* Door personnel quickly assess a person’s status by sizing up physique, beauty, race, accent, clothes, watch, dress, even handbag. Red-soled Louboutin heels signal high status, but if the girl wearing them stands below five feet seven, matching the height of the “door girl” stationedat one club, she is not allowed inside. Especially if she’s a person of color.
The VIP space is a racially exclusive environment. Even if hip-hop is frequently played inside VIP clubs, on most nights out I could count on both hands the number of black and brown people present, not counting the service workers. Promoters know not to fill their table with too many women of color—a couple of black, brown, and Asian girls are fine, but the majority of tables host white bodies, and deliberately so. Some of the clients that I interviewed, too, were subject to race-based discrimination. On one egregious occasion, a handsome French Middle Eastern man with a lot of inherited wealth and connections was out with his white male friend, to whom the “door girl” leaned in and whispered, “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.” Such outright discriminatory remarks were rare, however, because for the most part nonwhite bodies are implicitly denied on the basis of the quality of their looks. With alarming frequency, such “velvet rope racism” prohibits nonwhites from entering. But unlike its Jim Crow predecessor, this is a softer form of race-based discrimination that articulates race in terms of beauty, status, and “quality.” Clubs are careful to admit the right number of exceptions to conceal racial bias, making it much harder to legally prosecute. 40 In this way, the clubs cater mostly to white clientele and appeal to them with the bodies of mostly white girls.
Yet as much as nonwhiteness lowers the status of a potential entrant in the eyes of the door person, for girls, beauty can override it: a black fashion model, a real model, will always be welcome. A white girl of short stature or large size, on the other hand, will be told that tonight is a “private party” and she cannot come in. Or, perhaps, she will be insulted to her face. Short women are regularly called “midgets,” and heavier women are dismissed as liabilities for the club’s prestige and the promoters’ reputations. To describe a club that was perceived as lower quality, one promoter flatly stated, “The girls were fat.” Another promoter said in our interview, “I will use the term muppets or hobbits to describe the, like, less-than fortunate looking girls.” Another referred to the women at a nearby table as “ugly dogs.” Midget. Troll. Elf. Hideous. Disaster. Monster. These are words club personnel use to describe women who do not meet their physical criteria. Their bodies are seen as worthless and contaminating. Their presence is perceived as draining value from the club, its management, the promoters, and their reputations. They lower the quality of the crowd, the fun of the night, and its economic potential. They are fiercely excluded. Ask a doorman to make an exception just this one time, to let in a girl of perceived lower quality, and you will likely hear this retort: “If we let her in, you won’t want to come here anymore.”
* Any club, whether in a New York City basement or on a Saint-Tropez beach, is always shaped by a clear hierarchy. Fashion models signal the “A-list,” but girls are only half of the business model. There are a few different categories of men that every club owner wants inside, and there is a much larger category of men that they aim to keep out.The most valuable in this hierarchy of men is the whale, a term you might know from casinos and speculative finance. Whales can drop huge sums of money from their vast riches, sometimes over a hundred thousand dollars in a single night. Their reputation is legendary in nightlife.
* After whales, club owners hope to attract celebrities, another class of highly valued clients. Sometimes celebrities buy expensive bottles, part of the show of excess that will likely make it into the press, but usually they are comped, since their mere presence adds value to the club. Some celebrities even get paid to make appearances in clubs, notably Paris Hilton, a pioneer in paid club appearances who created her own celebrity through the VIP scene, which she then aggressively monetized. 45
While exciting, whales and celebrities don’t account for the bulk of clubs’ profits; they are too rare. Furthermore, very rich men who could spend huge sums are regularly invited to party free of charge, even if they aren’t celebrities. An elaborate informal system of prices marks who is important enough to be among the VIPs, and who is actually “very” important. Prices are negotiable, contingent upon the spender’s social status; some men pay reduced prices for tables, and some are comped automatically because of their status. In fact, the men with the most riches, either in terms of their social connections, symbolic value, or financial worth, are often comped drinks on the house. One self-described Brazillionaire explained why he rarely paid for drinks in any Meatpacking District club that knew who he was: “They think I’ll give something back,” such as investing in the owner’s next bar or club venture, or holding his next big (and lucrative) birthday party at that establishment.
Free things are a clear marker of status in the VIP world. Free entry, drinks, and dinners signal recognition of a person’s social worth. 46 “I always said, in nightlife it’s not what you spend, it’s what you get for free. That’s real power,” said Malcolm, the promoter I followed in New York and Miami. “You got a lot of money and you spend a lot, of course you get respect. But if you don’t spend a dime, that’s power.”
Most clubs make the bulk of their profits from smaller and more reliable table bills, the $1,500 to $3,000 sums spent by groups of affluent tourists and businessmen—your run-of-the-mill banker, tech developer, or other upper-class professional with a disposable income. While on the lower end of importance compared to whales and celebrities, they are central to the VIP scene; in fact, they bankroll it. They regularly run up high-volume tabs because they, too, want to be close to power and beauty. Unlike celebrities and higher-status VIPs, these men always pay.
Duke, a former club owner and now a real estate magnate in downtown New York, calls these people mooks: “You know, a mook. Someone who doesn’t know what’s going on … It’s the dentists that come in and buy the tables, thinking they’re in the company of the cool people, and the beautiful people.” Dentists with their own practice in New York, I should note, make considerably higher incomes than the national average. But such high-earning professionals are not nearly as exciting as the people at promoters’ tables.
At the bottom of the hierarchy is a category of men without connections or money who cannot afford even modest table rents, but they might still have something of value to offer the club. Called “fillers,” these men keep the place from looking empty. They look cool enough, and have enough “cultural capital” to be allowed in, but they have to stand at the bar and jostle for their drinks like everyone did in the old clubbing formula.
And then you have the “bridge and tunnel” crowd, people who might have some money, maybe even enough to buy a table, but don’t have the right look. To the bouncer of a VIP club, they look like outsiders, people from Staten Island or Queens, who lack the right cultural sense to live on the island of Manhattan. If you give off class-coded cues that make you look like you traveled by bridge or tunnel to the Meatpacking District, you are unwelcome upon arrival.
Also at the bottom of the hierarchy is what Dre called the “ghetto crowd, scary crowd,” invoking stereotypes that link the lower classes, criminality, and nonwhite people. Plenty of clubs in New York cater to this crowd, and while they make money in the short term, Dre would never step foot in these clubs. “You can make a ton of money with them,” on inflated prices on bottles, “but they are carrying a piece [a gun]. They start shooting and will fight. It’s dangerous, scary people.” Himself a black man, Dre took pains to distance himself from other black people, whom he understood were stereotyped as lower class, and who therefore posed liabilities for his reputation.
Bridge and tunnel, goons, and ghetto. These are men whose money can’t compensate for their perceived status inadequacies. The marks of their marginal class positions are written on their bodies, flagging an automatic reject at the door.
How deeply stamped in our bodies is the status structure of a society. You can actually see this hierarchy just by scanning a room like the Downtown, which depicts a topography of embodied statuses everywhere you look. Bouncers, or security personnel, are large black men nearly always dressed in black; they are emblems of physical power but not social status. The busboys who carry trays of empty bottles and glasses are short and brown skinned Latinos, between five feet three and five feet five tall. Wearing plain black uniforms, they weave through the crowd carrying trays, mops, and glasses almost sight unseen. In the space they are “non-persons,” as Goffman would call them. 48 Sometimes they hold flashlights above their heads so you know they are coming through, but you can hardly see the body beneath the light, a contrast to the sparkling bottle of champagne illuminating the tall, stiletto clad girls. Cocktail waitresses, called “bottle girls,” are tall, voluptuous, and relatively racially diverse, their dresses as tight and revealing as their heels are high; they stand for sex and, according to guys like Dre, they are as much for sale as the bottles they carry. 49 Unlike the seemingly available bottle girl, the fashion model represents not sex but beauty—a prize of far greater status. While everyone else—bouncer, busboy, filler, and even the bottle girl, except when needed—tends to fade into the background, the model is meant to stand out. Tables for models are reserved in highly visible areas of clubs and restaurants, and everyone in nightlife wants to be seen with them.
To be clear, to refer to a “high-quality crowd” is first and foremost to refer to the quality of its girls: that is, to a crowd full of models or women who look like models. Girls determine hierarchies of clubs, the quality of people inside, and how much money is spent.
* The cool people don’t stay in one place for long, and club owners can both spend and earn a lot of money in pursuit of them. A nightclub usually stays in business for a few years, rarely more than that. During that period, each club follows a similar life cycle. First it attracts highstatus guests and excludes everyone else. Over time, as the VIPs gravitate to other, newer clubs in the city, the club opens its doors to the lower-status masses and the crowd gets less exclusive.
* Elite communities are no longer anchored to neighborhoods or cities, as they flock to prime destinations at specific times of the year in what have been called “rich enclaves”: summer colonies like the Hamptons and the French Riviera; St. Barts, Aspen, and Gstaad in the winter. 60 The island of St. Barts transforms from a quiet upper-class resort into a celebrated landing pad for millionaires’ yachts during the peak season, in January. 61 The elite business class follows a transatlantic calendar of VIP scenes—St. Barts in January, Miami in March, Saint-Tropez and Ibiza in July—and a predictable schedule of parties crops up along the Fashion Week calendars each September and February, with stops in Milan, London, and Paris. 62 On the one hand, elites are more diverse and geographically dispersed around the world than other classes; on the other, they are so segregated from them that geographers describe their movements as “super-gentrification,” characterized by geographic isolation, social self segregation, and a sense of remoteness. Today’s hypermobile elites live in a bubble separate from most people.
* Like Dre, most promoters unexpectedly fell into their line of work. They tell a remarkably consistent story: of the thirty-nine male promoters I interviewed, only one sought out the job on his own initiative. 2 Rather, the job had a way of finding them. It’s easy to see why: they are charming men, flirtatious, stylish, and persistent.
* Men may have more fun and find more pleasure in being around beautiful girls than not, but it would be hard for a client like Wade to account for this pleasure as deriving purely from deliberate status-driven pursuits. High-status places are surely pleasurable in themselves, in part because being high status feels good. 6 A beautiful woman communicates this, irrespective of her own status or class background: “I’d still rather be around beautiful people even if their lives are on derailment and they’re college dropouts,” insisted Wade.
Even if clients did not necessarily go out seeking economically enriching connections, the VIP scene gave them a place where they could build valuable social ties with other men like them. There was a law firm partner who met prospective clients at clubs. A cosmetic dentist met his celebrity patients. There was an Italian entrepreneur who worked in fashion and now in politics who was such a regular at one New York club that he had his own table reserved nightly for entertaining guests. He told me, “I never met a billionaire in a Starbucks. I’ve never met someone who could change my life in Starbucks.” But look around, the club was full of such people.
Even if rich men didn’t particularly care for the party scene in Saint-Tropez or in the Hamptons, they felt it was important to be there, if nothing else, to collect the stories and the credit to show colleagues and would-be partners that they too belong in an international circuit of VIPs.
* For clients and promoters alike, then, the real finds were not “party girls,” no matter how physically attractive, but “good girls.” What the good girl has the party girl lacks: sexual respectability and self-restraint, and a promising future in which she herself might fit in among the upper class. Good girls were candidates for relationships but unlikely to be found in the company of promoters; party girls were suitable for hookups, and clubs were overflowing with them.
This very tension plagued the introduction of Melania Trump to the national stage during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Melania Knavs, the Slovenian fashion model, met future husband and real estate mogul Donald Trump at the Kit Kat Club, in 1998, at a party organized by former model agency owner Paolo Zampolli, a man known for bringing together models and economically powerful men at exclusive parties. 19 But, Zampolli assured the press, Melania was not a party girl.
* The term “bottle girl” even has associations with sex work and criminality in popular and legal discourse. In an FBI investigation of theft in Miami in 2014, agents called a ring of con women “bottle girls” (and “b-girls” for short) for targeting men at bars and aggressively upselling them alcohol, in exchange for a share of 20 percent of the bar’s profits.
* The stigma of prostitution threatened to pollute all party girls in the scene. While the VIP club space extracted value from women’s beauty, women suspected of using their looks for their own economic gain were shunned. Club owners, promoters, and wealthy clients all shared suspicions around women who seemed to have economic motivations. They called such women “users,” “hookers,” and “whores.” The specter of the paid girl loomed over all girls who, by virtue of being in the VIP space, had entered into a disreputable exchange, prostitute-like in that they capitalized on their looks for free champagne and vacations.