"There's an art to it. You never want to walk into a room that has a whole lot of guys in it—that's very important. If a group of guys walk up, that's usually a 'no.'"
Lauren Buys, a door girl at the Electric Room, is explaining her philosophy to me. For the night, she gets to determine who gets let into the intimate club located underneath Chelsea's Dream Hotel—and who has to shamefully retreat back up the long, sloping service entrance that leads out to the cold streets of New York's Meatpacking District whence they came.
Where we're standing, guarding the door, there's a heater blowing warm air down on us, but it's still not pleasant. At this hour I'm more likely to be found on my couch watching MasterChef Junior than in a trendy Manhattan club that serves $13 drinks. Nevertheless, I can get behind any establishment whose business model is predicated, at least in part, on excluding men.
For a club, however, midnight is early, and the first people to trickle in are a couple of tourists: two lost-seeming guys in hoodies. They get in, but only because they're the first to arrive, and at this point the goal is to just get some bodies in the room, Buys says. Otherwise, the Electric Room has a reputation for being a hard door to get past; at its core, it's a club almost exclusively for well-groomed, presumably rich young people and models looking for a place to hang out amongst other well-groomed, presumably rich young people and models. Still, the nightclub cliché is true even here: The key to getting in is to either be a girl or bring girls. Knowing that they once turned away Justin Bieber (he was underage), I'm giddy to start seeing lesser men rejected. Buys assures me it will happen later in the night. "At first I was really bad at saying no to people, but now I'm quite excellent at it," she says with a smile. "It was really scary at first to have a group of guys walk toward you, knowing you have to turn them away."
"Though I think you have your dignity more intact if a girl turns you away, as opposed to a guy," adds the Electric Room's owner, Nur Khan. I can certainly see how this helps. Buys, also a model and designer Zac Posen's muse, has a charming South African accent that makes everything she says sound cheerful. "If we turn someone away, we would still want them to be a return customer," Khan says. "We just have to be strict about who gets in because the club is so small. You can tell who's going to add to a party and who isn't."
"I try to reject people in a nice way," Buys says. "Maybe I'll compliment them and say something like, 'We would love to have you, but it's just not the right evening.'"
Indeed, when talking to hopeful club patrons at the door, Buys's voice drops down to a familiar whisper that's only audible to the guy she's about to gently reject. The emotional labor is barely perceptible, save for an eye roll once his back is turned.
After a mixed group of guys and girls get in with no problem, a few lone men are turned away. They seem to take it well, only half-heartedly protesting. But if things ever do escalate, Buys has back up. There's always a male security guard at the door who checks IDs and is ready to intervene at the first sign of a fight. If Buys's job is to let people down with kid gloves and a polite smile, security is there to physically remove someone from the premises if needed; before that moment, he's more of a quiet, background figure. Tonight, the security guard is a serious-looking guy named George. "He's amazing," Buys says. "I always feel safe with George. Whenever there's any confrontation he just steps right in." There are no female guards on staff.
When I ask George if he gets the sense that people defer to him instead of the door girl—they reject the term bouncer—on duty, he denies it, but Buys immediately jumps in: "Yes!"
"Most of the time people usually drift toward the man that's standing at the door," she continues, "so it's fun, and sort of empowering, to be like, 'Actually, you have to talk to me.'"
One of the other door girls I spoke to over the phone before I arrived—Chantal Adair—said she has a similar suspicion that the security guards initially command more authority from guests. "When people walk down toward the entrance, they usually make eye contact with the security guard first," Adair said. "Sometimes they don't even look at me."
While the two jobs might seem redundant, there's a calculated theory behind the guard-and-door-girl dynamic: "It's security's job to secure the premise. It's not the door girl's job to look like the bad person. It's sort of like good cop, bad cop," the Electric Room's general manager explains.
The girls do hold their own particular dominance over guys who are desperate to get through the door. "They try to flirt," Adair warned me over the phone. "Especially the good-looking guys. They think they can sort of, like, wink their way in. It's repulsive." Buys says she sometimes even gets gifts: "Lots of chocolates. Sometimes bouquets of flowers." However, the only trick that really works for men is to agree to drop $1,000 or more on a table.
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Around 1 AM, a handsome-ish man walks up to Buys. She tells him to wait while she checks the room—one guy too many can throw off the delicate ratio. She turns to leave, and he waits awkwardly on the other side of the velvet rope, eventually making eye contact with me. As if it could improve his chances, he smiles, flashing teeth, and winks. It is, indeed, as repulsive as I've been told, but for a brief moment the power of the door girl coursed through me; I was so ready to watch him make the long walk back into the cold at my bidding.
But Buys returned, all too soon, and his focus drifted back toward her. She let him in, and just like that, it was gone.