“Start conversations with the people around you about Asian hate crimes, racism, and discrimination,” says the star of Netflix’s breakout series.
At 10 years old, Kelly Mi Li moved with her mother from Kunming, China to the US for better opportunities. Without a set goal for her new life, she knew that following her intuition would lead her to fulfillment. As one of the producers and cast members of Netflix’s Bling Empire, she shares how the show was conceptualized as well as the importance of the Stop Asian Hate movement and her advocacy on mental health.
Connecting with audiences
Kelly Mi Li was reading Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians when she recognized the book’s fictional characters were similar to her actual friends. This moment provided the spark for Bling Empire, and together with Keeping Up With The Kardashians producer Jeff Jenkins, they developed the series. It was picked up by Netflix instantly, and when it premiered in January this year, it brought the first Asian-American cast to a reality television format.
The show revolves around the lives of the affluent Asians of Los Angeles. Most of its cast were born into wealth, and even a descendant of the imperial Song dynasty was in the ensemble.
In contrast, Mi Li is a self-made entrepreneur who delves into the film, technology, and finance industries. “When it comes to work, I’m always open to different opportunities and challenges. I believe that sometimes you have to go through a lot of different paths to find your true passion,” she shares.
Willingness to diversify undertakings led the film producer to be in front of cameras instead of her usual role behind the scenes.
“I decided not to be involved in the creatives, and I wasn’t in the editing room either. I saw the show the first time like everyone else when it premiered,” Mi Li says. “One of the best takeaways from Bling Empire is the fan response and being able to connect with audiences globally. I think being vulnerable and very open with myself on screen resonated with viewers.”
Mi Li says that she didn’t have many Asian-Americans to look up to growing up as a young immigrant.
“It’s important to show younger generations that there are role models and public figures out there that look like them,” she says. “With more representation and diversity in media, we can show that anything is possible regardless of your race or ethnicity.” She believes there is still a long way to go in terms of how Asians are portrayed in the entertainment platforms, but every step counts.
With that, she wants to challenge the status quo blanketed over Asian-Americans.
“Asian culture is often reserved and more conservative. Bling Empire shows that this conception of Asians isn’t always the case,” she says. “It breaks down a lot of barriers and shows that regardless of your culture or background, it’s completely acceptable to speak out.”
In response, the Stop Asian Hate movement was born. Anti-Asian hate protests were organized throughout the US by activists and allies for the movement. Hundreds gathered with signs and chanted phrases such as “stop killing Asians” and “hate is a virus.”
During such a turbulent time in the community, Mi Li encourages Asians everywhere to spread awareness. “Start conversations with the people around you about Asian hate crimes, racism, and discrimination,” she says.
The 35-year-old says using social media to share articles and infographics of these occurrences is a practical way to show rapport toward the cause.
“The more noise and attention we bring to this situation, the stronger the movement will be,” she shares. “There are also many organizations and funds out there that are dedicated to AAPI resources.”
Mi Li utilized Instagram and called on her 300,000 followers to donate to Hate is a Virus, a non-profit for dismantling racism and systemic issues. Last February, she matched the first $25,000 donated to the organization.
At present, the non-profit has raised $350,000 of donations used for fighting on the grounds of racial justice, supporting AAPI mental health programs, and protecting the elderly of the community.
As the entrepreneur actively advocates for mental health, she wants to amplify the message that it’s okay not to be okay. She advises those going through mental struggles to acknowledge their trials and then seek help, whether from a professional or a trusted loved one.
Mi Li plans to continue working on projects she’s passionate about, especially bringing more Asian representation on-screen. “I love true stories and narratives that have been lost or unheard of, so I want to continue working on projects that resonate with this,” she says.
She will continue to approach life as her 10-year-old self did when she first arrived in the states.
“I knew my end goal was to follow my heart and be happy. It was a very simple goal that I have always kept in mind as I got older,” she shares. “I plan to continue challenging and educating myself more every single day.”
Photos by RaenBadua (raenbadua.com / @raenbadua)
Styling by Dion “Bleu” Drake (@styledbybleu)
Makeup by Robert Bryan | ExclusiveArtists (@robertti @exclusiveartists)
Hair by Carolina Yasukawa | ExclusiveArtists (@yasulina @exclusiveartists)