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Let Them Eat Crab Cakes

They can barely afford ramen, but a growing number of young media types are enjoying rillettes -- not to mention Fendi bags and courtside Knicks tickets. Meet the underpaid yet overcompensated Poverty Elite, who get the good things in life by flashing cachet instead of cash.

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As he takes in a cinematic view of the misty Manhattan skyline from aboard the Highlander, the Forbes family's 151-foot yacht, Chris Foreman*, 24, nurses a Ketel One and tonic at the bow-side bar. On the stern side, a few dozen revelers are trading small talk in the ship's main salon, done up like a Park Avenue living room, complete with family portraits and blue-and-green needlepoint pillows with forbes asap stitched on the front. A handful of passengers step belowdecks, cocktails in hand, for guided tours of the staterooms where Margaret Thatcher slept just days before.

Foreman decides to climb above to the James Bond-esque second level, where a white leather banquette looks out on a set of cigarette boats and twin BMW motorcycles perched on the sundeck. Suddenly, a furious whirring sound cuts through the party chatter, followed by a weighty thump. A giggling guest in a jacket and tie descends, fresh from a ride in the Highlander's helicopter. "Did you buzz my building?" someone asks. Around eight, white-jacketed waiters serve up roast beef, scallops, chicken, winter vegetables. And after capping off the evening with Napoleons and cigars, the partygoers are dispatched into the drizzly night with solicitous good-byes and Town Car vouchers.

It's the perfect final touch to Foreman's perfectly luxurious evening -- especially considering that he took the crosstown bus to the yacht in the first place.

An assistant media planner at a prestigious advertising agency with a sociology degree from an elite liberal-arts college, Foreman pays $750 a month to split a walkup in the East Nineties -- and he can barely afford it on his $28,000-a-year salary. Taxis aren't in his budget, movies aren't, either, and he doesn't buy meat for the pasta he cooks at home. But since it's the job of a media planner to recommend which publications his client should buy advertising in -- and since a full-page ad can cost about five times his yearly salary -- Forbes invites Foreman out on the Highlander so often he sometimes doesn't bother to go. Other perks thrown his way include all-expenses-paid ski weekends (worth almost $1,000 in Foreman's estimation), tickets to see Serena Williams at the U.S. Open ($75 each), the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue party, where he chatted with Heidi Klum and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (priceless), prime seats for sold-out Bruce Springsteen concerts ($500 each), and dinners at Cité, Sparks, Il Mulino, Maloney & Porcelli, and Monkey Bar, to name a few of his favorites ($100 a pop).

"It's kind of crazy," says Foreman. "I had dinner at Nobu on Monday, but I don't have enough money to buy socks."

Navigating such extremes is all in a day's work for the Poverty Elite -- the junior stylists, assistant editors, associate marketing managers, and assorted other aspiring media executives who enjoy the best of what money can buy without actually making any money. Mostly middle-class and private-college-educated, they spend their days greasing the wheels of Manhattan's entertainment-industrial complex for a modest twentysomething's salary -- say, $20,000 to $40,000 a year -- and their nights at Pastis, wrapped in trade-price Burberry scarves, chatting on loaner StarTACs, or in clients' courtside Knicks seats drinking expensed Bud Lights. Weekends are devoted to building walls to subdivide their studio apartments for a succession of roommates.

The Poverty Elite has existed for decades, but with the expanding media sector and the stock-market boom it's become a thriving underground economy all its own. Record-company assistants receive promo CDs by the bucketful. Publishing peons sip Merlot at book parties and recycle hardcovers at the Strand. Associate fashion publicists take the Concorde to Milan shows, where they stay at the Principe e Savoia. ("I started crying when we drove by the Duomo," admits one. "It was so cool to be in the actual Italian Gucci.") And just about everyone has a complimentary Coach organizer filled with invites to sumptuously catered dot-com launch parties.

What's in it for the companies sending out all those invitations? Good old-fashioned networking, mostly. A prime example is the entry-level employees, like Foreman, in the media departments of ad agencies: Just off Dad's dole, they're charged with spending millions of client dollars on ad buys. In turn, the ad sales reps who need their business don't want their boss to see them hunched over a tuna sandwich instead of plying a buyer with a Le Cirque lunch. "They come in and schmooze you, and you're expected to go," explains one media buyer, who went to Las Vegas for a cable network and was treated to stops at Spago and the Palm and a stay at Caesars Palace. Not that it's a chore: Another was pleasantly surprised when his rep handed over his ATM card and password with instructions to withdraw $500. "Then we piled in a cab to that strip club Private Eyes."


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