I wasn’t going to write about TV again this week, I swear, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Anna Shay.

Anna Shay – ah, heart-capturing heiress, arguably the brightest star on Bling Empire, the latest shot-pre-pandemic reality show. On the cusp of 60, with a fashion aesthetic that’s grunge-meets-diamonds, and a personality that: (a) makes you wonder if her co-stars know how lucky they are to know her, and (b) offers an attractive snapshot of a way of being, even sans the diamonds, especially for those who rarely see role models and representations of unconventionality that aren’t stereotypical or overblown. Fate dealt Shay a very nice hand, in the form of material privilege, but there’s something so down-to-earth about her, and that’s what’s positively dazzling.

 Shay presents two very evident traits during this show, both of which invite admiration. The first is that she comes across as being wise, in myriad, mostly subtle ways that don’t register quickly on a reality show’s edit style but which create an effect over the course of the season. The second is that she is clearly a private person. We find out, when her misbehaving friends meddle through her personal belongings and play rude pranks, that her life is quite colourful; but she draws a curtain so that we don’t ever have details. We don’t know who her lovers are, and running an internet search even reveals that she has successfully kept the names of her four ex-husbands firmly offstage. That curtain-drawing is an art; she just quietly, semi-smilingly, does it somehow. She doesn’t mince words, and she doesn’t always have to use them. The effect is formidable.

There’s a third trait. She is kind. Shay is not given to ostentatious displays of charity like her self-declared nemesis Christine Chiu, who doesn’t appear to notice the irony of sponsoring orphans as a party favour while also holding on to regressive ideas about bloodlines and boy successors. Rather, the kindness comes through in the way she treats people in her orbit: whether that’s non-judgmentally advising a friend in a toxic romantic relationship, helping the odd one out feel more welcome, or accepting apologies graciously. At the same time, Shay doesn’t suffer fools gladly, one of the tell-tale markings of someone who lives authentically. No saccharine, no passive-aggression. Just good boundaries. She’s not bored enough to invest in drama, even when it’s all that’s being asked for.

Who knows why this highly self-contained individual opted for the exposure of mass-marketed reality TV. If neither money nor boredom were motivators, what could it have been? The impression one gets is that Anna Shay signed up for the experience, with an open mind and an unflappable sense of selfhood, knowing she would be baited, but that didn’t have to lose her cool. (Above all else, this woman is cool). The impression one gets, actually, is that she’s not that interested in impressing anyone. As a result of which we cannot help but be more than a little in awe. It’s an effect that almost never occurs any more in this entertainment format. We’re not laughing this time; we’re watching and learning.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 23rd 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.