Journal Article Review

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American Sociological Review
2015, Vol. 80(6) 1099 –1122
© American Sociological
Association 2015
DOI: 10.1177/0003122415609730

Why do workers consent to their own exploi-
tation? Previous top-down approaches over-
emphasize managerial control (Braverman
1974), whereas contemporary labor scholars
study workers’ participation in their own
worlds of work. Labor process scholars
emphasize meaning-making in the symbolic
interactionist tradition, documenting work-
place dynamics at the point of production, as
in theories of industrial games (Burawoy
1979), emotional labor (Hochschild 1983),
and organizational culture (Kunda 1992).
This approach yields rich ethnographic
insights into how workers’ subjective experi-
ences motivate them to work and, ultimately,
make profits for someone else (e.g., Sallaz

2002; Sherman 2007). Such micro studies of
the labor process show how managerial con-
trol is established through worker consent; or
how, as Marx ([1894] 1993) put it, labor
becomes subordinate to capital.

But these explanations are incomplete, for
most studies of worker control and consent
are set in stable work settings and formal

609730 ASRXXX10.1177/0003122415609730American Sociological ReviewMears

aBoston University

Corresponding Author:
Ashley Mears, Department of Sociology, Boston
University, 100 Cummington Mall, Boston, MA

Working for Free in the VIP:
Relational Work and the
Production of Consent

Ashley Mearsa

Why do workers participate in their own exploitation? This article moves beyond the
situational production of consent that has dominated studies of the labor process and outlines
the relational production of labor’s surplus value. Using a case of unpaid women who perform
valuable work for VIP nightclubs, I present ethnographic data on the VIP party circuit from
New York, the Hamptons, Miami, and Cannes, as well as 84 interviews with party organizers
and guests. Party promoters, mostly male brokers, appropriate surplus value from women in
four stages: recruitment, mobilization, performance, and control. Relational work between
promoters and women, cemented by gifts and strategic intimacies, frames women’s labor
as leisure and friendship, and boundary work legitimizes women’s work as distinct from
sexual labor. When boundaries, media, and meanings of relationships do not appropriately
align, as in relational mismatches, women experience the VIP party less as leisure and more
as work, and they are less likely to participate. My findings embed the labor process in a
relational infrastructure and hold insights for explaining why people work for free in culture
and technology sectors of the post-Fordist economy.

relational work, labor process, consent, free labor, bodily capital

1100 American Sociological Review 80(6)

organizations, such as the factory, the hotel,
or the trading room, where people repeatedly
work together within the context of estab-
lished relationships. Yet, despite prevailing
models of the labor process, the organization
of work is not bound to the shop floor; work
spills into the interpersonal realm as workers
and management forge powerful, regulating
relationships. This is especially evident as
labor becomes more casual, and temporary
and project-based employment spreads
among low- and high-skilled workers alike
(Kalleberg, Reskin, and Hudson 2000). For
the growing numbers of contingent workers,
social ties with supervisors and brokers shape
the terms of work (Neff, Wissinger, and Zukin
2005; Smith 2001). As studies of informal
economies demonstrate, work relationships
require ongoing efforts on and off the job
(e.g., Hoang 2015; Venkatesh 2006), and such
relationships likely have varying effects on
worker consent. When conceptualized in rela-
tional rather than physical space, the value of
labor emerges through personal ties and webs
of reciprocity—the very heart of all economic
exchange (Mauss 1954).

That people consent to the appropriation of
their surplus value poses a classic conundrum
for the sociology of inequality: it raises the
question of how hierarchies are legitimated,
and how domination goes unrecognized and
reproduced by those who are dominated (e.g.,
Bourdieu [1998] 2001). This article advances
the puzzle of consent by incorporating new
developments in economic sociology around
the concept of relational work, that is, the
work of matching appropriate relationships to
economic exchanges and their meanings
(Zelizer 2012). Using the conceptual tools of
relational work, I document the central role of
social ties and intimacies in compelling peo-
ple to enter, consent to, and forge emotional
attachments in unequal exchanges.

I draw from a particular case of labor
exploitation: women’s unpaid work in VIP
nightclubs. Unpaid women perform valuable
aesthetic labor (Warhurst and Nickson 2001)
in VIP “bottle service” nightclubs; they are
recruited and mobilized by promoters, who

are mostly male brokers hired by VIP clubs.
These women are not paid wages; they work
for free and with a felt sense of obligation to
their brokers, who shower them with gifts and
perks. Women’s “free labor” generates con-
siderable profits for promoters and club own-
ers but is largely only symbolically rewarding
to the women. Methodologically breaking
from past labor scholarship, I embed the pro-
duction of value in a relational context by
ethnographically following promoters and
women throughout the VIP party circuit in
New York, the Hamptons, Miami, and the
French Riviera over 18 months of fieldwork.
This article draws from interviews with 44
promoters, 20 women (called “girls”), and 20
clients (i.e., men who spend money in VIP
parties) to show how such value is produced.

Promoters perform relational work to gen-
erate value from women’s bodily capital
( Wacquant 1995) in four stages: recruitment,
mobilization, performance, and control.
Through relational work, cemented by gifts
and strategic intimacies, promoters redefine
women’s economic utility as leisure and
friendship; through boundary work (Lamont
and Molnar 2002), women frame their partici-
pation as distinct from sexual labor. When the
appropriate matches between relationships,
payments, and boundaries do not align—when
relational mismatches happen— women’s con-
sent to participate in the VIP economy breaks
down. By showing the relational work involved
in getting women to work for free, I outline the
relational production of consent, foreground-
ing social ties as central to securing surplus
value, and thus expanding prevailing models
of the labor process.

TheoReTICAl BACKgRound
The Labor Process
How does one person manage to capture sur-
plus value from another? In the sociology of
work, we find a number of strategies through
which owners appropriate surplus. Coercion
is not a viable strategy, because as Weber
([1922] 1978) noted, it rarely works for long.
Economic incentives are not always effective,

Mears 1101

for as Frederick Taylor discovered, raising
earnings in the piece-rate system can actually
lower workers’ efforts (Sallaz 2013). Neither
are wages an adequate explanation for surplus
value, which is the unpaid labor that workers
effectively perform above and beyond their
compensated labor power; wages alone do
not explain why workers often put in more
than the bare minimum for which they are
paid. An earlier generation of labor scholars
emphasized structural determinants of exploi-
tation, such as the sharp demarcation between
the work of managers and laborers, deskill-
ing, and large labor supplies (Braverman
1974). Such a picture of conflict and manage-
rial control, however, leaves little room to see
autonomy or agency in workers.

Moving beyond models of coercion and
conflict, Burawoy’s (1979) theory of indus-
trial games focused on the micro interac-
tional mechanisms that produce worker
consent. In the factory Burawoy studied, the
game of “making out” allowed workers to
make choices about when and how much
effort to exert. The game produced a sense
of social and psychological achievement,
and because it dominated shop floor culture,
Burawoy concluded that workers’ cultural
practices led them to consent to their own
exploitation, even enthusiastically so. Thus
the labor process in capitalist production
simultaneously obscures and secures sur-
plus labor, legitimizing exploitation through

An important break with both industrial
sociologists and Marxist sociology, Burawoy
(1979) bound his analytic lens to the labor
process at the point of production—the
moments of transformation of raw materials
into surplus value—thereby explaining the
organization of consent through work activi-
ties independent of outside orientations like
school, family, and the state. This move, from
structure to symbolic interactions, and from
ideology to situations, could now explain how
workers’ motivations emerge from the work
process itself.

The theory of games has explained how
people are mobilized to perform their duties as

factory workers (Burawoy 1979), professionals
like lawyers (Pierce 1995), service industry
workers (Sallaz 2002), and even the unem-
ployed (Sharone 2013). More broadly, labor
process scholars have followed the symbolic
interactionist tradition through the shift from
hierarchical to flexible organization (Smith
2001), documenting managerial attempts to
mold workplace culture to produce consent in
blue- as well as white-collar workplaces
(Kunda 1992; Vallas 2006).

Throughout the post-industrial decline in
manufacturing and the rise in services, labor
process analysts have continued to explain
consent through processes of meaning-
making at the workplace. Studies of emo-
tional labor have examined the control of
workers’ affect in interactive services ranging
from airlines (Hochschild 1983) and amuse-
ment parks (Van Maanen 1990) to personal
care services (Boris and Parreñas 2010). Sim-
ilarly, studies of aesthetic labor have exam-
ined managerial control of bodily capital, an
important component of work in interactive
services like retail (Williams and Connell
2010), hospitality (Otis 2011), and restau-
rants, where workers are recruited and trained
to project attractive and sellable personas
(Warhurst and Nickson 2001). Across these
various sites, sociologists have examined
workplace cultures and practices to explain
why workers consent to managerial control of
their time, bodies, and emotions.

By focusing on the situational construction
of consent, and limiting their purview to sta-
ble relational contexts, sociologists of work
take as their basic object of analysis the
accomplishment of work activities, usually at
the site of work, be it the shop floor or the
shopping mall. This misses how the meanings
of work are also shaped through relationships
and social ties beyond the accomplishment of
work activities.1 Studies of informal work
demonstrate the importance of relationships
forged at work sites and well beyond them—
for instance, the complex webs of social rela-
tions that constitute urban underground
economies (Duneier 1999; Venkatesh 2006)
and the bonds between sex workers, clients,

1102 American Sociological Review 80(6)

and brokers that regulate markets for sex
(Bernstein 2007; Hoang 2015). Likewise,
studies of freelance workers, such as those in
the culture industries, reveal various social
infrastructures linking aspiring workers,
agents, and employers whose relationships
are built on repeated interactions at jobs,
agencies, and after-hours bars and other enter-
tainment venues (McRobbie 2002). As the
labor market becomes more casual and work
moves outside of permanent contracts and
stable organizations (Kalleberg et al. 2000;
Smith 2001), new models of the labor process
and its relational context are needed.

Relational Work

Within the field of economic sociology, rela-
tional work is a useful concept to explain how
patterned relationships can secure surplus
value. Zelizer (2012:149) developed rela-
tional work to mean the “creative effort peo-
ple make in establishing, maintaining,
negotiating, transforming, and terminating
interpersonal relations.” People try to create
viable matches between appropriate kinds of
economic and social exchanges, thereby over-
coming the tension between the “hostile
worlds” of intimacy and commerce. To do
this, people erect boundaries around a cate-
gory of social relations, establish a set of
distinctive understandings and practices that
operate within that boundary, allow certain
kinds of economic transactions to happen,
and adopt certain kinds of media such that
those transactions feel appropriate (Zelizer
2005). Relational work explains how people
bring these elements together to create “rela-
tional packages” (Zelizer 2012) that include
particular discourses and structures of
exchange, such as brokerage and gifting
(Rossman 2014).

This framework has been usefully applied
to understanding how people bridge seem-
ingly hostile worlds like the commodification
of sacred goods, for example, trades in human
bodies ranging from organs (Healy 2006) and
reproductive materials (Almeling 2007) to
cadavers (Anteby 2010). Relational work can

even explain macro-economic outcomes like
inter-organizational relationships among
manufacturers (Whitford 2012) and predatory
lending practices in the mortgage industry
(Block 2012).

Relatively neglected in economic soci-
ologists’ research agenda, however, are
markets for human labor (Sallaz 2013).
When the workplace is studied, it is in the
context of understanding the creation of
markets, for instance, markets in life insur-
ance (Chan 2009) or financial goods
(Abolafia 1996), rather than the creation of
worker consent.

Yet relational work has much to offer
when explaining worker consent. For instance,
gifting, a prominent form of relational work,
plays an important role in motivating work-
ers. In economic experiments, workers who
receive gifts rather than cash payments put in
more effort to uphold their sense of reciprocal
obligation (Kube, Maréchal, and Puppe
2012). In economists’ alternative strands of
labor theory, the labor contract has even been
described as a partial gift exchange (Akerlof

Indeed, the concept of relational work has
been fruitfully applied to cases of labor that
are morally contested, such as markets for
intimate bodily labors like sex work (Bern-
stein 2007; Hoang 2015). In realms that mix
intimacy and money, commercial sex services
exist at one end of a spectrum and “pure”
romantic relationships at the other; in between
are practices involving intimate economic
exchanges, from sponsorship (Swader et al.
2012) to treating (Clemens 2006). People
perform relational work to frame these dubi-
ous exchanges as appropriate, for instance, by
matching appropriate payment media to the
exchange, and through boundary work, which
draws conceptual distinctions and creates
symbolic distances between categories of
people and practices (Lamont and Molnar

Relational work is especially useful in the
contemporary context of growing contingent
labor to explain why people work for no or
low pay. “Free labor” has been abundantly

Mears 1103

documented among the freelance workforce,
notably in culture, media, and technology
industries (Frenette 2013; Hesmondhalgh
2010; Neff et al. 2005). Free labor, originally
conceived to account for user-generated con-
tent on the Internet (Terranova 2000), is
unpaid work given freely and endowed with
a sense of autonomy (Andrejevic 2009).
Free labor occurs when, for example, unpaid
fashion models walk on a luxury designer’s
catwalk hoping to gain status (Mears 2011),
tech employees spend hours doing unpaid
coding to build their portfolios (Neff 2012),
and a journalist writes for free at The Atlan- seeking exposure (Christin 2014).
Such work may not immediately look like
work; indeed, much work overlaps with
forms of activity commonly recognized as
leisure (Stebbins 1982). Although not
employment—a formal exchange of labor
for wages—all of these cases meet a socio-
logical definition of work, the “process
whereby human beings transform things of
the world to create value” (Sallaz 2013:10).
Each of these workers marshals a skill set,
exerts labor power, and creates a product.
They also generate surplus value, because
employers gain economic profits through
inadequately compensating their efforts,
which are understood in these contexts as
self-investments and symbolically valuable.
However, people who perform free labor are
often compensated in the form of gifts,
perks, or access to new social networks.
Relational work provides a framework for
analyzing the web of social connections that
render these unequal exchanges meaningful
and worthwhile.

Taking these insights from economic soci-
ology, I conceive of the workplace as embed-
ded in a relational infrastructure to explain
how workers are recruited, mobilized, and
controlled, and why they accept no payment
for their valuable efforts. Using core elements
of the relational framework—relationships,
meanings, media, and boundaries—this arti-
cle examines, in Burawoy’s (1979:30) terms,
how relational work “obscures and secures”
labor’s surplus value.

The CAse: BoTTle seRVICe

This article uses the case of unpaid women
and their paid brokers, called promoters, who
attend leisure events and parties catering to
the global elite. This clientele is called VIP,
“very important people,” which is a purchas-
able status denoting valued consumers. VIPs
are highly mobile and have large amounts of
disposable income; they get access to a wide
variety of “free stuff ” by virtue of their prior
spending records (McClain and Mears 2012).
For example, frequent flyers enjoy elite status
with access to airlines’ free services like
upgrades, airport lounges, and expedited
security. VIP customers similarly receive
extra care and attention by service workers in
luxury settings (Sherman 2007). Because free
goods and services comprise what it means to
be VIP, these services are a good case for
studying the economy of free labor. And
unlike airlines, hotels, or other elite spaces,
the VIP party scene relies on labor that is not
fixed to an organizational space, enabling a
relational analysis of work that spills into
informal spaces and extra-organizational
social activities.

The VIP party scene is dispersed globally,
tapping into the world’s wealthiest stratum,
which is more international and mobile than
ever before (Atkinson, Piketty, and Saez
2009). These parties appear in what Sassen
(2000) calls “urban glamour zones” in global
cities like New York and Miami, as well as
exclusive tourist destinations, which are over-
looked yet crucial nodes for the global circu-
lation of the business class. VIPs circulate
throughout a transatlantic calendar of events
and parties from St. Barts in January to
St. Tropez in July (Cousin and Chauvin

In such nodes, VIPs frequent exclusive
nightclubs that typically offer “bottle ser-
vice.” Rather than order drinks at the bar, VIP
clients rent tables and purchase whole bottles
of alcohol, carried by “bottle girls”—
attractive cocktail waitresses in revealing
clothing—to clients’ tables, at prices ranging

1104 American Sociological Review 80(6)

from $250 per bottle of Absolut vodka
(750 ml which retails for $25) to $5,000 for a
magnum-size (1.5 liters) bottle of Cristal
champagne (which retails for $750). The
average price is $1,500 per table on a Satur-
day night at such nightclubs (Elberse, Barlow,
and Wong 2009). Firework sparklers accom-
pany expensive bottles, a clear indicator of
conspicuous consumption (Veblen [1899]
2009). Door personnel screen who is allowed
to enter, and at what price, ensuring the bottle
service club is an exclusively VIP space.2

I gained access to VIP clubs from previous
fieldwork in the fashion modeling industry,
which has substantial ties to party promoters.
In my earlier fieldwork, promoters invited me
to their parties free of charge with free dinner
included; to begin this project, I accepted
their invitations and began going out with
them in New York.

Over the course of 18 months, I attended
17 clubs and went out with promoters on
more than 120 nights, in addition to taking
four trips to VIP destinations. I interviewed
44 promoters and 20 women, as well as 20
male clients whose interviews I use as sup-
plemental data. Interviews were recorded and
sometimes lasted over the course of several
days as extended conversations. Of the 44
promoters interviewed, I accompanied all but
eight of them to their parties at least once and
as many as 10 times. I sometimes visited
three or four clubs over the course of one
night. These nights generally began with din-
ner at 10 p.m. and ended between 3 and 4
a.m., with occasional after-parties stretching
beyond 8 a.m. the next day.

During the summer I moved into an apart-
ment rented by promoters; it was a four-bed-
room loft in Union Square accommodating
nine women, each of whom were allowed to
stay rent-free in exchange for going out with
the promoter at least four nights a week. I
lived in a single room in the loft for a dis-
counted price of $200 per week on the condi-
tion that I go out with the promoter at least

two nights a week. The loft was chaotic and
dirty, and after interviewing the women who
lived there, I left by my third week.

Methodologically, I used Kusenbach’s
(2003) go-along ethnographic method, a
hybrid of interviewing and participant obser-
vation, by following promoters on their daily
and nightly rounds to trace the social archi-
tecture of elite nightlife. Daytime observa-
tions proved as important as nighttime
encounters, as one promoter told me: “There
can be no night without the day.” Yet, a pro-
moter’s day rarely begins before 11 a.m. and
often starts as late as 2 p.m. when he wakes
up. Promoters generally welcomed my pres-
ence, since their job chiefly involves getting
women to hang out. In exchange for promot-
ers’ participation, I dressed the part and went
out with them at night; through my own bod-
ily capital, I was able to maneuver the prob-
lem of ethnographic access in studying up
(Gusterson 1997).

Reflecting the demographics of promoters,
my sample is majority men and just five
women. Half of the 44 promoters interviewed
were immigrants (n = 22). Most spoke multi-
ple languages and could converse with inter-
national clients and models. Of the 44
promoters interviewed in New York, just
eight were white Americans.

I also accepted invitations to VIP destina-
tions on four occasions: five nights in Miami
(March), two separate weekends in the Hamp-
tons (June), and one week in Cannes (July),
with most expenses paid by promoters, clubs,
and VIP clients. Two trips, to Miami and
Cannes, were with a promoter named Santos,
whom I met at a club in New York. After
explaining my research, interviewing him,
accompanying him out, and several text con-
versations later, Santos invited me to attend
his parties in Miami over the month of March,
during the Electronic Music Festival. The
festival draws music industry personnel as
well as clients, promoters, and models from
around the world. I paid for my own flight to
Miami and stayed for free with four young
women in the accommodations Santos
arranged for all of us together, in the

Mears 1105

guesthouse of a villa on Star Island, rented by
a group of Californian mortgage bankers
(who paid $50,000 for the weekend rental). A
year later, I met up with Santos in Europe,
first in Milan for a night out at a club where
he promotes, and then I followed him to
Cannes for a week, again staying for free in
his rental villa with eight other women.
Finally, I visited the Hamptons on two week-
end trips during the summer season, first with
a promoter named Sampson, whom I met on
the street in Soho with one of Santos’s associ-
ates, and again with a group of clients I met
through promoters.

Copious amounts of alcohol and some-
times drugs are supplied to women free of
charge; I generally held a glass of champagne
during the parties but refrained from drinking
more than occasional sips, enough to fit in.
This made me a rare sober participant, which
proved useful; for instance, I could drive
home when a promoter was too drunk. Taking
notes was easy, as everyone was constantly
tapping on their phones, especially promot-
ers, even as they danced inside clubs.

I secured the samples of women and cli-
ents from clubs in New York. It was impos-
sible to secure lists of clients or women from
nightclubs or promoters, so I built a conveni-
ence sample composed of participants
I recruited in three ways: through face-to-face
meetings at dinners and parties, through pro-
moters, and through snowball sampling. I
primarily relied on snowball sampling and
introductions from promoters to interview
clients. To interview women, I recruited pri-
marily through tables. Each night out, I habit-
ually introduced myself to each woman at the
table to find out how she met the promoter we
accompanied. At this point in our conversa-
tion, I typically would explain my role as a
writer working on a project about nightlife.
Interviews with women focused on their rela-
tionships with promoters and clients and their
careers in the scene. Among the 20 women
interviewed, their median age was 23. At 31
to 32, I was regularly the oldest woman at
promoters’ tables, but still welcome because I
look younger.

I coded interview transcripts and field
notes using the software Nvivo with a coding
scheme that emerged inductively in accord-
ance with the analytic strategy of grounded
theory (Charmaz 2001). I replaced all names
with pseudonyms and removed potentially
identifying information.

FIndIngs: The VAlue oF
gIRls’ WoRK
In the market for entertainment, a nightclub
seeks to create an exciting environment in
which customers spend money on alcohol;
nightclubs are part of the “experience econ-
omy,” where goods are secondary to the con-
sumption experience itself (Pine and Gilmore
1999). VIP clubs attempt to mobilize big-
spending clients who will pay high premiums
on bottle service. Prized clients are called
“whales,” as in finance and gambling lingo.
They have significant stores of disposable
income with which to buy bottles. I observed
whales spending $200,000 for parades of
hundreds of sparkler-lit bottles of champagne
brought to their table (known as a “bottle
train”). Clubs also value affluent businessmen
and tourists, who spend in steadier and
smaller amounts of $1,000 to $2,000 a night.
Next are “fillers,” men who buy drinks at the
bar but have some cultural capital, which
keeps the club from looking empty. Below
fillers, men perceived as having low eco-
nomic and cultural capital are described as
“bridge and tunnel,” so-called because they
are not recognized as Manhattan dwellers and
are barred entry.

To attract VIPs, clubs stage a glamorous
platform for them to spend money, with high-
profile DJs, chic and expensive-looking
décor, brand name alcohol, special events,
and restricted access to an exclusive crowd.
Their chief attraction is a high volume of
beautiful women, similar to women’s roles in
other areas of the service economy (Warhurst
and Nickson 2001). Consistent with past
research on nightlife (e.g., Rivera 2010),
clubs aim to have more women than men
inside. By my count, clubs averaged about

1106 American Sociological Review 80(6)

3:2 women to men. However, the quantity of
women does not suffice to distinguish the VIP
space. VIP clubs seek a high quantity of
“quality” women, assessed exclusively in
terms of feminine beauty. Exploiting the cor-
relation between attractiveness and status
(Webster and Driskell 1983), clubs target
women whose bodies correspond to those
valued in the high-fashion arena as models.
Such women are ubiquitously called “girls.”
In the VIP scene, girls are young (roughly 16
to 25 years), thin (size 0 to 6), tall (at least
5’9” without heels), and typically although
not exclusively white, all of which is gauged

The most valuable girls are working fash-
ion models with reputable agencies, followed
by girls who look like they could be models,
called “good civilians” for their height and
slenderness. Below them are “civilians” and
“pedestrians,” terms to denote women with
low conformity to fashion standards; these
women are regularly denied entry at the door.
The least valuable are short and heavy
women, who are discussed with vitriol as
liabilities for the reputations of clubs and

Clubs pay wages to dozens of employees,
like bouncers, bus boys, bartenders, and wait-
resses, but girls are not paid. It is the pro-
moter’s job to bring girls to the club, where
they are given access to freebies and perks,
such as dinners and drinks in expensive res-
taurants and sometimes all-expenses-paid
trips to VIP destinations.

Inside the club, girls are expected to dress
in fashionable clothes, wear high heels, and
stay at the promoter’s table over the course of
the night while looking like they are having a
good time. They are not expected to speak with
or go home with clients, although sometimes
they do, if they so desire. Mostly, girls are
expected to look beautiful, performing unpaid
aesthetic labor (Warhurst and Nickson 2001).

Given their high symbolic capital, models
can transform a club into a high-status space,
from which profits can be made. Claude, a
27-year-old white male from France who had
been a promoter for four years, explained:

It is the quality of the woman. It’s the per-
fect thing. It’s just so beautiful to see and
watch. A model is a model. She goes into a
club, and she’s, like, flashlight. She’s here,
you know. And the guys next to her, they’ll
be like, “Damn, this club is hot. Get me
another bottle.”

Without girls, clients are less likely to
spend money, and the status and earnings of
the club will decline. For example, Thibault,
a 40-year-old black Kenyan who had been a
promoter for 20 years, has such a reputation
for bringing high-quality girls that he believes
his team can make or break a club:

When we bring in the models, and people
see us in the club, like a table full of models,
it’s, like, making the club cool. That’s where
everybody wants to be, where the models
are, where the fashion people are. They’ll
pay more to be by us, when clients book a
table they want to be around us. If we do a
place, other promoters want to be there too.
If we’re not there, and the models aren’t
there, the crowd is like bridge and tunnel.

Earnings for clubs and promoters are sub-
stantial. Clubs can make millions of dollars
a year, largely driven by bottle sales. The
revenues of one such successful nightclub
surpassed $6 million a year, and the firm that
owned it had sales of over $20 million in
2007 (Elberse et al. 2009). Depending on
their experience and reputations for quality
girls, promoters earn between $200 and
$1,000 a night, plus 20 percent of what their
clients spend on bottle service. A promoter
new to the scene will likely begin working as
a “sub” for a more established promoter; he
will likely be paid per girl he brings out,
typically about $10 to $20 per girl. As he
develops a reputation among club owners as
a reliable source of girls, he will quickly
move up the ranks to work either indepen-
dently or in a two- or three-person team, and,
depending on his girls’ quality, for higher
pay. Girls have no comparable rewards

Mears 1107

Conversely, being surrounded by lower-
value girls can translate into lower earnings
and lower status for promoters and clubs. For
instance, Milo, an Italian promoter, worked
for high-end clubs with a crowd of good civil-
ians, not models, earning about $600 per
night. His own preference is to party with
strippers, whom he thinks are more fun and
sexually attractive. Surrounded by ostensibly
inferior girls, Milo’s status suffered, revealed
in the ways other promoters distanced them-
selves from him. One night, Mustafa, a
32-year-old highly paid African promoter, sat
across from Milo. Mustafa’s table of models
was relatively empty as he looked with some
disgust across the room to Milo’s table, full of
girls dancing, and he told me:

For us, it’s quality over quantity. We have
two great girls tonight. That’s better than
Milo. He’ll just bring anything . . . girls that
look like retarded prostitutes, you know that
big boobs, plastic in their lips, you know,
cheesy style. That’s worse than just one
good girl.

Attempting to capitalize on the status of
models, promoters regularly talk themselves up
by mentioning the fashion work secured by
their girls. For instance, the promoter Dre fre-
quently leaned over to me during parties to
describe our companions’ career successes,
“She just booked the cover of French Vogue.”
On the flipside, one of the most common insults
to a promoter or a club is to disparage the looks
of their girls. One promoter may deride another
with sly comments like, “Who’s their modeling
agency, Instagram?” The perceived quality of
girls is one key determinant of the value of a
space, and in turn, the economic and symbolic
worth of the promoter she accompanies.

RelATIonAl WoRK In The
lABoR PRoCess
Girls’ participation in the VIP, like other cases
of free labor, may look more like leisure and
consumption than work and production.
Although not formally employed, girls are

clearly working: they utilize soft skills to per-
form aesthetic labor (Warhurst and Nickson
2001); they exert labor power by showing up
and looking good to create a product, the VIP
experience; and they generate value, because
club owners’ and promoters’ symbolic and
economic profits depend on their labor.

Girls do not share in these profits, nor are
they fully compensated for the value of their
efforts. Promoters benefit from an uneven
exchange relationship with girls by extracting
surplus value from them—the very definition
of an exploitative relation.4 Why do girls con-
sent to this arrangement? I analyze the labor
process in four key stages of work: recruit-
ment, mobilization to the work site, perfor-
mance of the work, and labor control. Through
each stage, promoters build a relational infra-
structure that redefines girls’ labor as leisure
and friendship. Girls’ consent cannot be
explained by the organization of activities in
the club alone, but must be understood in the
context of their relationships with brokers and
with each other.


All promoters are constantly recruiting girls.
Models are a transient population, most of
whom cannot go out as frequently as promot-
ers invite them. During fieldwork, I received at
least two invitations by promoters to different
clubs each night, every night. This leads to a
competitive and strategic recruitment effort,
quite distinct from the “girl hunt” that Grazian
(2008) defines as interactional posturing
among young men in nightlife. Promoters’
hunt for girls is a well-organized project of
capital accumulation, which they carefully
frame as the start of new friendships motivated
by mutual interests and fun experiences.

To recruit new girls, promoters tap into
friend networks and word-of-mouth introduc-
tions, relying on their existing ties to girls to
help establish their reputations as worthy com-
panions. When this fails, they hit the streets.
Since the expansion of the modeling industry
in the 1990s, cities have attracted a glut of
young women seeking work as models, work

1108 American Sociological Review 80(6)

that is often unpredictable and low-paid (Mears
2011). As models go out into the city streets in
search of employment, promoters search for
them. Promoters park their large SUVs at busy
intersections in New York’s Soho neighbor-
hood, home to dozens of fashion offices, wait-
ing for models to walk by so they can approach
them and invite them out. One promoter is
known for sitting on a bench outside a café on
Spring Street. Another sometimes sits outside
a frozen yogurt vendor—this food, he reasons,
is popular among models.

Some promoters go to models’ castings
with girls they already know in hopes of meet-
ing new ones. They stalk models in ways that
mirror harassment. They find out the landline
phone numbers of agency-owned apartments
for models and call daily, relentlessly, inviting
models to come out. One promoter reported
sneaking into apartment buildings disguised
as a pizza deliveryman to knock on doors
where models live. Promoters also regularly
pick up girls at clubs.

Throughout this recruitment process, pro-
moters aim to depict themselves as attractive
and friendly. They organize their lives to attract
girls. They tend to eat at trendy cafés and walk
on particular city streets that afford maximum
chances of meeting models. As Thibault
explained, “As a promoter, everything that you
do, you are working.” This includes grooming
their own good looks: promoters work out and
style their bodies meticulously. Many dress
casually in jeans and t-shirts, but upon closer
inspection, I recognized their expensive Arm-
ani tees, styled with hip jewelry and luxury-
brand leather sneakers. Promoters’ Facebook
pages are stocked with party pictures of beauti-
ful girls in clubs, on yachts, and accompanied
by the familiar site of buckets filled with Dom
Pérignon champagne.

Promoters thus recruit girls by fashioning
themselves as desirable companions. Shadow-
ing them on the streets of Soho, I observed how
promoters attempt to construct themselves and
their VIP party world as exciting and fun. For
instance, I walked alongside two promoters,
21-year-old Trevor with only one year of expe-
rience and Jay, his 29-year-old friend and

mentor, as they passed a sidewalk café and
noticed a table with three models. After some
deliberation, Trevor decided to approach them
and Jay coached him to come up with a good
opener: “Yeah the first line, the opener, is so
important, because they’re gonna know you’re
a promoter. You have to overcome that and
make them feel comfortable, make them
laugh,” Jay told Trevor. I went with Trevor to
the café—“Sure, it’ll help,” he replied when I
asked if I could—and we walked up to their
table. The following exchange ensued:

“Excuse me, hello. I’m Trevor. This is—
um—[pause, forgetting my name] Ashley.
How are you guys?” The women unenthusi-
astically reply hello, and Trevor asks where
they are from.


He asks, “What are you guys doing here?”
After some awkward pauses, the women
reply that they are models. Trevor launches
into the pitch: “Well I’m new in town too,
and she’s new, and I’m new. I’m always
looking for friends and people to hang out
with. How long you guys in town?”

“One month.” They are clearly not inter-
ested in talking to him.

“One month. You guys like bowling? We
could go bowling. And movies. You guys
like movies?”

“Um, sure.”

“Okay, I go out too, to clubs and parties and
stuff, so let’s hang out. You got numbers?”

After two refusals (“I can’t remember my
American number, sorry”), Trevor ends up
with one of the women’s phone numbers.

Back at his car, Trevor admits, “That was not
my best.” I ask Trevor if he would really take
them bowling: “Yeah, that’s how it works,
you have to establish the relationship.”

Mears 1109

– Field notes, July, 3 p.m., Elizabeth Street,

This was no doubt an awkward exchange, but
Trevor clearly intended to draw the women
into his social network with his friendly per-
sona while downplaying his economic
motives as a promoter. Once promoters estab-
lish these friendship relations, they aim to
mobilize girls to come out to their parties.


Girls are only valuable if they show up at the
VIP party. To mobilize them to come out,
promoters use gifting practices to nurture
relations of reciprocity and obligation. Pro-
moters offer a number of comps (compli-
mentary goods) free of charge to girls, who
can expect at least free transportation, din-
ner, and drinks, and sometimes also drugs
for the night. A night out with a promoter
usually begins with a free dinner around
10 p.m., an important step that serves to
consolidate the group and thus make a strong
visible impression upon arrival at the club
around 12 a.m. The club or restaurant pays
for the dinner (the restaurant, too, benefits
from having tables full of models), and the
promoter pays the tip out of pocket. Other
times, promoters are paid by individual cli-
ents to bring girls out with them for a night.
In this case, the client will take the whole
group out to dinner. This is indeed a treat in
that girls can order off the menu, as opposed
to the usual “promoter dinners” that are
served family style without any choice of
dishes. A promoter’s text message invited
me to one such dinner:

Going to dinner then a drink at Club X with
a multi billionaire friend. You should come.
Order whatever you like 😀

In their interviews, seven of the 20 girls
mentioned the dinner as a motivation for
going out. At dinner, girls regularly praise
and photograph the food for social media.
One girl posted a picture on her Facebook of

our full dinner table with the caption, “all
freeee!” Of course, there are no free gifts, as
Mauss (1954) established, only exchanges
misrecognized as free. Zero-priced goods
flow in greater abundance to those who can
afford to repay them in some means
(McClain and Mears 2012). By accepting
free things, girls enter into a reciprocal obli-
gation with promoters. Most of the girls
understand the terms of this exchange. After
one dinner, for example, a girl sighed as she
got up from the table to follow the promoter
to the club, saying, “Let’s go dance for our

Their emphasis on free meals suggests
girls have limited economic means. This is
partially true. Girls come from mixed occupa-
tions and class positions. At various tables, I
sat beside professionals working in fields as
diverse as finance, medicine, and real estate.
Many of them were students. Among the 20
girls I interviewed, their family class back-
grounds ranged from upper to working class.
Eleven were in professional jobs or in school,
and the rest modeled or were in between jobs;
three earned below minimum wage and relied
on parental support. No girl identified herself
as coming from a poor family background,
and I met very few wealthy girls for whom
price was no issue. As one model from Brazil
explained, “Of course you can feel it, if you
go to the party by yourself and you buy two
drinks, you can feel how expensive it is from
your own pocket.”

In addition to the draw of free meals and
drinks, girls are motivated to join a promot-
er’s social network. Nearly all the girls I met
at promoters’ tables were relative newcomers
to the city, and many did not know where or
with whom to socialize. They were also
young; I frequently met girls in clubs who
were younger than the U.S. drinking age of
21 and even younger than the European limit
of 18. Accompanied by a promoter, entering a
club is usually a simple affair for underage
girls. Promoters thus offer girls participation
in an elite scene they could not otherwise
access given their limitations in income, age,
and social networks.

1110 American Sociological Review 80(6)

Beyond these nightly benefits, promoters
construct webs of reciprocity by showering
girls with gifts, favors, and attention during
the day, sometimes for weeks at a time in the
hopes a girl will come to his party. They offer
to drive girls to their castings on rainy days.
They invite girls for treated lunches, movies,
bowling, amusement parks, and kickboxing
classes to establish intimacy:

It’s better if you establish a friendship, so
you have to build a relationship, take them
to castings, play pool, go to the movies, and
then get them to go out. . . . It makes them
more likely to go out with you if you have a

– Jay, 29, African American promoter
for eight years, from NYC

These gifts aid promoters in strategically
constructing intimacies and thereby framing
their economic interests in girls as friendship,
fun, and leisure, as opposed to labor. A strong
discourse of friendship pervades every pro-
moter’s discussion of his work; many refer to
their girls simply as “my friends.”

Promoters’ relational work also takes
romantic form as they mobilize girls with sex-
ual exchanges. Their text messages frequently
include sexual innuendos. For instance, a tex-
ted invite for a Tuesday night party:

I only wanna have sex on days that begin with
T: Tuesday, Thursday, Taturday, Tunday,
Tonight… Best Tuesday night u can’t miss.

Sex is not merely innuendo; promoters
regularly have sex with targeted model popu-
lations. Their girlfriends are almost always
models, who support their boyfriends by
helping recruit other models from their net-
works. Five promoters in my sample candidly
described strategic sex during interviews.
Duke, a 45-year-old black Haitian who had
worked as a promoter for 10 years, said:

At one point I had the most models at my
parties. . . . How can you convince a whole
models’ apartment to come out with you at
night? I’ll tell you, you find the popular

girl—the most exciting popular girl in the
apartment—and you fuck her. Pardon my
French. . . . Not the quiet girl, not the dull
girl, you go for the popular energetic girl,
because she will motivate everyone in the
apartment to come out.

Promoters perform a version of sex work
by flirting and sleeping with girls for eco-
nomic gain, like the pimp who must keep the
sexual interest of his prostitutes to maintain
ownership claims over them, and like the sex
worker who performs emotional labor in the
“girlfriend experience” (Bernstein 2007).
Strategic sexual intimacy poses problems for
promoters in monogamous relationships, as
they must deflect girls’ advances. Sampson
(a 27-year-old white American from New
York who had worked as a promoter for three
years) was married at the time of our first
interview, to an ex-model (and “good civil-
ian”) who expected his fidelity. She regularly
came out with him. However, because Samp-
son used flirtation to attract and mobilize girls
to come out, he faced a dilemma:

Like the girls will start creeping up on me,
trying to touch me and dance on me, I’m
like, “I need water or I have to pour shots.”
I basically just have to keep moving to
avoid it. [My wife] gets jealous. When she
comes out with me it’s hard because I can’t
flirt as much.

Within a year, Sampson was divorced from
his wife of three years; she caught him sleep-
ing with models.5

As a result of promoters’ efforts to build
relations of reciprocity, friendships are forged
and often considered sincere. I interviewed
two models living “for free” in a promoter’s
apartment; in exchange, they went out with
the promoters four nights a week. The girls
deemphasized the exchange of their time for
rent, stressing instead their friendships with
the promoter:

Renee (21, white American model from Con-
necticut): I don’t look at it as a burden but I
look at it as work. Because I know that—

Mears 1111

Catherine (19, white American model from
Oregon): We’re, like, representing them.
Like, we understand that we’re there to
make them look good—

Renee: Exactly.
Catherine: We understand that we’re friends

but we’re supporting them. . . . It’s like work
that’s not work, though, because you meet
amazing friends, and we’re all just hanging
out and it’s never work because we’re all

Half the girls drew on such discourses of
strong friendships with and respect for pro-
moters in interviews. The other half was more
ambivalent and expressed affection from a
distance, with remarks like, “I think it would
be really hard to consider promoters friends.
There are certain things I can’t share with
them.” These girls tended to answer with con-
tradictions, like Eleanor, a 22-year-old white
American fashion student from New Jersey:

Even with Bill, who’s my friend, a couple
months ago, he was doing a dinner, and I
brought, like, four or five girls for him. You
know, he’s my friend, I’ll help him out. And,
I just really didn’t feel like going downstairs
to the club after . . . and he starts giving me
shit. And I’m like, “Well, I brought you, like,
five girls.” You know? So it almost makes it
weird. Like, you’re obligated, I don’t know.

These different sentiments from Eleanor,
Renee, and Catherine suggest that a felt sense
of authentic intimacy depends on how obliga-
tions are framed. If reciprocity is too explic-
itly demanded, the friendship feels inauthentic
and more like a work relationship.


Having mobilized girls to come out, the pro-
moter now needs them to perform the work of
being a girl. This includes looking good,
dancing, visibly having a good time, and
helping him rouse affect to create a good
party atmosphere. To accomplish this, pro-
moters must get girls to want to do the work.

Promoters construct the meaning of “girl” as
desirable through flirtation and interaction
rituals that create the VIP party “vibe.”

Promoters deploy many flirtatious tactics
to make girls feel desired, from suggestively
dancing to ubiquitously touching, kissing,
hugging, and closely posing for photographs
with them. Thibault is an expert at getting the
most reluctant girls to dance, and Dre regu-
larly puts his hands on a girl’s lower back by
way of saying hello. Initially unnerving when
I entered the field, I came to see these ges-
tures of physical closeness as routine efforts
to produce social closeness.

Promoters also try to construct successful
interaction rituals that yield collective effer-
vescence, an intense social experience under-
stood by Durkheim ([1912] 1965; see also
Collins 2004) as a social emotion, the excite-
ment that comes from feeling in close reso-
nance with other participants. In the VIP
party, it could be called a “vibe,” as Eleanor
described it: “I just—I love the whole, like,
aura in New York. I love the vibe. I love the

In Durkheimian ritual, collective efferves-
cence results when a group builds up a focus
of attention, pumps up a shared symbol with
emotional significance, and thereby revels in
its own group solidarity. In much the same
way, promoters assemble a group of girls at
their table and then try to orchestrate a feeling
of exuberance.

Indeed, the pleasures of being at a pro-
moter’s table can yield intense highs, as
described in studies of cultural consumption
(Benzecry and Collins 2014). Girls spoke
excitedly of being a part of the high-status
world of wealth, models, and celebrities.
Experiences of elation contain an exhilarating
feeling of being in the moment (Durkheim
[1912] 1965). These pleasures are spurred on
by bottomless glasses of champagne and
vodka, and depending on the table, sometimes
powders of MDMA6 and cocaine, which are
consumed amid elaborate light and sound sys-
tems with famous DJs delivering beloved
house and hip-hop beats that inspire friends
and strangers alike to shout and dance on top

1112 American Sociological Review 80(6)

of tables and sofas, taking selfies that are then
circulated among group members on Insta-
gram and Facebook for mutual admiration.

Marshaling emotional labors, promoters
fuel the group’s energy by pouring shots,
making toasts, and dancing. They all boast
that their table is the most beautiful of tables
in the most exclusive of nightclubs. When I
met Santos and joined his table in New York,
he immediately told me, “I do only the best
parties. Everyone knows me. Look at my
girls. They amazing!”

The vibe can be especially strong among
tables full of friends, since “letting go” is
easier with lowered inhibitions among famil-
iar people. A well-constructed vibe, in turn,
intensifies the feeling of intimacy among
group members, which was evident at tables
run by Vanna and Pablo, the promoters who
operated the “model apartment” in which I
lived with Catherine and Renee:

Catherine: On Saturday, we call it family night
because, it’s Saturday night, it’s the most
insane night for our group. We all just let
everything go and literally we have just so
much fun and everyone in the club, when
we start yelling and screaming, they all turn
and look at us like, “What the hell?” We get
crazy. We have so much fun.

Renee: It’s like family, for us.
Catherine: Yeah, like the managers come out

and hang out with us, we’re all friends there.
Renee: The managers love us. Like last night

we were hanging out with the managers
from [clubs]. Yeah, like, they love having us

Catherine: We bring the energy.

Between Catherine and Renee and their
promoter friends, the collective efferves-
cence is a cooperative social production:
girls join with promoters to produce the vibe
in an environment carefully engineered and
aided by the intimacies promoters have
worked hard to establish. These moments of
revelry reinforce the desirability of being a
girl, and they fortify the meanings of social

relations with promoters as rooted in fun and

This is not to say that girls are unaware of
their economic role in the VIP. Girls under-
stand that their presence at parties makes
money for the promoters. However, they do
not see their own economic utility as being at
odds with their friendships with promoters.
On the contrary; on many occasions I watched
girls relish in their capacity to generate pro-
moters’ profits by encouraging clients to pur-
chase expensive bottles of alcohol, like
jumbo-sized bottles of champagne, a practice
known as “upselling” (and considered crimi-
nal when directly organized by clubs and bars
[see Conti 2014]). For example, Catherine
and Renee described how they “support” their
friend, the promoter Pablo:

Renee: Our friend Pablo had a big client and I
would like randomly go over to their table
and like take a glass, to help him. Because
he has a client, and he knows that I know
what he’s doing. Like we’re all kind of sup-
porting each other.

Catherine: And what we do is we push them to
buy it, at the club, so a lot of the times at the
club, none of us will be drinking that night,
but we’ll all take a glass [she raises her hand
up in a toast] and be like Yeah! And we’ll
just take it and set it down behind us, or bus
boys come and pick it up anyway.

Renee: Or we do dump outs, like you just dump
out the glass behind you when nobody’s

Author: Does anyone tell you to do this?
Catherine: You pick up on these things, like the

first time Pablo probably gave me a drink
and I was like no I don’t want it, he proba-
bly was like, “No, no, no, just hold onto it.”
Because then you see the bottles come out,
and Pablo will be like, “Oh, they’re spend-
ing so much money, fuck!” [They both

Like Burawoy’s workers absorbed in shop-
floor games, these girls play a game of
upselling alcohol to clients, enriching

Mears 1113

promoters’ profits and having fun doing it.
Relational work is a key condition of consent
here, because the game of upselling is embed-
ded in a familial-like bond that Pablo con-
structed with Catherine and Renee. The
situational performance of the girls’ work is
upheld by a long backstory of relationships, in
which Catherine, Renee, and Pablo all spoke
of each other in terms of deep loyalty, mutual
obligation, and support.

Promoters get girls to want to join an
exploitative exchange by creating a vibe that
strengthens intimacies and constructs the
girls’ position as highly desirable. When done
correctly, promoters’ relational work—their
efforts at constructing meaningful relation-
ships—produces a sense of girls’ autonomous
consumption of leisure, when in fact, girls’
productive labor is tightly controlled to maxi-
mize their value.

Girls’ value hinges on their visibility at the
party: they must look the part and be seen.
Toward these ends, promoters control girls’
time, movements, and their looks. Of greatest
concern to a promoter is that girls stay at his
table for the duration of his working hours,
typically 12 to 3 a.m. He does this partially
with the comped dinner, which establishes an
obligation for girls to stay out for the night,
and allows the promoter to then escort them
to his table inside the club. Once at his table,
they are discouraged from sitting or from
leaving. Sitting elicits immediate attention:
“Baby, what’s wrong?” Promoters sometimes
pay small bribes to security personnel to
allow smoking at the table rather than outside.
Girls who leave the table for too long may
cause concern enough that the promoter, or
his sub, will go and look for them and perhaps
reprimand them for straying.

Girls who want to leave early are discour-
aged from doing so. When I tried to leave one
dinner after the entrée to make it to another
promoter’s party, a club owner and former
promoter stopped me and publicly scolded
my manners:

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Are you doing a dine-
and-dash? . . . You can’t just leave. You at
least have to stay for dessert and coffee, not
run out on the bill. Now because you’re
girls you don’t have to pay of course, but
you have to stay to the end. And it’s New
York, you know, so then you have to go
downstairs [to the club], have a drink, stay a

– Field notes, June, 11 p.m.,
Meatpacking District restaurant

Embarrassed, I apologized, sat down, and
stayed another hour.

For one year, Vanna and Pablo ran a
model apartment in Union Square. In
exchange for housing, the girls had to stay
out until 3 a.m.; if girls wanted to leave early,
the promoters simply invoked their rental
agreement. Most promoters encourage girls
to drink, dance, and participate in the high
energy they incessantly produce. When this
fails, the promoter can remind girls of their
obligation to him, as Jay did when he found
out I was headed to another party with a dif-
ferent promoter: “Your loyalty is messed up.
I’m insulted,” he told me.

Promoters manage and control who joins
their table, a practice that reveals the primary
importance of girls’ bodily capital. Promoters
are on constant alert, because girls frequently
try to bring friends with them to the free
party. When I tried to bring my own friends
out, promoters requested their full names in
order to check their Facebook pictures to
ensure their looks. Promoters were frustrated
with girls who brought the wrong kind of
friends to their parties, like Sampson:

Usually if I take them to dinner and she’s
with a friend, I’m like, “I’m sorry your
friend can’t come. She can’t have dinner.”
. . . But I’m up front and I’m fast with it. I
don’t waste time ’cause it would hurt my
image. And then girls will start saying,
“Hey, if she can bring a friend, I can bring
mine,” . . . and then my sub will start doing
it, and bring a bunch of midgets. So before
they even start, I say no.

1114 American Sociological Review 80(6)

Male friends are particularly unwelcome,
unless they can attract more girls. Male mod-
els are sometimes allowed to join a promot-
er’s table for this reason, as promoters think
these kinds of men add value. As Jay

The girl’s gotta want to be around you. . . .
Like, we figured out that not every girl’s
gonna want to hang with us. Not every girl
is attracted to us, and whatever. So what we
do is we have other model boys, or just cool
people, hanging around the table to keep
everybody there [at the table], you know
what I mean?

Promoters also monitor and control girls’
bodies, for instance, by telling them how to
dress. Dre often included in his invitation
texts instructions like, “Dress to impress,
Ash,” and while he frequently flattered girls’
looks, he was noticeably short on compli-
ments on the few nights I came to his parties
wearing casual and loose-fitting clothes.
Because girls’ height is central to conveying
their value, they are constantly told to wear
high heels, the current fashion being platform
heels of at least four inches, such that girls at
promoter tables stand above 6’ tall. Through-
out my stay in Miami, the girls complained
that Santos made them wear high heels, to the
point that he kept their heels in his car, telling
them to change from their sandals before
entering a club or restaurant. Sampson also
keeps a spare tight black dress and heels in his
car, explained his wife, because “some girls
can’t dress, so he makes them change.” Fail-
ure to look the part can lead to public humili-
ation. Hannah, a 19-year-old white American
model, recounted a yacht party in Miami
organized by Santos, where a girl had an
unshaved bikini area. Santos ordered her to
the bathroom to “fix it,” meaning, to shave.
Hannah remarked that this was embarrassing
for the girl, but justified: “I mean, if you’re on
a yacht in a bikini, you should shave.” Han-
nah understood that girls’ access to the VIP
hinges on meeting strict standards of

The control of girls’ time and movements
is most evident on trips with promoters, who

decide where the girls can and cannot go, and
for how long. Most times out with Santos in
Miami and Cannes, I had no idea where we
were headed or for how long, and I had no
input in the matter. In Cannes, girls’ move-
ments were severely limited, because Santos
had rented a villa far from the city center, a 50
euros taxi ride during summer season, and he
was the only one among us with keys to the
house. Promoters carefully control girls as
labor in the VIP party, such that girls’ partici-
pation is often semi-autonomous and only
incidentally leisure.

Just as good matches between meanings and
practices in relationships facilitate girls’ con-
sent, mismatches spoil it and undermine girls’
participation. Relational mismatches are
instances of differing expectations resulting
from an interpretive misalignment of relation-
ships, meanings, media, and boundaries. Dif-
ferences in understandings between participants
exacerbate ambiguity (Bandelj 2012) and, I
found, they can damage relationships. Such
instances were most evident in my data when
disciplinary practices, exchange media, sym-
bolic boundaries around sex work, and intima-
cies with promoters did not align with
participants’ expectations.

Disciplining Practices
Promoters spend considerable effort to con-
trol girls’ labor, but these practices must not
look too much like managerial discipline, or
they risk redefining the meaning of the rela-
tionship from friendship to employment. Yet,
promoters frequently resort to disciplining
girls whom they perceive have violated the
implicit exchange terms. The following dis-
cussion, as Sampson and his team left the
Hamptons and headed back to the city, typi-
fies the discipline promoters use to maintain
control of girls:

Jay: That girl was a pain in the ass. I had to go
look for her three times, then she brought
some random dude to the table.

Trevor: Random dude.

Mears 1115

Jay: . . . I told her, “No more bringing random
dudes to the table!” . . . Then she says, “Ok
no more bringing girls to table.” I’m like,
“No bringing girls?! It’s our table, we bring
who we want!”

Trevor: And at the end of the night, she was ask-
ing us to give him a ride. I was like, “You met
him through us, you don’t know him from a
hole in wall!” . . . My weekend was ruined
because of her, headache after headache. I’m
thinking not to drive her home. Bet me I

Sampson: No matter how difficult a girl is, I
wouldn’t leave her out here.

Trevor: I at least make sure she gets to the train

Jay: I’ve done that before. I gave a girl $20 to
get home and told her to leave dinner. She
was being a pain in the ass. I said, “You will
not ruin my dinner. Go get a cab.”

– Field notes, July, 2 p.m.,
Hamptons café

Discipline is a delicate act. If girls are man-
aged too roughly, it threatens the intimacy
established through relational work, redefin-
ing their relationship from horizontal friend-
ship to hierarchical management. Girls cannot
be treated as workers, because their participa-
tion has been framed as leisure. One client,
who hosts girls and promoters in his weekend
Hamptons home, explained: “I say when you
are a promoter, it’s like herding kittens. You
have to do two things: make them purr and hit
them with a spray bottle.” Both dominance
and intimacy must be maintained.

Discipline can escalate to scolding girls
and yelling at them. Early in my fieldwork,
Santos yelled at me for going to the wrong
party with a rival promoter, perhaps the worst
violation of loyalty a girl can commit. As it
was my first day in Miami and I had gotten
lost in the crowd, he accepted my panicked
apology. Two other girls staying in our Miami
villa were less fortunate. They did not attend
Santos’s party but instead stayed home; when
he returned he kicked them out of the villa,
accusing them of disrespect. They apologized
but Santos was insistent, and they cried as
they packed and left at 3 a.m., each on their

phones trying to find accommodations for the

As a last resort, girls who are too difficult
to control are simply left behind, or the pro-
moter makes them leave, effectively ending
their relationship and terminating future

Monetary Payments
Offering the wrong kinds of exchange media
can curtail a girl’s participation. Cash pay-
ment is notably absent from promoters’ strat-
egies in recruiting, mobilizing, and getting
girls to perform. Promoters frequently offer
to pay models’ cab fare to and from the club
(about $20), but this money is always explic-
itly earmarked for transportation. Only
rarely do promoters offer girls payment to
come out, about $40 to $80. This strategy is
mostly used by less established promoters. It
is considered an act of desperation. Payment
changes the nature of the relationship
between girl and promoter from friendship
to economic exchange, and the meaning of
her experience transforms from leisure to
labor. Sampson, when he was low on girls,
offered Hannah $40 a night to come out
regularly, which Hannah rebuffed: “I don’t
wanna get paid because then it’s like work,
you know?”

One night, I stood with two young models
before we entered a club with a promoter. A
third model, their friend, walked by on the
Meatpacking District street and stopped to
say hello, but she had to quickly keep mov-
ing, she explained, “I have to go to a different
club with my promoter.” I asked which pro-
moter, and she explained, “It’s George, he
pays us. It’s $80,” as she shrugged her shoul-
ders with a look of resignation, “so, it’s
work.” After leaving, her two friends said:
“Thank God we don’t have to do that!” In
fact, all four of us would do the same things
on this night—attend a club, drink for free,
and dance at a promoter’s table—but only one
of us would be paid, and looked at with some
pity for it.

1116 American Sociological Review 80(6)

When I asked an owner why he does not
pay girls directly to attend his club, he replied,
“That would ruin the fun,” a telling statement
on the transformative power of money (Zelizer
1994). Gifts to girls and wages to brokers
obfuscate what is essentially the exchange of
girls’ bodies for money (Rossman 2014).
When paid, a girl’s labor too clearly resembles
employment, breaking the illusion of her
autonomy and her experience of fun.

Sex Work Boundaries
The presence of money also threatens to cross
a symbolic boundary into the disreputable ter-
rain of sexual exchange. Because they go
unpaid, promoters’ girls are seen as distinct
from and superior to escorts and other hired
women in clubs, namely the bottle girls who
work for the club and carry bottles of alcohol to
clients’ tables, earning tips ranging from $200
to $800 a night. The job of bottle girl is widely
described as a “dirty” job occupied by “slutty”
women who are presumed to sell sex for eco-
nomic gain. Promoters’ girls are also distinct
from “table girls,” who are paid about $100 per
night to sit at clients’ tables, should clients
request girls to sit with them. Both categories of
girls are viewed with suspicion for their explic-
itly paid labor and, hence, their closer proxim-
ity to commercial sex. Toni, a 34-year-old
white male promoter from Italy, explained:

Because if you are sitting at a client’s table
and people see you doing it all the time, you
might be a prostitute. If you are with me at
my table with all the girls, you are a model.
. . . I don’t like them [table girls]. They can
be slutty.

“Table girls” and the models at Toni’s table are
engaging in very similar practices—looking
good and drinking free champagne at tables
—but they occupy very different positions
maintained as distinct through the boundary
work performed, in this case, with particular
exchange media and discourses: the paid girl is
“slutty” and the unpaid girl is a high status
model (Lamont and Molnar 2002). Girls could
monetize their participation by demanding

payment for flirtations, but the symbolic
boundary separating them from the lower-
status sex worker keeps them from doing so.

Promoters sometimes cross this symbolic
boundary by too explicitly demanding a profit
from girls’ bodies. For example, Hannah
recalled how Trevor encouraged her to flirt
with a client to whom she was not attracted:

Last time, the clients were two soccer players,
like professional soccer players, and Trevor
came up to me and was like, “That one likes
you, go talk to him. Go flirt with him.” I was
like, “No! I’m not even attracted to him. I’m
not gonna.” Trevor was like, “But he’s a cli-
ent, if you do, he’ll spend more money. Just
go talk to him.” I was like, whatever.

Jill, a 19-year-old white Australian model and
friend of Hannah’s, joined our discussion
with a similar affronting story:

Yeah, like one time like the owners at Club
X, they came up to me and were like, “We
need you guys to go to that table,” like basi-
cally saying to go and sleep with the clients.
Club X is the worst, it’s called Club
Triple X, I was like, “If you need girls like
that, to sleep with the clients, go and get
yourself some escorts.” They’ll go home
with them. But they want to pay us to just go
and hang out with them.

Like other girls, Hannah and Jill understood
the value of their bodily capital. Girls gener-
ally do not know exact revenues, but they are
aware that promoters and clubs earn handsome
profits (“It’s a lot,” said Hannah). However,
when Trevor explicitly encouraged Hannah to
flirt for his profit, it redefined their relationship
as primarily about economic gain and framed
her partying as a profane prostitution- like
exchange: flirtation for money. Girls are likely
to see such an exchange as inappropriate, and
the promoter who encourages it as offensive,
as did Hannah and Jill, who soon after stopped
going out with Trevor. Symbolic boundaries
differentiate appropriate from inappropriate
relations, and they render the exploitative rela-
tionship between girls and promoters as

Mears 1117

Insufficient Intimacies
The relational infrastructure breaks down
when the intimacy between girls and promot-
ers feels lacking. Girls expect a fair share of
attention by the promoter who has brought
her out. In the absence of displays of intimacy
and affections, girls are likely to react nega-
tively, feel ignored or bored, and leave. Con-
sider, for example, an evening out with a
promoter named Rocco, who showed me the
text messages on his phone he received from
a girl who had just left his table:

I would appreciate next time a hug or high
five instead of ignoring me all night. I feel
stupid. But it’s ok.

Rocco shakes his head and says, “They all
want attention. You see? I have to pay atten-
tion to everyone. What about the promoter?
Nobody asks me how I am. Nobody cares
about the promoter.”

– Field notes, June, 1 a.m., Club M in
NYC Meatpacking District

The problem of insufficient intimacy is
well illustrated in the travails of women pro-
moters. Few women do the job of promoter. I
met male promoters nightly in New York, but
only after some effort did I track down eight
women promoters. I interviewed and went out
with five of them, and I identified distinctly
gendered styles of relational work that emerge
from women’s inability to produce sexually
charged intimacy with girls.

Because of the predominantly heteronor-
mative culture of the VIP party, women pro-
moters lack the strategies of flirtation and sex
that men promoters commonly use to build
relationships with girls. This was evident in
the distinct ways women promoters recruit
and mobilize girls. Women’s text invites
lacked the kinds of sexual innuendos I com-
monly saw in men’s texts. No female pro-
moter I encountered tried to scout girls in the
streets or at castings; this strategy of recruit-
ment characterized “creepy old men” (as one
woman promoter termed it) like Thibault, the
40-year-old Kenyan promoter. Picking up
girls in the street was too strategic, explained

Vanna, a 25-year-old Asian female promoter
of three years from Korea, who at the time
worked as a model:

I never, never, never ever went up to a girl
in the street, or in my own castings. Like,
randomly say “Hey” and pretend I like you.
Unless, like, we just click while waiting in
the casting, then I’ll tell you, “Do you go
out?” You say yes, and then I’ll tell you,
“You know, I go out a lot, and if you want,
we can hang out.”

Rather than violate gendered expectations
of the pickup, women promoters recruit girls
by drawing from their existing social net-
works. One woman owned a trendy bakery
near New York University from which she
invited girls she met as customers. Vanna was
a model herself, and two others worked as
modeling agents.

Lacking flirtation, women promoters rely
on friendships and social reciprocity. For
example, Celia, a 29-year-old white woman
from France who had worked as a promoter
for three years, regularly hosts girls for dinner
at her apartment before going to the club. At
these dinners, between six and eight girls
come for Celia’s home cooking, and many
bring a bottle of wine or a dessert; afterward,
we all pay for our shared cabs to the club,
thus negating a sense of economic depend-
ence and fostering instead a sense of camara-
derie. Most of the girls at her table explained
to me that they came out because of a genuine
interest in spending time with Celia. For her
part, Celia found the maintenance of these
valuable social relationships exhausting. She
explained that on her rare days off, she is
constantly texting, talking to, and meeting
with girlfriends to keep her social ties strong:

Girls go out with a promoter because they
think something [like sex] can happen. For
me, it’s just friendship. That’s all I have. . . .
I would not survive without it. I know them,
the girls, each of them. And when I text
them, I text to say hello first.

Rather than build relationships based on
heterosexual interest, women promoters

1118 American Sociological Review 80(6)

relied on homosocial bonds. Women promot-
ers even look like the girls from whom they
profit; whereas men promoters dress casually
in cool t-shirts and sneakers, women promot-
ers wear the obligatory high heels and sexy
dresses. To satisfy girls’ desires for flirtation
and sexual chance, women promoters always
had at least one man at their table to hold
girls’ interest, or they partnered with male
promoters to add a heterosexual charge to the
night. Generally, however, women promoters
tried to engage girls in the interaction rituals
of the VIP vibe. The women promoters I
interviewed stressed how much fun and
energy their crowd brings to the party, an
energy produced not through sexualized ties
but deeper friendships:

The club owners like me because I keep it
high energy, because everybody knows each
other in my table. Have you been to one of
those tables where the girls just sit there?
Yeah I hate those, like why would you go
out if it’s gonna be like that? We have fun. I
love to dance. I wear all kinds of crazy out-
fits, and it’s just me and my friends all
jumping around, dancing, having fun.

– Kia, 20, African American promoter for
one year, from NYC

If they lacked close bonds of friendship,
women promoters were likely to have diffi-
culty controlling their girls, who tended to
wander from their designated table through-
out the club. A client noted with some frustra-
tion that the girls seemed to have evaporated
from Celia’s table, heading to another club to
join another promoter. This client said to me,
as we stood around an empty table: “It’s
really not cool of her girls. I think they leave
because she’s a woman. If I was a promoter I
would make them stay.”

Because the VIP scene is predicated on
heterosexual desire, male promoters are able
to construct the kinds of sexualized intima-
cies that compel girls to participate, suggest-
ing that gendered and sexualized contexts
affect the success of relational matches and
who is best positioned to achieve them.

In the VIP, the production of women’s surplus
value is embedded in intimacies that promot-
ers diligently construct. Relational work
involves the alignment of relationships, their
meanings, exchange media, and boundaries,
in this case, distinguishing girls from sex
workers. Gifts, brokerage, and friendship dis-
courses secure and obscure the promoter’s
appropriation of women’s surplus value,
redefining exploitation as fun with friends,
but only with the correct relational package.
The importance of relational work is evident
when it breaks down: when exchange media
take monetary rather than gift form, when
managerial discipline is too explicit, when
boundaries separating sex work are crossed,
and when relationships between girls and
brokers are not sufficiently intimate. In each
instance, girls experience the VIP party as
less like leisure and more like work, and they
are less likely to consent to its unequal terms.

My findings indicate that the success of
relational matches hinges on the perceived
appropriateness of participants’ gender:
women brokers in the VIP have limited ways
to capitalize on their relationships with girls,
whereas men brokers, disproportionately
nonwhite and immigrant, stand to gain from
them. Other scholars have found that race and
class backgrounds set the parameters of
exchange relationships, for instance in sex
work (Hoang 2015) and dating (Clemens
2006). Further research should systematically
consider how gender, race, and other social
distinctions shape who can enter into rela-
tional infrastructures, and what types of
matches result.

The case of women in the VIP has two
theoretical contributions, one for labor theory
and one for economic sociology’s relational
turn. First, the case advances theories of the
labor process by considering how consent is
embedded in a relational infrastructure con-
structed beyond the point of production. Rela-
tionships between women and promoters are
made not only at the club, where women
perform free labor, but these intimacies also
emerge at the sidewalk café, during a ride in

Mears 1119

an SUV, and in the guest bedroom of a Miami
villa. Hints of the importance of relational
work in the organization of production appear
in Burawoy’s (1979) ethnography of the shop
floor. We see glimpses of gifts establishing
ties among workers—Burawoy gifts his
Christmas ham to a co-worker who in turn
helps to make working on the shop floor
much easier (p. 52)—and we hear mention of
“networks of ties and trust” built up over time
among workers (p. 105). Such social ties, my
findings reveal, are crucial to enabling the
production of consent.

Second, this analysis of women’s surplus
value yields insights for how economic soci-
ologists can use the emerging relational
framework to study inequality. Relational
work facilitates exploitative exchange by
couching surplus value in nonmarket terms.
The trade in organs (Healy 2006), reproduc-
tive materials (Almeling 2007), and cadav-
ers (Anteby 2010) are illustrative cases.
Operators in these industries use relational
work to commensurate “priceless” human
goods. Company owners gain vast profits
while drawing on cultural discourses of
altruism and pricelessness to secure gifts
from unpaid donors. Similarly, relational
practices in markets for intimate human ser-
vices facilitate labor exploitation, as when
care workers are underpaid on the grounds
that their work is altruistic and beyond the
market (Folbre and Nelson 2000). In these
cases, relational work masks labor processes
by constructing symbolic boundaries around
work activities as gifts, donations, and inti-
macy. These scholars have already shown
how relational work can obfuscate unequal
market exchanges; the case of free labor in
the VIP extends this line of argument by
showing how relational work is a mecha-
nism for maintaining labor exploitation.

The case of unpaid women in the VIP has
broader implications for understanding why,
in growing segments of the labor market,
people perform free labor. With changing

expectations that work should be self- fulfilling
(Donzelot 1991), workers increasingly seek
symbolic benefits alongside wages, particu-
larly in culture, media, and technology indus-
tries (Neff et al. 2005). Despite the conditions
of “bad jobs”—no benefits, endemic insecu-
rity, and debt structures (Kalleberg et al.
2000)—these industries attract people willing
to forgo wages for a chance to enter such
fields. What kinds of motivations are needed
to get people to consent to work for free?

A relational work perspective is well suited
to answer this question. Cash is hardly the most
important signifier of worth (Zelizer 1994), and
alternative payment arrangements should be
situated within their relational contexts. In the
culture industries, labor is frequently unpaid
but framed as the pursuit of one’s passions, a
hybrid of work and leisure, or what Aspers
(2005:99) calls “work-consumption” in his
study of fashion photographers. Creative
expression, free goods, and other psychic
rewards (Menger 1999) are invoked as reasons
for free labor among journalists (Christin 2014)
and music industry interns (Frenette 2013). In
retail services, workers accept poor conditions,
and sometimes below-minimum wages, for the
chance to be associated with high-status brands,
receive in-kind payments of discounted mer-
chandise, and “hang out” with friends on the
job (Besen 2006; Williams and Connell 2010).
In collegiate sports, unpaid student athletes
generate vast profits for universities, partly
because their labor is framed as education and
their compensation comes in the form of col-
lege scholarships, and partly because college
athletics are widely celebrated (Benford 2007).
In professional sports, teams are promoted by
unpaid cheerleaders; the Buffalo Bills cheer-
leaders have sued the NFL for 800 hours of
unpaid labor, for which they were compensated
with tickets and parking vouchers. The Bills
team makes revenues each year in excess of
$200 million and was recently purchased for
$1.4 billion, the highest purchase price in the
NFL (Powell 2014).7 All of these fields have
idiosyncratic incentives prompting people to
work for free—for example, oversupply of
workers, skills investments, and exposure—but

1120 American Sociological Review 80(6)

they also share the possibility of symbolic ben-
efits that workers pursue in addition to, and
even in place of, wages. Relational matches, I
argue, construct powerfully motivating sym-
bolic meanings around economic arrange-
ments. Moving beyond the situational
production of consent, relational work can
explain what compels people to enter into,
accept, and even feel good about exploitative

For their valuable feedback, I thank Michel Anteby,
Emily Barman, Max Besbris, Daryl Carr, Sébastien
Chauvin, Connor Fitzmaurice, Kimberley Hoang, Vivi-
ana Zelizer, and the ASR reviewers. Previous versions of
this work benefitted from participants’ comments at
seminars at the Research Center for Gender and Sexual-
ity (ARC-GS / AISSR) at the University of Amsterdam;
the Work-in-Progress group at Boston University; the
UCLA Gender Working Group; “L’incertitude sur la
valeur” at EHESS; the Workshop in History, Culture, and
Society at Harvard University; and the Urban Ethnogra-
phy Workshop at the University of Pennsylvania.

1. Scholars of flexible organizations have moved

beyond the narrow confines of the immediate labor
process to examine people’s motivations to work
and the meanings generated in and by work (Smith
2001). Organizational scholars have identified the
importance of social relations in flexible produc-
tion, for instance, by documenting extra-work
rituals that socially glue together so-called “partici-
pative cultures” (Kunda 1992).

2. With their exclusivity, high prices, and luxurious
settings, VIP parties cater to some elites but cer-
tainly not all. VIP clients are best thought of as
“wealth elites”: they have large stores of economic
capital but not necessarily cultural status or political
power (Savage 2014).

3. When analyzing the production of value process, I
use the term girl without quotes to indicate women
in the VIP arena, reflecting the logic of the field in
which women are disempowered in both discourse
and practice.

4. As Chuang (2014) finds in her study of China’s
rural construction industry, labor brokers are also
subject to exploitation, debt, and insecurity. Promot-
ers absorb the costs of mobilizing girls at their own
expense, and their pay from club managers may be
insufficient, late, or withheld entirely, depending on
the state of the volatile nightlife economy. Promot-
ers are one level removed from the bottom of an
exploitative network providing VIP labor.

5. Nightclubs have been conceptualized as important
sexual marketplaces where partners can meet in cit-
ies (Collins 2004). In fact, the business of nightlife,
at least in the VIP, relies on the sexual work of pro-
moters to mobilize women to clubs.

6. MDMA, or “Molly,” is a form of the synthetic psy-
choactive drug ecstasy, which has properties of both
a stimulant and a hallucinogen. Typically ingested
by mixing the powder in a drink, MDMA produces
feelings of high energy and euphoria.

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miss on grounds that “the minute control . . . exer-
cised over the work of the cheerleaders” qualifies
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Ashley Mears is an Associate Professor of Sociology
at Boston University. Her research, at the intersection
of cultural and economic sociology and gender stud-
ies, documents processes of valuation and evaluation
primarily in market settings, with a focus on the cul-
tural foundations of economic inequalities. She is the
author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion
Model (University of California Press 2011). She
received her PhD in Sociology from New York

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