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For a few years in the early 2010s, sociologist Ashley Mears hopped in and out of cabs, drank Champagne, and flew around the world, chronicling the excesses of the VIP party scene. Her new book, Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, is a careful ethnography of the little social ecology that makes the “models and bottles” world tick.
Promoters—young men paid to source models to bring to clubs by club owners who hope elite clients will be inspired by the “heat” of the scene to compete over how much money they can spend on alcohol—came to form the backbone of Mears’ story. We spoke recently about the scene’s status as a strange artifact of the 21st century Gilded Age: the stringent standards for female beauty; the emotional work that’s done by promoters looking to get “girls” to show up for parties; and the occasional difficulty of being a slightly older ethnographer who’s trying to stay awake to see what happens at 2 a.m. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rebecca Onion: I wonder if being an academic writing a book, rather than a reporter looking for a story, might have helped you get the kind of long-term, in-depth access you got to this scene. This is a world lots of us will never see.
Ashley Mears: Well, honestly? I was 32 when I was doing this research, and could pass for a lot younger, and I used to model when I was younger, and knew some of these promoters from the time that I was modeling. So they saw me first as an asset, because their job is to bring good-looking women—they’d call them “girls”—out to these places. I look like the kind of girl that could serve them well.
And they’re always needing girls to come out with them; they are constantly worrying that they don’t have enough girls. So if they can find a girl who’s “loyal”—somebody who comes out regularly—that’s great for them. They’re usually working really hard to find those people. So the fact that I was like, Hi, I’m here, I’ll wear my high heels to the club, and I’d like to ask you some questions, they were like, OK, sure!
If I were a man trying to do this research, I think it would be possible to build connections, if in some way they could see that person as valuable to them—someone who’s charming or good at hanging out with the girls or had connections they might see as valuable. But for sure, the thing that would absolutely get the door slammed in my face would be if I were a woman and not what they deemed good looking—a larger woman, for sure—I would not be able to do this project.
In some sense, the people I met were flattered by my academic interest. Some of the clients seemed to enjoy talking to me, to find out that one of the “girls” at the club was a professor at a university writing about how the economy of these places works. A lot of them had questioned it themselves and had interesting things they wanted to know about. But also, really, the bar is so low for women—the expectations for the kinds of conversations women might have with men in those spaces are so low—it wasn’t hard to impress them a little.
How did your understanding of this scene change over time, from when you were a younger model through now?
I started modeling when I was quite young, about 18. I mean, that’s not young in model years! But yes. I grew up in Atlanta, and in between going to school I would go to cities where models work. So I went to Milan at one point, and the agency paid for the plane ticket, and arranged everything, and said, We’ll send a driver to pick you up at the airport. When I got off the plane, this very nice young Italian guy got me a coffee, took my bag, got me to the model apartment. I thought he worked for the agency, but I learned after a couple of weeks, he worked for a nightclub!
So that’s how I first understood this close connection between modeling and nightlife. I think most models kind of come to understand that everywhere they go, this stage is set for them to eat and drink for free with a promoter, and the promoters will make money off of them. People in fashion know this.
I got to know some of the promoters in New York and kept in touch a bit. Until I decided to do this research formally as part of my academic work, started following them and systematically documenting the work they do, I didn’t realize all the different layers to the economy. All these practices the promoters engaged in to try to get the girls to come out with them.
It was also surprising to find out how promoters, who often didn’t come from much money, used girls to advance what they imagined to be their own projects of climbing up into the elite, which always seemed like it was not fully really going to happen! The promoters are dreaming of making it big in business; the girls are dreaming of making it big in the fashion industry … and the whole thing is this globally interconnected tribe of upper-class, leisure-class people, hopping from one place to the next. I was really surprised when I took a trip to Miami with a promoter, to see some of the same clients I would see in New York, and a bunch of girls are the same, the DJs are the same. … Just this highly mobile tribe of people.
When I first started researching this, it was the moment of recovery from the Great Recession, and Occupy Wall Street was huge all over the world; there was a big discussion about economic inequality. And at the same time I was seeing these reports of bankers blowing their bonuses in clubs. I was floored that this was happening in this time of economic austerity. When I first started going out with the one promoter I call Dre in the book, I was just feeling out—what is this world, do people really spend this amount of money, and what are the conditions under which people can be really ostentatious? Everybody thinks of this as kind of vulgar, tacky, yet they do it with such fanfare. Let go of all common sense and restraint; act, in their own words, “ridiculous.”
The promoters were a great entry point because they were getting the girls to the clients, and the clients to the club. You can see how the whole field is coming together through them. And how they are treating the girls like a kind of capital—an asset. Even in their pronouns, they’d talk about “my girls,” going through the city and accumulating them. They’re trying to mobilize them to come out, so they can profit off of them. It’s exploitative in the sense that the girls can’t do the same amongst themselves. Right? Nobody wants to hire girls directly. It has to look spontaneous, or it feels too close to sex work.
Right, you write that not even the girls want to get paid for it directly.
Right! I said at one point, Maybe we could do it ourselves. What if we all showed up at the club and asked for $100, instead of the promoter getting $1,000? But the girls were like, No! They definitely didn’t like that idea; it felt like they were too close to sex workers.
To them, there’s a difference between profiting off of beauty and profiting off of sex.
Exactly. Like, in these clubs, the “bottle girls” represented sex. Everyone assumes that she’s for hire, sexually available. Whereas the models are not perceived that way.
You write that it’s significant that the models are mostly white, and the bottle girls—not necessarily.
Yes, this is from my observations. I mean, the fashion industry has kind of a blatant preference for whiteness. If a promoter brought one girl to a table, and she’s black, and a working model, that’s one thing, that’d be fine. But not, like, a whole table full of black models, whereas a whole table of white models would be normal, fine.
Older women who might be trying to do business aren’t there, either, right. It’s a boys’ club.
Right. It’s one of many sites that can be used for businessmen to bond together. People who are brokers, do financial services, take clients out, share the experience; sales teams go out to these spaces. Some of the men I spoke with had stories of trying to go to places that had very strict door policies when it comes to the way women look, and having very uncomfortable moments when they knew that a woman colleague who was coming with them wouldn’t make the cut, if she wasn’t a certain height or weight or age. And she might be subject to a very humiliating negotiation.
Women who don’t get into these spaces are shut out of this world. In the same way that the strip club is one of many hurdles that women in business need to overcome. … This is a version of that.
I was interested in what you wrote about the excess of girls at these clubs. The importance of the gender ratio—the idea that the clients need to feel like there are a lot, a lot more girls in the space than there are men. You point out it’s not like the clients at these clubs are even having sex with, or even talking to, all these girls.
Yes, that’s right! The idea is, you surround yourself with 20 models; you are sending the message I can’t possibly have sex with all these women. I have so many, I can “waste” some. That’s the thing about excess. It’s essential to the ostentation. It shows that you can waste things that are rare and valuable.
The music is so loud, and the interactions between clients and girls are often pretty limited anyway; maybe they talk for a second, like What’s your name, where are you from? Of course, some people get drunk and hook up, but it’s not the main thing. One woman could satisfy that; you don’t need 20.
It seems so weird to be one of those girls. Extremely boring, almost, to just stand there in your heels and be looked at! Though, as I’m saying it, I realize if you’re a model, that’s what you’re doing in your professional life. The way you look is your reason to be there.
Yes, and if you’re 19 or 20, it’s also sort of an ego stroke. Even if you’re trained in feminist and sociological thought, it can be an ego stroke to know that you got in, you fit into the upper ranks of the hierarchy; you get to dominate.
This space isn’t really about privilege; it’s about domination. It’s men who have money who want to show that they have more than any other person, and there are all these rituals to help them show it. They get to show that they have mastery over women’s bodies, because they have so many around them. But for the girls also, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate some kind of domination. They got in! Somebody else didn’t. One woman I interviewed put it really well. She said, I know I sound silly, but you do kind of get to pretend you’re one of the elite, getting into this space. There is a pleasure in that.
And there’s alcohol, and everybody knows each other at the table, and the promoters are super charming guys, who are flirting with the girls, sleeping with them, hanging out with them during the day—constantly going to the movies, going bowling, going to lunch, driving them around to their castings. They’re building up an economy of favors, so the girl feels like she needs to “support” him by coming out. To be “loyal” to their friend. But the guy has deliberately cultivated a sense of loyalty, because he’s making money off of them.
Honestly, this research sounds exhausting to me—physically, emotionally. Was it exhausting?
It was a little intense. I got a fellowship from my job in Boston, so I could be bought out of teaching, and I moved back to New York, to Williamsburg, and rented a tiny little apartment that was really close to the L train, so I could go straight to the Meatpacking District.
There are different ways to do ethnography, and I didn’t have to go quite full on like that, but it did get me access to see exactly how the night unfolds and flows. Fun is an interesting thing. The nightclub is in the business of trying to produce what can be really exhilarating moments, where with the music and the lights and the confetti, everything can be really beautiful. Promoters, if they’re really good, can pull that energy out of the crowd.
But of course, that can’t last. It’s not every minute over the course of three hours, really. And some nights it happens; some nights, everyone is on their phones all night. Girls are completely checked out, falling asleep on each other’s shoulders.
If you’re 18 or 20 and really like the music, there’s a lot of buzz and fun to be had. But I was past that point in my life; I was 31 or 32. It was very hard to stay out as late as the promoters, and those heels are high.
By Ashley Mears. Princeton University Press.