The star of the new Netflix reality show "Bling Empire," Anna Shay, has had an astronomical rise to internet stardom, amassing a cult fan base.
But with all the conversation around Shay, the wealthiest of the affluent cast, little has been discussed about the origins of her millions.
On the show, the explanation is that her fortune comes "from weapons," as co-star Kane Lim said in one episode, saying that Shay's father "sells bombs, guns, defense technology — and it's worth, like, a few billion."
Shay is the daughter of Edward Shay, founder of the American defense and government services contractor Pacific Architects and Engineers, or PAE, who died in 1995. While the company's clients today include NASA and the U.N., in the 1960s and the 1970s, it provided cover for the Phoenix Program, a CIA-led operation to weed out undercover communist Viet Cong operatives and their sympathizers through a strategy that led to torture and, at times, killings of Vietnamese people and others, according to research reports. Many experts consider it one of the "ugliest aspects" of the Vietnam War.
"Somehow she can ... be in Beverly Hills and be living the good life, and no one raises questions about where that money came from," one expert said.
Shay did not respond to a request for comment. PAE declined to comment.
"How do we forget this history? And why do we not think about the source of funds?" asked Kimberly Kay Hoang, director of global studies at the University of Chicago, whose research delves into ultra-high-net-worth people who invest in risky markets. "Somehow she can ... be in Beverly Hills and be living the good life, and no one raises questions about where that money came from."
The company, which Shay's father launched in 1955, was reported to have been involved in the CIA-led counterinsurgency operation that aimed to target and infiltrate undercover communist operatives in South Vietnamese villages from 1968 to 1972. Research published by the University of Texas at Dallas details that the CIA hired PAE to build interrogation facilities in all of South Vietnam's 44 provinces in 1964.
"By providing cover to the CIA, the PAE, in constructing 44 interrogation sites, erected these extralegal spaces of U.S. violence and murder on foreign soil," Vietnam War scholar Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, an associate professor of U.S. and East Asian history at Columbia University said.
U.S. officials have routinely denied the more controversial aspects of the Phoenix Program. But many experts and those who witnessed the counterinsurgency effort have recounted the use of torture and killings, in which PAE did not have direct involvement, that "reflected the lack of concern that the United States had for the civil war aspect of the Vietnam War," said Nguyen.
William Colby, who eventually became head of the CIA, led the efforts and admitted in testimony before a House subcommittee in July 1971 that the program killed 20,587 Viet Cong suspects. Other sources report far higher figures.
Nguyen said operatives were to capture, interrogate or kill suspected enemy operatives. Elite counterterrorism teams, known as the Provincial Reconnaissance Units, consisted of South Vietnamese led by the CIA to "torture or kill with impunity," she said.
In another account of the operation, the late William R. Corson, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who returned from a tour in Vietnam as a vocal critic of what he saw there, wrote that there was little discernment between "'guilt' or 'innocence'" in the program's execution, which cost not only Vietnamese civilian lives but also those of American Marines.
"This was the logical fall out from the game of fake 'body counts' which were used by unscrupulous commanders to win medals and commendations," Corson wrote in "The Betrayal."
Hoang said the body count had become a dangerous fixation for the U.S.
"This is what I call reputation laundering. Rather than having the state do it, the state subcontracted out for someone else to do it. So if someone else does it, and they do dirty by it, it's on them. You created a firewall between the state and the outcome," one expert said.
"On the American side of the war, people were so obsessed with statistics and counting bodies and numbers of people who were killed. They were counting everybody, and they were basically just killing everyone," she said.
Nguyen said the program left an indelible scar on American history, saying the "Phoenix Program stands as the most emblematic and naked display of American power unchecked and unwarranted."
Although PAE does not explicitly detail its involvement in the Phoenix Program by name on its website, it does reveal that the company was awarded the first of 12 successive contracts during the Vietnam War in 1963. It became the first contractor in a combat zone to plan, design and construct facilities for the U.S. government, according to the site. The site also says that in 1968, it had 104 bases and camps and over 30,000 employees in Vietnam, establishing it as "one of the primary contractors developing engineering and logistics infrastructure."
Nguyen said, "It is a clear example of the privatization and outsourcing of American violence during the Cold War."
Hoang said that the privatization of such wartime activities means it is more difficult to keep the government accountable and that the activities of contractors like PAE may never be known. Through the Freedom of Information Act, government documentation can be requested and examined. But private contractors are not subject to FOIA requests.
"When private firms take these contracts, you can't legally ask the private firms to open up their documents, review emails, look at their strategies, look at their tactics," Hoang said. "This is what I call reputation laundering. Rather than having the state do it, the state subcontracted out for someone else to do it. So if someone else does it, and they do dirty by it, it's on them. You created a firewall between the state and the outcome."
While the company's ownership has changed hands since the Vietnam War, its decades-old business activities should not be forgotten, Hoang said. The family sold the company to Lockheed Martin in 2006 for $1.2 billion. It was most recently acquired by Gores Holdings III Inc.
Talking about the history is not about making a judgment about Shay's character, Hoang said. But it is concerning that neither the show nor the majority of conversations about it deal with the origins of her wealth, she said, even with a Vietnamese cast member on the show, Kim Lee. The absence of such questions in part erases the painful history, and Shay's and Lee's histories are likely to be connected in far deeper ways than they realize, Hoang said.
"It's astounding to me that that's never come up, that they don't talk about it. Somehow being in America erases a lot of that," Hoang said. "That history is only one generation off, and you forget. You forget."