The millionaire was dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, and would have been easy to miss if he hadn’t been surrounded by a dozen tall, thin, beautiful women and waving a pink bottle of Cristal champagne. His next drinks order arrived in a ceremonial procession, known in the nightclub business as a bottle train. A group of bouncers carried two bins full of champagne bottles and sparklers, lifted high above their heads. They were followed by a procession of stiletto-clad waitresses, bearing the same gifts. Onlookers cheered in the glow and held up their phones to take pictures.
Over the last few decades, a new elite has emerged, partly as a result of the deregulation of the financial sector in the West and partly because of the spread of global capitalism across the world. This elite is more geographically dispersed and mobile than the aristocrats and capitalists of yesteryear.
They are a small cohort of oligarchs, New York hedge-fund managers, and Silicon Valley investors who now patronize a network of nightclubs that span the globe. These are men willing to drop a house deposit’s worth of cash in one night.
What most people don’t realize is that the apparently spontaneous abandon of extravagant nights is painstakingly planned. It takes a carefully hidden, intricate economy, based on a complex brokering of beauty and status, to create an atmosphere in which people will spend $100,000 on alcohol in a single night. This economy’s currency is young women – the leggy blondes surrounding the big spenders.
Women in this world are living props in a carefully scripted theatre that created real financial value for men—the promoters who set up the scene, the nightclub owners who raked in the bar bills, the wannabe billionaires who used the environment to network.
The women’s motivation was harder to pinpoint, but every night, they gamely donned their heels and hit the clubs.
The point of gathering a crowd of models was to put customers in the right kind of mood to spend money, and transform that ambience into profit by inflating the price of the alcohol they bought by up to 1,000%. That markup included the invisible labour it took to summon the models. Customers pay so they didn’t have to bring the women themselves or engage a broker to procure them. They paid for the illusion of spontaneity.
Clubs gave promoters a nightly fee to bring in someone, almost always a man, willing to book a table and buy bottles of wine. Clubs usually gave the promoter a cut of the client’s bar bill too, around 10-20%. It wasn’t exactly easy money however in a good year, a promoter takes home $200,000.
On the flip side, the paternalistic relationship between promoters and models involves a lot of taxi fares, meals, and gifts, totaling hundreds of dollars a day.
Customers call the promoters when they wanted to have a good time – in practical terms, a guaranteed table at the coolest club, surrounded by the best-looking women.
The big beasts were rarely spotted but the possibility that they might turn up was part of the appeal for the much larger number of clients in the tier 2 market.
The tier-2 market is just below the big spender ‘whales’, they are more of the run-of-the-mill bankers, tech developers, and other high-earning professionals, whose bar bills were a fraction of the whales.
If you were to ask most people what makes men spend thousands of dollars on alcohol in a single night, the answer would probably seem simple. Rich people like showing off and don’t care about losing money.
To achieve this effect, the women brought in either had to be models or have similar physical attributes: beauty, height, and thinness.
The spending sprees that the women stimulated were not necessarily motivated by a desire to impress them, but such gestures were often directed at other rich male customers.
Status is a sensitive thing. It exists only when an audience recognizes it. This means that VIP clubs have to construct an environment that makes status-seeking seem the by-product of fun and spontaneous night out. Hence, the job of the women was not primarily to appeal to men’s sexual fantasies but to represent the most aspirational version of femininity.
Some promoters would use tricks to make it harder for the dance-out models to leave: like checking in their coats at the cloakroom or putting their handbags under the banquette sofas on which everyone would end up dancing later in the night.
In return, the young ladies get perks and free meals, free champagne, and free entry to the coolest clubs with the best DJs. Some took what they could from the scene: sex with a promoter, smoking his pot on the beach, dining in fancy restaurants, and the excitement of seeing where the night would take you.
Most women think that following promoters around would be valuable in the longer term. One benefit was cultural capital. Getting access to the kind of circles where you might find a serious investor.
Young women appreciated the fact that, by hanging out in VIP areas, they were able to hear what books or news stories rich people were talking about, and recognise high-end brands, food and wines. Learning the codes of elite consumer culture, was important, even if they were vague on how it might be of practical use. Women also thought the social ties—the connections with successful men—would turn out to be valuable.
Being desired and given presents and experiences by powerful men that other women couldn’t have because they weren’t as beautiful, was in itself a buzz.
So, the invisible system behind every £100,000 bar tab is pretty women.
Adapted and edited from The Economist, though originally written by Ashley Mears, an associate professor of sociology at Boston University.