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Club Scout

Behind the velvet ropes, Ashley Mears finds case studies in status and power.

Laura Barisonzi, used with permission.
Laura Barisonzi, used with permission.

From high-end parties on the French Riviera to Manhattan clubs where the average-looking are rejected at the door, sociologist Ashley Mears has observed the games of status that play out in the world of VIPs and picked the brains of club owners, clients, and the promoters who recruit the scene’s truly indispensable participants: the “girls.” These young women, many of them models, dutifully fill up club tables and socialize with clients in return for drinks, favors, and fun. For her new book, Very Important People, Mears became one of the “girls,” donning heels and riding along with promoters in exchange for access.

What is the appeal of exclusive places?

An exclusive club is designed to stroke the ego and make you feel better than other people. In some clubs the VIP section is roped off and literally elevated, so it’s clearly about producing that feeling. It’s drug-like in that sense. My first book was about the fashion modeling industry as a labor market, which I researched as a participant and observer. It was a weird experience, because I saw it as deeply disadvantageous as a career, and yet there was something so compelling about it that I considered quitting my Ph.D. program and trying to become a top model.

What drew you to these realms as subjects of study?

I was a model in Atlanta before graduate school, so I came into academia imprinted with questions about how these worlds operate. During my fieldwork, I would go to castings and meet promoters. They always get a girl’s phone number and send text invitations to social events. Eight or nine years later, I was still getting text messages like, “Oi baby, come for a sushi dinner.” Finally I wrote back. It was around the time of the economic crisis, and I was fascinated that people could still be wasting big sums of money in very public ways.

What message do men who spend thousands on champagne intend to send?

One told me that it’s just about naming yourself as the top dog in the room. There are several ways to signal your wealth and status. It could be with your shoes or your watch. It could be with your entourage. But the easiest way may be to pay for the most expensive table and buy the most expensive bottle. Staff come out in a procession, and the bottle is lit with sparklers: It’s a very clear case of conspicuous consumption.

How does such spending echo earlier practices?

In the potlatches of the Pacific Northwest, tribal leaders would gather together for ritual feasts and essentially compete to see who could waste more of their fortunes—burning blankets or breaking canoes or throwing heirloom copper plates into the sea. But they were also lavishing a bunch of food on others, knowing that guests couldn’t repay it. It showed that other people were not as wealthy. Captains of industry and hedge fund managers do these same kinds of things today.

One woman you spoke to compared a client spend-off to an “antler fight.”

Everybody talks about it with disdain—they know it’s tacky or vulgar. But the clubs are so good at facilitating it. It speaks to the power of situations to redefine what’s normal. When the bottles start coming out with fireworks, it feels great to be a part of the show.

Some male clubgoers said the fashion model look differs from what they find attractive. How do you interpret that?

There’s an agreed-upon meaning of the fashion model as being valuable and elite. Even men who don’t “get” the look of high-fashion models will go out of their way to befriend them, flirt with them, or have sexual relationships with them in order to tap into that meaning. We associate good-looking people with higher status and higher intelligence—the halo effect. When you add to that a kind of rarified beauty that’s been legitimated by the modeling industry, then a model has the ability to elevate the status of everybody around her. That’s what people are going for.

Do you define what the “girls” do as labor?

You see a lot of free labor now, people working for prestige or visibility—entrepreneurs, people in fashion, media, and tech. It becomes harder, I think, to see labor as labor. What girls do in the VIP world is obviously labor if you define it as time and energy that adds to profit. They generate value for promoters, clubs, and clients, who are able to forge business ties. The girls get paid in some champagne and fun.

Has your perspective on aging changed since your time in the clubs?

When I worked at an agency for my first book, I was 23, but they advised me to say that I was 18. That was demoralizing. But I feel more personally offended now, because I can see that I’m no longer welcome in these spaces. I’m almost 40 and would read as too old to be at a promoter’s table. It’s become less of an abstract critique: Bodily capital is really valuable, and it’s a steep penalty for women when they start to lose it.