Mon, 1 June 2020
It’s a scene you might recall from a music video or TV shows where a young alpha male goes to the club with his crew. They’re parked at a table, order bottle service while flanked by a bevy of attractive if faceless young women, and after some overindulgence start spraying Cristal like dish soap in a squirt gun.
That’s life as Ashley Mears documents in a neat little ethnographic study just released in book form as Very Important People: Beauty and Status in the Global Party Circuit.
Mears, an associate professor of sociology and women's, gender, and sexuality studies at Boston University, describes her 18 months of field work, and her findings, to interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast.
Their talk starts with a description of club life at the VIP level and the Veblen-esque conspicuous consumption, its “ritualized squandering” in Mears words, that is its hallmark.
Addressing ‘bottle service,’ in which a customer essentially rents a table for the night and buys expensive alcohol by the bottle (and not drink-by drink), Mears offers a vivid picture:
“The real action of the night happens when these bottles are bought in excess. The crowd will start to cheer and take pictures. The club has kinds of theatrics for the display of big purchases: DJs stopping the music to make an announcement, bottles and bottles coming out with these fireworks, really large bottles that come out and require really strong people to be able to carry them. Some people buy so many bottles of champagne that they can’t even drink them – they’ll gift them to everybody in the club, so everybody gets a bottle of Dom Pérignon champagne. They can’t drink it, it’s too much to be consumed, so people will start shaking the bottles up and spraying them and spraying each other, turning them up in the air and just dumping them – it’s ritualized waste.”
It’s a ritual that costs the “bread and butter” type VIP customers a couple thousand dollars an outing, but where a “whale” – one of the cadre of super-rich who often travel the party circuit around the planet – often drop substantially more. Mears cites the exploits of Low Taek Jho, a Malaysian businessman popularly known as Jho Low (and now on the run for allegedly looting his country’s sovereign wealth fund) who spent more than a million U.S. dollars in just one night in San Tropez.
It is, she explains, an esoteric world that has “made it into the mainstream as a sort of emblem of elite consumption.” Still, she adds, it’s a subculture of a subculture; the mobile and transnational whales represent a “very small, rarefied tribe of people that are partying together.” And yet “most elites in the world wouldn’t be caught dead in these places!”
Mears describes an ecosystem with three main species – the rich men who do the spending, the pretty girls who draw the rich men, and the promoters who find and display the pretty girls (and ‘girls’ is the term used). Mears’ own entry into the scenes came through associations with promoters – she interviewed 44 for the book – and tagging along on their peripatetic gyrations through New York, Miami and San Tropez.
“The way that I got into it was by following this group of mostly men that work for the clubs to bring a so-called ‘quality crowd’ – mostly beautiful women – to sit at their tables. The idea is that the beautiful women will attract the big spenders. The ‘quality’ of a crowd comes down to two gendered components: men with money and women with beauty.”
That beauty is “the kind championed by the fashion model industry”: young, thin, often white, and with that certain look championed by the fashion industry. And while the promoters do get paid, the women do not. Their compensation is the night on the town, or possibly a trip to some exotic place for a night on the town. That may sound like another profession … “It looks like sex work,” Mears says, “even though [the promoters are] very clear that it’s not.” The promoters insist they are not pimps by another name, and while hookups do happen, that’s not how they generate income.
That said, the women in this triangle trade are, in essence, the coin of the realm.
What turns Mears’ work into more than an HBO series is the sociological lens she brings to the proceedings. She cites the roots of study into displays of wealth from Thorstein Veblen and Claude Lévi-Strauss to more modern scholars like the late Pierre Bourdieu and Gayle Rubin. She also discusses some of the methodology of ethnography, and how she opted for ‘participatory observation’ at some points to fully understand the terrain.
She took a similar approach for her first book, 2011’s Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, which drew on her own experiences in the industry.