Hit pause

In praise of Bling Empire’s exceptionally good-looking moral centre, Kevin Kreider

The Netflix show about rich Asian-Americans in Beverly Hills has something that rivals like ‘The Kardashians’ don’t – a not-wealthy, pleasingly normal and highly attractive voice of niceness and compassion, says Amanda Whiting

Tuesday 24 May 2022 07:53
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<p>Kevin Kreider in ‘Bling Empire’ </p>

Kevin Kreider in ‘Bling Empire’

Bling Empire is an extravagant triumph of reality TV, with pleasures as boundless as its stars’ offshore bank accounts. I’m not joking. The Netflix hit combines the real estate glitz of Selling Sunset with the punishing social calendar of the Ladies of London and the sneaky peek above Beverly Hills hedges previously offered by Brit in Hollywood Robin Leach in Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

Bling Empire follows a coterie of fabulously wealthy Asian-Americans and Asian expats who claim to know each other simply by virtue of being wealthy, Asian, and alive in Los Angeles at the same time. “When I saw Crazy Rich Asians, I thought it was a fantasy,” says show regular Kevin Kreider – a middle-class Asian so attractive he should be cast in that film’s sequel – in the series premiere. Then he moved to California and met his first billionaire.

Nothing really happens on Bling Empire. Rich people just do stuff, like go to dinner and shop on Rodeo Drive. In this way, it resembles other reality programmes dedicated to making having yacht-loads of money seem, on balance, a good idea: The Kardashians, Shahs of Sunset, most instalments of the Real Housewives franchise. Even watching Below Deck, a series about a luxury boat crew dealing with the unhinged, impractical demands of their minted clients, makes me curious about what my own unhinged, impractical demands would be. But all of those shows, champagne-soaked and Swarovski-encrusted as they may be, lack a Kevin Kreider.

Because while Kevin Kreider is the most important character on Bling Empire, he is – crucially – not quite of its world. Kevin, an often shirtless out-of-work model, grew up with a nice, regular family in nice, regular Pennsylvania. The 38-year-old is ostensibly the series’ yardstick for normalcy, a stand-in who says what the viewer is thinking. Except he’s so much better – more open and less judgmental – than I would ever be in his shoes, which are $1,100 Christian Dior high-top sneakers paid for by another cast member.

When slapped in the face with the conspicuous wealth of his friends and co-stars – their lavish parties, their tittering contempt for his skateboard – Kevin Kreider behaves in the moment exactly how I imagine wishing I’d behaved hours after the fact. He appreciates largesse without being awed by it. He admits to thinking caviar doesn’t taste good enough to be thaaaat expensive. And he’s totally chill with a good-natured ribbing. “That’s not even a pair of shoes,” jokes Jamie, the daughter of a Chinese cybersecurity magnate, when Kevin mentions his $1,000 rent. Kreider is never defensive or embarrassed by his humble origins nor is he too shy to gasp at how much the others spend. Jamie’s rent is $19K a month.

Kevin Kreider is also immensely and almost irritatingly compassionate. Part of the cheap fun of those other displays of audacious affluence I mentioned comes from eye-rolling at what can pass for “trouble” in their characters’ lives. Kevin, on the other hand, rarely condemns a petty rift.

That’s why I was thrilled to hear him utter the sentiment “I think it’s just so weird how rich people fight” early in Bling Empire’s recently released second season. Kevin’s kvetching is about two friends – Anna, a half-Japanese, half-Russian arms heiress, and Christine, the Taiwanese wife of a celebrity plastic surgeon who is descended from the Song dynasty. The women are engaged in a completely inexplicable 16-episode-long feud about owning the same Louis Vuitton diamond necklace. “It reminds me of little kids,” Kevin adds, finally sniggering along with me.

But just when I thought this rich clique had found the distant limits of his humanity, he ekes out a little more. “Maybe you just need to give her a real, heartfelt hug,” Kevin suggests to Christine in earnest. He’s not just the show’s moral centre; he keeps the audience on its best behaviour. Even non-problems have real solutions, he reminds us. Even rich people have feelings.

The cast of ‘Bling Empire’

Maybe he’s so good at empathising because he grew up feeling so out of place. Kevin talks frequently about being adopted from Korea into a white family as a toddler. “I don’t know Japanese or rich people culture,” he tells Anna sweetly, in season one, after he worries that the expensive gift that he accepted from her was a secret character test that he had failed.

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There’s another storyline this season concerning infidelity in an established couple, though no one’s crystal clear on the details of who did what and when. Still, the group agrees that the innocent party needs to be informed. Telling the truth, even when it’s hard, is the mark of a good friend, at least on reality television. Coincidentally, inserting yourself in the juiciest storyline is how you get the most screen time.

Kevin is the only person to object. Even in the face of several TV cameras, he seems more interested in being a good person than looking like a good person. “I don’t think it’s any of our business to be snooping in so much,” he says, injecting middle-class values that threaten to bring the boiling pot back down to a simmer. “I think they should let it go,” he adds, a take so level-headed I’m shocked producers didn’t cut it.

Who knows? Maybe they do cut out a lot of what Kevin Kreider says. I doubt it because 1) he’s exceptionally good-looking and 2) based on the incredible number of scenes he’s in this season, he’s endlessly available to film Bling Empire.

Plus, even when Kevin’s not talking, he makes his point. In a newer episode, Kevin wears a flashy denim jacket emblazoned with the words “F*** FAKES” in all caps. On a show where outfits are routinely scrutinised and found wanting, Kevin’s especially, it never even gets a mention. Any other cast member would wear the jacket with an ironic wink, but Kevin wears it like a personal motto. Kevin Kreider – the kindest guy in reality – genuinely does not want fakes, be they rich friends or Rolexes.

Of course, he’s so new to the company he’s keeping, one has to doubt his ability to spot either.

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