All Hail The Penis Pump, The Unspoken Main Character Of ‘Bling Empire’

This weekend, Bling Empire, a glitzy, designer clothing-fueled reality TV show, premiered on Netflix. The show follows a group of (my brain: don’t say crazy rich, don’t say crazy rich, don’t say crazy rich) insanely wealthy Asian friends living in Los Angeles. They attend and throw lavish parties, spend more money on jewelry than I make in a year (at least, I assume — they are so rich they don’t even discuss prices), and fly on private jets. While the show actually does have plenty of heart and shows the cast going through difficult moments such as debating surrogacy, locating biological parents, and having children before marriage, Bling Empire’s arguably central conflict revolves around a penis pump, and for that, it deserves an Emmy.

Before analyzing this conflict, I must first explain the cast of characters involved. First is Anna, the older sort of matriarch of the group, and Bling Empire’s own Karen Huger. Though Anna would never be so gauche as to call herself the Grand Dame of Los Angeles, she’s probably thought it a few times and definitely would not object if you called her that. (You can just tell by the way she showers her friends with gifts.) Then there’s Kim, world-famous DJ. Not really central to the conflict but worth mentioning nonetheless is Kevin, the dopey but lovable (and supremely hot) model who is not wealthy and thinks Hermès starts with an E, much to the delight and condescension of his friends. Finally, we have Guy, who is just kind of there to help instigate.

Additionally, I must also explain what a penis pump is, because, based on the conversations I had with my straight female friends, it sounds like something that should be pretty self-explanatory, so it feels embarrassing to not actually know what it does. No shame here, because I had to look it up and then was asked why I was shopping for penis pumps when I opened up my phone to show my friend a meme. (Later on in the episode, cast member and socialite Christine Chiu feigns understanding of the mechanisms of the very same penis pump, so again, don’t be embarrassed.) Anyway, according to the Mayo Clinic, a penis pump is used to help get or maintain an erection. It’s a more temporary fix than, say, taking Viagra, and it cannot enlarge the penis.

So there we go! The drama starts when Anna invites the group over to her house for a spa day. We don’t find out until the massages start that they are not getting regular massages, but face massages — the kind popularized by the likes of Meghan Markle. Très chic.

While half the group are getting face massages, Kim decides that she wants to go sage Anna’s house. This is another subplot of the show: the supernatural. At one point, Cherie (former pop star and current baby mama to a guy who is dragging his feet about marrying her) hires Tyler Henry, the celebrity medium, to contact her mother from beyond the grave. Later on, the group meets with a Shaman over a bonfire. But for now, we start small, with Kim barging into Anna’s house under the guise of saging it, when in reality, she just wants to nose around.

She and Guy make a beeline for the bathroom (because, ya know, that’s where all the ghosts hang out), where Guy immediately notices Anna has a penis pump in her shower. (Guy knows because he has the same penis pump, but specifies he keeps it in his bedside drawer.) They both giggle so loudly that everyone getting massages in the yard can apparently hear. Guy and Kim laugh when they pick up the penis pump, grossed out that it’s wet, even though we just established that the penis pump is, in fact, in the shower.

Kim’s solution is not to do what most of us would, and put it back where it came from and pretend she never saw anything, but as she puts it, “throw it outside, that sh*t’s disgusting.” When Guy points out that throwing someone’s belongings out the window is rude, Kim replies, “that’s not rude, it’s disgusting,” adding, “That sh*t’s illegal.” Owning a penis pump is not, in fact, illegal. 

Guy, with his hand wrapped in a paper towel, picks up the penis pump (which is surprisingly big) and chucks it out the window. It lands on the lawn, and everyone immediately knows what it is, a fact that surprises me, since I would not have been able to identify that object under threat of execution.

Just as any of us would be, Anna is not pleased to see the penis pump land on the grass near her feet. She later tells the camera in an interview, “this is not a screw you situation, this is a f*ck you situation,” I guess because “screw you” is slightly less scathing of an insult than its expletive counterpart? In any case, she is pissed with a capital P.

This would all be a weird, likely producer-manufactured one-off event, if Kim would have apologized for doing something so obviously rude. Instead, she refuses to acknowledge that barging into someone’s bathroom and throwing their belongings out the window — even if Anna did later clarify to the LA Times that it was the guest bathroom, not hers — is objectively poor guest behavior, no matter whose house you’re in. She tries to shift the blame onto Guy, telling Anna, “I’m not the one who found that thing,” and insisting she’s not blaming Guy as she, in the same breath, continues to blame Guy.

The drama continues later in the episode at Kelly’s moon festival celebration, where Kim doubles down on her behavior. Kevin asks, “who raised you, wolves?” and Kim throws a drink on his outfit with not a single flicker of emotion crossing her face. She does it almost not as a reaction, but as an automatic response  — a pre-planned reflex that she was preparing to activate no matter what Kevin said. 

On other TV shows, throwing a drink in someone’s face would immediately spark an all-out brawl (any Bravo program comes to mind). But in Bling Empire, it only results in Kevin standing up from the table, muttering to Kim about sending her the dry cleaning bill (while the rest of them hem and haw over Kevin’s now-ruined outfit, which costs $100,000), and leaving the party.

And somehow, this penis pump plot that could have been quashed with one simple apology manages to pump out (pun intended) enough drama to fuel a significant portion of the show. Kim doesn’t even apologize to Anna until the end of the final episode! It is really the gift that keeps giving.

None of this is to say the show is not worth watching — on the contrary, I think everyone should binge it right now (so we can talk about it). It’s frivolous and fun, yet there is a lot of heaviness in the subplots (such as: Andrew’s displays of emotional abuse, Kevin and Kane’s decision to locate Kim’s biological father without asking her first, etc.). If this were The Real Housewives and there were three fewer cast members and 14 more episodes, I’m sure we would have spent a lot more time diving deep into the darker plot lines. But we don’t; we get as much designer name-dropping and sex toy squabbles as we get discussion of cultural taboos. And I’m cool with that! The show is called Bling Empire, and damn it, we get an empire of bling: attractive, shiny, not overly preoccupied with what’s going on underneath.

Perhaps pumping up the penis pumper was a deliberate choice by the cast, who seem savvy enough about how reality TV show production works, to intentionally avoid substantive conflict with each other. (Personally, if someone robbed me of my moment to find out for myself what happened to my biological parent because they wanted to play detective, I wouldn’t thank them, I’d have a hard time speaking to them again.) Or maybe it’s because without the penis pump disagreement, most of the cast seems to get along just fine, save Anna and Christine, who feud half-heartedly over owning the same necklace. Whatever the reason, the penis pump provided conflict, it provided laughs, and it provided education. And for that, I thank it. It, more than any cast member, deserves a contract renewal for season 2.

Images: Bling Empire Production; Netflix (2)

The Betches’ Travel Guide To Singapore & Vietnam

A lot of people have been asking if I could share my vacation itinerary from Singapore and Vietnam, and since I find myself awake at 2am with jet lag for the fifteenth night in a row, here it is. 

First of all, I would be lying if I said that Crazy Rich Asians didn’t have a strong influence on my desire to take this vacation. It turned out to be really nothing like the movie, but it ended up being great for many reasons: one is that I didn’t feel a need to wear makeup once, another that it’s perfectly acceptable—no, expected—to eat fried spring rolls for breakfast.

Our first two days were in Singapore, which overall felt like NYC with a slightly more collectivist attitude. We had a great time, but my main observation of Singapore is that I would definitely not describe it as authentic or chill. Much of the experience felt like a very faraway version of America or a real-life version of The Good Place (which is how a Betches fan described it to me over DM and I think she was absolutely right).

Vietnam was the complete opposite of that. If Singapore is a country built around tourism, Vietnam is building tourism around the country. There’s such a strong culture and wide variety of terrains and history that made it really incredible. The reason we chose it is because we were looking for somewhere in Southeast Asia that was developed enough to comfortably travel through but not yet ruined by Instagram (cough Thailand). 

For the Vietnam leg of our trip we used a company called Tonkin Travel, which I found on Trip Advisor and was honestly a bit shocked by how flawless its reviews were. While the trip definitely had some hiccups that you’ll read about, they weren’t really in the company’s control, and they seemed to do their best to rectify them. This is not an ad for them, but in general I would highly recommend using a travel agency to manage your trip, especially if you’re doing more than just stopping in Hanoi. We paid them a flat fee which included hotels, transportation and driver, tour guides and activities, and several meals.

Day 1: Land in Singapore

Flight lands around 7am. Check into the Marina Bay Sands Hotel.

A stay at the Marina Bay Sands is well worth it and was a highlight of Singapore for me. Before we arrived I was a little worried this wouldn’t be the case, as the sheer size and social media attention around it made me concerned it might be like a Vegas hotel or something similarly hyped and overpriced. The room rate wasn’t insane (a little under $400), the amenities and services were very good, and the rooftop infinity pool overlooking the city is not overrated. It was clean and not overcrowded at all, likely because you can’t get in unless you’re a guest of the hotel. Like most things in Singapore, this is a very *strict* pool, and they make every person scan their room key before entering and exiting. Prepare for a single iced coffee on the rooftop to run you about $9 (although it’s one of the better iced coffees I’ve had outside America). 

The hotel is also a massive hub of restaurants, nightclubs, and a shopping mall, and pretty much everything is an outpost of an American place. Clubs include Marquee, Lavo, Avenue, and the restaurants run the gamut from Black Tap to Spago, many of which are attached to celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Daniel Boulud. You get the idea.

In the afternoon we went to the Gardens by the Bay, which are conveniently attached to the Marina Bay Sands via a skybridge. This is where the wedding from Crazy Rich Asians was filmed, and features massive manmade “super trees”, which are less trees and more giant tree-like structures. It’s an indoor/outdoor space, and there are giant domes with floral installments and a huge indoor waterfall. We went to the Gardens both during the day and at night when it was all lit up, and they have a nightly 15-minute light show at 7:45 and 8:45pm. The show on the night we went happened to be sponsored by Toy Story 4, and that was the moment I realized that Singapore is Epcot.

We had dinner at Lau Pa Sat, one of Singapore’s famous hawker centers. This was the one that was recommended most to us. The hawker centers are basically giant food courts, named after all the people trying to hawk their food at you. They have a ton of stations with all different types of Asian foods. It’s a cheap meal and this was probably the most authentic-feeling aspect of Singapore. Just a warning that they charge you for toilet paper in the bathrooms, and there are no napkins at any of the food places, so BYON.

Day 2: Singapore

Spent the day at Tanjong Beach Club on Sentosa Island. Sentosa Island is an area of Singapore with manmade beaches and resorts, about 20 minutes from downtown Singapore. More Epcot vibes. According to Google, Tanjong seemed to be the most established beach club, and it was fine, but the beach definitely felt manmade. It was fun, but I wish we’d been there on a weekend when they have day parties. Email them to book a daybed in advance; it doesn’t cost anything but there’s a $50 minimum spend on food and drinks, which is basically impossible not to meet if you’re there for several hours. 

Dinner at Boat Quay, a strip on the water with bars and restaurants. This felt like a place that actual Singaporeans might go.

For night 2 we stayed at the Dorsett Singapore, near the Chinatown area. It was much cheaper than the MBS (around $150) and still p nice. 

Food to try: Kaya toast—a very thin toast sandwich with butter and kaya spread (coconut egg jam). You’ll like it, it’s sweet.

Day 3: Fly to Hanoi

Early flight to Hanoi (3.5 hours). Checked into La Siesta Central Hotel, which I could not recommend more. Their level of customer service and interest in us having a good experience was actually shocking. The breakfast was next level, and you could sign into Netflix on the room TVs.

Our tour guide took us around Hanoi to three historic sites: The Temple of Literature (a temple of Confucius from 1070), the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum (they are like really obsessed with Ho Chi Minh there), and the Temple of Jade on Hoàn Kiếm Lake (another Confucian temple in the middle of the lake in the Old Quarter). 

Dinner at Hungry Hanoi, a standard restaurant in the Old Quarter. Most places we ate were very similar to each other, but very good, and cost about the price of a Seamless order for one. 

If you’re there Friday through Sunday, the street around the lake becomes a walking street at night where people eat, shop, play music and games. I highly recommend taking advantage of the souvenirs in Hanoi, because they sell bags and earrings that would be anywhere from $50-$300 on Revolve, but cost like three dollars and literally look exactly the same. 

Food to try: Egg coffee. Sounds weird, but they somehow whip egg yolks and condensed milk into the coffee? It works.

Day 4: Ninh Bình Day Trip

We drove about two hours for a day trip to Ninh Binh, a province near Hanoi with a ton of cool sh*t to see. We went to three places, all a quick drive away from each other.

Hoa Lư: the ancient royal capital of Vietnam to visit two temples from the 10th century

Hang Múa: a 500 step hike with more amazing architecture and views

Tam Cốc-Bích Động: first we visited a three-story pagoda built into a mountain, then took a boat ride through cliffs, mountains, and caves 

Lunch at Spring Garden in Ninh Bình (guide brought us). Dinner at our hotel in Hanoi before leaving for the train station.

Day 5: Overnight Train To Sa Pa

The overnight train is called the Chapa Express and truthfully I’ve had worse experiences on the LIRR than this, which was surprisingly solid. Each cabin holds four people but you can buy out the empty spots for $33 per bed, which we did bc you know, serial killers. 

Our guide picked us up from the train, and then we made the first big mistake of our trip, which was driving two hours to go to a “local market.” It was apparently one of the bigger markets in Vietnam so I’d hoped to find more straw bags and Revolve jewelry, but it turned out to be more emphasis on “local” and less on “market.” It was basically where people come to buy actual necessities like clothes and food for the week. It was a good glimpse into real life, but personally I wished it didn’t involve driving two hours in the opposite direction. 

Drive to Topas Ecolodge in Sa Pa. OK I have no words to describe this place. It was, no exaggeration, the most beautiful, best place I’ve ever been in my life. It’s an ecolodge located in the middle of nowhere among rice paddies and mountains. Look at this f*cking place. 

We spent the afternoon getting drunk on pool food and taking photos of ourselves (every guest seemed to devote at least two hours to this process per day). Dinner at the lodge was a hot pot and glasses of alcohol.

Day 6: Sa Pa (Topas Ecolodge)

Another epic breakfast. Stayed at the pool all day. Got a massage that was so good I got another one immediately after. For dinner we signed up for the BBQ option thinking this would be like a bunch of grilled sh*t and all the guests mingling, but it ended up being a five course meal and wine pairing in a private gazebo that was just us and one other couple, where food was being cooked in an outdoor kitchen a few feet away. I was living.

Day 7: Sa Pa to Hanoi

I felt sick and didn’t go anywhere this morning, but my fiancé took a trip to hike the rice paddies to one of the local villages to chill with some actual Vietnamese people, the women of the Red Dao tribe. He said it was great. The lodge will organize all sorts of activities for you if you ask, but I chose to do nothing the entire time I was there.

Check out in the afternoon. Five hour drive to Hanoi. Dinner at Duong Restaurant aka more spring rolls and pho. 

Day 8: Travel to Cat Ba/Lan Ha Bay

Sooo on this day we were supposed to go to the coast of Vietnam and stay at a resort called Monkey Island. Unfortunately, as we were halfway there we got news that there was going to be a typhoon in the area and it would be dangerous to go. In the midst of that situation, the bus we were on fully broke down and we got stuck on a highway. This post is already insanely long so I’m gonna skip storytime. 

To give you an idea about Monkey Island, the trip that could have been: this is an all-inclusive resort on the beach in Lan Ha Bay. According to the original itinerary, we were supposed to go boating, see monkeys and chill on the beach. Amazing. 

That night our hotel was full so we stayed in the O’Gallery Classy Hotel. Don’t @ me on the hotel name, idk either. They also had great customer service and it was only slightly less good than our original hotel. 

Day 9: Hanoi Again

It was Forrest Gump level rain so we got 90 minute massages for $26 dollars (!!!) in the afternoon. By this point I’ve hit my pho limit, and we had dinner at French restaurant called La Badiane. This was some fine dining gastronomy sh*t and was seriously amazing.

Day 10: Fly Home

Leave for the 36 hour journey home. Rough end to an overall amazing trip. 

Images: Will Truettner / Unsplash; Sami Fishbein