“Models and Bottles” Clubs’ Extravagance and Exploitation

Ashley Mears

We know the rich are getting richer, but what exactly are they doing with all those riches? Sociologist Ashley Mears examined one site of elite consumption: the world of VIP clubs and its rituals of garish waste and exploitation of women.

A model walks the runway at the Dom Nightclub during 2024 New York Fashion Week on February 8, 2024, in New York City. (John Lamparski / Getty Images)

Interview by
Micah Uetricht

Much of the discussion of the massive economic inequality that characterizes American society in the twenty-first century stays in the realm of abstract, bloodless statistics. We don’t often get much of a sense of the texture of life for capitalism’s winners, nor of the variety of little-understood forms of labor that make those super high-end lifestyles possible.

Sociologist Ashley Mears’s book, Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, gives us some of that texture through a fascinating — often disturbing — examination of the garish world of the global, ultrarich party circuit. Mears is a former model and the author of a previous book, Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, on labor conditions for models. Through contacts that she made writing that first book, she joined the club promoters and models (“girls” in promoters’ parlance) who serve as something like human set pieces for the dream worlds of the superrich.

She chronicles the carefully choreographed displays of waste, such as bottle service and dance floor champagne wars, and unpacks the complicated and rigid social hierarchies that undergird them. It’s a book about the cascading effects that their bottomless appetites for extravagance have on industries and on the entire society beyond these clubs. While growing millions of Americans struggle to survive stagnant wages and ever-rising costs of living, this parallel universe of the ultrarich is characterized by a kind of luxury consumption arms race growing ever more wasteful and ever more self-indulgent.

Mears spoke to Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht for a guest-hosted January episode of Jacobin Radio’s podcast the Dig. You can listen to the episode here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Micah Uetricht

What is this world that you described and participated in? And who are the kinds of players that make up this world of “very important people”?

Ashley Mears

It’s a little bit of a sarcastic title because it’s about a space of nightclubs that are for VIP. So I went into VIP nightclubs in New York, where I had done my sociology PhD. I had always been a little fascinated by what I saw in the Meatpacking District, and so I undertook about a year and a half ethnography of going into these spaces and then following what I discovered was really a VIP nightlife circuit — and I followed it from New York to the Hamptons in the summer, to Miami during the Electronic Music Festival all the way to the French Riviera.

The larger project interrogates the construction of status and all of the invisible labor that goes into making these spaces look like a space for so-called very important people. The main actors that put it all together are the rich men — it’s almost always men who are buying bottles at hugely inflated prices in these clubs. They’re also taking out yachts and renting mansions and kind of making a big display of their wealth.

And part of what makes their status most visible is the presence of very beautiful women. But it’s beauty defined in very narrow terms of what the fashion modeling industry prescribes as beautiful, which is tall, thin, and disproportionately — but not exclusively — young, white women. And then the people that bring them together are the nightclubs, specifically these people who are called “party promoters” or “image hosts,” who are hired by the club to find these kinds of women, mobilize them to get them to come out night after night, and then also to build relationships with the clientele and make the party happen.

I should tell you a little bit about the methodology. So when I was at [New York University] studying sociology, I was working at the time as a fashion model for my dissertation, which was about the labor economics of the modeling industry. And I did that work in New York, but also in London. And what I found from going to the castings during that project was that there’s a bunch of men who work for nightclubs that are also hanging out at castings, and they make it their job to befriend models, build relationships with models, and then bring those models out for a “free” night.

And I’m putting free in quotes here because there’s no such thing as a free gift, you know. Basically, when I finished my dissertation and it became a book called Pricing Beauty, I got my job in Boston. I was working toward tenure here, but I kept getting text messages from these promoters that had met me at the castings and they kept inviting me to come back out. I wasn’t sure what I would study for my next big ethnographic project, but at the time, it was in the wake of the economic crisis and Occupy Wall Street. So there was an extremely uneven recovery and it became very clear that the people who rebounded back most quickly from the Great Recession were the economic elites.

And I was reading these reports of oligarchs going to nightclubs in London and outspending each other on thousands of dollars of Cristal champagne. And I kept getting these messages from the promoters who were like, “Do you want to come to the Hamptons this weekend?” And so I just replied one day, “Yes, I want to come to the party.” I wanted to see what’s going on. And I really wanted to understand how this level of ostentation and conspicuous consumption was still possible, and what were the meanings and values that were circulating among the economic elite who are notoriously really hard to study, especially for a qualitative researcher like myself.

I’m an ethnographer and that means I try to get as close as possible to the lives and everyday reality of the people I want to study. Economic elites, of course, have walls up — they have privacy and lawyers. And so I found this sort of back door of getting in with the promoters who are servicing the elite and constructing this VIP global circuit for them.

What I did to get close to the promoters was I used what we might call my own “bodily capital.” I couldn’t spend my way into the circuit as a sociology professor, obviously. But at the time I was thirty-one and I could still kind of pass for a fashion model, which was my background before I got into academia. I modeled and that’s why I had this interest in doing my dissertation on the labor economics of the modeling industry.

So I put on my high heels and my party clothes and I went back out and became what promoters would refer to as “a girl,” which is a woman who goes out and adds value to the space by embodying that kind of beauty that everybody can recognize as high status. So I had a short window of opportunity, I think, to get in and do the project.

Micah Uetricht

I was fascinated by what your book says about how increasing economic inequality means a small group at the top have seemingly endless resources, to engage in ritualistic displays of their power. They can project their wealth and their values to the people who are watching these rituals, this orgy of consumption. We don’t often get this kind of insider’s view of what this slice of the global ultrawealthy are choosing to do with their wealth.

Ashley Mears

That really sums up the larger motivation that I had in the project and what I had hoped to convey, because it’s always a problem when you do an ethnography of a case, especially the cases that I’m drawn to. They look like frivolous things, right? Fashion and beauty and consumption. I mean, these are very marginal topics in sociology, which is largely interested in understanding production and industrial relations and, more essentially, the worlds of men. My topic seems frivolous, but it has really serious implications.

You might not have understood that this world really existed, but in pop culture it really plays an outsize role because of the visibility on Instagram and in rap lyrics. Our media is saturated with these ideas of status being generated through conspicuous consumption. But it’s not just about showing that you have some money. It increasingly gets ratcheted up when you have huge pools of wealth that are buying not just art but extremely expensive contemporary artworks. And not just a yacht, but a superyacht. With increasing concentrations of wealth there’s ever-ballooning means of displaying it.

The VIP club world is just one of many examples of an ostentation environment that constructs an aspirational world of luxury consumption. It all gets pulled upward when you start to understand: “Why would you go to a regular club when other people are going to the very exclusive club,” and “Why would you go to the very exclusive club when other people are going to the very exclusive super yacht that’s in the French Riviera?” It pulls the field of possibility ever farther against this long tail of inequality.

Micah Uetricht

You write in the closing chapter that you analyzed

the VIP party circuit as a transnational stage for the display of luxury consumption, in which status connections and economic value accrue to the new global elite. To understand status dynamics among the upper echelons of an unequal class structure, we must come to grips with the social significance of their consumption. Hardly a fringe phenomenon, the VIP circuit demonstrates a historically significant moment, a form of status acquisition made possible by the conditions of twenty-first-century capitalism.

Ashley Mears

It’s made possible by the conditions now, particularly the availability of being globally mobile and being able to broadcast one’s position through things like social media. The stage is bigger than ever before, but it also has a historical lineage. When I was thinking through what it actually means that somebody would go to a club, assemble ten or twenty fashion models around them, buy as many bottles of high-priced Cristal champagne and not even drink it but like gift it or shake it and spray it in the ritualistic champagne showers that I saw — What is this form of behavior?

It led me to think first through the concept of “conspicuous consumption,” which the economist Thorstein Veblen had written about at the turn of the century when he was documenting the new industrialists of America who were finding ever more creative and outlandish ways to display their status in their games of one-upmanship. So that’s about how showing your status is bigger than somebody else’s status through consumption.

But that line of thinking that Veblen was working on also had a lineage. When we think about the consumption rituals that anthropologist Franz Boas was documenting among Pacific Northwest tribal societies and what became called “the potlatch,” it was documented as a form of ritual squandering in which a tribal elder would gather people together and show off how much he had by how much he could waste.

They weren’t the sort of exuberant events that I was finding and they really did matter for solidifying ranks. So they had serious consequences and they could leave people with a serious sense of shame if they were outdone. So the metaphor doesn’t align perfectly, but it does help us think about this quest for status through waste and consumption as a kind of means to assert one’s position in a competitive spirit. I took that notion of potlatch and I started to kind of see it in this VIP clubbing arena.

Not every night is a champagne shower with “the whales” — meaning the really big spenders, the people that will spend upward of twenty, fifty, or even a hundred thousand dollars in a single night. It’s a term that comes from casinos and finance — people that make really big splashes with money. And so when whales come through, everybody gets very excited and they make sure that they have the very best supplies of champagne and the very best supplies of beautiful women.

The hope is that people will spend a lot of money and then the club can capture that. And they really were exuberant. The bottles come out with sparklers, these little fireworks that burn in the club. It’s a very, very clear effort to be conspicuous. So you very much draw the eyes in order to show who’s spending. But it’s also about what the models are expected to wear — in most cases, very tall high heels — very uncomfortable high heels I should add, like four inches tall. This means models, who are already starting at five foot nine or five foot ten inches tall barefoot, are now towering in the club. That also draws the eye. Everything is meant to showcase who these people are who have the most.

That’s an effort to transform economic power into symbolic prestige. We see this in many other forms — not just consumption of material goods like in the art market but you could think of philanthropy as a similar effort to convert money into status. It’s new, but it’s also quite old.

Sociology of Decadence

Micah Uetricht

Your book is a work of academic sociology. You’re providing an ethnographic description of what this world looks like without any moral judgements. But for me, as a reader who came to it with moral and political commitments, at times in the book, I was thinking it’s all indicative of a society in a kind of terminal decadent phase. History is not going to look kindly on these people who engaged in these kinds of ritualistically wasteful consumption at this historical moment. Parts of it were tough to read on a moral level.

Ashley Mears

I’ve heard that. People who’ve read my book have described it all as disgusting and say they read it with a certain kind of horror. But I really did want to be fair to the people that I researched because I approached it not with moral outrage, but really with curiosity. As in, how is this possible? And what’s the logic that sustains this world?

I will say that when I interviewed the spenders, the clients who were buying bottles, I would recruit them either through promoters or through other networks. We might go to dinner beforehand with a promoter, or I would just be standing next to them in the club. The music is very loud, and the lights are low. It’s not conducive for good conversation, but I would get their contact information and ask to follow up. And I’d explain that I’m a writer and I’m interested about nightlife and am really curious to know what they think of all of this.

Then when we did interviews, it would be in a quiet coffee shop or it would be at their office, let’s say. And in interviews, these rich people would describe their own spending as quite measured, even modest by comparison. They would always put it in a comparative perspective, like they’re not the worst spender, they’re not the biggest whale. Or they would describe their current consumption levels in reference to their former self. Like “I did this when I was young, but now I’m mature and I know better.” I wouldn’t say they share this outrage about that world, but they do feel a moral unease with spending. I think that that’s because everybody knows that ostentation violates a basic middle-class and very widespread norm of how to be disinterested.

But furthermore, status is a sensitive good. It’s not something that you can buy easily, because the moment that you do, you lose status. You’re seen as like a status-seeking kind of person and therefore shallow and inauthentic. And everybody embraces this discourse of authenticity now. So they would often talk about their logic of wanting to be a part of the scene in relation to their work lives, especially for people in tech or people in banking, also in real estate and other forms of financial services. They would talk about being in the VIP space as a way to meet other VIPs like themselves with whom they could do business. For them, there are many opportunities to enrich their social networks if they’re in these kinds of spaces.

Some of the clients that I interviewed would also talk about the importance of being in a VIP club for them to bond with other people in their office, let’s say, or they would see it as a sort of efficient means to go out, especially for people who are working sixty hours a week or more in finance. They don’t have an abundant amount of time to meet women themselves or to assemble a party themselves that they would want to be at. But the VIP club is kind of organized in a way that they can just go and share the tab — ten-grand split between five bankers becomes much more reasonable in their minds.

So on the whole, in those quiet moments of interviews, I could capture how rich people themselves are quite uneasy with this form of consumption. They saw themselves as deserving of these occasional breaks because everybody knows that spending on this scale is not deserving. It’s the “bad rich” behavior and they wanted to distance themselves from that. This is the benefit as a qualitative researcher of combining interviews with ethnography because in the moment people can act really outrageous and kind of revel in it.

So when the champagne bottles are coming out, these discourses of “I’m a moderate spender,” or “You know, I’m not that undeserving, kind of wasteful person you might think” — all of that goes out the window. And that’s because the club is really good at suspending rationality and creating a different world in which the value really is being seen and outdoing other rich people and creating a pleasure in that waste. And when it goes well, a club is very good at orchestrating it.

Micah Uetricht

You have these very in-depth descriptions of the physical layouts of the club. When two big spenders come to a club, for example, they seat them in a particular way so that they’re not near the bar because that’s where “the filler” or “the civilians” are going to buy their drinks. It’s a very rigid social hierarchy within the club space itself.

Ashley Mears

Yesh, so they’ll put the two whales, or the big spenders, kind of opposite each other, close to the DJ. Cause that’s the focal point of the action. They’ll move the table where the promoters have brought all of these beautiful girls. They might be sitting at a table on the left, but they’ll move them to the right to be closer to the big spender on the assumption that more models and more bottles will be sold. It’s a well-planned architecture in this space that enables the whole show such that if you were an outsider and you walked in, you might think that it looks spontaneous, as if it just so happens that there’s so many very good looking and very wealthy people assembled like this. That’s very clearly demarcated in gender lines as well. And you would think it sort of happens spontaneously. But it’s very highly orchestrated.

Micah Uetricht

When you describe your interviews with these wealthy clients, it made me think of the sociologist Rachel Sherman, whose book Uneasy Street is about the lives of very wealthy people in New York City.

In that book, she discusses how many of her interviewees relativize their wealth. These are the 1 percent or even the 0.1 percent. They are able to sleep at night by saying, “Well, yes, I’m very wealthy. But at least I’m not like that person over there. They are truly wealthy and engaging in truly conspicuous displays of consumption and wasteful forms of consumption.”

So there’s some cognitive dissonance in these people’s minds. On the other hand, there is a kind of rational economic sense for some of these clients, right? At one point in the book, you discuss somebody who says, yes, I went out to the club, but I secured this huge business deal there. It was an investment with this client of X which resulted in a deal with X times five. And X times five couldn’t have happened if we hadn’t forged this relationship at the club.

Ashley Mears

This is also a double-edged sword because for a lot of people who are going out into the club and spending in ways that are perceived as reckless, nobody would want to do business with them. And this is why you see generally it’s younger men who are buying bottles. You generally don’t see men in their fifties or sixties dropping tabs like this, unless they’re like recent divorcees and they’re out for a wild one-off. But on the whole, it’s younger people.

I’m reminded of “The Rich Kids of Instagram.” It curates the most ostentatious and offensive pictures of young people wasting money in extremely creative ways. My colleagues Bruno Cousin, Sebastian Chauvin, and I created a database in which we document the different forms of conspicuous consumption. We documented dozens of different ways of wasting champagne — pouring it in your dog’s bowl, pouring it in your bubble bath, drinking it underwater, etc. It’s all behavior that would come with certain risks and liabilities for older elites who have more responsibility and are assumed to not be spending in ways that are seen as reckless.

The rich clients that I spoke with would often talk about the importance of spending in relation to their work lives. Like, yeah, I spent money at the club, I know it looks bad, but I got a business deal out of it. But it’s really hard as an ethnographer to actually follow that through and try to examine what really are the institutional ties and consequences for elites that participate in this scene?

What I captured is rather an interesting discourse about how important it was for them to show that they are serious as workers. That’s because they know that it looks really bad to be consuming in these ways. They are in some ways spending on a level that is on par with the dominant critical discourse of the undeserving poor, who are seen as not working for their money, getting welfare from the government, and spending on irresponsible things. The discourse of the undeserving poor gets brought up time and again.

Wealthy people are also aware of multiple forms of stigma on wealth itself. We know from social science data that both rich and poor people alike tend to describe themselves as closer to the middle than they really are. Everybody wants to seem middle class in America and to not be the outliers. And who would be the undeserving wealthy? Somebody who didn’t earn their money, who’s not working hard. They inherited their money or they’re entitled, they’re spending badly. So what I captured in the interviews was an effort for the rich to show themselves on an appropriate moral or symbolic divide of being a good wealthy person, even though they were engaging in pretty tacky behavior.

Micah Uetricht

I don’t know how indicative he is of all of the wealthy clients that you interviewed, but I have to read this quote from Sam, one of the men you interviewed in your book. You’re asking him about these rituals. And he says,

I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s disgusting, kind of. I thought about this before. Like, is this wrong? Is this a bad use of money? I don’t think it is, because it’s money spent that creates a lot of good. The money’s not better spent on, like, welfare. I mean, I just told you, I love Charles Murray [the right-wing, racist social scientist], but really it’s money that’s going back into the economy. And I don’t think it’s better to just give that money, like, to a homeless person or anything. So when I say it’s disgusting, I’m not approaching it from the lens of, let’s feed the starving babies.

Ashley Mears

Sam works in finance and would describe himself as very hardworking and indeed I think he puts in a lot of hours at his job. He’s indicative of one extreme, right-wing pole of people who think that trickle-down economics works and they’re fine with luxury consumption in all of its forms, as opposed to more redistributive means of allocating funds.

But what he really took issue with, and in this he had a lot in common with the other wealthy clients that I interviewed, was the fact that when somebody is buying luxury experiences, they’re too obviously status-seeking, that they’re doing it solely for the status, and that in his view is the immoral part.

An Economy of Favors

Micah Uetricht

We’ve been discussing the clients, the people around whom this whole world revolves because they’re the ones who are spending the money. But you also spend the majority of the book talking about promoters and “girls.” Who are they and what role do they play within this world?

Ashley Mears

Let’s start with the promoters because they were my entry point, and I spent the most time with them in the field. Promoters are hired on a nightly basis as they work as independent contractors for clubs to bring in the right crowd, which is beautiful women and people, mostly men, with money. The promoters all share a really interesting story about how they ended up in this job — which by the way, starting out, they could make only two hundred bucks a night — but if they’re successful and are proven to bring in a high volume of beautiful women, what they call the quantity of quality, they can make upward of a thousand dollars a night.

Imagine they’re working five, six nights a week, and then they get hired for private parties to fly girls out to wherever. So they have access to that lifestyle and access to really wealthy people around the world. Their own backgrounds are not from privilege. The majority of them that I followed and that I met didn’t come from money or go to college. But they had this incredible relationship skill where they’re really easygoing. They’re good with talking to women and have no qualms at all about picking up women on the street.

And in fact, that’s part of how they recruit young women to be a part of their network. They drive these big SUVs and park them in specific places. In New York, like in Soho, right where all the modeling agencies and the casting agencies are and then they’ll just hop out of their car and go follow a woman down the street and then compliment her, talk with her. “Oh, you’re from Poland? My girlfriend’s from Poland. You’re going to have so much fun. We’re going to have a birthday party tonight, come out.” They get their phone numbers and then they just keep inviting them and calling them to come out.

Micah Uetricht

You see this scene yourself over and over again on the streets of New York City. This is another thing that the average person has no idea is going on. These promoters are out on the streets chasing beautiful women all the time. And if you are a woman who fits this description of physical beauty in the streets of New York City, you are used to being chased around by these guys.

Ashley Mears

Beautiful women are attracting all kinds of attention — wanted and unwanted. It’s one of many kinds of encounters on the street such women would have. And by the way, I met promoters myself when I was nineteen. And on my first trip abroad to try modeling overseas, I went to Milan and the modeling agency arranged my apartment and they said, “Oh, someone will meet you at the agency to bring you to your apartment.”

So I thought it was somebody that worked at the agency. And I was a college student, so I didn’t have very much money, didn’t speak Italian or anything. So, you know, this guy met me at the airport, helped me with my luggage and then invited me to dinner and to a club that night and every night thereafter.

At first I was like, “What a nice guy. How great that there’s a party tonight.” It took me a while to understand. He didn’t work for the agency. He worked for the club because these promoters will also ingratiate themselves with model agencies. And be a part of this economy of favors. So the promoters are helping the agencies.

So the agencies will introduce them to girls. They’re helping the girls. They drive those SUVs so that they can fit more bodies in the car and drive the girls to their castings. And this is an important service, especially for a newcomer to a city who doesn’t know her way around, maybe can’t afford lunch that he’s going to treat her to. So he helps her with establishing a network of connections and opens all kinds of doors to her in the city — the kinds of opportunities, you know, like being in a nightclub or being in a glamorous restaurant, even with a subpar meal, because often these are the free dishes that the kitchen is bringing out to the model.

It kind of lines up the expectation of what a fashion model is and what the lifestyle of fashion is, which is very glamorous and very rich, right? But the reality of the modeling industry is that the majority of models don’t make very much money at all and many of them are in debt to their agencies and they’re living quite precariously in these very expensive cities. So promoters are kind of opening all of these opportunities to them, giving them all kinds of favors, building experiences, building ties with them.

A promoter told me that there can be no night without the day. So the daytime, you know, it might start late because they’re up all night. But around noon or certainly two o’clock in the afternoon, promoters are back at work, which for them is relational work. It’s building relationships and building this economy of favors and getting the girls indebted to them in a way that doesn’t feel like a transaction. But it feels like a friendship, which for them is accumulated debt and reciprocity.

So promoters are really good at being friends for a living. That’s their job.

Micah Uetricht

Can you give us an example of a promoter on the street in Soho who successfully convinces a random model to go out with him? What happens after that?

Ashley Mears

This is one of many ways that promoters will recruit young women into their network. He’ll approach her on the street and get her phone number. The critical thing is to get a phone number. Cause if you get her phone number, then you can text her, you can let her know what’s going on and you can invite her to things that are unrelated to nightlife. Like, “Let’s go bowling”; “We’re going to the movies”; “Here’s lunch”; or “Let me drive you on a rainy day.” So the economy of favors kicks in and then a promoter will assemble the girls again. Driving in the city to go pick them up to bring them to the Meatpacking District.

And it’s not even driving in Manhattan anymore, it’s also that the real estate has become so expensive in New York that model apartments are now in New Jersey or Brooklyn. And so it’s not a small favor to get a ride from a promoter. Then there’s a free dinner, and the restaurants are often either owned or operated by somebody who’s connected to the club. So promoters will get a comped meal.

It’s also quite a compliment to get into a chic restaurant and get treated to a free meal. The meals are hit or miss I would say, because they’re free. The kitchen is just sending out plates so it’s often family style. Usually you don’t order off of the menu. Dinner could really be like at a sushi restaurant. It might be leftover cucumber rolls. So I always ate before I went out, but dinner will be around 10 p.m., wraps up around midnight, and then the promoter will bring the girls to the club.

And he’s hoping for at least around eight girls, give or take — the more, the better. And when promoters get to the club, they’re assigned a table to stay at, and then they get free drinks. It’s usually not the best champagne. Just prosecco or whatever white wine is available.

And then the promoter really has a tough job at that point because it’s already been a long day for him. And at that point he has to make it fun for the girls and he has to embody the life of the party. So many promoters are really systematic about it. They don’t drink — some of them do, of course — but the ones that had been in the game for the longest time, like twenty years, they don’t drink alcohol. But they are really good at rousing affect — dancing, flirting, joking, toasting. Trying to keep the energy up for the club, which is really hard. It’s a huge amount of emotional labor.

Micah Uetricht

In your book, you described multiple times being confronted by promoters after you tried to leave after dinner. They were very insistent that because you had showed up to the meal, you are now expected to do this kind of labor for them in going to the club.

Ashley Mears

That’s right. I got scolded a few times when one accused me of dining and dashing. It’s a really compelling moment in fieldwork because it reveals that this as a transaction. This is not just a gift that’s building up a friendship — I do have an obligation to repay the debt.

Usually that’s under the veneer of “Let’s have dinner together” or “Let’s go for a drink at the club together.” But really the promoter is watching the clock because he needs the girls to be at the table for four hours. And he needs them to stay at the table so that his table doesn’t look empty because at some point the manager of the club is going to be circling around and seeing which promoter has the quantity of quality.

So for the most part, I think promoters are going to illustrate the ways we’re always intertwining intimacy and money in our relationships all the time. Promoters are just much more strategic and explicit because it’s their job, but they’re really good at hiding it and making it feel like leisure, not labor.

There are these moments where it goes wrong though. If one partner doesn’t oblige by the unspoken terms of their engagement, then it comes out like, “No, I paid the gas to get you here tonight. I need you to stay for four hours.” That’s the terms of the deal. Usually it’s unspoken. It’s in those moments of violating or breaching where you get the real explicit consequences.

Micah Uetricht

You just mentioned that the promoters have rounded up these girls, then brought them to dinner. The expectation is that they now go to the club. You have to get in the door of the club, which is not the easiest thing in the world. Can you talk about that?

Ashley Mears

It’s an interesting moment of socially acceptable discrimination when somebody is trying to get into a club. They’re assessed in very, very different terms by gender: men can come in with money and women can come in with beauty.

And again, it’s beauty of a very narrow sort. So at one club, the door person is instructed not to allow any woman in who are shorter than herself. And she’s five foot seven. So, in heels, she’s a bit taller. And there are moments where even models are told that they can’t come in because they don’t have the right shoes. They don’t have the right high heels. There’s a moment where I was following promoters all day long and I didn’t have time to run home to get my high heels. And I’m really nervous when I’m walking in the door if I’m going to make it in. And I did make it in, but promoters kept commenting, “Where are your heels?”

It’s very clear that, for women, they must have this recognizable bodily capital to come in. And those moments can also be extremely painful. There are lots of instances where people describe being rejected or witnessing rejections that are quite punitive. Women who don’t meet the bar of beauty are really fiercely excluded because shorter women or heavier women who don’t conform to living like fashion models, they threaten to lower the status of the space. And so they’re treated with a lot of hostility. It’s quite common to hear the term “midget” used to refer to a woman who’s under five-foot six inches. And promoters embrace this language as well, because promoters also inflate their value by being surrounded by tall, beautiful women.

They see women who don’t look like that as a threat as well. And promoters have different ways of dealing with what happens when a woman who doesn’t meet their criteria of beauty tries to come into their group. It’s an issue for them because a girl who’s coming out wants to bring her friend or wants to bring her cousin who’s out of town or whatever. But the friend is only five-foot five and the promoter has to tell her that she can’t come.

That’s another breach of this implicit contract that everybody’s here as friends. Everybody is here for leisure, but you have to be, ideally, five foot nine to participate. Or you have to be wearing the right clothes to participate.

A World Constructed by White Men

Micah Uetricht

I was shocked to read that there is an instruction to these people working the doors to let in an almost entirely white crowd. It’s not something that you would expect in New York City, the cosmopolitan capital of the United States.

Ashley Mears

At the time that I was doing the field work, it was not uncommon to be in a VIP club in the Meatpacking District and it be almost entirely white people, with the exception of the staff. So the people who are working security, or the promoters, are disproportionately brown and black men. The elite is not often thought of as a space to examine dynamics of white supremacy, but that’s because it’s the unmarked category of mostly white people.

I did the field work ten years ago so it’s possible that this has changed with the embrace of diversity and the rhetoric of inclusion that you see across all levels of society and sectors. I would be surprised if there wasn’t at least some more inclusivity. But at the time that I was doing the research, it was definitely not lost on the promoters who would look around and see all of the valuable social ties that they believed that they would be able to network with were white and, they kind of saw themselves as outsiders and saw their opportunity to be among this space through all of these beautiful white bodies that they were cultivating.

I spent a lot of time in the book with a couple of promoters who are black and brown immigrant men and they had a surprising sense of their racial classification working to their advantage. They would say, “Because I’m black, white women are more attracted to me because of all of these racial stereotypes about black masculine sexuality,” or they would also say, “Because I’m black, I can see that these white rich people think that I’m more fun, I’m somehow exotic because I have access to something that they’re going to want.” They would think about their own position, which on the one hand is rife with all kinds of stereotypes and oppression, but they would also think about how to use it to their advantage.

Micah Uetricht

Talk about what it actually is like once you’re inside. What is this group of girls bringing to the environment that these wealthy clients want so badly?

Ashley Mears

It’s a large group of really tall, strikingly pretty women and that alone communicates so much just to walk by and see a kind of gathering of women who look like they just came off the catwalk. It’s so striking to people that it immediately communicates that whichever man is in their presence must be important. The part of very important people that kind of manifests immediately is very striking to the eye.

I mentioned they have the high heels. They’re encouraged not to sit down. They’re encouraged to stand up on top of the sofas and on top of the tables. It’s like everybody sees them. And it’s so effective. It’s a really interesting event. Even promoters who described their own personal taste for a partner as not looking like a fashion model understood that they need to date fashion models because it will signal to the clubs and it will signal to the clients that they must be a person of value if they’re surrounded by these beautiful women. And, of course, the irony is that most of the models themselves don’t have any claims to material power. They’re not getting paid for what they’re doing.

Maybe they’re getting free drinks, they’re getting a free night out, but it’s nowhere near the fungibility of assets that are being amassed by a club, which can charge thousands of dollars more than a bottle of alcohol is worth, or the social capital that’s being accumulated by all of these rich men who are able to signal their importance to each other by virtue of being in this space.

So the women are creating all of this value just through their presence. I often think of this as a world constructed by men, for men, but it’s run on girls and it’s run on their free labor. And that’s a really important point, not just because it expands our idea of what labor is. They’re not getting paid, but they’re generating a whole bunch of value. They are getting compensated in a way that feels appropriate to them. But why don’t they get actual money for what they’re doing?

What I found was that women wanted to see their participation as fun and as leisure and not as labor. They didn’t want to be confused with the other category of women who are in clubs getting paid for their bodies — sex workers or women who are seen as too close to being sex workers. Like the bottle hostesses — the women that are cocktail waitressing and bringing the bottles — they’re seen as being more sexually available. People widely describe this as a dirty job.

So there’s a strong kind of moral program to be expected against sex work as well as a sense of shame. If a woman is too strategic in monetizing her body, women that are seen as going out for the wrong reasons, women who are going out to meet a rich man or for a wealthy husband, this is seen as another form of “whale hunting.” Some also described this as soft hooking. It’s like being a hooker, but instead of explicit money, it’s shoes and handbags. But all of this was looked down upon by the clients, by the promoters, and by the girls themselves who didn’t want to see themselves as close to sex workers.

They didn’t want to get paid. So quite paradoxically, even though they’re generating all of this value, really what they gain is symbolic value by not being paid.

A Fine Line Between Use and Abuse

Micah Uetricht

This is so fascinating because in every single interaction from the initial encounter on the street to showing up at the club and everything in between, there’s this sense that the promoters especially are trying to cultivate that this is a fun lifestyle. We have genuine relationships with each other. I know my girls. I take care of my girls. The girls have relationships with each other.

That is very central to how they are conceiving of what they are doing. It’s such a fine dance. Socially, there are so many red lines that you could cross at any moment — you go too far in this direction and all of a sudden, you’re seen as a sex worker or you’re “here for the wrong reasons.”

This permeates this entire world. You’re constantly having to be sure that you don’t run afoul of these actually quite rigid social norms.

Ashley Mears

One promoter puts it really well: everybody is using each other. But there’s a difference between use and abuse, and people are very aware of when that line has been crossed. There’s another point about this that I think is really central to the whole argument of the book. It’s about how gender hierarchy operates through consent.

Clearly there’s exploitation happening here in a really sort of basic structural sense, meaning that men are in a better position to be able to extract value and make profit off women’s bodily capital, women’s beauty. Everybody talks about beauty. Economists always talk about it as an asset. More beautiful people get more doors open. They do better in the labor market. They do better in the marriage market — particularly women. All of that is true, but it really misses how beauty as a form of capital functions under conditions of patriarchy because beauty is valuable for women. It opens all these doors, but it produces value in a much greater scale for men, whereas women are getting this symbolic sense of inclusion.

You could think of it as, you know, using the concept of trafficking in women. I don’t mean “trafficking women” in the way like the State Department describes. But I mean traffic in the old anthropological sense of the world of the word in which women are exchanged among communities where the power holders are men as a means to forge more power that goes to men. So women are married off — sisters are married and daughters are married. And that’s the sort of logic of creating strategic kinship ties through the circulation of women.

I draw on the anthropologist Gayle Rubin — and he’s drawing on Levi Strauss to make this argument. What I saw in this VIP club was that, indeed, there’s this circulation of women in which men are controlling the flow and men are profiting off it. And women have that asset of beauty, but it’s worth more in men’s hands because they control the system.

Why do women consent to a system of exploitation like that? You can’t explain how the whole system operates without attending to the meanings and the pleasures and the symbolic gain that women get by participating in it.

They consent to it because it’s meaningful to them. Promoters are making it very meaningful. That’s what they do for a job: construct the relationship as fun, as meaningful, as reciprocity — so much so that some of the girls would go out with promoters and say explicitly they didn’t want to get paid and that they’re just there to support their friend.

And they know that promoters are making money. They know that the club, of course, is making a lot of money, but they didn’t know exactly how much. Some of them were quite surprised to know that a promoter was making a thousand dollars in one night. That’s pretty high, but they’re okay with that because it’s fun for them. But the moment that they feel there’s abuse, that they’ve crossed a boundary and they’re being confused with sex workers or that they are not being treated equitably or in a way that’s fun? Then they just leave.

Micah Uetricht

You talk repeatedly throughout the book about how promoters are trying to use their personal relationships that they have developed with these girls to try to get them to come out. And they use words like “support,” as in, “Will you come out and support me?” — trying to capitalize on these relationships they have so assiduously built.

Did you ever feel that pressure yourself since you became a part of this world for some of these promoters? Did you ever get the text from a promoter like “Ashley, will you come out and support me?” And feel a twinge of like okay, this guy did give me this meal, I do have this relationship with him — I do have to get out there and support him.

Ashley Mears

I felt it, but for different reasons — and that’s because as an ethnographer, our research depends on getting people to like us, getting people to tolerate us, and getting people to do an interview, which is a big ask for people — “Tell me your life story, open up and tell me all of your intimate moments.”

It’s an emotional commitment for somebody to open up to an ethnographer. And so an ethos of feminist ethnography is that we want to give back to our subjects. We don’t just want to take and run. We want to have an exchange and have a meaningful role in their lives as they’re doing for us.

One way that I can be helpful to them as they’re being helpful to me is to simply show up because I know they always need girls to show up wearing their high heels. That’s why I tried very hard to keep that commitment. So every single promoter that I did interviews with, I would show up at least once, but often many more nights at his club.

But I very quickly ran into the problem that led me to this main insight about gender and exploitation and traffic. That was when I started going out with one promoter and then the promoter from last week sees me out, he’s like, “What are you doing going out with him? You’re my girl.” And I understood right away — the possessive pronoun is so telling because promoters see girls as a resource and they’re trying to assert ownership over it. This is the condition of creating a circuit of traffic. So I would have to very awkwardly say “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m doing this research and so I’m just trying to go in as many directions as possible.” But I had too many invitations and too many obligations to try to fill them all. So I was dropping people left and right.

Micah Uetricht

It sounds like you’re essentially saying to them, “I’m here because I’m a sociologist,” and they’re saying, “No, you’re here because you’re my girl.”

Ashley Mears

They’re always using this possessive pronoun, “These are my girls.” Early on, this helped me see that the girls function as a form of capital here. But it’s not a straightforward, individual form of capital. If you read [Pierre] Bourdieu, then you understand he’s trying to enrich human and economic capital by accounting for culture, including the body. But it really remains as like an individual resource. Like you can move through different fields and capitalize wherever your value gets recognized.

In this field, what I saw is that ownership really matters because the field is owned and operated by men, which means the value of all that capital goes to men. So even though promoters are making a pretty great wage, especially for people who don’t have any special skills training, they felt quite frustrated that they couldn’t crack into the upper echelons of the economic elite. They had fantasies that they would be able to do business with the people that they’re servicing. Like they can meet investors to open up their own clubs or their own hotel or restaurant.

The promoters who were the most tragic cases that I followed were the ones who imagined that they would be accepted among the elite and they’d be able to do business with like oil rich families from around the world. In conversation with the clients, I understood that they didn’t take promoters seriously, they didn’t see them as anything other than entrepreneurs of the night.

Micah Uetricht

Those sections of your book are kind of heartbreaking to read. I assumed that these promoters would turn out to be pretty scuzzy people who are exploiting these girls. And they are. But then you get a sense through your conversations with them that they actually believe what they are saying about their “intimate relationships” with these ultrawealthy clients.

They’re saying, “No, this is not just business.” Like how they talk about their relationship with the girls as actually significant personal relationships in their lives. I’m not just kissing the ass of this rich person to try to get money from him — we actually have a substantive relationship.

And then to hear them learn in real time that, in fact, no, they don’t really have that kind of relationship with these rich people. You have to feel for this promoter a little bit, because their heart is being broken in that moment.

Ashley Mears

That’s an important thing that you picked up on, because when I started the project, I also saw the promoters as scuzzy kinds of characters, and I could imagine a book in which they are the very clear villains of it. I originally thought that I would probably write in that way. But in spending more and more time with them, I really began to feel a kind of empathy with them seeing how they really embody the spirit of the American dream: the idea that it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can climb your way up. And it’s true that they really have climbed quite remarkably high. But it also shows the limits of social capital and girl capital. It only takes them so far. Yes, they have these ties but those connections are predicated on a larger hierarchy of class and race.

Ultrawealthy Elites Set the Standard

Micah Uetricht

That’s part of the tragedy of what we’re describing here — when our world becomes so oriented toward these ultrawealthy people that they become the standard by which more and more people begin to judge their sense of success and self-worth. And that’s a toxic thing for a society, for more and more parts of that society making such ultrawealthy people the standard by which they judge whether or not they are successful in life, whether or not they’re leading a meaningful life. It has this a trickle-down effect on the rest of society.

Ashley Mears

Yeah, of course. And the way to show wealth is through positional goods because that communicates your status. But status is never absolute, it’s always relative. It’s always in relation to who has more. And unfortunately, our tendency as humans is to look up rather than down. So we’re always comparing someone who’s higher than us rather than how far we’ve come ourselves, which means that with more economic inequality, with more wealth concentration, there’s just always farther to go. It’s never complete.

Micah Uetricht

Can you talk about the changes in this scene over time, and how increasing economic inequality and also changes in the real estate market in cities like New York have changed the way that these clubs function?

Ashley Mears

The story of bottle service clubs really is the story of the rising fortunes of a small fraction of New Yorkers who are working in finance, but also real estate as the prices start to increase in the city. You can first see it in the 1990s bottle service. There are many club owners and former promoters who take credit for creating bottle service as a phenomenon.

But the general story that most people agree upon is that a couple of club owners in Paris in the 1990s saw bottle service as a convenience offered at a couple of chic cafes. Rather than wait at the bar to get your drink, the server would just bring the whole bottle to your table and put the mixer down and you would mix it yourself. So they take this idea with them back to New York and they offer bottle service really as a convenience at first to beat wait times in the line.

But in New York, it goes then from being a convenience to being a means of distinction in a space to show that you’ve bought the right kind of bottle or you have enough money to sit in the right kind of table. It sort of transforms the interior of a nightclub into hierarchized real estate so people end up laying down credit cards in order to rent a table for the night. The better the table, the more expensive.

It all coincides with this increase in money for people who are working in the FIRE professions — finance, insurance, real estate. They’re the economic drivers of the city. And when you look at the charts on the uptick of wealth concentration, that’s when bottle service really starts to take off. So this transforms the real estate value and the kinds of amenities that are there in New York City quite drastically.

Some scholars call this “super gentrification” — the creation of these little bubbles for the ultrarich in cities that coincides with the police cracking down on undesirable populations and the transformations of what were once big warehousing and meatpacking districts. These huge warehouses start to get bought up. First the artists come in and then a couple of cafes and restaurants and then the fashion studios.

So it maintains a lure of the historic grit of the city with just a huge influx of money. And it’s not just that the clubs that I was studying were in the Meatpacking District. There are also very expensive hotels because it’s also now attracting international business people and wealthy tourists who have a lot of money to just come and spend on the Disney vacation version of the city. New York becomes this little consumption playground for international elites. It’s also around Soho too but there’s just a higher concentration of them in the Meatpacking District. So it’s more convenient for promoters to bring the girls to the restaurant there and hit two or three clubs that are nearby.

Micah Uetricht

These clubs have been transformed away from a focus on general admission for the “rabble,” buying entrance to the club and buying drinks; they are now more oriented toward these wealthy clients, which sounds like it has changed the clubbing experience, because the way that the club owners are meeting their bills for every month is by orienting toward these ultrawealthy people — which then seems to cascade the entire enterprise toward meeting the whims and desires of these wealthy clients.

You talk at length about how the promoters are seeing this orientation, and this is what they are aspiring to. Even those who make a good amount of money — $200,000, $250,000 a year. That’s chump change to them. What they really want is to get on the level of these whales, who are engaging in these incredibly conspicuous displays of consumption. This whole social ecosystem becomes about these rich people and their desires, and you, the promoter or the girls or the average non-wealthy person comes to aspire to what the wealthy are doing in the club.

Ashley Mears

Many of the people that I spent a lot of time with that had been in the industry for a while would bemoan this transformation of nightlife of models and bottles as being so formulaic. And it was quite dull and it was less diverse.

A lot of the successful clubs that I studied in New York were owned and operated by former promoters who had got their bearings in the industry not as image promoters doing VIP clubs, but rather doing more underground clubs or like mass clubs in the 1990s, like Limelight or Tunnel, places that were also biker bars. A couple of people had started in much more diverse economically and racially kinds of places. They built their Rolodexs and then their clientele have more money and more desires for showing off their money, so they start to evolve and create nightclubs that appeal to them and can make a lot of money as well.

Whatever your taste is, there will be a club for you somewhere in the world and especially in a city like New York. We know that there’s a really vibrant underground electronic music scene. I just read a book called Long Live Queer Nightlife about the underground gay clubs in London and they’re radically inclusive in the way that they want everybody from all genders and all class backgrounds to come and share in a night and feel joy in that. So there are many ways of doing nightlife.

“Exploitation Works Best When It Feels Good”

Micah Uetricht

You have this great quote in the book where you’re reflecting on how promoters are mobilizing these girls to show up to the dinners and to the clubs and do what the promoters want them to do. And you summarize it by saying, “Exploitation works best when it feels good.” This is essential to keeping the girls, who are being exploited, to continue to show up. They would not keep showing up in these spaces if they didn’t find the experience pleasurable.

Ashley Mears

This is an essential piece of the puzzle that we have to take seriously. If we want to understand why people participate in systems that are unfair, it’s part of the story. When somebody finds pleasure in a system, even if they know that it’s oppressive, I think that’s much harder to dismantle. And I would have to say, too, that if any of the women that I spent time with and interviewed for this book were to hear me talk about it, I don’t think they’d be too surprised. They would be like, “Yeah, but you know, I’m in my twenties. I’m in New York. This was a great two years of my life.”

I gave a talk about this at the American Sociological Association years ago. And I remember a senior cultural sociologist, a prominent scholar in the field, she came up to me afterward, really puzzled. She just asked, “Is it fun? Is it fun to go out like this?” It’s really hard to convey how seductive the pleasures of inclusion are — to be included in the very important people’s space, which is inherently exclusive. But it’s hard to convey that when you’re at a sociology conference or on a podcast — but all of the women that I had interviewed really got something out of it. And that’s why they gave so much into it.

Part of why it feels good, and this is super problematic, is that it means other people are excluded. It means that you’re good enough to be considered beautiful. And that’s a relational construct, which means that somebody else got excluded for not being as beautiful. So it creates these hierarchies, not just between women and men, but it also creates these hierarchies among women. Being on the upper parts of that hierarchy is itself quite seductive.

Micah Uetricht

When I was reading the book, I was thinking about the recent meme about bosses trying to prevent their workers from unionizing. The whole joke is, the boss doesn’t want you to have a union, he doesn’t want to pay you more in wages, but he will throw you a pizza party to try to make you feel like you’re a member of the family.

What you’re describing is sort of like an ultra-high-end version of this. The pizza tastes way better in the VIP club — the affective pleasures are real and very high. But fundamentally the dynamic is the same; the people who are doing the exploiting are working very hard to make these girls happy enough with the “pizza” that they don’t decide to leave.

In order to convince a given workforce that they need to organize to change their conditions, workers need to realize they are being exploited, and the world could look different if they organized. That’s maybe easier if you’re on a grimy auto factory than to convince somebody who is “working” at a VIP club because the atmosphere of the latter is saturated with, uh, the intoxications of the wealthy, and you get to feel like you’re one of them.

Ashley Mears

Part of the value of being one of these girls is precisely not getting paid for it. They go out and they’re not in the category of a wage earner, they’re there getting the complimentary meal, which is quite a compliment to get included. They’re getting all of this free stuff and that value comes from not getting paid.

Micah Uetricht

You have conversations with some of these girls in the book where you’re skirting around this issue of whether what they are doing is labor. And they all say, “Absolutely not. This is not work.” Because they don’t want to change how they experience it.

Ashley Mears

At one point I thought, “I’ve got eight good looking friends from the modeling industry. Let’s come together and talk to a club owner and let’s agree that we each get a hundred dollars for the night.” We’ll show up and get the champagne bottles and stay at the table and rather than the promoter getting paid a thousand a night, we could do this ourselves. And the girls all said, “No, not interested” because they don’t want to go out for work. They’re not going out for money. They’re going out for fun. It’s a very different thing. If you go out for money, that’s a desperate thing.

Micah Uetricht

The research that you did for this book was a decade ago. I’m assuming this world has probably changed significantly since. Where are these kinds of rituals of conspicuous consumption headed?

Ashley Mears

There was a resurgence in the mass promotions for big clubs that were driven by ticket sales pre-COVID in places like Brooklyn. That’s partly the rise of the electronic music scene globally. So that’s an opportunity for more inclusive kinds of clubbing, less driven by VIP and image promotions. And after the publication of the book, I received emails from some people who are nightlife entrepreneurs, and they wanted to have conversations about how they could open a more inclusive club and still be profitable.

So can you make a VIP club that doesn’t have this hierarchy and exclusions that are very heteronormative and kind of archaic in some ways. And we had interesting conversations. They didn’t end up opening those clubs. And I had some doubts about whether you even can — whether a club predicated on VIP and predicated on hierarchy — if that can be inclusive, what would it actually look like? There’s been an uptick in more private social clubs. Members-only clubs like Soho House in New York and West Hollywood.

I was just out a couple of weeks ago in New York and I’m sure that the methods or patterns of consumption can always change, but I think the fact of hierarchy persists, so it doesn’t really matter what the next thing will be. But I do think that with the shape and nature of economic inequality and wealth concentration today, we’re not going to see any lessening of unequal access to whatever that thing is.