How Kevin Kwan Gets Every Detail of the One Percent Exactly Right in His New Novel 'Sex and Vanity'

Marshall Heyman
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

From Town & Country

“It’s such a New York thing,” Kevin Kwan says. “You go to any cocktail party, and people name drop their schools within the first five minutes. It’s a way of connection, but it’s a portrait of a person in five words.”

It’s also a winking plot device in the author’s new novel, Sex and Vanity, an international upper-crust romp based in part on E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. Each time Kwan introduces a character in the novel, he provides her with an entire educational resume in parentheses, almost like a shorthand social register.

His heroine Lucie, for instance, is “92nd Street Y Nursery School/Brearley/Brown Class of ’16.” Her slightly overdramatic cousin Charlotte is “Rippowam/Miss Porter’s/Smith.” (Kwan himself, who was born in Singapore and moved to Texas when he was 11, gets the treatment in his author bio: “Far Eastern Kindergarten/ACS/Clear Lake High/UHCL/Parsons School of Design.”)

These school listings might be an arch way to give readers telling background on his characters—who we first meet on Capri, where a blockbuster wedding is about to take place, and latter follow through a series of romantic roadblocks to New York City and East Hampton—but they also serve to highlight part of what made Kwan, whose Crazy Rich Asians trilogy shot up the bestseller list and inspired the most profitable big-screen romantic comedy of its decade, such a success. Like Truman Capote or Dominick Dunne before him, Kwan seems to be writing from inside the rarefied rooms where his stories take place—and he doesn’t pull any punches.

“He’s such an observer and he gets it on every level, and I think it’s rare that people can get it on every level,” says Kwan’s friend Cornelia Guest, who turns up as a character (and voice of wisdom) in the third act of Sex and Vanity. They became friends when Guest praised Crazy Rich Asians on Twitter. “He and I love to watch people. We’ll be eating, and we’ll look up and clock the exact same thing. We’ll be mid-sentence and our forks will go down, and we’ll just watch.”

Jon M. Chu, who directed the Crazy Rich Asians movie and is currently working on a script for the sequel, says, “I think Kevin’s work has such a biting wit to it. It’s a commentary on wealth, on class, on human beings and our greedy nature, and he does it with such sugary delight. You really get a sense of this world that readers have never been to—that I haven’t been to—and he has fun with it. It’s very entertaining; it’s not just cerebral.”

Throughout Sex and Vanity, Kwan imbues his characters with a pitch-perfect taste for a certain brand of the high life. He knows who should be eating omelets at Babette’s on Newtown Lane and who’d order chicken salad at Round Swamp Farm because of his own familiarity with East Hampton. “I spent 22 summers out in the Hamptons,” he says, “I can drive in my sleep down those roads.” His familiarity with Capri, which he tries to visit every summer, is such that he can say with authority that when you need handmade sandals, the only place to go is Da Costanzo.

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The novel follows the young, precocious, and biracial Lucie Churchill from a wedding in Capri—where she unexpectedly falls for the dashing, wealthy, and sportif George Zao—to New York a few years later, when Lucie, now engaged to someone else, encounters George again in a fancy Amagansett yoga class. The story charts Forster’s classic in broad strokes—“At first, I tried to make it fit the roadmap to a tee,” Kwan says, “and then said fuck it”—but creates a nuanced world entirely its own.

Throughout Sex and Vanity, Kwan gives his cast of characters, including plenty of wonderful, nosy, gauche ancillary relatives, friends and acquaintances, some social-climbing arrivistes, some pure of heart, a distinct sense of belonging to the world the author so deftly chronicles. They know their Aquazzura from their Altuzarra (and have maybe even bought some Aquascutum on Net-a-Porter), and when weddings are being planned, they talk about coverage in, where else, Town & Country.

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Before moving with his parents to Houston, Texas, Kwan was brought up in Singapore with his paternal grandparents, inspired by the “quiet elegance in the way they carried on with their lives,” he told Hong Kong Tatler around the film release of Crazy Rich Asians. The Kwan clan is full of individuals with remarkable lives: his paternal grandfather was an ophthalmologist knighted by Queen Elizabeth II; his great-grandfather was a founding director of the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation; his maternal grandfather founded a Methodist church; his great uncle helped invent Tiger Balm; his cousin, Nancy Kwan, is a famous Hollywood actress.

In 1995, Kwan moved from Houston to Manhattan to attend the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. “I knew no one,” Kwan says today, but, “within two weeks I had made 30 friends, who are some of my best friends to this day.”


While studying photography, he started working as an intern at Interview magazine. Kwan, who spends more time in Los Angeles these days, remembers the mid 1990s in New York with great fondness. It was a time when “the velvet rope was much easier to access,” he says. “Like any person who adopts New York as a city, I was looking for adventure, and the city really accepted me.”

He hit it off with a colleague at Interview, who the discreet Kwan won’t name and will only describe as “classic East Coast,” and found himself a surrogate member of her extended family. “We were war buddies,” he says. “We were both abused together [as interns].”

Soon, he began moving in the circles that make up wealthy, social Manhattan. “I found myself in this world and really very comfortable and almost nurtured into it,” he says. Despite his Texan upbringing with a “cowboy fantasy life that my dad was constructing for us,” Kwan explains that he never felt like he didn’t belong in this New York sphere.

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His Interview friend’s relations “reminded me so much of my old establishment family in Singapore,” Kwan says. “Colonial Singapore values are exactly like Wasp society: the appreciation of wicker; the love of thrift; a snobbery to new money. It was so completely simpatico with me, and it just became part of my life.”

Kwan credits his own lack of social ambition with smoothing his entrée into such a world. “I was such an outsider that I was never a threat,” he says. “I didn’t have any social aspirations whatsoever. I don’t want to be photographed. I don’t want to be on any boards. I’m so far off the map.”

He loves travel and knows the right people to contact when he does. Anton San Diego, the editor in chief of Philippines Tatler, served as a guide when Kwan visited the country, and they’ve since remained in regular touch. It helps, says San Diego, that Kwan is “down to earth, very nice. I think he’s poking fun at us and our idiosyncrasies, but he’s not sarcastic.”

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Being offered windows into these rarefied worlds, Kwan has always known it would be a good idea to pay attention. “I would see in these experiences people who would try to cut into the circle. Some would be embraced, and some would be smacked down,” he says. “Every four years or so there’s a cycle of fresh meat in New York. They either survive and get some place, or they’re kicked out.”

That window into what it means to be an insider and what it means to be an outsider in the different strata of society informed Crazy Rich Asians (and its sequels, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems) as well as Sex and Vanity, which he says is the start of yet another trilogy. This series is an homage to international cities Kwan loves; each of the books will take place in a different destination—the next ones being London and Paris.

Kwan always wanted to write a novel. Crazy Rich Asians gestated out of conversations starting in 2008 with his sick father during drives to cancer treatment appointments. “Originally, it was a valentine to the country of my birth,” says Kwan. “I never expected it to even get published.”

But it did, with a glittery gold cover, his name and the title in huge, fuchsia letters. Mr. Kwan knows how to deliver guilty pleasures. He keeps the repartee nicely outrageous, the excess wretched and the details wickedly delectable,” Janet Maslin wrote in 2013, in the New York Times. Five years later, Kwan was on the Time 100, with an ode by Constance Wu, a star of the film. Still, Kwan says, “my extended family is completely unimpressed.”

Not everyone feels the same. "I love the wit and the satire in Kevin's writing," says Gemma Chan, who starred as the glamorous, troubled Astrid Young Teo in Crazy Rich Asians. "He has an awareness of the inherent absurdity of some of his characters and their lifestyles but he humanizes them as well as sends them up."

Kwan cites Tom Wolfe, Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt, and Dominick Dunne as several of his literary influences. “I’ve read every single thing he wrote,” Kwan says of Dunne, whose novels often featured thinly veiled versions of the New York and Los Angeles social set. “I was probably 14 years old when I read People Like Us,” Dunne’s 1988 novel about Upper East Side social climbers, “and I tend to reread it a lot, too.”

Kwan believes he has to experience a place in order to write about it. “I have no imagination,” he says. “I really feel like I’m an observer, and I re-filter what I see through the lens of fiction. I’ve been to a lot of crazy lunches at Doubles and I know plenty of hangouts in the Hamptons. Everything is intensely visual for me.”

Which may mean that Los Angeles—full of meditators, vitamin drips, luxury pot stores and alternative milks—winds up appearing more and more in his work. “I mean, we’ll see, right? At this point I’m still in the honeymoon phase,” he says. “Different eco-systems fascinate me. In many ways, L.A. reminds me of the New York I moved to. There’s still a raw grit.”

He has grown especially fond of the city’s unpretentious foodie culture. “I don’t sit eating caviar all day long,” Kwan says. Instead he appreciates low-key joints like Apple Pan in West Los Angeles, Bill’s in Van Nuys, and Phillippe’s for French dip, downtown.

“Several of my best friends in New York are in L.A. now. One by one they moved to Brooklyn and as they got priced out, most of them threw in the towel,” Kwan notes. He finds his L.A. crowd surprisingly un-Hollywood. “In many ways I still gravitate to a New York circle.”

The location shift has allowed him time to pursue Hollywood projects, besides the two Crazy Rich Asians sequels in development. Just before production shut down earlier this year, Kwan was about to start shooting a documentary series for Quibi about businesses owned by family dynasties. “I was going to go [with production to Europe] because a lot of these were personal friends and I was working as a producer,” Kwan says. “No one wants to see me talking on camera.” But that’s on hold for the moment, and Quibi is no longer involved.

He’s also been developing a one-hour-drama series—“Downton Abbey meets David Lynch,” he says—for a still-to-be-announced network. The production shutdown in Hollywood has “slowed down the process [of the show] but in a very positive way,” Kwan says. “We were able to be a little more deliberate and articulate without being on this rigid schedule. That’s more similar to my writing process as a novelist. Some days I write two chapters, some days I don’t write at all.”

With a novel, “I’m God and can create the world how I see it,” he says. Whereas with television, “I’m part of a team. I’m learning. I can see there are amazing screenwriters who are so much better than I am at coming up with ideas.”

And of course, he’s always paying attention to what’s going on around him. Even the title Sex and Vanity, Kwan says, came from something the son of a friend said to him. “We were talking at large about social media and his generation and he said, ‘At the end of the day, all that shit is sex and vanity and I want nothing to do with it,’” Kwan recalls. “I told him, ‘You’ve so distilled it, and that’s an amazing title for a novel.’”

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