When the first season of Bling Empire aired at the beginning of 2021, Kim Lee switched her television off. It had been one thing for her to film the show, but reliving the pilgrimage she went on to seek out the biological father she had never met—only to discover in the painful reveal that he had passed away two years prior—was wholly another.
“I didn’t watch it for a while,” she says pensively over Zoom one afternoon. “I just couldn’t. Even though I had taken time to heal, the messages I started getting once it aired were reminders of what had happened. I knew what was coming and I didn’t want to feel it again.”
To have experienced pain like that for the first time on camera, and for it to be witnessed by millions of viewers (Bling Empire became an instant hit once it dropped on Netflix), had been a surreal experience for Lee. When her friends and castmates Kevin Kreider and Kane Lim broke the news about her biological father’s passing in the season’s final episode, Lee was seen quickly saying “I’m ok, it’s ok” even as she swiped at stray tears.
For Lee, being visibly emotional in that manner might have once been a waking nightmare. Despite thriving in the public eye, the Vietnamese-American model and DJ had grown up fiercely private when it came to personal matters, a trait she inherited from her parents. And jumping into reality TV—especially a show that endeavoured to capture the most honest and intimate interactions within its cast—had been a true act of courage.
“Few people know this, but right before Bling, I was in an incredibly toxic relationship,” she confides. “I had lost myself and put this person on a pedestal, even after he betrayed me. I just couldn’t let go. And with every chance that I gave him, the more I was hurting myself, the more my self-esteem was being damaged.”
Lee might not have mentioned any of this on the show, but she knows that it granted her the empathy to truly understand what her castmate Kelly Mi Li was going through with her on-again, off-again boyfriend Andrew Gray. “It’s easy to look at women and wonder why they stay in complicated relationships, and in a way, judge them for it. I know that my own friends got sick of me when I would call them up every day and vent about my relationship. But when you’ve been through it yourself, you understand just how painful it can be to leave.”
She credits the show with coaxing out a new side to her—one that believes that there is strength in vulnerability. “Opening up was initially very uncomfortable,” she admits. “When the cameras are on, you get shy, you get a little uptight. But over time, you realise that the more open you are, the more people can connect with you.”
In the year that has passed since facing her fears on the show, Lee has made it a priority to heal by delving into difficult but worthwhile inner work. “You’ll be glad to know that I am no longer scared of the word ‘therapy’,” she laughs. “In fact I love therapy; I think it’s healthy and would highly recommend it to a lot of people. If you have depression, if you have anxiety, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy. We’re all human and we have to remind ourselves that nobody is perfect.”
And of course, she has spent time deepening the relationships that have come out of two seasons of Bling Empire. Some of her castmates—in particular, real estate mogul and investor Lim—now feel like family to her. In the second season, her friendship with Lim reaches a new height. “He’s like a brother to me at this point. We’re like little kids when we’re together,” Lee giggles. Indeed, Lim and Lee’s electric chemistry and compatible sense of humour result in endlessly cheeky shenanigans which can’t seem to stop making everyone around them laugh—even at their Vogue Singapore photo shoot in Los Angeles.
Serendipitously, the pair first made contact each other in 2019, way before Bling Empire. Lee had reached out to Lim for another show on a different network she was working on at the time, and the two briefly connected over Instagram. “What are the chances? Everything really happens for a reason,” she jokes.
To Lee, Lim’s gift lies in the way he can bring people together—just like he did the cast of Bling Empire. “I love the way he treats people. He will walk into a room and make each person in that room feel amazing. He really inspires me because I want to be more like that.”
So what exactly makes Lim such a people-magnet? If you ask him, Lim thinks his personability has an unlikely source—childhood insecurity. Growing up, he recalls having a difficult time liking the way he looked and questioning his place in the world. “I struggled with weight loss and body image issues as a kid. And before I found my own path, I saw myself as the black sheep of the family,” he shares.
“It’s easy to look at women and wonder why they stay in complicated relationships, and in a way, judge them for it”
It might be hard not to, when you grow up in the shadow of a successful businessman father who makes billion-dollar dealings in real estate, shipping and oil, among other industries. Suffice to say, Lim has always had a comfortable lifestyle, but the Singapore-born 31-year-old attributes his careful upbringing with the humility he believes has grounded him all his life.
“I really appreciate that my parents raised me with good values. My grandparents came from nothing in China and I was never brought up to think that I had money,” Lim reminisces. “As a result, I have never thought of myself as better than anybody and I treat everyone as equal. That’s what I think makes people feel comfortable around me.”
Having been taught the importance of making his own money from a young age, Lim’s current priority is achieving financial independence. “It’s crucial to me that I’m able to support myself and my lifestyle without my family, and that I get to travel and do collaborations on my own without having to seek permission from my family office.” To that end, Lim has racked up his own rolodex of business ventures, including some that he has chosen specifically because of social impact.
One of his latest investments went into Indonesian plant-based meat firm Green Rebel. The brand—which launched its products in Singapore in March this year—focuses on making vegan meat alternatives that play well in dishes with an Asian slant. Its beef-less rendang, for example, is said to be just as flavourful and delicious as its meaty counterpart.
Lim believes not only in Green Rebel’s business prospects, but also its anti-cruelty mission statement. “It feels so good to be part of a company like this because they are actually bettering society by helping the environment and saving animals.” This drive to protect the planet stems from his faith, which he holds close to heart. He describes himself as a staunch Buddhist and dedicates a minimum of 45 minutes each morning to chants and meditative rituals, which he says has changed his personhood.
Lim’s faith and wellness practices balance out his unpredictable work schedule, which he admits often takes over his life. His appearance on Bling Empire and his social media presence—ostentatious lifestyle in tow—may have portrayed a version of himself that lives only to party, but Lim wants it to be known: he may play hard, but he certainly works hard too. “I work on a project to project basis and this means that I’m up till 1am or 2am every day managing deals that I’m making in other places like Singapore. I’m really proud of my work ethic for it’s something my parents have instilled in me from the very start.”
Of course, the most public of said projects is the reality show he is in the main cast of. With the second season of Bling Empire fast approaching, Lim offers a sly teaser for fans: “There is definitely more drama this time and I get caught in the middle quite often. But hopefully people are entertained by it and don’t take it too seriously—it’s a playful show after all.”
Fun and games aside, Lim and Lee both believe in the greater power of the platform shows like Bling Empire offer to Asian talent. But this confidence in the show did not come overnight, especially for Lee. “I’m going to be very honest. Before season one dropped, I had my doubts. We were in the middle of COVID-19 and putting this lavish lifestyle on display. I thought to myself, is this a good time? Are people going to be horrified by this?” she shares.
“My grandparents came from nothing in China and I was never brought up to think that I had money”
“But then I watched it. And I was like, wow, this show actually has so much substance. Everyone opened up so much, and there are so many relatable storylines. I genuinely feel so proud being a part of it.”
Lim chimes in: “Bling Empire has brought more Asian faces to the forefront and allowed us all to find community. Especially being in a foreign country and seeing all the Asian hate and racism that has emerged, it’s time for the Asians to shine!”
With the second season gearing up for release, Lee is dividing her time between preparing for film and TV projects—“People are definitely going to see me more on the big screen,” she hints—and her first love: DJing.
Currently, she plays every month at Las Vegas Wynn Hotel. “It’s been a dream for me to have a residency in Vegas,” Lee gushes. You know how actors have Oscars? That’s what it feels like for me, like I’ve reached the pinnacle of DJing.” Lim, on the other hand, is diving headfirst into his real estate and business investments.
And what happens when it all gets to be too much? Lim’s solution for when his hectic schedule catches up to him is a hilariously simple one: “If I need to de-stress, I usually just fly to another country and spend a few days to break the routine I’m stuck in.” It might not be an answer many of us relate to, but when you’re part of Bling Empire, that’s just how life goes.
Photography Angelo Sgambati
Fashion direction Desmond Lim
Styling Carlee Wallace
Hair Joohee Lee
Make-up Geena Elizabeth