Ashley Mears is an associate professor of sociology at Boston University and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. She researches and teaches courses on gender, culture, and economic life. In addition to Very Important People, she is the author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model (University of California Press 2011). Her articles appear in American Sociological Review, Poetics, and Social Forces, and she has written for The New York Times, The Economist, and ELLE. She received her Ph.D. from New York University in 2009.
Review by Sam Pryke, 8th April 2021.
It’s unlikely many readers of this journal will have stood at the private tables of the global party elite where an average bottle of champagne is $1500. Very few people have, that’s the point – and in saying this I’m immediately struck that a disdainful attitude towards this set of people, might simultaneously be construed as envy, no matter how faint. The dynamics of inclusion and exclusion are central to this world. Ashley Mears, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University, spent the period 2011-13 living within this party circuit. Anybody who wants to take a glimpse of its typical participants can do so here. Mears was herself a model from high school through to postgrad years at New York University. The experiences were part of the background to her 2011 book, Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model. For Very Important People, Mears used her continuing ability to pass for a model to enter and study the elite world of exclusive night clubs, beautiful women, charismatic promoters and obscenely wealthy clients. The result is a substantial ethnography based on numerous nights of participant observation at VIP tables and on the dancefloors of clubs in the US (principally NYC) and select European destinations, villas in Miami and St Tropez and parties in the mansions of the Hamptons; and approximately 100 interviews with key participants: ‘the girls’, the promoters and the clients. The result is what ethnography aims for: in-depth insight into a niche of society that without such research would remain largely hidden.
The context to the particular variant of club culture in question is, on the one hand, a global elite, a billionaire class grouping of heterosexual men, willing to spend literally millions of dollars on a single night out – ‘the 0.0001 percent: Saudi princes, Russian oligarchs and run of the mill tech and finance giants’. On the other, the urban transformation of, in the case of New York, the once meatpacking areas of Manhattan into clubs and bars that are through architecture and organisation geared to taking money from them. Added to this, and this point isn’t made directly in the book, is an economically vulnerable pool of aspiring models, many from Eastern Europe and Latin America. These ‘girls’, as they are universally called, carefully identified and selected by promoters for their looks and height (a ‘velvet racism’), are key to the image of the client, ensconced at his private table within the club. The clubs pay the promoters for their female procurement.
The role of the girls is to be seen and dance, not to provide conversational company. They are very rarely directly paid as that would tarnish their aesthetic function. Rather, through the promoters they get free entry to the clubs, restaurant meals beforehand, as much champagne as they can drink, transport and sometimes organised and subsidised accommodation. Further, they acquire friendships within a mutually select status group and, in some cases, networked connections to pursue intended careers. Though flirting and physical contact are integral to the role, the girls are not expected to have sex with clients and, according to Mears, seldom do so. Their function is to provide sexiness, not sex. Other categories of females, ‘party’ and ‘bottle girls’, lower down the pecking order have a reputation for paid sex. Above all, the girls get to experience the fantastic fun of club nights, something that Mears refers to, drawing on Durkheim, as ‘collective effervesce’. The conjunction of music, lights, stimulants and a packed moving crowd to an electronic beat may be carefully constructed rather than spontaneous, but it does give the participants an incredible high.
Mears extends analysis of the underlying meaning of contemporary elite partying to ‘the potlatch’, a subject of interest to anthropologists from Franz Boas in the nineteenth century. The original potlatch was a ritualised gift giving event of Native Americans in which standing was derived by the largesse of the tribal elders. Here, the seemingly limitless fizz and flow of champagne is related to the status derived from ‘wealth destruction’, an analogue of neoliberal capitalism. For this concept to have been convincing, it should have been made in relation to contemporary considerations of consumption, specifically the sociology of financialisation. The same would apply to Mears’s references to Veblen’s famous model of conspicuous consumption, made in his dissection of the American bourgeoisie at the end of the nineteenth century. Her remarks are in themselves interesting but could have been set within a wider scan of the sociology of elites.
The most controversial issue in the book is that of exploitation. On the one hand, Mears is clear about the systematic sexism and manipulation within the club scene. The girls are expendable, only viable in the flush of youth and rarely considered marriage material by the men who bask in their presence. In fact, the ‘physical capital’ of the girls is of greater value to the men who surround themselves with it, than the actual women. At the same time, as in much good sociological research, there is an intrigue in how the fieldwork findings cut against the theoretical projections. For instance, Mears says of a model called Katia, ‘It’s possible she liked partying, plain and simple, and this was the best way to get what she wanted’. She doesn’t go as far as to say that the agency and self-awareness of the girls negate the trafficking traits, but suggests that the reality of the relationships cannot be neatly pigeon-holed. The issues are complicated because the principal relationship of the girls is not with the wealthy clients, but the promoters. The promoters are adamant that they are not ‘pimps’ and relate to the girls at the level of mutual self-interest, come friendship. This could be dismissed as self-serving drivel, but Mears stresses that their dreams of making it big like the clients they serve rarely come to anything. Many are immigrants and men of colour of modest backgrounds who, after drifting and/or dropping out of college, use their charisma and connections to make a living within a world they know well. Whilst Mears captures the limitations of their lives, she doesn’t simultaneously follow through on the likely failures of at least some of the young women involved. I wondered about a Katia ten years on, back in Ukraine with only a cocaine habit and fading beauty.
I thought some of these issues could have been mediated through a stronger reflection on autobiography and methodology in Very Important People. This could have been situated by Mears within the rich history of American ethnography. I wasn’t entirely clear if aspects of the research could be placed within the, now controversial and little practised, tradition of covert participant observation. There is a passage in the book where she uses a frankly ‘catty’ tone in describing a Russian model she briefly shared a villa with in Miami. Some reflection on the familiar pitfall of ‘going native’, or perhaps in her case reverting to the mindset of her modelling years, would have added a reflexive dimension to discussion. Such criticisms aside, this is a fine book that will be of interest to students and teachers alike. A final thought is that whilst the super-rich will undoubtedly find ways of entertaining themselves, for the time being, the elite party world is history.
Sam Pryke teaches, amongst other things, qualitative methods at Wolverhampton University. His research and publications over 25 years have mainly been on nations and nationalism. He tweets @0151Sam64.