Art Basel may have seen all of its global fairs – including the Miami Beach edition slated for last December – officially cancelled because of the pandemic. But the yacht set can’t be deterred so easily. A party at the Nautilus Hotel, Miami Beach, held in honour of the zombified art fair, was busted by police last month for breaking COVID-19 regulations. One socialite boasted to the New York Times about throwing a dinner for A-listers and artists. “They can wear a mask if somebody wants,” she said. “I won’t wear one.”
For some, the party must go on. ‘It takes considerable coordinated effort to mobilize people into what looks likes the spontaneous waste of money, and the VIP nightclub has mastered it,’ Ashley Mears writes in Very Important People (Princeton University Press, 2020), a meticulous, immersive ethnography of the global VIP party circuit. From 2011 to 2013, Mears, a former model turned sociology professor, packed her bags and travelled the world, playing dress-up with the ‘Very Important People’, documenting their lashings of disposable income, and ‘how they think about wastefully destroying their money – a phenomenon that, to outsiders, often seems ridiculous and disgusting’. For 18 months, tracking a transatlantic calendar of VIP scenes (from Saint-Tropez to Ibiza, wintering through the Fashion Week stopovers in Milan, London and Paris, and not forgetting the obligatory pop-up in Cannes), Mears documented this seemingly irrational, but highly ‘ritualized form of wealth destruction’ in the elite global party circuit.
ArtReview What’s a sociology professor doing at a nightclub?
Ashley Mears I wrote my dissertation at New York University on the fashion modelling industry and that’s where I first got to know some of the promoters that I would end up spending a lot more time with. And so promoters, as you might know, are crashing castings, in order to meet the young women in town – they call them ‘girls’ – and take them to their clubs. They kept my phone number and they just kept sending me messages, like: ‘hey baby, come for the sushi dinner’. Even six years later – when I’d left New York and had my job at Boston University – I’d get these texts.
I wasn’t sure what my next big ethnography project was going to be after my thesis was published as a book titled Pricing Beauty (University of California Press, 2011). This was around the time of the recovery from the economic meltdown of 2008: there were still these global reverberations of hardship; unemployment was still unsteady. But I started to see some reports about how much people were spending in nightclubs, of bankers going crazy with their bonuses – the very people that had caused the crisis were still hosting these lavish parties. I was very curious about how such ostentation was possible under these kinds of circumstances, and what was the logic of people going into clubs and spending this kind of money. And then I also had these promoters still inviting me to the parties. And so, finally, I wrote back.
AR You write that these spaces ‘cater to a very small segment of the world’s population, but they enflame general desires for luxury in the popular imagination’. Where did these elite clubs first emerge from?
AM I bet that the timeline is roughly similar to the contemporary art market and its crazy ballooning prices. Clubs of course have existed for a long time in all kinds of different forms. But during the 1980s to the 1990s, you have the growth of real estate and technology, and all of this money pouring into places such as New York and Miami: the resurgence of cities. ‘Bottle service clubs’ appear during the late 1990s and early 2000s, as Wall Street booms, and a lot of people have a lot of disposable income.
The story of ‘bottle service’ is mixed – a lot of club owners take responsibility, and claim it was ‘their thing’. And their story is that they went to clubs in Paris, and rather than wait in line at the bar, they saw that you could just order a whole bottle vodka to your table and they would bring the ice and the mixers, so you could make it yourself as a way to cut on time: a relatively novel thing clubs at relatively modest prices. And then it takes off as a way to signal that you have the money to rent the whole table, and then there’s all these accoutrements that come with it: it gets delivered by cocktail waitresses (called ‘bottle girls’, very beautiful, very sexy); it comes with fireworks if you’re spending a lot; and gold-plated bottles. All of these theatrics had appeared by the time I was doing my research, from 2011 to 2013.
AR Yes, there’s a bizarre scene in the book, in which you describe finding yourself at midnight in the Ace Nightclub on Miami’s South Beach strip among the VIP crowd, watching a ‘bottle train’: two bins of champagne bottles lit up with sparklers carried in by a procession of scantily clad ‘bottle girls’. What kind of people enjoy the rituals of ‘models and bottles’?
AM I would use the term ‘community’ lightly here because these clubs that I study, they are gunning for this A-list, hypermobile crowd that is very international; they’re moving around a lot, so they’ll go to Cannes during the film festival and then to Ibiza during the summer, and then St Moritz in January. There’s some stability, but also a lot of turnover and change within that crowd. Essentially, there is this global circuit of parties, and some of the clubs operating in New York will also have outposts that they will set up in Saint-Tropez or have another club in Vegas, or the clubs in Vegas will open in pop-ups in Miami, around Art Basel and so on – all of these events that have leisure parties. It’s a rich, highly mobile crowd of VIPs.
AR Are they different from the partying elites of the past?
AM Some people will have inherited money; others are nouveau riche (or ‘the working rich’) – people in tech or finance who are able to accumulate a lot of capital gains from their jobs. Even among the people who have inherited money, they are also working jobs – they fancy themselves as entrepreneurs and investors, and they see themselves as working very hard. And indeed, if you look at the finance sector, people are logging crazy hours. They’re making very high salaries, but especially at the beginning of their careers, they’re really crunched for time. And so there’s this discourse that pervades among the people I interviewed, in which they ‘work hard and play hard’ – and the idea of ‘hard work’ was striking in the way that they talk about how they’re entitled to these breaks, and how they’re entitled to spend their money how they want because they’ve worked really hard for it. It’s a belief in entitlement through work. That was interesting – how the super-rich portray themselves as deserving.
AR Much of Very Important People returns to the creation of these images of very conspicuous, ritualised waste – and the almost-mythical spenders behind the champagne wars in VIP parties (for instance, Malaysian businessman-turned-international-fugitive Jho Low’s infamous $1 million blowout at a Saint-Tropez bar, with a Paris Hilton cameo and magnums aplenty) – and how such excessive waste and consumption is, in a way, a producer of ‘value’. You link this picture to an older notion, that of the ‘potlatch’, a gift-giving feast – where does that idea come from, and what do you mean by it?
AM The reason I was so wedded to the idea of ‘conspicuous consumption’ was because within sociology and across the social sciences, it’s not taken very seriously as a concept. The big idea in cultural sociology – my subfield – comes from the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu, who is focused so much on this notion of distinction, the way that people might show their class distinction through these subtle codes and cues – wearing designer glasses, for instance, or having the right diction and accent, or even choosing to drive a Subaru over a flashy car to signal being a member of the intelligentsia. Sociologists are obsessed with this idea of distinction, and how all kinds of subgroups employ their consumption of goods to mark themselves in these nuanced ways.
But in recent years, we’ve seen people like Jho Low popping bottles – and we don’t have a way to account for this. Big-spenders like Jho Low are called ‘the whales’, people who maybe come to the clubs once a month and drop lots of money. The very fact that ‘whales’ exist is so exciting to everybody in the club. So people go to the club, and wonder, maybe Jho Low will be here tonight. It’s part of the mythology, so even if the club is probably making most of its money on bills that are much smaller – say, bankers splitting a $2000-4000 bill (the modal case) – it’s the exceptional cases that are immortalised. And that freewheeling spending and ostentation needs a concept like ‘conspicuous consumption’.
I went back to the writing of the late-nineteenth-century American sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen, someone who we don’t pay much attention to in sociology any more. I was drawn to him partly because his work on ‘conspicuous consumption’ (through his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class) is a really weird text, almost a satire, so it’s hard to take seriously. Veblen was inspired by these anthropologies of what was called the ‘potlatch’: nineteenth-century Pacific Northwest tribal societies in which there would be elaborate feasts, and nobles of tribes would compete with each other to see who could hold a bigger feast, who could waste more food, who could burn more blankets or other kinds of rare goods. And by going through that potlatch ritual a noble could assert his rank. It had lasting consequences: in humiliating a rival, claiming one’s title and gaining respect in the community. In that sense, the potlatch is only a partial metaphor for what’s happening in these clubs – since there is no profound, lasting consequence (if one oligarch outspends another, it doesn’t really matter in the community of elites today).
But Veblen deploys the idea of the potlatch in his satire of elites, by saying, look at these supposed titans of industry of the capitalist system – the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts – they’re actually acting like these precapitalist tribal peoples in attempting to gain status through spending. That is the core of his idea: acquiring status through spending and wasting, buying more than what you can consume, and showing this to other people. The potlatch is an interesting idea to revive in looking at contemporary consumer markets, and how all these parts of the experience economy offer some kind of version of it. The art market is a good example of this – it’s like an orchestrated ritual of waste when Art Basel comes through.
AR I’m quite struck by the tricky balancing act between status and taste. The elite, club-going customers you speak to realise that their big-spending can seem silly, tacky, even offensive – they are clearly conflicted about the extravagance: one Saint-Tropez regular admits to you that it’s all ‘pretty pathetic’. But at the same time, they are able to refashion these wasteful displays as playful too.
AM Yes, it’s exhilarating for them to be in these spaces. It is pleasurable. I think that’s a fact of domination itself in all kinds of forms – that it can be pleasurable – and that is why people perpetuate it in all its different manifestations. But this is a problem that social scientists always have, that if you do interviews with people, what they say is usually different from what they do. Because what they say is how they want to be perceived (and perhaps how they want to perceive themselves), but what they do – in the moment – can be very different. So if I’d just done observations, I could have just said that these were clueless rich jerks. And if I’d just done interviews, I would have concluded they were actually very thoughtful, very reflective people who want to be good people. In reality, they’re a mix of both.
AR A lot of your study focuses on the role of what historian Peter Bailey calls ‘parasexuality’ in the VIP crowd: from art galleries’ ‘gallerinas’ to the clubs’ ‘bottle girls’. What purpose do these women serve?
AM I think it’s true for so many commercial spaces that beautiful women add value, by virtue of adding beauty into the logic of styling things and selling things. In the idea of ‘parasexuality’, a concept that Bailey came up with when he was looking at barmaidens in nineteenth-century England, he was thinking about how, even within strict norms of sexual morality, the presence of beautiful women in a commercial setting would raise all kinds of titillating prospects that might violate those codes of what was sexually appropriate. That is how ‘parasexuality’ works – it is not fully deployed sex like ‘sex work’, but there is something about their sexual availability that gets put to work in these commercial settings. You can see it in what in sociology today we would call aesthetic labour: the uses of women, and men, but especially women’s bodies, in everything – hotels, Hooters, you name it.
Not all women’s beauty is the same, it communicates different things. And in the VIP world, the kind of women that are sought are the kinds of women whose bodies look like fashion models. A fashion model body is very tall, very skinny, very young, typically white, though not exclusively. And sometimes also strange – in fashion parlance, ‘edgy’. These are very high-end editorial models that feature in magazines, who don’t have the kinds of looks that are necessarily read as sexually attractive to a broad spread of consumers. This kind of beauty, these kinds of bodies, are incredibly high value in the VIP world. Not only are they understood to be rare, but they have a stamp of recognition from the fashion-modelling industry – a bunch of important people in the fashion world, from photographers to magazine editors, and agents, have said that this is a good looking person, that this is a valuable person. And so, if you get these people into the club, they can elevate a space into a high-status VIP world.
AR So the club promoters and guests are also relearning what they think of as ‘beautiful’.
AM Fashion models haven’t always had such a privileged space in our culture. The early models really ran the risk of being considered prostitutes – a woman who poses with their body in public, in the early twentieth century, would be considered a disreputable woman. There are all kinds of interesting stories about fashion models in 1920s New York when they first started opening up modelling agencies. The ‘girls’ had strict rules about how to behave in public, to always wear gloves, never swear, and to hold these little hat boxes. Then the industry starts to become high-status in the 1980s, and took off with the launch of ‘supermodels’. Fashion parties have become the most sought-after ever since.
AR You did your research from 2011 to 2013. I suppose a phenomenon like Rich Kids of Instagram was an early example of how images of ritualised waste, and excess consumption, could move online. Do you think a post-COVID-19, post-lockdown world will force a change in such displays, and push them further into the digital realm? In recent months, for instance, art fairs have been pressured into creating ‘online viewing rooms’ with ‘VIP days’ – but there is an obvious problem with attempting to create this artificial exclusivity on the Internet. Both the market for consuming ‘exceptional objects’ and the hyper-rich experience economy, might be under threat.
Or perhaps not much will change and every society will continue to find a way to destroy excess (in the twenty-first century, spraying champagne around the VIP table) in these ritualised ways.
AM Pre-COVID-19, there was definitely a shift, certainly with Instagram, for people to monetise their participation in this world. Promoters would also become brand ambassadors or even micro-influencers, getting paid by, say, a private-jet company or clothing brand. And there were potentially greater opportunities for the ‘girls’ to monetise their own participation too. That was one of the most surprising things, that promoters make a lot of money, clubs are making a tonne of money, clients are getting very valuable connections and experiences, but the girls don’t get paid. But with the rise of Instagram, of influencers, they can monetise a little bit more. Still, peanuts in comparison with what the industry is generating from them.
Post-pandemic, in a broader sense, you glimpsed an immediate reckoning and disgust with ostentatious displays of wealth in the context of COVID-19. We saw some instances where people would make statements like ‘we’re all in this together’, while broadcasting from their luxury yacht or private island, followed by a backlash. I think they’ve quickly learned not to do that since… So the norms of displaying wealth can swiftly shift. The displays will probably continue in the interim, before things normalise with the vaccine – taking place in private parties, and on private islands. They will probably not be as broadcast. The geography of wealth can also adapt quickly – people fleeing Manhattan for the Hamptons and so on. I think we’ll see these scenes head towards different locales, which might be harder to discover or document.
Ashley Mears is Associate Professor, Sociology, at Boston University. Very Important People (2020) is published by Princeton University Press.