‘Bling Empire’ Star Christine Chiu on the Hit Netflix Series and Why Asian Representation Matters
Make no mistake: Christine Chiu lives a life of extravagance. In 2019, she and her husband, plastic surgeon Gabriel Chiu, made headlines when they booked out the glitzy Beverly Hills shopping destination Two Rodeo for an over-the-top Chinese New Year party. Lychee martinis and champagne flowed alongside catering by Wolfgang Puck. Dancers, magicians, fortune tellers and martial artists entertained guests, who took home lai see envelopes from a tree filled with money.
Later that year, when the Chius’ son, Gabriel Christian Chiu III, aka “Baby G”, turned one, the family threw a party at the Cayton Children’s Museum in Santa Monica, complete with a custom-built rollercoaster, ferris wheel, arcade, ten-course meal and a claw crane machine filled with Gucci gifts. Both events were caught on camera for Bling Empire, the reality series released on Netflix in January, which documents the wild antics of a group of wealthy Asians and Asian-Americans living in Los Angeles. The indulgent lifestyles and petty battles on display made the series a runaway hit and a much-needed source of escapism during the pandemic.
Chiu’s affinity for haute couture is well-documented on the show, and she is a regular at international fashion weeks, flying by private aircraft to Paris twice a year for shopping sprees and reportedly spending six-figure sums on pieces from Dior, Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana. “Fashion is the most exciting storyteller. Haute couture is art and I try to acquire at least one piece from each show I attend, to collect an element of fashion history,” she says from Los Angeles. Her favourite fashion week memories include eating bread pudding at the actual home of Louis Vuitton in Asnières, France, dinner on the stage of La Scala in Milan and her own private baby shower hosted by Armani.
Crazy rich is an appropriate title to give Chiu. But crazy misunderstood would be too. The 38-year-old Taipei-born socialite and philanthropist was quickly branded the show’s villain by press and fans for her catty antics and snide remarks, particularly those towards cast-mate Anna Shay (“You’re not my competition. You’ll never be my competition,” she says on camera). However, she tries to brush off any criticism. “It always hurts to hear people speak negatively about you,” she says. “It took some time for me to stop reading the comments online and [not] feel like I wanted to defend myself from every single one of them or shout from the rooftops, ‘You have me all wrong!’ to the haters. I have had to make peace with the fact that people will have opinions about me that I cannot control.”
Though she appears gregarious and charismatic when navigating the many social occasions depicted on the show, Chiu says she’s naturally rather introverted and that her intentions are not as shallow as portrayed. “My passion for fashion may be misinterpreted as superficial or materialistic. My philanthropic efforts may also be misconstrued as social climbing,” she says. She works with a host of organisations, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Costume Council, Unicef Chinese Children’s Initiative and the Step-Up Women’s Network. Even Baby G’s decadent birthday involved a US$1 million donation to the museum to fund free admission for children from underprivileged backgrounds.
“Giving back is in my blood; it is an intrinsic part of who I am and I feel grateful to be able to do it,” says Chiu, who studied international business at Pepperdine University in California before beginning a career in beauty and public relations, and co-founding Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery with her husband.
When Bling Empire’s executive producer Jeff Jenkins offered to cast the couple in a historic reality show, Chiu could not refuse. “The desire for this diversity on the small screen was already a win for me,” she says.
In the US, the timing of the series’ release was significant. A report released by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University this year found that crimes targeting Asian people in 2020 rose by 150 per cent from the previous year in America’s largest cities, with Los Angeles reporting the second highest number of incidents after New York. Racist rhetoric relating to the origin of the coronavirus is thought to have caused a spike in abuse, which included verbal harassment, avoidance, spitting and physical assault, a trend Chiu describes as “saddening, appalling and infuriating”.
While unrelated to that threat, the Chius are also serious about their own security, enlisting ex-swat, marine and Israeli secret service operatives to help train them in tactical defence. “We train both inside the house and also on an off-site training field with a duplicate version of our home, so that we are comfortable and swift in navigating firearms and dealing with potential intruders,” she says.
For all its glitz and sensationalised storylines, Bling Empire has been hailed as a kind of cultural Trojan horse for the subtle way it weaves Asian traditions and beliefs into each episode, from the postpartum pig’s feet soup consumed by denim heiress Cherie Chan to the Buddhist rites adhered to by the Singaporean real estate entrepreneur Kane Lim. Traditional Chinese Medicine, family expectations and superstitions are all subjects addressed on the show, “helping to start new conversations about what Asians can look like or be doing on TV, and the types of stories they can tell”, wrote Rolling Stone.
Chiu hopes the cultural diversity of the show, whose cast comes from Singapore, mainland China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, will act as a positive influence in Hollywood and beyond. “My husband and I knew we had to do everything we could to propel [diversity] forward,” she says. “Asians are and historically have been under-represented in American media. We are often stereotypically misrepresented as deliverymen, dragon ladies, kung fu artists or concubines. To be able to normalise Asian voices and faces on both big and small screens without being corny or using racial stereotypes is progress,” she says.
With the success of recent films like Crazy Rich Asians, Parasite, The Farewell, Minari and Raya and The Last Dragon, Chiu draws strength from seeing her culture and its stories reflected on the big screen and hopes Bling Empire will be similarly encouraging for anyone whose heritage or culture has been underrepresented in western media. “I want to contribute to a movement of creating a more diverse future for Baby G’s generation, so that when he and his friends watch television or movies, they are seeing heroes and heroines of different colours, backgrounds and journeys,” she says.
She also hopes the show will encourage empathy and dialogue among those who may be struggling with life’s ups and downs. The show navigated real-life problems faced by each cast member, including adoption, infertility, emotional abuse and marital expectations, without succumbing to the “table-flipping, wig snatching and accusations against cast-mates’ family or children” that have traditionally been the recipe for reality show success, Chiu says. “The drama is catty, but harmless and above-belt. It is important to recognise that real-life struggles and wealth are not mutually exclusive,” she says.
Since the first season was filmed, Chiu has experienced a shift in her priorities and perspective prompted by both the pandemic and the death of her mother. These events “reinforced the importance of family and spending time with those you care about”, she says. “Life is so short and precious, and each minute could be our last. I have a heightened sense of responsibility to impact people and this world more positively. My takeaway from the show is that the truest and most valuable form of wealth is family and health.”
Photographer: Carter Smith at Copious Management
Stylist: Donald Lawrence at The Rex Agency
Hair: Mara Roszak at A-Frame Agency
Make-up: Mai Quynh at The Wall Group
Location: Chateau Marmont