Spoilers ahead. To be clear, there’s nothing realistic or relatable about having a net worth of $2 billion. Only a small percentage of us will know the thrill of taking off in a private jet, or the intimacy of having A-list designers like Prabal Gurung saved in our phone contacts. Or heck, know what it’s like to own a chic multiple-roomed condo in Manhattan (as opposed to living with four-plus roommates in a fifth floor walkup in an outer borough of the city).
But this is the world of Dorothy Wang and the cast of Netflix’s Bling Empire: New York. A spin-off of the OG Bling Empire, which follows wealthy Asians in Los Angeles, the New York version, which premieres on January 20, takes us across the country to the concrete jungle. Viewers may be out of the Hollywood glitz and glamor of LA, but that doesn’t mean that this new cast is any less bougie. Within moments of the premiere episode, we’re introduced to cast members like the Hungs, a wealthy socialite fam with the aforementioned net worth of $2 billion. There’s Tina Leung, a well-known fashion influencer taking on all the couture shows, and Nam Laks, the “Blair Waldorf of Thailand” who’s finishing up a Master’s degree at Columbia (a requirement to avoid being cut off from her dad) and drops $10K on a casual shopping spree without taking a beat. Like we said, not super relatable.
And yet, while watching the first season of the spin-off series, I couldn’t help but feel like I could do that very thing — relate to a bunch of millionaires and heiresses. Because, unlike its predecessor, Bling Empire: New York differs in one pretty impactful way: Despite the glitz, glamor, and dizzying bank accounts, the cast is revealing and vulnerable in a way that the previous iteration wasn’t, sharing with viewers a lot of universal fears, insecurities, and experiences around topics like burnout and isolation, dating, stress over what your family may look like, and the very real and emotional reality of grappling with the death of a parent.
For Dorothy Wang, the show’s unquestionable lead (she made the jump from LA’s version to NYC at the end of the last season), transparency was key, especially when it came to sharing her life with viewers. While at the time of our interview, Wang hadn’t seen the series yet (unlike previous experiences in reality TV, she says the Bling Empire: New York cast weren’t allowed to see the final cut of the series before it premiered), she was all for — and insistent — that the crew capture her very real, day-to-day struggles with moving to a new city. “I want everything to be as authentic as possible, so if I’m going through something and having a hard time, I would be open to having the cameras come over and capture that," she tells Refinery29. "I try to be as open and vulnerable as I can.”
Viewers see this throughout the season as Wang takes (one or two) leaps in love, and also faces friendship disagreements head on. Throughout the season is a nuanced disagreement between Wang, Leung, and their friend Richard Chang. Throughout the series, Chang continuously turns to his friends for help, with charity events and promoting his business, a habit that becomes an issue later in the series. As Wang voices to viewers, it can be difficult not to feel exploited or to know who your true friends are when you have money and influence. At its core, the issue is about feeling valued and trusting your friends, something Wang and Leung voice directly to Chang (albeit after ghosting him for a bit).
But one of the most impactful storylines comes from Leung. In episode two, viewers follow Leung through her experience at Paris Fashion Week, as she scrambles around the city in various haute couture garments. She looks fabulous, but as we later find out, looks can be deceiving, because she feels anything but. Leung ends up missing a show. And not just any show, but a front row seat at the Chanel show. What many may have initially thought of as frivolous quickly turns serious, as she breaks down in the car. Back in New York, Leung opens up to Blake Abbie. “I was texting you guys: ‘I feel like I’m on the edge of a cliff,’” she says, before detailing the fact that being by herself often, running around to different events, “it feels a little bit lonely.” Crying, she shares the pressure she feels to stay relevant as a fashion influencer, and while recognizing that she’s lucky, tells him, “I’m really tired…and I haven’t seen my sisters in so long.”
It’s a moment of pure candidness and sincerity, one that many young people — especially “The Burnout Generation” — can relate to. It doesn’t matter that Leung's sobbing while in designer heels, because the fear and anxiety she feels around being able to support herself is understandable, and universal.
Of course, that’s not to discredit the OG cast. The Los Angeles version of the show saw cast members speaking candidly about issues around infertility, the struggles of identity when you’re adopted, and making it in the big city. Those are also very real and important issues as well, but something feels different about the way Wang and the NYC cast reveal themselves, to both each other and the audience. Part of it may be chalked up to the very visceral and not at all scientific feeling that the people we’re watching are actually friends and actually care about one another — at least in the context of a semi-scripted reality TV show.
When Leung shares with her friends that she’s feeling lonely and isolated, they respond with compassion — a warm hug from Abbie and then a trip to the Bahamas with her friend group. Yes, we can’t all afford to take our besties to a tropical locale at the drop of a hat, but the intention — of caring for your friend and wanting them to feel better — is the same. And when on the trip, Leung has a panic attack, we see Wang so visibly upset by her friend being down, that she cries, telling viewers, “It makes me really, really sad that she feels this way. We all love her so much and I just want her to be light and happy.”
As Wang tells Refinery29, “The cast here, even though some of us were just starting to get to know each other, we all kind of have a respect for each other and we all wanted to get to know each other.” Part of this, she says, is due to a sort of cohesiveness brought on by the fact that they’re all a little more similar in age and having similar experiences alongside one another. Both Leung and Wang are trying to find love, the younger Nam and Abbie are finding their places in the world independent — and without — their parents’ financial support or presence. It’s something that naturally draws people together. “Life is too short to spend time with people who aren’t really your vibe or on your frequency,” Wang says. “
And part of the transparency might also be chalked up to the locale. As Wang notes, in New York “people aren’t as fluffy” (or fake) as in LA.
“I just think that in general, people in New York are a little bit more genuine and even maybe they seem like they have a harder exterior here, but they’ll be more open and honest about things,” Wang says. “In LA, there's just so much placed on image that I think maybe people are scared to reveal what's really going on. But here, especially between friends, people are way more open and honest; and I do think that the cast, everyone really opened up and were vulnerable.”
Which not only makes for engaging TV, but also is just better overall for those we’re watching. “In the beginning, [the cast], a lot of them were scared to do this, and I encourage everyone to just tell your authentic story and to not overthink it. The best thing to be is honest.”
Bling Empire: New York is now streaming on Netflix.