Moscow nightclub: The only thing missing is a wealthy man and his credit card (Photo by robert wallis/Corbis via Getty Images)

Invitation to a joyless party

Lisa Hilton reviews Very Important People, by Ashley Mears

Your girls all tits and butt … that girl just taking up space”: in the post-MeToo era, ethnographers may wade in where columnists fear to tread. One of the most refreshing aspects of this quirky sociological study of the international elite club scene is its blunt rejection of the pieties of inclusiveness. Like it or not, within the rarefied world behind the velvet rope, status remains stamped on the body. Rich men like to party with beautiful girls, and the paradigm of beauty for clients prepared to drop hundreds of thousands of dollars at VIP tables is still young, tall and thin.

Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, by Ashley Mears, Princeton University Press, £25

Over a period of six years, Professor Mears investigated the “ritualised form of wealth destruction” which propels the economy of the world’s top clubs from Miami to the French Riviera. In an industry where the top ten destinations in the USA grossed $550 million in profits in 2014, women are the basic currency upon which this vastly profitable structure depends.

Models are the most highly-prized category in this blatant and unapologetic commodification of “girls”, followed by “good civilians”. Any woman over 30, under 5ft 7in, or larger than US size six is classed at best as a “pedestrian”, which is preferable to “muppet” or “hobbit”, the terms used by the image promoters whom Mears accompanied in her investigation of the spending habits of the 0.0001 per cent.

The motivation for this study, Mears asserts, is that clubs are prime sites to examine “masculine domination . . . they provide social space for rich and powerful men to develop a closed global community and cultivate the shared cultural values and beliefs that drive contemporary capitalism”. The practices of sociology can sometimes lend the book a Pooterish air which is earnest to the point of satire (most readers will presumably be able to identify a banquette and a drinks table without the help of a diagram), but Mears succeeds in producing a compelling, vivid and curiously poignant account of this closed and highly influential scene.

As a model, “bottle culture” is essentially very simple. Club promoters are rewarded for bringing “quality crowd” to venues, to attract high-rollers who will splurge fortunes in a competitive potlatch of vastly marked-up drinks. Status is displayed by huge bottles of champagne (brands such as Dom Perignon have cannily developed glow-in-the dark labels) which are paraded across the floor to customers’ tables in flamboyant processions of scantily-clad “bottle girls”, sparklers and call-outs from celebrity DJs.

Whilst clubs vaunt the spending of billionaire “whales”, their main profits derive from “mooks” or “lettuce”, high-earning professionals desperate to believe that they are hanging with the cool crowd. Whilst the locations change, the model and the drinks never vary; whether Ibiza or the Hamptons, the crowd and the “girls” remain homogeneous.

Despite Mears’s rather breathless insistence on the “incredibly seductive” and “thrilling” atmosphere of these exclusive parties, they come across as unspeakably dreary and joyless, devoid of imagination or originality. When you belong to the minute group of people who own half the world’s wealth, are you really that thrilled by a spotlight trained on your credit card when you pick up the tab? Apparently so.

Much more interesting than the grim hedonism of the clubs themselves are Mears’s insights into the mechanics behind the creation of the “vibe”. The status of “the girls” is ambivalent. Female beauty is the most valued asset in the club economy, but why are these young women so eager to be exploited, sleeping in bunk beds in overcrowded, squalid party villas and dragged round by their promoters night after exhausting night?  Promoters’ tactics illustrate the sound business maxim that exploitation works best when it feels good — the “girls” readily admit that the VIP scene allows them to be conspicuous consumers of a lifestyle they can’t afford, with perks such as luxury accessories and all-expenses paid travel.

The “girls” readily admit the VIP scene allows them to be conspicuous customers of a lifestyle they can’t afford

Moreover, Mears is candid in stating that it is not only men who derive pleasure from the male gaze; it’s no longer acceptable to admit it, but being the object of wealthy men’s desires is something many women enjoy. Her account leans heavily on the “girls’” unpaid labour, but most of her interviewees claim to be enjoying the glamour, not to mention the chance to snag a wealthy husband, as Melania Trump did when she was introduced to the future US president at New York’s Kit Kat club in 1998.

The promoters, rather than the “girls” emerge as the real victims of bottle culture. Usually from working-class, ethnic minority backgrounds, these young men are in a sense exceptional in that they appear to have overcome the limits of class mobility in the US (a footnote reminds us that for a child born in the bottom fifth percentile of income in America the probability of them reaching the top fifth percentile by the end of their life is 7.5 per cent, as opposed to 14 per cent in, for example, Denmark), yet their persistent belief that their association with wealth can be permanently monetised is pathetic more than predatory.

Whilst they might have some of the biggest earners in the financial world on speed-dial, none of Mears’s interviewees seem to have grasped that they are essentially service providers who are tolerated as equals only inside the clubs.

None of the promoters Mears accompanied had fulfilled their stated professional ambitions at the conclusion of the project, despite their insistence on the value of the networks developed within the scene. In part, this may be due to the entrenched racism which is one of the more shocking revelations of Very Important People.

The power players in the clubs are distinctly older, heterosexual white men, and Mears quotes one doorman’s brutal analysis: “Your friend can’t come in unless you go inside and bring out a brown person he can replace. There’s too many brown people inside already.”

The scope of this book is limited, in that Mears focuses exclusively on nightclubs as the sites of status display but Very Important People succeeds in exposing the intriguing and often distressing realities of a culture whose values seem both alien and unpleasantly persistent. For many of their inhabitants, the pleasure grounds of power remain anything but cool.

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