Credit: ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Eight years ago, Kane Lim stepped gingerly onto a scale in his home in Los Angeles and was gutted by what he saw.

“I weighed a hundred kilograms. I knew I had to do something or I was going to die,” says the star of Netflix reality series Bling Empire (2021 to present).

But it was not until three years ago that the 32-year-old Singaporean – who has grappled with weight and self-esteem issues all his life – underwent a metamorphosis, thanks to Buddhism. “That was when I turned vegetarian and all my weight fell off,” he says.

This radical makeover, however, impacted Lim in more ways than one. It taught him compassion for himself and others, he says.

In person, he comes across as more grounded than what his Instagram feed or Bling Empire persona suggest. “Can you imagine if I was rich and good-looking?” he says with a laugh. “Oh my god, I’d be an a**hole.”

He is lounging at Happy Fish swim school in Bedok, seemingly oblivious to the stares he draws. His family recently invested in the school, which has 13 centres across Singapore and Malaysia.

Lim is happy to be home spending time with his parents, if only for two weeks over Chinese New Year.

“It’s so good to be home and wear as much bling as I want without fearing I will be kidnapped,” he says. “The United States has plenty of outlets for a creative person, but I might move back eventually. Singapore is still very dear to me. We take safety for granted here.”

After living a privileged existence in Singapore, he insisted on cutting his own path to LA in 2012 – first to study fashion and then to work as a property developer and realtor before “accidentally” finding fame on Bling Empire, a reality series chronicling the lives of a group of affluent Asians and Asian-Americans in the American city.

The show was released at a time when diversity and inclusion had become buzzwords. It became a hit, thanks to the shenanigans of the show’s characters, who would wave their ethnicity, identity and Hermes bags around like a flag.

Many Singaporeans who watched the series were intrigued by Lim: his family background, net worth and the size of his shoe wardrobe (the worth of which is estimated to be in the seven-figure range).

What they do not realise is that some of his shoes – including, most recently, a pair of Swarovski-studded boots by Italian label Santoni – are sponsored.

“My favourite pair of shoes is whichever brand pays me the most,” Lim quips.

He says his biggest splurge is not on shoes, but a house. “Together with a business partner, I bought a 100,000 sq ft home in Malibu for US$8.5 million (S$11.4 million) as an investment.”

In the first episode of the show, it was revealed that Lim’s family grew wealthy from shipping and real estate, among other business interests.

Other than saying that his father is retired, the eldest of three sons declines to reveal more or confirm rumours that he is related to OK Lim, founder of collapsed oil trading firm Hin Leong, who is now facing fraud charges.

“I try to keep my family out of the media because they never asked for any of this spotlight,” he says.

There is one story Lim never tires of sharing, though.

“I went to ACS International and all my schoolmates were chauffeured in Rolls-Royces. My father dropped me off at the bus stop so I could take the bus to school.

“My childhood was tough because my dad was very strict,” he continues. “He gave us the best education, but when it came to material things, he thought we should work for it. He and my mum would fly first class while we flew economy.”

Now that the sons have flown the coop, the Lim family stays connected and makes business decisions via WhatsApp.

His mother, he says, has one rule that all the men in the family have to abide by: to never invest in nightclubs, alcohol or gambling. Anything else is fair game.

“We fight a lot, over whether or not we’re investing in the right property or calling the right shots,” says Lim. “But in general, we like businesses that create a positive impact. Make money, but make good money, you know?”

He explains why the family invested in Happy Fish, a fast-growing indoor swim school. While most swimming schools here offer lessons to children aged five and above, Happy Fish has been teaching babies as young as four months old how to stay afloat.

“We are strategic business partners. We hope to reduce incidence of drowning among children,” says Lim.

According to a report by KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, there was an average of about 20 near-drowning cases involving children each year between 2011 and 2015, and 10 deaths within this five-year period.

Lim says his other recent investment was in Indonesian start-up Green Rebel, which is part of the plant-based eatery chain Burgreens. “I’ve seen brands like Impossible Foods rake in billions of dollars and I was wondering, where is the Asian representation?”

His family is still getting used to his meteoric rise to fame.

“My father never liked the idea of me sharing my life on social media, but now he understands that it’s a new form of currency,” Lim says, gleefully adding that he gets personal messages from singer Rihanna from time to time. (“She asked me when season two of Bling Empire was coming out.”)

With fame, however, comes a new set of dilemmas – namely, the pressure to look good for the camera.

Lim admits that he “might’ve gone overboard” with certain aesthetic treatments such as Botox and fillers.

“I think I’ve found a balance these days,” he says. “But, yes, my dad was asking why I’m chasing perfection. I think it stems from a place of insecurity and hurt.”

He promises that fans will see more of his “authentic self” in Bling Empire’s next season, slated to be released this year. Filming wrapped several weeks ago.

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions that people have about me is that I don’t work at all,” Lim says. “But I do work in real estate and I’m now part of the Oppenheim group, working alongside Chrishell.”

Chrishell Stause is a cast member and realtor from another of Netflix’s hit series, Selling Sunset. The show follows the lives of several agents of the Oppenheim Group, a high-end real estate brokerage in Los Angeles.

Lim also stresses that most Asians in LA lead lives that are tremendously different from his.

“A large percentage of the Asian diaspora is underpaid,” he says. “It’s only the top percentile that are successful and, as such, my friend and I founded a club called Society 1 two years ago, with the hopes of elevating the Asian community.”

Society 1 recently sponsored the Unforgettable Gala, a star-studded event celebrating Asian talent in entertainment.

But Lim believes in staying humble despite his rise to fame. “Hollywood can build you up and tear you down in an instant,” he declares.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.