Ashley Mears on Status and Beauty (Ep. 97)

How many academics can claim to have modeled on the side?

Ashley Mears is a former fashion model turned academic sociologist, and her book Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit is one of Tyler’s favorites of the year. The book, the result of eighteen months of field research, describes how young women exchange “bodily capital” for free drinks and access to glamorous events, boosting the status of the big-spending men they accompany.

Ashley joined Tyler to discuss her book and experience as a model, including the economics of bottle service, which kinds of men seek the club experience (and which can’t get in), why Tyler is right to be suspicious of restaurants filled with beautiful women, why club music is so loud, the surprising reason party girls don’t want to be paid, what it’s like to be scouted, why fashion models don’t smile, the truths contained in Zoolander, how her own beauty and glamour have influenced her academic career, how Barbara Ehrenreich inspired her work, her unique tip for staying focused while writing, and more.

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You can also watch a video of the conversation here.

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TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone. Today I am chatting with Ashley Mears, who is professor of sociology at Boston University. This year, she is publishing one of my very favorite books of the year. It is called Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit — publication date, May 26th. I’m also a big fan of her earlier book, called Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model. Ashley, welcome.

ASHLEY MEARS: Hi, Tyler, thank you. Thanks for having me.

COWEN: Let’s just jump right in. When wealthy men are in clubs, why do they want other wealthy men to see them surrounded by beautiful women?

MEARS: [laughs] I feel like you don’t really need a sociologist to answer that question. Beautiful women are a sign of status, of high status. Wealthy men like to surround themselves in the same way that you would see a curated entourage in lots of different historical forms.

Beautiful women in the VIP clubland are a sign of status. And it’s a certain kind of beauty. That’s the interesting thing about beauty, right? It’s always in the eye of the beholder. But in the VIP world, which caters to these rich men, the kind of beauty is the kind that’s defined as very rare according to the fashion modeling industry: very tall, very thin, predominantly — although not exclusively — white, and with a look that you would see in a high-end fashion magazine.

COWEN: But I know, for instance, a lot of CEOs from the Midwest, and they are not seeking to see themselves surrounded by beautiful women. They hang out with their wives, whom they seem to love. Their wives are more or less the same age. What accounts for that cross-sectional variation?

MEARS: Very Important People is not about all economic elites. It’s about this subsection of economic elites who are predominantly young. They’re affluent tourists or businesspeople who are coming through places like New York, or on this global jet-set calendar in, for instance, Saint-Tropez or St. Barts or the Hamptons. It’s a certain type of predominantly young, economically powerful man that goes to these spaces and can purchase, over the course of the night, that feeling of being high status, that this feeling, this temporary feeling of being the big man in anthropological terms.

That’s not to say, however, that the midwestern CEO doesn’t occasionally take a trip to New York [laughs] and dip into these spaces. They’re welcomed too. Any man with money can come into these places.

If you think about some of the really rich people on really great behavior, like the Bill Gateses of the world, who seem very grounded and hardworking and family men — they occasionally also go into these high-profile places and get crazy in the VIP section of a nightclub. They’re not the main fare for these clubs, but they’re definitely welcome, and they come and go.

COWEN: Say I want to be known publicly as a man surrounded by many of these beautiful women. What sector am I likely to be in? Or what age am I likely to be? Or what’s predicting that correlation?

MEARS: It would be people who have a lot of disposable money, where their money is coming in quickly. Money comes in quickly. It goes out quickly. People who get the bonus in Wall Street were a lot of the people that I met in these spaces. The people are in their 30s and their 40s, recent divorcees. So, recently single people who are going through a wild moment in their life.

There would be occasional businesspeople who are interested in doing business, and this is one of the forms in which they can bond with one another, especially the case in some forms of finance, so they might be in these arenas as well.

It’s a bit of a mix. Some people are really into this VIP club experience for a couple of years. For men, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see men that were in their 50s and 60s, certainly uncommon to see women in their 50s or 60s. But for the most part, it would be younger men who have a lot of money that they can spend.

COWEN: Are these male signalers mostly high-time-preference people, who “have a lot of money” but actually are not that well off, and they want to send a short-run signal, and they don’t care very much about 20 years out? Is that the right way to think about it?

MEARS: There’s definitely some of those people. You can find them through some of the lawsuits, where they’ll come into a club, and they actually don’t even have any money. But they come in, and they pretend to be a big spender, called a whale. They run up a high bill, and then their credit card declines it the next day. And then they end up going to court with the club. That happens sometimes.

To go to one of these clubs with the bottle service formula, you rent the table for the night, and then the bottles of alcohol get brought to your table. There’s this huge price inflation on the bottles, so for a single person to do that, it could be a tab of $2,000, $3,000 on up. But if you have a group of, say, five men or six men, and they’re willing to spend, it can actually be — it’s not that much money if it’s a group of men who go in, and they get this VIP treatment, so it can be economical in that sense.

COWEN: If you take the men who go to these clubs, do you think they’re much more narcissistic in terms of their basic personality features? Or do you think that most men, given the opportunity, could fit into those slots readily and just slide into that world?

MEARS: [laughs] Yeah, I think that most men really could slide into that world. For sure, those across the spectrum — there are some people for whom this really ticks the box. This satisfies a need to be seen and to feel high status, and it’s very validating and very important. I don’t think that’s necessarily a stable attribute of that person over their life course. It might just fit the banker culture that they’re immersed in when they’re 30 and working on Wall Street.

On the other hand, I think that a lot of, for instance, academics who look at this and hold their nose and say these are pathological status-seeking people would probably also enjoy a night or two out in these arenas. Part of it’s because a nightclub — they’re really good at orchestrating this experience so that it feels good. This was something that was really interesting.

I also did interviews with the people that are buying bottles — only 20, so not a random sample, but just to get a sense of how do people talk about and process and put into words what they’re experiencing at these clubs.

And those people themselves, who even spend a lot of money on bottles, would talk about it as like, “Yeah, it’s tacky,” or “It’s ridiculous,” or “I know that it looks bad.” So everybody knows that status is a sensitive good. You can’t just go out and buy it without losing status, right? Everybody knows that, and yet the club is really good at setting it up so that it feels completely appropriate, and it’s celebrated, and it feels good to be in these spaces. It’s really thrilling and exciting to be in them.

COWEN: Can the non-deliberateness of status seeking be sustained in the longer run? Let me explain that. If you’re too obviously throwing money around to look like a high-status person, you don’t look high status, so it’s all made casual and indirect. But over time, people figure out those are the casual indirect signals for something that is actually somewhat grossly low status. So how does the equilibrium keep in place? Doesn’t everyone figure out that the casual behavior is totally deliberate?

MEARS: Yes, but I guess it depends on who’s the everyone in that audience. One thing that comes up in research on status is that people don’t really mind if the Donald Trumps out there are living in a gold-plated penthouse. What they care about are the people that are around them, in their milieu.

If you’re thinking about a 30-year-old Wall Street banker who’s blowing off money and is part of this lifestyle, and everybody else in that world that he’s connected to is also a part of it — they can run that as fun for quite a while. It doesn’t really matter if, let’s say, your friends, the CEOs in the Midwest, who are more demure and think that’s tacky — it doesn’t really matter what they think because they’re in separate worlds anyway.

COWEN: But if you take something like, say, Playboy clubs, which, just to be clear, I’ve never been to, but my sense is they became much lower status over time. So the clubs you’re writing about — are they on a downward trajectory of losing status as the deliberateness becomes clearer?

MEARS: This is what some of the promoters have said. The promoters recognize that in the long run, it’s not something that’s going to be sustained. Like any fashion trend in consumption, there’ll be something else that becomes a high marker of status, like Peloton bike riding or something. So yeah, in some ways this is a cyclical nature of consumption, that there’s always some other thing that can denote status that the elite will grab onto. And then it’ll trickle down and become more popular. I think that this moment —

COWEN: Peloton I have, by the way. One of those I have. The club membership I don’t. I’ve never been.

MEARS: Well, then you’re in a different kind of club, Tyler. You’re in, but just with a different kind of high-status showing.

COWEN: If someone called me “bridge and tunnel,” what would that be referring to?

MEARS: Okay, ouch. Manhattan being an island, it’s the term that denotes somebody who’s seen as not having enough money or cultural competency to make it to live in Manhattan, so they have to travel by bridge or tunnel from Brooklyn or from Staten Island to come in. And they try to get into the door, and the door person quickly recognizes that this is an outsider, and they don’t belong.

COWEN: I am, in fact, from New Jersey. What is it about me that they would see as the giveaway?

MEARS: About you in particular? I demur on that question.

COWEN: A general person from New Jersey.

MEARS: A general person from New Jersey. Okay, well, New Jersey is, of course, a big and varied state. And there’s a lot of people in New Jersey that would be welcome to come into the club.

But the shorthand of Jersey as bridge and tunnel is, cue up somebody from the Jersey Shore, basically. Somebody who might have money but doesn’t have any what we might call cultural capital. They don’t know how to dress. They don’t look sophisticated. They’re showing their money in a too obvious way, like with flashy chains or something. So they would be denied entrance.

COWEN: Let’s say a Nobel Prize winner showed up at the club, if necessary, with proof of the prize. Milton Friedman, right, who was not glamorous looking. Would they let him in?


MEARS: Well, about the economist getting in — they have to be rich economists and also willing to spend. So yeah, a trickle-down economist, maybe, if they’re willing to spend a lot of money on these tables. The two things that the club values most are money and beauty. And it’s women’s beauty and men’s money that make up the two things that the club wants inside. So if a man shows up and he has money, he’s in.

The Nobel Prize, hmm — it’s a certain kind of celebrity. Yeah, celebrities are also welcome. And celebrities sometimes don’t pay because they add value to the space just by virtue of being there. Because everybody can say, “I partied with Kanye West.” “I partied with Milton Friedman” — I don’t know, maybe. [laughs]

COWEN: Let’s say I had a rule not to eat food in restaurants that were full of beautiful women, thinking that the food will be worse. Is that a good rule or a bad rule?

MEARS: I know this rule, because I was reading that when you published that book. It was when I was doing the field work in 2012, 2013. And I remember reading it and laughing, because you were saying avoid trendy restaurants with beautiful women. And I was like, “Yeah, I’m one of those people that’s actually ruining the food but creating value in these other forms because being a part of this scene and producing status.” So yeah, I think that’s absolutely correct.

I remember reading [your book] and laughing, because you were saying avoid trendy restaurants with beautiful women. And I was like, “Yeah, I’m one of those people that’s actually ruining the food but creating value in these other forms because being a part of this scene and producing status.” So yeah, I think that’s absolutely correct.

The thing that maybe is interesting for you about my book that helps explain your book is that the beautiful women that are inside these restaurants, giving off status — that there’s this whole organized system to bring them there. The restaurants and the clubs hire, on a contract basis, this group of people called promoters, party promoters. Their job is to go out and find a bunch of beautiful women and then bring them to the restaurant.

Then the women get dinner for free, so the food comes out family style, and they eat for free. That sets up the obligation that then she’ll go with him to the nightclub, which is usually upstairs or attached in some way, or the managers are connected. They’re both profiting on having beautiful women in there and selling the experience of being around beautiful women. But indeed, the food’s not that great.

COWEN: In this whole arrangement, how happy are the club girls? But relative to their peers who would otherwise be demographically similar.

MEARS: Well, it’s an interesting question. I think that for the women that end up going out with promoters in the VIP — they’re motivated by a range of things. For many of them, because they’re recruited from the bottom of the fashion modeling industry — and that was one thing that I found in my first book, that most models don’t make very much money — they actually need to eat. They don’t have very much money. So the promoters are opening up for them a glamorous network of friends that also comes with these clear perks, like expenses paid, wining and dining, and these experiences that models otherwise can’t afford.

Which is ironic because, for you, Tyler, you’re looking for a good restaurant, and you see this trendy place full of beautiful people. The reality is, most of them probably can’t afford to eat in those places on their own. Or maybe they’re actually motivated to go to those places to get the free meal. So in that sense, there’s a tradeoff that’s clear. And I think that the promoters in this VIP clubland do subsidize a lot of the low wages of the modeling industry.

But the other question is, what else would a woman that’s, say, 20, of limited financial means, be doing in the city? Well, there’s lots of other things. In some ways it appeals to a woman’s taste if she wants to be a part of this glamorous, high-end world and participate in it even for a short while. Definitely there’s a tradeoff. And people talked about it as being a win-win.

There are downsides, clearly, that they recognize — that when the beautiful women go to these restaurants, the food comes out, but you don’t get to choose what you want off of the menu. It comes out family style, and usually it’s the leftover stuff from the kitchen that they just have that’s cheaper. If it’s a sushi restaurant, it’s never sashimi that the beautiful women are treated to. It’s the cucumber rolls. [laughs]

So there’s some downside to it, in that the women don’t get their choice of how the night is going to unfold and where they’re going to sit and what exactly they get to do, but they do get a piece of this affluent city that they would otherwise be excluded from.

COWEN: If some of the men are high-discount-rate men, do you think these young women are, on average, high-discount-rate young women?

MEARS: Mmm, I suppose yes. Let’s just say the more needy a woman is or the more desperate she is and she can’t afford things on her own, then I think the more likely she will be a regular participant in this world, at least for a short while until she establishes her own network, or gets a career, or her modeling career takes off, or she goes back to school. But it’s a world on offer for people who both want and need it.

On the prospects of a model working the party circuit

COWEN: Let’s say we did an outcome study and traced the club girls 25 years later. What do you think having been a club girl would end up predicting? Having a lot of children, having no children, being happily married?

MEARS: [laughs] Right, right, right. I think that myself — I might be a little bit of an outlier as a club girl because I was much older by about 10 years, even though I was still referred to ubiquitously as a girl. I had a professional job and a career, and I was in here doing it for one thing. But looking at the other women that are in the scene, it’s really quite a range of outcomes.

It might increase the most their social capital in the sense that they get more ties to people in different kinds of realms than they would if they weren’t a part of this world. So if they stayed in Nebraska and didn’t try out modeling, or if they tried out modeling but stayed in a model’s apartment and didn’t go to the Hamptons and to Saint-Tropez with the promoter, I think that on the margins they do gain those kinds of cosmopolitan experiences, which might be convertible for something valuable in the future.

I think that they gain friendship ties to people that they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to, especially other women. It is a really important scene where women can connect to each other. I don’t think it’s that valuable of a scene where women can connect to rich men. This is a question that people always want to know. “Well, don’t these young women, these club girls — don’t they fetch a rich man for a husband, and this is a kind of great dating and mating market?” And I think the answer to that is no.

COWEN: But why not? Because the well-to-do men are there. The attractive women are there, right? In a lot of other settings you see frequent pairings. What stops it from happening in the club?

MEARS: Even though women who look like fashion models are so valuable in this scene for lending status, they’re devalued for the assumption that they’re just beautiful. Specifically, the kind of women that are club girls, going out night after night — they’re seen as being unserious. This is not the pool of future wives. This is not the pool of future business partners. This is a pool of hookups.

People have a very specific term that they use to describe girls that are very valuable to the club and to the promoters, but completely devalued outside of the club, and that’s the party girl. People would dismiss party girls as being unserious women that you want to have at the party, but you don’t want to see them the next day. It’s like being tainted by going into the club and taking advantage of all of the things that the club can offer to a beautiful young woman. By making that trade of her beauty for access, she’s assumed to be just a party girl.

COWEN: As you probably know, there’s some modest degree of evidence that attractive people are smarter, on average at least. So why isn’t it the case that these supposed party girls — a lot of them are quite bright — they figure out ways of signaling that they’re smart, which is not hard to do in conversation, but have some well-to-do men who maybe find it hard to meet the beautiful women they want to marry, and they go to the club, and they look for the signals from the really smart party girls. Why doesn’t the market work that way? What keeps them apart?

MEARS: It definitely can work that way. There’s lots of success stories where it does work that way. Melania Trump, for example, met Donald Trump at one of these parties — not one of these parties in these nightclubs, but she was introduced at a party that was run by her then fashion-modeling agent, who was actually a regular in this whole VIP circuit. So she was kind of connected to this world, and that’s where she met the very rich and successful businessman.

By the way, she also had to work pretty hard when she was introduced to the national stage to clear the reputation that she’s not a party girl. There was all this effort to say Melania Trump was a good girl. She didn’t go out too much. She happened to be at this one party, but she was not a party girl.

So it can work. There’s probably lots of stories where that does work, but for the majority of the cases of the young women who are brought to these clubs with the promoters — it doesn’t work for them because they’re staying with the promoter. The promoter’s job is to keep them at the table. Their primary purpose being there is signaling their beauty.

It becomes difficult to try to forge any kind of meaningful connection when the lights are low and the music is loud. I know people are talking, but really like shouting into each other’s ears. The setup of that kind of a situation works against any woman who’s trying to show that she is a real intellectual or she has some kind of occupational or educational prestige.

COWEN: I have so many naive, uninformed questions, but why is the music so loud in these clubs? Who benefits from that?

MEARS: Who benefits?

COWEN: I find the music too loud in McDonald’s, right?

MEARS: Clubs are also in this business of trying to manufacture and experience what Emile Durkheim would call this collective effervescence, like losing yourself in the moment. And that’s really possible when you’re able to tune out the other things, like if somebody is feeling insecure about the way they dance or if somebody is not sure of what to say.

Having really loud music that has a beat where everybody just does the same thing, which is nod to the beat — that helps to tune people into one another, and it helps build up a vibe and a kind of energy, so the point is to lose yourself in the music in these spaces.

COWEN: Putting aside your research interests, how much fun was it for you to be in these clubs?

MEARS: I always say I really wish that I had met these promoters when I was 18 because I was in New York. I was studying at Hunter College for a year, and if I had met the promoters then, it would have been fantastic. [laughs] I would have gotten to travel and eat and drink for free and stay out all night and enjoy.

But when I was going back into this world of New York when I was 30, 31, and 32, it was pretty difficult. It was pretty grueling. Just to put it in perspective, the dinner with the promoters would start at around 10:00 at night. We head to a club at around midnight, and we stay there until 3:00 am. And the high heels are very high. The expectation is that women wear these really high heels. So it’s physically hard to keep up and be in these spaces.

I think that for some of the younger women, that’s their thing. They love house music, or they love hip-hop music. They love to stay out late, get dressed up, be looked at, get drunk, have drugs. It’s fantastic for a young person. It’s hard to convey that kind of fun. And it was hard for me being a sober 30-year-old to also feel it.

On why models working the party circuit aren’t paid

COWEN: Why don’t they just pay the women to go to the clubs? As you know, in economics it’s typically assumed a cash payment is more efficient than free tuna rolls. What stops that from happening?

MEARS: I was always asking this of the women. I would say, “Why don’t we just band together and agree to show up at the club together, and then we’ll each get paid a hundred dollars as opposed to going through all of these efforts of the promoter controlling us and mobilizing us, and then he gets paid a thousand dollars?”

And the answer was always, “No, I don’t want it to be work. I want it to be fun. This is leisure, not labor.” And there’s all of these efforts that are expended to make it look like it’s not work, although it is. The women are performing really valuable labor to the club, and lots of profits are being made off of them, but they don’t want to think about it in terms of work.

Occasionally some promoters, if they’re running low on girls or they’re in a desperate situation for the night, they’ll call a girl and offer her, say, $40 or $80 to come out as paid. And this is looked down on by the other women as being an act of desperation. It’s going to ruin the fun of the night because you have to be there as opposed to wanting to be there.

COWEN: But that seems like a funny norm. Occasionally I’m paid, say, to give talks. I can assure you that does not take away from the fun of what I do. Couldn’t the young women all just drop this norm, and they would get paid and be better off? Aren’t they laboring under some kind of false consciousness here? It’s a degrading experience in some ways, right? The loud music. So why not, on the money side, get the better outcome?

MEARS: It’s a degrading experience if it’s not fun, if it’s not made meaningful. The promoters that are really good at their job — they do it really well to make it meaningful with the young women. They’re not just recruiting models off the street, giving them some free tuna rolls, and then saying, “Wear your heels and dance.”

It’s actually that the promoters spend a lot of time developing intimacy and connections with the young women. They talk about each other as friends. They use this language of friendship. They see themselves as supporting one another, and the girls are loyal to the promoter.

Under these kinds of terms, when the women go out with the promoter, it’s usually a combination of things. Maybe she’s needing free dinner. Maybe she doesn’t have any friends because she’s new to New York City. Maybe she’s sleeping with the promoter, and she thinks that she’s his girlfriend, or maybe she really likes the promoter because they go to the movies every Wednesday afternoon.

Promoters do that. They’ll invite girls for bowling or for picnics or to, whatever, Disneyland. These are relationships that the promoters are cultivating, which they’re then profiting from. So it feels meaningful. It doesn’t feel degrading. And for the women for whom it does feel degrading, they typically don’t last very long, or they leave over the course of the night, and they say, “This isn’t for me.”

COWEN: Let’s say you sat down with one of these 20-year-old young women, and you taught them everything you know from your studies, what you know about bodily capital, sociological theories of exploitation. You could throw at them whatever you wanted. They would read the book. They would listen to your video, talk with you. Would that change their behavior any?

MEARS: I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so. They might not be too surprised even to learn that this is a job for promoters, and the promoters make money doing this. Most of them know that. They didn’t know how much money promoters are making. They don’t know how much money the clubs are making, but they know that they’re contributing to those profits, and they know that there’s this inequality built into it.

For some of the women that had a belief that they had the exclusive affections and attention of the promoter — that might come as a surprise. And those are the sadder moments that I discovered in this economy, when promoters are misleading the young women into thinking that they genuinely have exclusive romantic or intimate intentions, when often a promoter might be sleeping with two or three or several models in order to get them to come out with him at night.

For those women, that might be the drawing line because it’s such an egregious abuse. But in this world, there’s a widespread assumption that everybody uses everybody else. The women are using the club for the pleasures that they can get from it. They’re using the promoter for the pleasures they can get from him, the access. The promoters are using the young women. The clients are using the promoters.

The drawing line is when there’s a perception of abuse. People have a clear sense that lying about being exclusively romantic would be a clear violation, so that would be abusive. But use is okay. Mutual exploitation is okay.

COWEN: At the margin, do you think this world should be taxed or subsidized by local policy? I mean the words tax and subsidize in a broad way, like noise ordinances, opening hours. They’re implicit policy decisions that help or harm these ventures. What should the policy stance be?

MEARS: Well this is kind of out there. As a labor issue, this shows the really unequal and unfair terms of the modeling industry in particular. The modeling industry is generating so much profit for the club industry. These unpaid women in the modeling industry — they’re also generating huge untold profits to all of these other industries that benefit from their presence in the clubs, like finance or real estate, where all of these networks of powerful businessmen get consolidated, in part softened through the presence of unpaid women from the modeling industry.

So I think that there could be some case to be made that unpaid fashion models or low-paid fashion models are doing enormous unpaid labor for all of these other hugely profitable industries, where disproportionately the profits are going to men. So I could see redistribution working in that direction.

COWEN: But if you can’t talk them out of what they’re doing, given everything you know . . . and you would be the person to try to do it, right?

MEARS: [laughs] Right.

COWEN: Is it that you’re paternalistic or maternalistic toward them? Or you don’t want to respect their preferences? How how do you see this at the meta level?

MEARS: People participate in their own exploitation all the time. You see this in all kinds of different forms of work. As academics, yeah, you get paid for your talks, but you’re doing a lot of work that’s unpaid and uncompensated and often unrecognized as well. All of the service work, all of the things that academia runs on — a lot of this is free labor that we give up because we believe in it and we find it validating.

Someone should tell us not to do it, but we’d probably still do it anyway because it’s validating. So I think that exploitation works best when it’s pleasurable and when it’s made meaningful, but that doesn’t mean that the inequities can’t be challenged at a structural level, if at a subjective level people consent to them.

On being a fashion model

COWEN: There’s evidence saying that academics are left leaning; dentists tend to lean more toward the right. What are the politics of fashion models, on average?

MEARS: They’re young. This is a population of people who are young and often politically unexperienced, and often not educated, especially for women. The age for fashion models, typically their late teenage years into their twenties — this is the age for going to college.

So I would have to say that they are amorphous, and perhaps they’re leaning left, if for no other reason because it’s a creative industry and they’re exposed to more creatives and bohemians, who tend to lean to the left or tend to be more progressive.

COWEN: Why is the scouting model so common for finding women who might be fashion models? There’s a scout. He goes up to a woman. He says, “You have that look. Come with me.” Why are things done that way?

MEARS: That’s happening less and less in a digital and globally connected world. It used to be that scouts would travel all across the nine times zones of Russia and go to these beauty pageants across all these different little cities and pluck someone from obscurity and send her to Paris.

But now there’s so many small modeling agencies, or even just women with Wi-Fi connections and Instagrams all around the world, that they can email their pictures directly to a scout who’s based in New York. So that model is starting to cut down where the professional paid scout, whose job is to go on the hunt, will become less and less, or is becoming less and less. But that person will just look through pictures on their computer. They’re still scouting but in a different form.

COWEN: But isn’t there some physical presence or charisma that doesn’t come through in a photograph? And you need a good scout for that because modeling maybe mainly isn’t even about looks.

MEARS: The thing that models sell in the market is called a look, but you’re definitely right that it’s part physicality, part personality. And that comes through in a picture. It comes through in a walk and also a conversation. A lot can be captured in video and Zoom and Instagram, so I think that there are ways to capture that.

But a scout, maybe, who gets a picture and gets the videos that they like from somebody would eventually need to go and meet them in their part of the world — and also, probably, depending if it’s a woman in her age, to meet her parents as well and to develop a rapport, so that someone would feel good about sending their teenage daughter to a new market.

COWEN: How good a scout would you be of fashion models?

MEARS: Well, I’m a little bit shy to go and talk to people. A good scout — they have to have a good eye. That’s the primary thing. And to see what they would call a diamond in the rough. I could do that. I think that any model that’s gone through the system and is exposed to this kind of look over and over can make these assessments, and to see things together, how different features come together.

But scouts also . . . I’ve spent some time with them. They have a kind of ease in talking to young people, and they have an ease in talking with their parents. And I just don’t have that. I think I would feel awkward or creepy, or in some way offering false dreams, that probably I would have serious hesitations about trying to pull somebody into the modeling industry.

COWEN: If a good-quality scout goes up to a 17-year-old young woman and approaches her about being a model, what’s the immediate intermodal reaction to that?

MEARS: I know this from interviewing the models for my first book: surprise. Surprise because, as I said, a scout has to be able to identify a look and to be able to see how somebody who’s not in the context of the fashion modeling industry could be really great under certain kinds of conditions.

These are usually young women. Their scouting stories are like, “I was just coming out of soccer practice.” Or “I was just getting off of an overnight airplane, and I had braces, and I was the ugly duckling. Nobody looks twice at me in middle school, and then here’s this person saying I should be a model in London or something.” So yeah, surprise.

COWEN: But do 90 percent just tell the guy to buzz off? Or what do they do?

MEARS: I think it’s a mix. That surprise can come with fear that this is something that might be shady. It could also come with a sense of disinterest. A lot of people in the modeling industry — they have a couple of experiences with getting scouted. The first time might be complete surprise and, yeah, this might be creepy. Or “Buzz off, I’m not interested right now.” But if it happens again or a third time, then the idea starts to develop that maybe there’s something to it.

COWEN: And were you scouted?

MEARS: I was, yeah.

COWEN: How did you respond?

MEARS: It happened a couple of times at the mall that a scout would come approach me.

COWEN: Which state is this?

MEARS: I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, so I spent a lot of time in the fashion malls of Atlanta in my teenage years. And a scout would come up and say, “Oh, I’d love for you to come into the office. And you could probably work if you’re interested. Have you ever thought about becoming a model?”

But by the time that that had happened, I was already told by people, like my friends in high school, that I was skinny enough, that I looked like one of these girls in these magazines, and I should consider it. So it was already on my mind that it was something that I wanted to do.

Then, of course, my mom — she sent me a Vogue magazine, 1993. Cindy Crawford was on the cover. I still have it. Then I just got really into whatever fashion modeling was. I didn’t fully understand, but I was like, “I want to be this.”

COWEN: Do you regret having been a model?

MEARS: No, not at all. I regret that I didn’t use it in a smarter way because I started traveling to Milan and Japan when I was 19 and 20. That’s still quite a young age, mentally and emotionally, to pick up and go somewhere.

But I sometimes feel like if I knew what I know now back then, I could have built stronger connections with interesting people. I could have tried harder to understand the creative side of producing fashion. I could have tried harder to get involved in photography, which I found interesting, but it was always on the margins of. So it opens up all these doors that, frankly, at 18, I wasn’t really capable of seeing.

On why fashion models don’t smile

COWEN: There’s a significant subset of models who, at least to me, appear to be distant, unapproachable, and they look pissed off. Why is that?

MEARS: [laughs] There’s a wonderful dissertation out of the University of Amsterdam called “Why Fashion Models Don’t Smile.”

COWEN: And why don’t they?

MEARS: It depends which segment of the fashion modeling market we’re talking about. If you look in your catalogs that used to come in the mail but now are mostly online, models are pretty relatable. They have the kind of look that would be described as girl next door, classic apple pie.

You see a lot of smiles when people are selling things directly in the catalog or commercial realm, on television commercials as well. Really relatable people. Aspirational in the way they look. They look good, but they’re connecting, they’re smiling, and they’re not meant to be intimidating.

Unlike the editorial side of fashion, which is the catwalk or the magazines, especially the Vogue magazines. These are the kinds of looks of models that are projecting what people in the fashion world think of as being in fashion. And those kinds of models almost never smile. There’s almost never a smile on the catwalk. It’s remarkable. It’s supposed to be all about showing the clothes and projecting this aspirational, distant kind of beauty that is not meant to be relatable.

If I could add, a lesson from the art world is that the more people and the more socially different types of people that a work of art is meant to relate to, the lesser its value. So in the editorial end of the market, the fact that your average consumer doesn’t get that kind of look, doesn’t get that cold, distant unsmiling body or face — that’s deliberate. It’s not meant to make sense to you. It’s meant to make sense to the Anna Wintours of the world.

COWEN: In your work on modeling in Japan, you once wrote that Western female models in Japan are often portrayed as “silly, harmless, and incompetent.” Why is that equilibrium in Japan?

MEARS: Yeah, I modeled in Japan, and these are just some observations. I didn’t do a comparison with the local models, like Japanese models. But indeed, there were lots of observations I took of the Western models coming into Japan and doing all kinds of just bizarre, silly things, infantilizing things. There’s some interpretivist cultural studies that I reference in that paper that suggested this is a way of diffusing the Western hegemony, or maybe bridging the divide between Western beauty and Eastern beauty, but I’m really not sure.

COWEN: But that also might account for what you call the model’s passivity in the Japanese market.

MEARS: Yeah, but it’s really the terms of the work in the Japanese market. It produces passivity unlike anything I’d ever experienced because of the language barrier. The way that models would usually have a little bit of control in the casting situation is to talk, to show their personalities, to connect, to relate. And it’s really difficult in the Japanese market because Western models — not only do they not speak Japanese, and most Japanese people do not speak English in the fashion world and in lots of other worlds.

So the solution there is that every agency has a manager whose job is also to drive the models to their castings and then introduce the models to the clients. Then clients talk in Japanese and the model stands there. And then the manager introduces the next one. So it’s just a very weird, passive experience. It also meant that a lot of my time in Tokyo was spent in the back of a van being driven around with Ukrainian teenagers, looking out the window. [laughs] That’s my impression of Tokyo.

On things under- and overrated

COWEN: Now, in the middle of these chats, we usually have the segment, overrated versus underrated. I’ll toss out a few notions. You tell me what you think. Are you ready?

MEARS: Okay, sure.

COWEN: The importance of what sociologists call loose ties — overrated or underrated?

MEARS: Umm, is there an option to say it’s appropriate?

COWEN: Of course.

MEARS: Yeah, I think that this is appropriate. I would be somewhat doing a disservice to my discipline if I were to say that it’s been overrated because it is one of the major findings within economic sociology that’s continually shown that there are all these advantages for having loose ties, arm’s-length ties.

COWEN: The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu — overrated or underrated?

MEARS: Hmmm. Again, I have to be careful here because, you know, one of my fields is as a cultural sociologist.

COWEN: Of course.

MEARS: You can’t write a paper without citing the guy.

COWEN: But a critic would say it’s a very 1970s, 1980s French notion of hierarchy that is itself hierarchical, very limited. He covers gender only much later. It probably doesn’t even apply to the rest of France. Or yet — true or false?

MEARS: It’s true. Yeah, it’s true. And there’ve been important correctives to that, but it was a huge contribution to insert culture into class hierarchy, so everybody pays homage for that reason.

COWEN: The movie Zoolander — overrated or underrated?

MEARS: Underrated! We should all still watch Zoolander. This is a fantastic treatise on gender and the impossibilities of male beauty.

COWEN: It’s one of my favorites.

Miami Beach. Is it actually fun? Overrated? What do you think?

MEARS: Overrated, yeah. Overrated, although there’s pockets of it that I think are probably more interesting. But the glossy, glitzy, glamorous part of Miami Beach — totally overrated. It’s your thing of all glamor, bad food.

COWEN: Osaka, Japan — what do you think?

MEARS: It’s been 15 years, but yeah. I like those little octopus fried balls. Underrated.

COWEN: Okay. If you didn’t remember it, it would have to be overrated. Right?

MEARS: Right.

COWEN: REM, the musical group. You went to school in Athens, Georgia.

MEARS: Yeah, underrated. Although right now, because of that hit song, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” — they’re having a moment coming back. Perhaps unfortunate.

COWEN: Champagne — I don’t like it. Am I wrong? Am I missing something? Is it just status signaling? So much of your work is about signaling. Do you have to conclude champagne is overrated?

MEARS: I have to conclude it’s overrated. But there is something really delightful about it as a party good because you can shake it and spray it without destroying clothes unlike, say, red wine. And it’s bubbly, and this is kind of mad. It has a sort of fun, magical quality. So yeah, on the whole overrated. Well, overrated because you can get all those things with Prosecco.

COWEN: Here’s a question from a reader, and I quote, “How has her own beauty and glamor influenced her academic career? Does she find beauty-based biases in academia, either positive or negative?”

MEARS: Well, I think that looks matter everywhere, and academia is no exception. In my own experience, there’s this double-edged sword for women’s beauty. Some studies show that it’s important, for women especially, to conform to these traditional notions of beautiful, but they can’t overdo it in the professional workplace. So some makeup is appropriate, but too much eyeliner is considered too sexual and inappropriate.

I tried to balance that, for instance, even before I got my job at Boston University. I was coached by my advisor to dress in a fairly drab way to really try to assert my authority and to distance myself from the femininity and the beauty, which was always going to be plaguing me because of my work and because of the fact that I was a model. So I tried to distance it as I could.

That question though, for sure, I think at an interactional level, having beauty definitely eases the way for people to respond more favorably to me because of that halo effect of beauty. Maybe people are more likely to answer an email or to agree to a meeting. Or the meeting will go smoothly, and people will listen more to what I say because I look the way I do.

I’ll find that out. I mean, that question is to be continued because, as we know, as women age, they so-called lose their bodily capital. Aging comes with the decline of beauty for women. So I’ll have to answer that in, say, 10 or 15 years.

COWEN: What kinds of emotional labor do women professors have to perform that maybe the male professors do not?

MEARS: This is a perennial conversation that I have with my women colleagues about the number of students that ask for exceptions in their grades, especially of younger faculty, young women faculty, the number of students that open up with their problems. And we’re more likely, I think, to keep tissues in our offices for crying students than our male colleagues. So, there’s that.

Just kind of being a crutch to students and being seen as somebody that’s more relatable by virtue of age and by gender means that we have more of these kinds of drains on our emotional work than male colleagues. I don’t know if you would agree or if you find that. Do you also keep tissues in your office?

COWEN: I don’t. But my office is so crowded. I think actually everything is in there, and probably that includes some tissues.

MEARS: Right.

COWEN: I think of you broadly as being anthropological, even though you’re a sociologist.

MEARS: Yeah.

COWEN: If you view academia with your anthropological hat on, what about it seems most comical or most stupid to you, or just strange and bizarre?

MEARS: What’s strange or bizarre? That’s a really interesting question. So many things about it. I guess the way that it portends to be so meritocratic. Thinking here about academia and the world of professors, the way that it’s very meritocratic.

Ostensibly, within sociology, we’re so attuned to inequalities by gender and by class and by race. That’s the bread and butter of our discipline. And yet, we reproduce inequities all the time, not in the least with this notion of the disproportionate amount of emotional work of women faculty, disproportionate ways that women faculty and people of color do more service work.

Certain kinds of hierarchies get reproduced in the hiring all the time. So, even though we’re supposedly all about equity, it’s just the fact that somebody who is tied to a prominent person or an Ivy university will catch our eye. So we have now discussions about how to safeguard against those biases. But, yeah. That is kind of a bizarre thing, the way we reproduce inequalities all the time.

COWEN: If we’re concerned about inequality, including for women who have a childbearing cycle, shouldn’t we just abolish tenure?

MEARS: Right. Or maybe not abolish it, but maybe change the terms of it so that the clock doesn’t completely overlap with the so-called biological clock for women who want to have families. Perhaps there could be a way to lengthen it, or pause it, or start it in a way that makes it fit better with having kids.

I had my kids right when I got tenure. I had my first child — she arrived right after I received my positive tenure decision. I didn’t plan it that way, but it worked out really luckily. But I remember in graduate school, a couple of people had kids in grad school. And I was thinking, “No, this is ridiculous. That’s not the right plan.” I could never imagine having kids in grad school, but actually, it does make sense to.

In grad school, you have a lot more control over your time. You’re a lot more flexible, fewer demands. And you can stretch your grad school clock in a way. So, in some ways, sometimes looking back, I think that’s also an option, to maybe loosen up the expectation that women have kids after their careers are all stitched up. Because that’s what I followed, and it worked out for me, but it can’t work out for everyone. And it also was quite a big stress for those six years.

COWEN: If you think about the question, what is your unified theory of you? You have this early career as a fashion model and your current career as an academic and also as an author. They’re all winner-take-all sectors. Do you think of yourself as, in some sense, you keep on doing the same thing in different areas? Or do you think of your current career as a rebellion against what you did before?

MEARS: [laughs] I should say, I was a really good student all throughout high school and college, and I got into the modeling as a side job. Then I found a way, through sociology, to turn my experiences in modeling into an academic project. And I could even see when I was in college, reading these ethnographies of the workplace — because I took this great class on the sociology of work — I could see, “Wow, someone should really do this of fashion modeling. And I could be the Barbara Ehrenreich in sociology of fashion and high status.”

In some ways, I’ve always been a student. First and foremost, my alignment was in academia. And I was always searching for the status and the winner-take-all hierarchy of academia. And modeling kind of got me there. And now —

COWEN: So, you enjoy the thrill of winner-take-all markets?

MEARS: Well, yes and no. I can’t say that I’m like a winner in the academic field. I mean, yes, having a good tenure job is, because I know that they’re increasingly in short supply. But, in some ways, it’s less volatile of a world than these cultural production fields. It’s the complete opposite of job model. Once you get a tenure-track job, and once you get tenure especially, you can’t be fired, barring some sort of real problems. It’s lifetime security in an age in the workforce in which this is just shrinking. It’s so rare to have this kind of privilege of lifetime job security.

And really — knock on wood — because as universities are facing these challenges, it just entered my mind in the last month, “Wow, what would happen if I didn’t have this lifetime job security that I’ve counted on?”

But it’s the complete opposite. Fashion modeling is a 180 where you can be dismissed from one day to the next and your fortunes can change for the better or for the worst. So, yeah, it’s a winner take all, maybe in terms of prestige. But once you’re in the tenured world, it’s pretty steady.

COWEN: There’s a common perception that Korean culture is relatively oppressive for young women. There’s a certain way they’re expected to look or maybe to have plastic surgery.


COWEN: Do you agree with that? And if so, why is it?

MEARS: That’s right. I saw this on the question log. I thought that maybe you were asking me at first because my dad is half Korean, so my grandmother is Korean. She was born and raised in Hawaii. But in any case, I have never been to Korea, and so, my Korean connections, actually, really, I know from the literature.

But to your question, it’s a common perception that plastic surgery is oppressive. But from my understanding, there’s an opposite reading, which is that it’s really validating and really quite pleasurable to modify the appearance.

So, you’re right. In South Korea — it leads the world in double eyelid surgery to make that eyelid fold that is typical of a Western-shaped eye, but less so of an Asian-shaped eye. This is often read as “Oh, this is like internalized white Western hegemony onto Asian people.” But I actually think it’s a bit more complicated than that.

There’s a certain kind of beauty that is really popular throughout Asia because of the rise of K-Pop stars. And this kind of Asian beauty has a very specific kind of face that’s very pale skin with a certain kind of makeup regime around it, and yes, the eyes. But it would be hard to say that anybody is looking in Asia to the West as the beauty standard. I think, within Asia, people are looking to K-Pop as a beauty standard now.

And in the US, there’s all kinds of things that could be read as oppressive, too, that people do, like hair extensions, and these eyelash extensions to make really long and dark eyelashes, and all kinds of practices that, when you actually talk to people — they’re very validating or they feel pleasurable.

Where do those pleasures come from? Sure, a Marxist could say that it’s all false consciousness. But I think that there’s probably lots more interesting answers.

COWEN: In America today, for women, what do you think distinguishes most clearly notions of upper-class beauty and lower-class beauty?

MEARS: All right, I think that upper-class beauty, upper-class bodies are pretty uniformly thin. That’s the economy of plenty: Whoever has money can afford quality food and getting to the gym, as opposed to an economy of scarcity — having a kind of plump, a rotund belly would be a sign of having extra money or of wealth. So, yeah, definitely thinness. And if you look at the rates of obesity and overweight, there’s a very clear divide. People who are upper class tend to be thinner, and people who are lower class tend to be larger. That’s one clear distinction.

Otherwise, all of the things that are signals of beauty tend to be things that people who have money can afford to invest in: straight teeth, clear skin, blonde highlights, or just kind of shiny hair, kept-up nails. Clothing signifies a lot. These are all things that people with money can work on themselves to achieve.

On the Ashley Mears production function

COWEN: For our very last segment, we turn to what I call the Ashley Mears production function. Who first spotted your talent as an academic?

MEARS: There are two of them. At the University of Georgia in the sociology department, it was William Finlay. He’s a sociologist of work, and also James Coverdill. They wrote a book on headhunters, so they were attuned to questions of nonstandard work, precarious work. When I took the Sociology of Work class with James Coverdill, he was like, “Yeah, you should do this, a sociology of work about fashion models. Definitely.” Then he put me in touch with William.

I was just emailing with them last week. They stayed my mentors for a long time.

COWEN: And, if you’re looking for promising young sociologists, or anthropologists for that matter, what’s the nonobvious signal you look for? Yes, hard work. They should be smart and so on. But beneath the surface, what strikes you?

MEARS: If somebody has read a lot, and if they’ve read eclectic things, and they have that kind of breadth, that strikes me because that means that they’re curious and interested in a lot of different things and that they can bring that to whatever bizarre topic they end up landing on.

COWEN: What’s the weirdest set of things you like to read or have read, other than about fashion modeling and the party circuit?

MEARS: And guidebooks for restaurants for economists.


MEARS: I read a lot of ethnographies within sociology. That’s probably not a surprise. It’s kind of within my field. But I’m also reading now — because I have two kids, I like to read advice books for parents, ranging from kitschy ones on up to, like, from economists on what the data say are the best child-rearing practices. So, that’s where I’m in now. Yeah, having kids, maybe not a surprise, kind of put me in this parenting literature.

COWEN: And what’s the best advice you either have read or would offer to other people on parenting?

MEARS: To people on parenting?

COWEN: Sure. You’ve read all these books. You have an opinion. Tell the parents out there. My daughter is 30. Maybe I still need some advice. But what do you say?

MEARS: Usually that kind of question would invite an individualistic answer. That’s the problem with the literature, that it’s all you as an individual parent, what you should or shouldn’t do.

Maybe because I’m a sociologist, but my advice for parents in this country is to mobilize. Because it’s a complete crisis that we don’t have paid parental leave, that there’s no state supports for daycare. I think that that’s one of the tragic but really important things about the pandemic right now, is that it’s revealing just how difficult it is to combine a career with family. And the United States is just exceptional in how unfriendly it is for family policy. So yeah, mobilize. [laughs]

COWEN: What is your most unusual writing or work habit?

MEARS: These are interesting questions. I used to have a pretty consistent flow before I had kids. That got disrupted. And that’s what a lot of people say. They write in these certain chunks of time, day after day. And that’s how they’re able to accomplish it.

But here’s a weird habit that I picked up in college, and it stayed with me. It’s that I eat something sweet. In college, I would munch on a box of Dunkin’ Donuts to get through a term paper. Now, I find whatever cookies my kids have. I always have some sweet junk food. This is probably not really great advice for anybody, but it’s just my habit now.

COWEN: To the audience, I would like again to recommend Ashley’s book. It is called, again, Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit. It is quality research, fantastic, fun to read. I learned a great deal from it. I think it will be a big hit. Definitely one of my favorite books of this year or, indeed, would be of years past.

Ashley, thank you very much for joining us. And best of luck with publication.

MEARS: Thank you. Thank you so much again.