Editors’ Note: This is the third installment of an interview series conducted in collaboration with the Stone Inequality Initiative at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. Directed by Professors Margaret Weir and Jim Morone, the initiative brings together the Brown community—as students, teachers, and scholars—for an urgent conversation about the consequences of great wealth and inequality on American politics, society, and culture.
Ashley Mears is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Boston University and a former fashion model. She is also the author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model (2011) and Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit (2020). She studies the connections between economic, gender, and cultural sociology with a focus on the value society places on people and on things. Specifically, the ethnographic study she conducted when writing Very Important People shines a light on the pervasive gender inequality and systems of exploitation built into the global party circuit.
Alyssa Merritt: Before conducting your ethnographic study for your book Very Important People, you experienced the world of elite nightlife firsthand as a young fashion model. What was this transition into elite nightlife like?
Ashley Mears: I was a first-generation college student on scholarship at the University of Georgia. When I graduated from university, I went to model in Hong Kong and was very aware how close the ties between modeling and nightlife were; the person that owned the modeling agency I was working at also owned the nightclub downstairs where everybody partied. I had known this connection existed before this. During the summers before I graduated college, I would travel abroad for short-term modeling contracts. When I was nineteen, I traveled to Milan alone; the agency arranged my flight and my apartment and had a driver meet me at the airport. When I got off the plane, jet-lagged, there was Maximo. He’s a nice young guy; he gets me a cappuccino, takes my baggage, and helps me get to the apartment. Then, he lets me know that there’s a dinner that evening, and I’m invited. I thought, “What a nice guy! My luck, this Maximo!” It took me a couple of weeks to realize that he didn’t just work for the agency; he worked for the club through the agency and getting the girls was part of his job.
This is all part of a side economy or parallel economy in elite nightlife that was supported by and supported fashion modeling. Models are poorly-paid on average. Places like Milan and New York have a lot of transient young women who are coming through and staying in less-than-ideal housing situations with other people who are their same age and are newcomers in the industry. Nobody has money; their kitchens are not fully stocked. Promoters offer a valuable service by bringing them into the clubs. This service is worth something to models, but it’s worth more to the promoter because it means he gets paid a good wage. It’s worth even more to the clubs and the men cycling in and out of the clubs; they use the presence of women to inflate their own status and signal their own significance to other elite men like themselves.
Alyssa Merritt: You had an awareness of what was going on in this elite world, but did the other models or girls seem cognizant of the way in which they were being exploited?
Ashley Mears: I think the first few times a young woman goes out with a promoter, there are some questions: “Why am I getting this stuff for free? Who’s paying the bill? Do I have to pay for this?” These questions get answered pretty quickly, and the answer to those questions is usually some basic version of “Oh no, it’s free. They like having models here.” Everything is about compliments, and it’s compliments in two senses. It’s complimentary because it’s free, but it’s also a compliment to be included. It means that the value in this exchange is contained in your beauty, which is significant in giving you access to something that people who don’t look like you don’t get access to. That’s a powerful feeling.
Alyssa Merritt: You were also noticeably older than the other models when you conducted your field work. What role does age play in this system?
Ashley Mears: In Very Important People, I was 31 when I started my research and 32 when I exited. People were downright shocked that I was in my thirties because I was a good 10 years older than the other women, but I looked a lot younger than I was. I wasn’t seen as a woman; I was seen as a girl. It was very clear that older women had no place in these spaces. All the other women were in their twenties and fell into the ‘girl’ social category that I describe in my book.
Alyssa Merritt: When you first began your research, did you receive pushback from other academics who did not consider the world of partying to be a legitimate area of study?
Ashley Mears: On one hand, you can really turn any topic into a sociologically-relevant topic, which is what I love about sociology. On the other hand, there are definitely more legitimate topics related to inequality and the stratification of gender, race, and class that form the bread and butter of the discipline. Studying sitting elites is increasingly seen as important because of the vast wealth inequality globally, but the study of inequality in sociology is largely driven by studying the poor, not the rich. Studying elites is kind of a new frame, but it’s still within classic sociological concerns of power, financial resources, and stratification. However, studying something as feminized as what I study—my dissertation, for example, was about fashion modeling—definitely made me aware of the need to frame it about bigger things than fashion. Now, fashion is a trillion dollar industry, but, at the time, I had to show how my work was relevant because it was about inequality. I was fortunate to be working in my department at Boston University (BU), because sociology at BU is an interesting and eclectic place. I was aware that there could have been a mismatch between the things that I’m interested in and the things the discipline has traditionally been interested in, but I was fortunate to be working at a university that saw the value in my project.
Alyssa Merritt: In your work, you shine a light on the pervasiveness of male power and female objectification. This behavior manifests itself in different pockets of society but is notably prevalent in the development of kids and young adults, especially amongst those involved in Greek life and the college party scene. Why do you think this pattern of behavior exists?
Ashley Mears: It’s a fairly durable finding across social groups that people pursue status as a means of showing off their position and self-worth. The way women look is a key signifier in these efforts to show off one’s status. When you have systems where men control the power, they also control the access. The party scene on a college campus is often controlled by the men who throw the parties; the club scene is controlled by the men running the clubs. In both cases, men get positioned as doormen and can control access. This setup on college campuses creates a miniature version of the VIP club world that I studied. It’s miniature in the sense that it involves younger people, but it’s actually huge in that this is a dynamic that describes so many colleges. Men want to prove their status, the status of their nightclub or house, and the good times they can afford. The dominant way to do this is with the display of women who conform to very narrow standards of white hegemonic beauty defined by the fashion modeling industry.
For the girls involved, there is something pleasurable about being the object of a gaze. It’s validating. It’s not because women are dominated that they feel this way; it can be fun to be the object of a gaze, especially when the gaze has a recognizable social power. I capture that in both Very Important People and Pricing Beauty. A lot of models really love that feeling of, “I’m modeling, I’m on the catwalk, and everybody is looking at me.”
Alyssa Merritt: The judgment of what is deemed attractive and what is not is central to the use of female bodies as capital. Predominant conceptions of beauty center around white and skinny women; however, there’s been a shift toward greater body inclusivity in the modeling industry in recent years. Do you think this shift toward inclusivity will affect the standards of beauty within the world of elite nightlife as well?
Ashley Mears: I think it can. The fashion industry pays good lip service to inclusivity at the right moments or when there’s pressure, but, underlying that, the fashion industry relies on being aspirational. That means it has to portray aspirational bodies, which by definition are out of reach for most people. There may be some token homage to inclusivity, but, at its core, slenderness is a distinction in a society of plenty where it’s harder to be skinny and it’s rarer to be skinny than it is to be large. There’s many reasons for that, but what makes skinniness valuable is its rarity.
The beauty aesthetic within fashion is tied closely to a white, racist assumption of what those features should look like. It’s an old, entrenched vision. In a nightclub, what is so appealing in that space is the height of a slender, pretty woman. That’s why heels were so important. I always found it strange that people were wearing such high heels to go to dance clubs because you can’t move in them. All the women would complain about how uncomfortable it was and how unsafe it felt to be walking around in a crowded space next to drunk people wearing those heels. Yet, everybody insisted that these women wear them because it communicated something. This is deeply rooted in a system that prizes whiteness but also prizes slenderness because of its rarity.
Alyssa Merritt: In your book, you talk about how many promoters tend to be brown or Black men who don’t necessarily come from wealth. For the women involved, who might have more limited opportunities in life, the existence of this elite party circuit gives them access to a world they might not have access to otherwise. You are critical of the gaping inequality that is demonstrated by this elite party circuit, but do you sympathize with those who are attracted to the circuit as a means of gaining a better life? More broadly, do you see any benefit to this way of life?
Ashley Mears: The women know that money is being made in this club scene and that it’s more money than they’re making, but they also know that there is something in it for them. They can and do leave if they don’t feel like they are getting what they want out of this scene. I don’t discount the seriousness of the things that are beneficial to women in this system. For one, it is fun to go out. Sociologists need to do a better job of attending to fun and pleasure as a serious motivation for why a lot of people do the things that they do. These girls get to eat lavish meals and get gifted champagne on somebody else’s dime. A gift is a powerful transaction—if somebody gifts you something, it means that you are worthy as an exchange partner. To be put into this exchange circuit with rich and powerful elites is a source of empowerment, validation, and fun. It isn’t empowerment on a structural level because, at the end of the night, it’s just a glass of champagne. Even though the woman has contributed to the club making a lot of money but hasn’t made money herself, I think agency comes in all kinds of forms that can steer people’s actions. If we want to understand actions, we have to understand that.
There are some young women that are more strategic in their understanding of what they could get out of participating in this scene: social ties, networking, meeting wealthy people that could open doors for them, and learning the habits and tastes of the elite. However, from my observations, the value of these benefits were actually pretty limited for young women precisely because the men that controlled the scene and the rich men that bankrolled it tended to see the women there as just “party girls.” A “party girl,” which is a social type of young woman, is assumed to be out to have a good time, to be uneducated, and to have no career or serious future. They’re also seen to be available for sex. They are looked at as a pool of hookup partners, not as marriage material. Rich people tend to partner with people of similar economic, educational, or occupational prestige and position.
This is different from promoters. Promoters are visibly marked as outsiders by their race and are also considered outsiders because they don’t come from elite backgrounds. The promoters I observed were laser-focused on networking: They had a plan and were very strategic in cultivating ties with rich men. For the promoters that ventured into other projects in hospitality or nightlife, they were able to use and leverage their ties to open their own clubs, restaurants, or bars. Some promoters did have much bigger aspirations—like doing business in real estate or trading at the same level as their clientele—but those kinds of aspirations usually were not realized, which was frustrating for a number of promoters. For those that stayed in their lane, they were absolutely able to become entrepreneurs or use their social ties to help them.
Alyssa Merritt: You define this practice of recruiting women and using them for profit as a form of trafficking, but you have gotten pushback from those who reserve the term trafficking to define the more extreme form of sex trafficking. Does this resistance to recognize this practice as a form of trafficking play a role in minimizing the attention these issues receive?
Ashley Mears: Yeah, I’m sure it does. Usually, there has to be some kind of horrific event before a system gets critically examined, which is a shame. These systems are baked into a lot of institutions and a lot of basic assumptions about how the world works, so people kind of go along with these systems until something horrible happens. Especially when something bad happens, like a Jeffrey Epstein situation. There is a tendency to think about him and the people around him as bad actors that perpetuated something that is somehow very separate from the rest of society that everyday people are involved in or that nightlife industries, fashion industries, and college campuses are complicit in. When people hear about the trafficking of girls, their thoughts usually go to Epstein. What I show in my book is that trafficking is a pretty pervasive phenomenon. These sex trafficking rings are one type of this traffic, but male-controlled circuits that siphon off value from women’s bodies is a more standard form.
Alyssa Merritt: We hear so many stories about the sexualization of young women and even children in high profile cases involving powerful men. Yet your book shines a light on the pervasive, more subtle instances of this behavior. These are definitely instances of abuse or exploitation, but they don’t share the same high profile quality of the cases that do make the news. Why do these more common cases get swept under the rug?
Ashley Mears: They’re invisible because they’re common. They don’t make the news because people are used to them. Maybe another way of asking the question is “Why is it that, when there’s an Epstein, there isn’t a larger discussion about the everyday circulation of girls and systems of exploitation that appropriate girls’ value for the benefit of male-controlled networks?” That was what I thought was so powerful about Me Too: It began with the titan Harvey Weinstein, but then it trickled down into “this happens in college,” “this happens in so many workplaces,” and “this happened in my dormitory.” I see that as a great example of the power of these exceptional cases in exposing the everyday.
Alyssa Merritt: Today’s world is dominated by social media and this tendency to show off wealth and possessions. Do you think this has contributed to and increased ostentatious displays of wealth or has it just made a phenomenon that already existed more visible?
Ashley Mears: I think it’s increased it. Social media amplifies the audience, so it amplifies the possibility of visibility. The rituals in these clubs I describe go back to the 1990s and really started to take off in the 2000s, which was before the ubiquity of smartphones and social media. When I first started doing this field work, we would walk into the club and everybody would look at us. It was a sign of display that was often choreographed in specific ways. We would go to the place with the most visibility, which is next to the DJ. That’s considered the best table because it’s next to the richest people. The logic of the club is making the rich clientele look good; the presence of the models at the next table helps accomplish this. Once Instagram became dominant, it was kind of seamlessly built into this practice. Now, everyone walks into the club with their phones out. All these moments that used to be moments meant to catch the attention of the people in the room became moments to catch the attention of followers on TikTok or Instagram. The audience has just become so much bigger and broader. This is extremely meaningful for everybody that participates in these kinds of ostentatious rituals, but especially for the young women.
I don’t think I’ve actually put it into words this way before, but I think that answers the question of consent and why people put so much effort into doing things that work against them. Why do these women do these things when they’re not getting paid their actual value? Because the picture is extremely valuable. They can broadcast to their roommates or classmates back home, “look, I’ve made it,” even if they can’t afford to be in the space that they are showing off or are paying to be there with their bodily capital. The value of these experiences just becomes much bigger because they can be broadcast so much farther.
Alyssa Merritt: Do you see a solution to the problems perpetuated by the elite party circuit?
Ashley Mears: I think more women should own nightclubs. There should also be a concerted effort to finance women-controlled clubs and any women-controlled organization in male-dominated fields. That would be a great intervention. Women would not necessarily create something radically different, but the point is they should have the choice to. In a city like New York, there is so much desire baked into being in these places precisely because they are the seeds of financial, cultural, and economic power. They’re symbolic spaces in which everybody wants to be included, yet they are disproportionately owned and operated by men. The men pay the bills, but the young, unpaid women are so central to their operations. That should strike everybody as really weird.
Alyssa Merritt: What gives you hope that any change will happen?
Ashley Mears: I actually don’t have hope. Gender, economic, and racial inequalities are embedded in institutions. There are so many manifestations and symptoms of these problems, and there are so many different possible solutions. A deeper solution to the problem of gender, class, race, and exclusionary practices and exploitation in elite nightlife might also be connected to the same problems that have created this vast economic inequality and disproportionate control of resources among a tiny group of people in the world. Of all the problems around those issues, elite nightlife is not going to be at the front of anybody’s mind.
However, that is not necessarily the only measure of the value of doing research. This case is valuable to understand because it helps us realize how prevalent this dynamic is. When I give talks about my research, people always respond with something like, “Oh my gosh, I’m from a small town in Ohio, and the bar on Main Street operates under the same logic!” Hierarchies, exclusion, and boundaries operate all over, so thinking through these exceptional cases helps us understand the dynamics that we’re more familiar with.
Alyssa Merritt: What words of advice do you have for young, college-age women who might find themselves tempted into this life of partying and luxury?
Ashley Mears: I think about this often. I started this field work when I was around 31. At that age, I had very little appreciation for loud EDM in a club at 2 am, but I had to think about how, when I was 18 or 19, I did actually like this kind of stuff. My advice would be something along these lines: Recognize what the system is, what personal gain can be achieved, and what losses exist structurally. Recognize that these losses are perpetuating a system of gender inequality, classist inequality, and classist exclusion. I do think that is a bargain that a lot of people—my younger self included—are okay with making, but that understanding should be taken seriously and with full awareness.
One cool thing about publishing a book like Very Important People is that, because it was aimed for a broader audience, I got a lot of emails from people that I didn’t expect to hear from. One woman was a mother whose twenty-something daughter was in New York, partying with promoters late at night. Having read my book, the mother emailed me worried about her daughter. My advice to her was that her daughter was at the age where someone probably can use the scene in a more strategic way, akin to that of promoters. This is a space where you can get cultural and social capital, can leverage those gains in your own projects or entrepreneurial ventures, and can gain exposure to a world you may otherwise not get access to. I do think that is an experience worth having. It can be risky, especially if somebody is inclined to drink a lot or take drugs. That is cause for legitimate concern because these are young people and things can go very wrong, but those more horrific cases are rare. My advice was to go in and get what you can out of it, but be aware of what the systems are also perpetuating.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.