Those who only know Kelly Mi Li as a cast member of Bling Empire might be convinced that her life revolves around her relationship. Her storyline in season 1 of Netflix’s reality show about the dramatic and elite world of wealthy Asians and Asian Americans in Los Angeles was all about her volatile relationship with actor Andrew Gray, leaving out a huge part of her story. The actual reality is Li’s journey to financial success has only just started to resemble a healthy work-life balance. In 2022, she’s not working for the hustle, she’s making the hustle work for her.
“I’ve always worked,” she tells me over Zoom. “I never stopped working.” But based on her appearance on Bling Empire, you could easily conclude that Li’s career as an entrepreneur was either fake or code for trust fund baby. Throughout the first season, the most work she’s shown doing is walking down the hallway of what looks like an abandoned WeWork building, talking to an anonymous voice on speaker. But in reality, she’s an entrepreneur — she’s reportedly invested in over 20 startups and once launched a private club in Jim Morrison’s old Los Angeles apartment. More recently, she’s in the producer chair, with IMDB credits for an animated show called Panda vs. Aliens and Roku Channel’s Cypher.
And, of course, there’s Bling Empire, whose second season premiered Friday, of which she serves as an executive producer. (Shortly after our interview, Li filed suit against Bling Empire’s other EP Jeff Jenkins, claiming that he failed to honour their agreement and give her proper credit for coming up with the show’s premise. A rep for Li declined to comment on the suit citing legal reasons. Refinery29 reached out to Jenkins for comment, but did not receive a response.)
For most of her life, Li has put work and economic success above all else. “At a younger age, I realized that I couldn’t really depend on people,” she says. “If I want something, I have to really work for it.” She moved to the U.S. from China when she was about 10 years old. “It was a lot of struggle,” she recalls, adding that she remembers going from a “nice, comfortable lifestyle” in China to a $200-a-month apartment in Chicago. Like many Asian Americans, she grew up convinced she was going to be a doctor like the rest of her family. Then, she went to high school. “I started biology and I realised I’m really, really bad at science,” she recalls. “There’s no way I could be a doctor.” So, she recalibrated. “Sometimes you have to take small steps to find your passion and find what you are eventually meant to do.”
Since she wasn’t going to be a doctor, Li spent high school babysitting and working part time at restaurants. She got her first corporate job at 18 selling life and health insurance. The job aligned with her studies — she wanted to major in finance in college — and, because she was paid a commission, promised the possibility of making a lot of money very quickly. At the time, her mantra was simple: “Either I complained, or I worked harder and figured out my own way.”
The dedication paid off — literally. In her first year, she used her first major commission — $16,000 — to put a down payment on a condo. Originally, Li spent her cash “hosting my friends for dinners and going out,” but then her mother suggested she look into real estate as “something that brings value back” and that she could rent out if she chose not to live there. She never moved in, but two decades later, she still has the condo.
At 21, Li dropped out of school and moved to Los Angeles, an act of rebellion against her mother’s constant badgering about graduate school. Li describes her mother as a “tiger mom” — a stereotype of a controlling, Asian mother that’s been both embraced and reviled by Asian Americans. “I always felt like I had to prove [myself] to my mom. And she never said she’s proud of me, she never said she loves me, because that’s how she grew up,” Li says. “I just felt like nothing was ever good enough.” By moving to L.A., she says, “I wanted to show my mom there’s other ways to [be successful].”
Sometimes you have to take small steps to find your passion and find what you are eventually meant to do.
Kelly Mi Li
Li arrived in West Hollywood with no job, no plan, two suitcases, and just enough money to pay for one month’s rent in a furnished apartment. In addition to her work in insurance, she’d “always” worked in restaurants, moving onto bars and clubs as an adult, so she got a job at a development company, opening two hotels with them. “I did all their food and beverage, rolled out all their menus,” she says. The job was “seven days a week, 18 hours a day,” a true non-stop hustle, but, at the time, the food and beverage industry was her passion. “I didn’t have a work-life balance,” she says.
Li’s workaholic tendencies were instilled in her early on as a child of immigrants. “It was ingrained in me that success is equaled by accomplishment. Happiness isn’t a success,” she says. “My mom sacrificed her whole life, sacrificed her marriage and everything, to be in the U.S. so that I could have more opportunities and a better education,” she adds. “Failure was not an option.” Also not an option for Li? Therapy. “Mental health, that’s something that culturally wasn’t accepted,” she says.
It took a decade of independence and a relationship that reached a breaking point to get Li to a therapist. As fans saw in season 1 of Bling Empire, Li began going to therapy with her (now) ex-boyfriend during filming in 2019. They even shared some of their couples’ sessions on the show. “I didn’t know how to set boundaries before,” she says. “I didn’t realise before that my mental health was so connected to my physical health.”
Prioritising her mental health has given Li an entirely new lens through which to view her life. “For me right now, the highest level of success is happiness and being able to live a work-life balance.” Achieving that goal is tricky for the entrepreneur, but she’s got a few key strategies in place to help put up boundaries for herself, like a strict no-work-on-Sundays rule. Another way she maintains a work-life balance: Having two phones. The one with social media gets put down at 8 p.m. every night, and the other is strictly for non-social media or browsing purposes — calls, texts, and emails only. Extravagant? Maybe, but it’s all about “setting down a boundary and giving yourself the time to turn your brain off.”
As for living up to her mother’s expectations, Li says she’s noticed a shift. “I’m 36 and I’m not married and I don’t have kids, so my mom, right now, that’s her priority over anything else,” Li says. “She’s like, ‘Screw the work, when are you popping out a baby?’” She’s also hopeful that her tiger mom is maybe a bit more open to changing her definition of success. “At the end of the day at this point, she just wants me to be happy,” she says.
Today, success for Li is whatever she wants to be, as long as it involves getting a good night’s sleep and doing something fulfilling. Li says she’s still on the lookout for her next career. “I want to keep challenging myself and keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone,” she says. “I never want to stop learning.” There are, however, a couple things she knows for sure. “Don’t put stuff on your credit card that you don’t have in your bank account,” for one, and secondly everyone deserves nice sheets — “You can save money on other things, just get nice bedding.”