from the brain of a brilliant casting director who watched Crazy Rich Asians and understood innately that real life is often better than fiction. Christine Chiu and her husband, Dr. Gabriel Chiu, run a plastic surgery clinic in Beverly Hills and are rich enough to close down Rodeo Drive for a Lunar New Year Party. Kim Lee, described as the “Calvin Harris of Southeast Asia,” is a DJ with an overbearing mother and fillers that make her look a little bit like Kylie Jenner. Kelly Mi Li doesn’t seem to have a job that I can identify immediately but is entangled with Andrew Gray, best known for being the red Power Ranger, and now, after this show’s premiere, for being a colossal asshole with manipulative and abusive tendencies.
Cherie, denim heiress, is with Jessey, furniture heir; their children, a toddler named Jadore and a newborn named Jevon, will be rich in jeans and sofas and will never want for anything more. Kane, the show’s de facto narrator, has a shoe closet larger than most apartments, and is rich enough to admit to the scribes at Tatler that he doesn’t actually “need” the show or the money that ostensibly came with it.
Rounding out this cast are the most intelligent and least intelligent (no offense) characters, both of whom are also the most compelling. Kevin Kreider is a tall and very hot model, with the heart and soul of a well-intentioned golden retriever, cast as the fish out of water. (As he is not disgustingly wealthy, technically, he is.) Anna Shay, the only person on this program with a shred of intelligence and common sense, has never known financial hardship because her father, Edward Shay, was the founder of Pacific Architects and Engineers, a private defense contractor. Her mother, Ai-San Shay, exported pearls and silk flowers from Japan. When Anna’s father died, she and her brother inherited the family business and sold it for $1.2 billion to Lockheed Martin, all in cash. She’s worth more money than most people will ever touch, and is eccentric in the way very rich people who have never known struggle are. Her hair is appalling, she accessorizes ill-fitting jeans with enormous diamond necklaces, and she rides a Segway around Beverly Hills with her “French best friend,” Florent. She is Yubaba from Spirited Away, airlifted out of the bathhouse for dirty spirits and into an enormous, possibly-haunted, Spanish-style mansion in Beverly Hills. If I cannot be one of the iconic babies that we are about to meet, then I would like to be Anna Shay.
Other reality shows, like the earlier seasons of Real Housewives of New Jersey, focus heavily on family as a plot point, but on Bling Empire, everyone is very concerned with parentage. Baby G, the bouncing, chunky toddler belonging to Dr. Chiu and his wife, Christine, is the “heir” that Dr. Chiu’s parents were so insistent Christine produce. Dr. Chiu is a direct descendant of the Song dynasty, and so if dynasties were still real, their handsome little man would be next in line to rule. Dynasties are no longer real, and so this immense pressure does not weigh on the small head of Baby G. Bringing Baby G into the world was no easy feat, but the fertility issues that plagued Christine and her husband were placed squarely on her shoulders—even though it was due to her husband’s “health issues” and not hers. Watching her break down in tears as she admits lying for her husband to save face for her in-laws is the realest part of the show. It also contextualizes Baby G’s first birthday party, which is, according to Anna Shay, a “bit contrived.”
Baby G is iconic because his parents are rich enough to literally sponsor an orphan in China for every guest attending their Lunar New Year Party, in lieu of the traditional goody-bag gifts of Baccarat crystal paperweights. He’s also an icon because even though he was forced to appear on camera in a video shot by his parents asking his grandparents if it was okay for them to use a surrogate to carry either Margaux or London (the two Chiu embryos on ice), he still comes out on top, narrowly escaping the fate of being forced to surrender the spotlight to a sibling.
The other babies on this show, Jadore, Cherie’s toddler, and Jevon, whose birth is captured in startling high-definition, are also quite special. Jadore, who deserves more screen time than she got, has my sympathy. “Jadore didn’t get a newborn photoshoot,” her mother Cherie explains, as helpers load in props to their home in preparation for Jevon’s. However, I beg to differ: I don’t know what a full newborn photoshoot really entails, but this picture of Jadore wearing a Chanel headdress seems like something to me.
Never mind that it is lying on the ground instead of hung in a place of pride. That’s Cherie’s issue, and I won’t meddle. Jevon’s newborn photoshoot is a full-on affair, with the little angel wrapped in various fabrics like a loaf of bread, and tucked into baskets. Nothing will ever top this look, which features Jevon surrounded by red envelopes for good luck, looking as if he has finally found peace, even though he’s been alive for maybe a month, max.
At some point during the show, Cherie spends time with Tyler Henry, the Hollywood Medium, who confirms Cherie’s theory that maybe Jevon is the reincarnation of her mother, who died before the show went to air. While watching Tyler Henry do what he does, which is scribble on a notepad and make vague predictions that prey on people’s grief, I felt for Cherie. Jessey, her boyfriend, is wishy-washy on proposing, and seems content to exist without putting an actual ring on her finger. That is all she wants! Though this is neatly resolved at the end of the series, setting up for a second season that I would like sooner rather than later, Cherie’s sadness makes me feel sad for no real reason other than it’s been a long, tough year. Reincarnation as a concept and as a practice is iconic. If Jevon, her small bao of a baby, is the vessel for her mother’s spirit, then he is the past, present, and future. What could be more iconic than that?