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Parents pay for their kids to be models on the fringe of the children's fashion business

Amelia Su-Lin Crawford stood near the corner of the expansive ballroom and handed out coupons to children’s clothing store Little T’s Boutique.

It was the day before the Oscars, and the then-8-year-old child model was working for one of several companies gathered at an Academy Awards gifting suite, where reality-TV personalities and other performers collected swag from businesses while posing for photographers.

In order to attend the event in Hollywood, Amelia’s mother, Amanda Crawford, said she paid $1,000 to fashion designer Tiffany Cooper, the owner of Little T’s.

Crawford, a resident of Corona, brought her daughter to the February event to meet VIPs who might advance her modeling and acting career. The fee gave Amelia access to the suite and a sleeveless pink-and-gray dress that she wore there, Crawford said. She later received two more dresses. 

Crawford said the half day of work was a “waste of time, completely,” because it didn’t generate any modeling or acting gigs — as she said Cooper claimed it would. “Nothing came from it; nothing will come from it,” Crawford said. 

Cooper disputed her allegations. 

In an era of pervasive reality TV and social media, when anyone thinks they can become a star, the modeling industry has seen an influx of businesses catering to people who dream of becoming the next Kendall Jenner or Gigi Hadid.

Little T’s, based in Trenton, Ill., is one of a handful of businesses operated by fashion designers that make money by charging families for items such as clothing or photographs in exchange for the chance to work at a runway show, gifting suite or photo shoot. Another designer, Fremont, Calif.-based Nancy Vuu, sent an email soliciting parents to pay thousands of dollars for their model children to appear in a short film.

Charging parents to give their children access to modeling and entertainment jobs is a growing worry among industry experts and law enforcement officials.

“This practice, especially since it involves children, is particularly disconcerting and potentially unlawful,” Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer said. “I encourage anyone with information to contact our office so we can take appropriate action.”

The fees charged by these designers range from a few hundred dollars to $15,000, according to the designers’ solicitations and parents. Some of the designers have connected their businesses to entertainment events such as the Oscars and the Cannes Film Festival, which parents said made the ventures seem more credible.

“I’m disappointed that the margins of the fashion world are stooping to those kinds of lows,” said Susan Scafidi, the academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School.

Established agents who represent child models said their clients are forbidden from paying for dresses or other items that give them access to fashion events. “It is pay-to-work — they are working,” said agent Lindsay Stewart, president of Zuri Model and Talent Agency, which represents about 1,200 child models in L.A. and New York. “These types of things — you are blowing your money. It isn’t going to get you anywhere.”

Responding to questions submitted via email, Cooper defended her practices. She said that most of her clients are new to the fashion industry and that some have found success, landing agents and appearing in major magazines. Her company’s Facebook page features testimonials from satisfied customers.

“If parents want to pay for their child to have clothing, make new friends, build their confidence, travel the world, and have a good time, who are we to say that is wrong?” Cooper said.

As for Crawford’s claims, Cooper said in an email: “Buyer’s remorse is not covered by my NO refund policy,” adding that the only promise she makes to clients who attend gifting suite events is that they’ll get the chance to be seen by producers, actors, magazine editors and others.

Stewart said she does not scout for new clients at gifting suites and knows of no other agents or casting directors who do so. “I’ve never even been,” she said, adding that buying dresses like the ones sold by Little T’s will not help child models’ careers.

Even one fashion professional who has benefited from some of Cooper’s clients has questioned her practices. Makeup artist Gabriela Banda, who was hired by parents to prepare their children for the gifting suite, said the arrangement immediately raised red flags. “To me, it was odd,” she said. “There was a large sum of money being paid. I didn’t like it — I thought parents were being taken advantage of.”

Loyola Law School adjunct professor David Fischer said the fashion designers’ businesses could be exploiting some parents’ ignorance of how the industry works — and their desire to help their kids.

“You have parents who decide, ‘My kid is going to be next Heidi Klum,’” Fischer said. “It would shock the conscience if a company knowingly took money from such parents and would not be producing successful models.”

***

Little T’s Boutique is located far from the fashion districts of New York, Paris or Milan. Trenton is a small town in Illinois with a population of about 3,000.

But Cooper has convinced families from across the country that she can give them access to the upper echelons of the fashion industry. Six mothers who paid for Cooper’s services said she made promises that she couldn’t keep, pressed them into spending money or sold them clothing that was not custom-made by the designer.

Crawford said that as she watched her daughter work at the Oscars gifting suite, which was not sanctioned by the organization that puts on the Academy Awards, it became apparent that Amelia wouldn’t be discovered there. 

“I realized, hey wait … what was I thinking?” Crawford said. 

Soon after, Crawford decided against paying for her daughter to work at fashion events. Now Amelia has a manager and a commercial agent, and has recently worked as an extra on TV shows such as FX’s “Baskets.” In October, Amelia walked in a runway show put on by Avant Garde Magazine in downtown L.A. She wasn’t paid, but she got to keep the outfit she wore on the runway.

Amy Marcello, a resident of Greenville, S.C., said she spent $500 to purchase custom clothing made by Cooper for her children Bella, 12, and Marco, 9. Last year, Marco was slated to wear Cooper’s designs during a charity fashion show in Chicago. Marco is autistic, Marcello said, and walking the runway is a positive experience for him. “He loves the spotlight,” she said. 

Marcello said that in order for Marco to participate, she was required to buy the clothes from Cooper. But Marcello said the suit was of poor quality and did not fit Marco well when he tried it on at the venue, reducing him to tears. “I [was] fuming mad,” she said. “Because I am a single mom. I really didn’t have the money to spend.... I sold furniture at my house to make this trip happen.” 

She said she turned down Cooper’s offer to fix the suit on the spot. “I pulled Marco from the show,” Marcello said. “Because I could definitely tell that his outfit was not custom-made by Tiffany.”

Marcello said she noticed that one tag had been removed from the suit. She said she later determined the garment was one sold by Burlington Coat Factory.

She complained to PayPal and later received a refund from her bank, her financial records show.

Fischer said a situation like the one described by Marcello is legally questionable “if families can show that they were told they were getting dresses of a certain quality — couture — and it emerges that they were merely being given dresses that one could buy off a Kmart rack.”

Cooper denied any wrongdoing and did not address the allegations that she didn’t design Marco’s suit. She said PayPal, which has a policy to settle such disputes, also reimbursed her. 

Despite the acrimony, Cooper has satisfied customers. Michelle Whitley of Mattoon, Ill., brought her two daughters to the Oscars gifting suite. She declined to say what she paid for the Little T’s clothing but praised Cooper as a “great designer” who created opportunity for her children.

“This isn’t something that you normally get to see every day, especially in the Midwest where we live … getting to come out to L.A. and meet celebs,” she said.

***

Parents aren’t just being asked to buy clothes to participate in fashion events. In one unusual case, designer Nancy Vuu sent parents an email offering their kids the opportunity to appear in “what could be the very first ever children’s couture fashion short film.”

The movie would feature a “beautiful storyline where we merge the world of faith and fashion,” according to a copy of the July 2015 email solicitation, which two parents whose children participated in the film sent to The Times. But there was a catch: Parents could “sponsor” their kids with payments ranging from $1,500 to $15,000.

The latter fee would ensure a “lead role” in the picture, invitations to film festivals, participation in promotional photo shoots and advertisements for magazines, according to the email. Vuu also said she planned to submit the film to the Cannes Film Festival and other similar events.

The pitch wrapped up with a religious exhortation: “Thank you for considering a partnership with us as we sow into His Kingdom.”

Zino Macaluso, a senior executive with SAG-AFTRA, said any film project that charges actors to participate “rings some alarm bells.”

“It is anathema to SAG-AFTRA to have performers in the state of California, whether union members or not, pay for employment opportunities,” he said. “We would certainly counsel against participating in something like this.”

The Times contacted the families of 10 of the 77 performers listed in the film’s credits on entertainment database IMDB Pro. Only four parents responded to emails and phone calls. None said they paid for their children to be in the movie, titled “Unto Me,” and one mother said her daughter was paid a small fee. Some parents said their children enjoyed the experience but also noted that the kids worked long hours on the downtown L.A. film shoot, which took place over one day in August 2015.

“They literally ONLY served water and pretzels to the kids for the 9-10 hrs they were on set, while the crew was fully catered to,” said Sunnyvale, Calif., resident Renae Rico in an email. Her 12-year-old daughter did not pay a fee for the experience (nor was she paid). Still, Rico said, she had a “great time.”

In April, Vuu posted on Facebook that “Unto Me” had been accepted into the Global Short Film Awards at the Cannes Red Carpet Fashion & Awards Gala — and announced that she’d be hosting a fashion show in Cannes during the event, a newly formed awards show open to amateurs. Although the event occurred at the same time as the Cannes Film Festival, it was not affiliated with the prestigious gathering and the movie was not screened there, a festival spokesperson said.

However, some parents mistakenly believed that the movie was in fact being shown there, said Chris Thompson, an industry watchdog who maintains a Facebook page called Kids Runway. 

While in France, Vuu posted to her Facebook page a few images of herself at the Cannes Film Festival. “So in awe of God’s goodness,” read the caption beneath a photo of her on a red carpet in front of the Palais, the festival’s main venue.

“If you’re uneducated or don’t know anything about the business and what the festivals are, you would assume [‘Unto Me’] was at the actual film festival with all of the celebrities,” said Thompson, who lives in Santa Monica and has three children who are models and actors.

The Times emailed Vuu’s spokeswoman several questions that detailed claims about her business and the making of “Unto Me.” “Unfortunately Nancy is extremely busy and will not have time for the interview,” the spokeswoman said.

Some clients of Vuu are pleased with their business relationships with the designer. Deb Schenk, who lives in the Milwaukee area, said she has paid Vuu for professional photos of her daughter, who was in “Unto Me” and didn’t pay to appear. Schenk said Vuu has treated her daughter well. She said participating in paid fashion events was a “hobby” for her daughter,  likening it to playing sports.

But Thompson cautioned that parents of aspiring models “can’t pay to be in the business.”

“The only way to get into the business is to get an agent … and work hard,” she said.

daniel.miller@latimes.com

Follow @DanielNMiller on Twitter.

Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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