Books

Very Important People

Mears' effort to take readers behind the velvet rope and explore the world of clubbing proves both fun and sobering.

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Getting bottle service in a club surrounded by leggy, stilettoed models is sort of about sex—but it's mostly about status, explains sociologist Ashley Mears in her new book, Very Important People.

For those who don't dabble in the Miami-Manhattan-Ibiza club circuit, Mears' work uses ethnographic research, shadowing promoters and conducting interviews, to demystify how and why club promoters function as the link between aspiring models and wealthy clients. Mears knows this world from the inside, having embedded herself in the party circuit, trading her own attractiveness for research access.

She chronicles the subtle gradations in status present in the club ecosystem: Being a "paid girl"—a sex worker or cocktail waitress whose sexual services are presumed to be for sale—is frowned upon by the uncompensated "party girls," for instance. She also tries to follow the financial incentives, noting that the clubs reap profits from promoters' Rolodexes of attractive women, though she consistently discounts the ways in which the women themselves profit in the form of free food, booze, and stays in the Hamptons.

"Rituals of displaying and squandering wealth" have always intrigued anthropologists. Mears points to the potlatch, a competitive gift-giving ritual once common in Native American societies, to highlight the enduring nature of our tendency toward oneupmanship. The urge to be a "big man"—to amass power by being magnanimous, leaving people awed or indebted—seems ineradicable over time, though it takes different surface forms.

Not every rich person engages in public displays of wealth; depending on the culture, such behavior may even be frowned upon. Still, conspicuous consumption has a long pedigree, and Mears' effort to take readers behind the velvet rope proves both fun and sobering.