Very Important People depicts a complex world of exchange and exploitation, and warrants praise for doing so without passing predictable moral judgement. More than offering a mere window into the exotic lives of others, Ashley Mears emphasizes themes that should resonate with us all: the labour of marginalized others that lurks behind so much status-seeking consumption, the risks of conflating work with fun and friendship, and the sad fact that “girl power” remains as oxymoronic as ever.
It was worth it, though. Very Important People, Mears’ record of her nightclub experiences and her intimate observation of displays of extravagance at the elite nightclubs frequented by models and wealthy men, is rich entertainment. It also offers intellectual insight into this age’s expression of what Thorstein Veblen, the US sociologist, dubbed conspicuous consumption.
Very Important People, Mears’ record of her nightclub experiences and her intimate observation of displays of extravagance at the elite nightclubs frequented by models and wealthy men, is rich entertainment. It also offers intellectual insight into this age’s expression of what Thorstein Veblen, the US sociologist, dubbed conspicuous consumption. The “models and bottles” club was pioneered in New York by Marquee, a 10th Avenue club that opened in 2003 and was by 2007 grossing $15m a year. The money came from the super-wealthy and what one club owner called the “lettuce” in the club salad. He meant “affluent tourists and businessmen — your run-of-the-mill banker, tech developer or other upper-class professional,” Mears writes.
Very Important People is elegantly written and genuinely page-turning, with revelations about life that go far beyond nightclubs. It is telling that Mears didn’t have to go even slightly undercover to write it. Promoters, dreaming of fame, were glad of a Boswell to document their ascent (“I’d love to shake it with a professor,” says one). The rich clients, exuding the confidence of pre-Weinstein, pre-Epstein untouchability, manifestly didn’t see the beady-eyed Mears as a threat, or even really as a person. When she reassures her host in the Hamptons that she will keep his name confidential, he says: “Oh, you don’t get it. You think you’re invited for being a writer. You’re invited because you’re a hot girl.”
According to Mears, this particular type of club started in New York in the late 1990s and really took off in the 2000s. The status of the club is defined by the beauty of its ‘girls’. The girls are not there to offer sexual favours (they would be thrown out if they did); they are only there by way of set dressing. The best are fashion models, thin, elegantly dressed, and more than six foot tall in their high heels, but occasionally a club promoter will let a ‘good civilian’ in, if she is tall and pretty enough.
Mears' book, which is out now on Princeton University Press, raises questions about the 'Bottles and Models' lifestyle that is bandied around on social media and by rappers like Jay Z and Chris Brown.