“Yes, absolutely it was real,” Bling Empire’s Kelly Mi Li told Refinery29, officially stepping in the shoes of a reality star on a press day. No sentence is more necessary for someone who has allowed prying eyes into their life via a Netflix docusoap. In this case, Mi Li was playfully defending the veracity of her Bling Empire date with Kevin Kreider, the oft-shirtless male model who pines for her over much of season 1, following Mi Li's on-screen split with on-again, off-again boyfriend Andrew Gray.
“When Kevin first quote-unquote asked [me out]. I was like, ‘Is he joking?’ I wasn’t too sure at the beginning, either,” Mi Li continued, empathising with wary audiences. “But at that time, Andrew and I, we broke up. And, sincerely, I was like, ‘This is it. This time, is it. We’re not getting back together. I’m putting my foot down. This is it.’ So I think, ‘Why not? Kevin and I have been friends.’”
Mi Li accepted Kreider’s invitation, leading to the salsa dancing date viewers see in fifth episode “Private Lies.” “There's nobody better to be on a first date with right out of a relationship than with your friend.’ There’s no pressure,” Mi Li explained.
Bling Empire is peppered with these kinds of moments that need fact-checking and further explanation. Some of these hanging mysteries are fun, including the origin story of Mi Li’s friendship with breakout glam oddball Anna Shay or the full events of Mi Li's unexpected shaman experience in “Private Lies.” Other sections of Bling Empire are a little more delicate, like Mi Li’s decision to open up her troubled relationship with Gray to cameras.
But, no matter how intense, Mi Li — a Hollywood film and TV producer — is ready to set every record straight.
Refinery29: How did you meet the cast — particularly the great Anna Shay?
Kelly Mi Li: “I’ve known everybody for a pretty long time. Anna is a newer one. A few years ago, I read the book Crazy Rich Asians. I was like, ‘These are fictional characters of my real friends.’ What a great idea for an unscripted show.
“Through Andrew I met Jeff Jenkins who is a veteran in the space. I started introducing all my friends [to him]. Anna has actually been friends with him for a long time. So Anna is the only one that I quote-unquote ‘didn’t know beforehand.’”
So you actually helped cast the entire show?
“I was involved in putting the project together, but as far as when we started shooting it, I wasn’t involved in the creative … First of all, workload-wise it would have been too much, to run production and be on camera. Because we all know how crazy production gets.”
So how did you end up on camera? You don't seem like someone who's alway wanted to be a reality star.
“Some of my friends, they’re from family money. A lot of times, families are very protective. One of them said, ‘Okay, I’ll give you the blessing if Kelly goes on camera with you.’ Because they think I’m not going to screw up my own show. Towards the end, when I was meeting with Jeff, I was like, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t be in it. I’m happy behind the scenes.’ And Jeff’s like, ‘Nope. You and Andrew have to be on it.’”
What was your thought process on letting cameras into your relationship with Andrew?
“It was really challenging for us. We had those issues before filming. Those issues were always there. We were kinda... not sweeping it under the rug, but we didn’t really quote-unquote ‘deal with it’ face on.
“I learned so much about myself. Sometimes it’s hard for you to look at yourself. I have codependency issues. We both did. I think Andrew was in a different kind of codependence where he needed me all the time and he couldn’t do his own thing. He was very emotionally dependent on me. And then for me, my codependence was my dad left me and my mom at a young age. I wanted to feel needed.”
Did you feel nervous about your loved one seeing what happens behind closed doors? You’re obviously very close with your mom.
“If I say I didn’t, I would be lying. But at the same time, I made a decision to do this show when I signed up for it. I knew that I couldn't hold back.
“At the end of the day, the people who love you, they’re always going to be there for you. They might get shocked. They might get however they feel. But they’ll get over it. Because at the end of the day, my mom loves me unconditionally. She might not agree with everything I do, or everything I say, but at the end of the day she’s always going to be there to support me.”
You’re an executive producer. You just founded a new production company. But so much of your Bling Empire narrative is your love life. If there were a season 2 would you like it to focus more on your busy career?
“Absolutely. We filmed a little bit of my office and my staff, but I think the majority of that did get cut out. I would love to showcase that more. I think being a woman, you should have your own stuff going on. I think it’s very important to be independent. Work is such a big part of my life. With my friends, a lot of them, they’re lucky that they don’t have to work. But I really enjoy it.”
And what was the shaman experience like? Since it was so trained on your emotions?
“One of the things he said to me that I still remember to this day was, ‘Stop walking on eggshells.’ I don’t know if that made it into the final cut. That’s when I realised I have a problem saying ‘no.’ It’s okay to say ‘no.’ It’s something I really still remember nowadays: Just be yourself, it’s okay to say ‘no,’ and then you don’t have to feel like you’re walking on eggshells.
“At the end of the day, you can’t pour from an empty glass.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.