Warning: This post contains spoilers for Billions.
Mike "Wags" Wagner (David Costabile) spends most of Billions plastered with a devilish grin on his face. But until tonight's episode of Billions, "Maximum Recreational Depth," we hadn't seen Wags light up with such earnest glee. If Wall Street were a high school cafeteria, Wags just scored his invite to sit with the Plastics — better known as Kappa Beta Phi.
In a brilliant move, the writers of Billions used the very real (and very secret) Kappa Beta Phi as the foreground for a character study in Wags. For Wags, the appeal of the world of finance isn't the adrenaline that comes from crushing a foe, like Bobby (Damian Lewis) or making a perfect trade, like Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon). It's the parties, the glamour, the straining of the social ladder. So obviously, scoring a spot at the social ladder's zenith, among other finance legends, is his ultimate goal.
Unfortunately, Wall Street's elite fraternity isn't what Wags expects. In fact, he never makes it through the door. It's a set-up — Page Six is there to take pictures of him in make-up and a dress, the uniform of Kappa Beta Phi's newest recruits. "For you to endure the humiliation, Wagner, not of wearing a dress but of being an interloper, a trespasser," Mick Nussfaur (Michael Kostroff), the lawyer with whom Wags competed for a burial plot, says. Even the Grand Swipe (Robert O'Gorman), the fraternity's leader, is in on it.
Turns out Wags lost his chance to join the fraternity years prior, back when he went to rehab and his mentor cast him aside. He runs down the stairs in a is blue ballgown like a scorned Cinderella — but not before coldly uttering one of the most Wags lines ever: "My vengeance will come like I do: Slow, thunderous, and in your eye." Wags is thrust on his own revenge journey, much like Bobby.
While fictional, this small glimpse of Kappa Beta Phi is about as comprehensive a look as as it'll get. The society of 1%-ers and power players are notoriously private. In 2012, NY Magazine business columnist Kevin Roose did the near impossible: He crashed a Kappa Beta Phi party, and lived to tell the tale.
The Wall Street chapter of Kappa Beta Phi dates back to 1929. Kappa Beta Phi was founded as an alternative to the academic society Phi Beta Kappa (which has chapters in universities around the world). The organization's motto, “While we live, we eat and drink," is decidedly less academic than Phi Beta Kappa's "Love of learning is the guide of life." Members pay $450 in annual dues. The society has no clubhouse — but it does have a party.
Each year, the Wall Street chapter meets at the St. Regis Ballroom for a lavish dinner — complete with entertainment. New recruits, called neophytes, are required to dress up in leotards, sequin skirts, make-up, and wigs. They each plan a variety-show act. When Roose crashed the party, he witnessed three billionaires sing a finance-themed parody of "YMCA," a parody of "Dancing Queen" called "Bailout King", and an investment banking CEO in a Confederate flag hat sing about the financial crisis to the tune of "Dixie." The neophytes culminated the evening's performances in a parody of "I Believe" from The Book of Mormon, choreographed by a Broadway professional.
The party is also an occasion for swearing in new officers. In 2011, Wilbur Ross, the current United States Secretary of Commerce, served as the society's "Grand Swipe," or leader. Other leadership positions include "Grand Smudge", "Grand Loaf" and a "Master at Arms." Michael Bloomberg is also a member. The society is open to both men and women.
Roose was ultimately thrown out of the party after he was caught recording the Book of Mormon number. Clearly, the members of Kappa Beta Phi didn't want those rituals, many of which made fun of their role in the 2008 economic crisis, going public.
But Roose was there long enough to make some insightful observations on the society. The powerful executives felt free to voice their radical ideas among each other – and only each other. "Their cowardice had reduced them to sniping at their perceived enemies in the form of satirical songs and sketches, among only those people who had been handpicked to share their view of the world," Roose wrote.
Roose observed that the Kappa Beta Phi members feel socially persecuted — ironic, considering they constitute some of the world's most privileged set. "Their pursuit of money and power had removed them from the larger world to the sad extent that, now, in the primes of their careers, the only people with whom they could be truly themselves were a handful of other prominent financiers," Roose concluded, with a bang.
Thanks to Billions, this exclusive club will be thrust into the spotlight. We're sure they'll love that.