Column: Kelly Mi Li of ‘Bling Empire’ on counteracting Asian American hate

The first thing Kelly Mi Li said as she enters my Zoom meeting is: “You have really good lighting. Your skin is flawless.” I tell her I just woke up from an after-school nap. She laughs and says, “Whatever lighting you have, I want it.”

Li is a woman full of life. She laughs without care and her kindness beams through the screen. She tells me how excited she is to see her co-star Kane Lim for dinner that weekend and listens attentively to my questions, carrying herself with the confidence her on-screen presence is known for. 

The entrepreneur, talent manager, philanthropist and film producer recently added reality television star to her list of achievements. Fresh from the success of Netflix’s first season of “Bling Empire,” Li discusses what she’s been up to recently as well as what’s in the works for the future.

I first ask about her recent involvement in the organization Hate is a Virus, where she will be the first to match $25,000 to kickstart a movement toward combating racism and hate against Asian Americans. 

“Growing up Asian American, talking to the police or reporters when something bad happens wasn’t really a thing because there was ‘shame’ in it. Asian Americans wanted to be quiet to not track more trouble,” she said. “Hate is a Virus is able to reach out to those people since there has unfortunately been a 1900% increase in attacks against Asian Americans since the pandemic started. These are only the recorded ones, so the reality is probably a lot worse.”

The organization is looking to support local businesses.

“Hate is a Virus is partnering with both local and national organizations, where local organizations do things like support local Asian-owned businesses, make sure our elders are safe walking home and offer mental health programs like having free access to a therapist,” she said. “Our long-term goals are to put the right people in office and change policies as well.” 

“Bling Empire” showcases a cast of real-life crazy rich Asians, but giving to others and donating to charity is evidently extremely important to Kelly and the rest of the cast.

Li, along with co-star Christine Chiu, serves on the advisory board for the Chinese Children’s Initiative at UNICEF, where she supports orphans and ensures their well-being. She also works with children in Prince Harry’s charity Well Child, in which Li was appointed the first and only international ambassador for in 2013 to help fund medical research for sick children. Another organization she’s a part of, Pencils of Promise, builds schools in developing countries like Guatemala, where she has traveled to offer more hands-on help.

Kelly Mi Li in Guatemala with nonprofit Pencils of Promise in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Mi Li)

This passion to help underserved children comes from a special place in her heart.

Li was born in the small town of Kunming, China and moved with her family to Chicago when she was 10 years old, not knowing English. Her family struggled financially and her mother raised her as a single parent as her dad moved back to China in search of a job. Now residing in Los Angeles, Li has moved up the ranks as a serial entrepreneur. 

“We all struggle. We have to give back. At the end of the day, you can’t really take your money with you. You know, when we die, we die. But when you give back, you can make a difference in another person’s life,” Li said. 

When I ask for her advice on building oneself up, she tells me about her own early struggles.

“I’ve been in very male-dominated and Caucasian-dominated industries my whole life. My thing has always been that I walk in a room like I belong there,” Li said. 

Though most reality television doesn’t capture a person’s pure personality, I could tell that Li was truly the same person on-camera as off — confident, spirited and intelligent. 

“It was my first time being on camera, so for me, it was definitely a challenge. As a producer, when I was in a scene filming, sometimes with the side of my eyes I’m looking at the lighting, wires and all that stuff,” Li said with a laugh. “I had to turn that side of my brain off to stay present, especially since it’s a reality show and not scripted.” 

The cast of “Bling Empire” meets up at Kevin’s rooftop party in Episode 4. (Netflix)

Addressing the public’s criticism of how “Bling Empire,” which showcases a wildly wealthy group, was beneficial to the public, I asked if there was a deeper message behind the show.

“You’re right,” she says with a nod. “The glam and glitz was really fun, but that’s just the surface. The show has so much heart in it. An all-Asian reality T.V. show has never been done before. In the past, Asian characters were extremely limited. Now, we see more Asian actors as well as people behind the camera such as producers like Jon Chu and Lulu Wang. Hopefully we paved the way for other all-Asian casts for the future.” 

On the show, the main focus for Li was sorting out her relationship complications with her partner Andrew Gray by attending couples therapy. One thing I respected about “Bling Empire” is how vulnerable Li and her cast members were, especially within a culture where vulnerability and exploring one’s emotions is so stigmatized. 

“I believe in therapy and I still go to therapy. I really wish we were taught to destigmatize mental health early on. Going to therapy doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you. You know, you get a trainer for your physical body and you should get a therapist for your mental health,” Li said. “Growing up as a single child, I didn’t have a lot of people to talk to. Sometimes when you talk to your parents, especially in Asian culture, I felt like I couldn’t completely open up. I actually really didn’t start to know myself until my 30s when I started therapy. Hopefully, with the show, I’m able to help destigmatize therapy. Having someone who can really listen to you and can help you sort out your own thoughts is extremely helpful.”

Li is a helpful figure in her own right, working to alleviate negativity toward mental health within the Asian American community as well as helping to mitigate hate and discrimination towards Asian Americans from the outside.

She inspires people everywhere to always seek learning opportunities, help others and respect themselves as humans.

Yejin Heo and Kelly Mi Li. (Courtesy of Yejin Heo)

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