Not All Talent Scouts Behave Like Model Citizens : Ethics: The Better Business Bureau says agencies ranked in the top third in consumer complaints last year. Ads for services may promise more than they deliver.
Like many doting parents, Robert Bowen always felt his petite, photogenic daughter Jenny was destined for stardom.
He thought she had a shot at it after responding to a newspaper ad for models earning $1,500 a day, no experience or fee required. Company scouts agreed the brown-eyed, brunette preschooler was pretty. They said she was articulate, had star potential. They gave her a lollipop.
Bowen says all he got from the meeting two years back was the promise they’d provide a list of agencies that might find her work, along with a high-pressured sales pitch to spend $300 on slides and photos. The company even tried to persuade the 39-year-old computer operator from the Bronx to pursue modeling himself.
“I expected there would be some work involved. I realized I had made a big mistake,” said Bowen, who complained about the New York company to the local Better Business Bureau.
Thousands of parents each year are attracted to ads promising fame and fortune through child modeling, only to find themselves duped by con artists or dishonest businesses.
The Better Business Bureau says modeling and talent agencies ranked in the top third in consumer complaints last year. Officials believe the ranking probably would be higher, but many parents are reluctant to complain.
The biggest gripe often comes from people like Bowen who felt pressured into buying expensive photos or misled into thinking there would be regular work once they signed on. There usually isn’t.
The BBB noted the track record of one Fairfield, N.J.-based company, National Talent Associates, which it said has a pattern of complaints. Of 23,310 NTA clients, only 629 received paid employment, and only 201 of those made more than $500 in the last five years, it said.
Jerome P. Ashfield, NTA executive vice president, called the figures “accurate,” adding that competition is often stiff. He said all clients are made fully aware of them before signing up, a requirement of the Federal Trade Commission.
“People don’t always think straight when it comes to their children,” said Lona Lucket, who’s heard her share of complaints against modeling and talent scouts as director of the BBB office in Southern California.
Her office, for instance, recently issued reports against two companies run by the same person in Beverly Hills. One, Vision Model, had complaints alleging “evaded telephone calls . . . unfulfilled contracts and dissatisfaction with the photos taken as a requirement of the service.”
Star Production Studios, the BBB office said, advertised for a short period recently for children and adults to be cast in a TV miniseries, no experience necessary, then vacated its offices.
Attempts to contact either firm were unsuccessful; there was no phone listing for Vision Model in the area and a call to Star was answered by a recording saying the phone was disconnected.
“Parents like to hear that their baby is the most beautiful baby in the world . . . and some of these places tell them that. They become star-struck thinking their children can become famous,” Lucket said.
But very few hit it big like Macauley Culkin or Brooke Shields. Even parents of children who do get regular work discover it takes a big commitment to come out ahead financially in such a competitive field.
“It’s a full-time job for the parent,” said Lori Beebe, of Naperville, Ill., who supervised the successful careers of three of her four sons. “If you get a call for an audition, you have to drop everything. My kids have gone on about 1,000. You do have to pull them out of school occasionally. (But) if you get one or two (jobs) a month, you’re thrilled.”
Beebe, who now runs Beebe’s Babies casting agency, says her children collectively earned in the “six figures”’ over the past nine years, “enough to pay for about one year of college for each.” (Most recently: Chase, 9, had a small part in the movie “I Love Trouble.” Carson, 6, did a Fisher Price television commercial.)
Susan Shillingford, an executive assistant from New York, never had the patience to get that far. When her son Tyler was 8 months, he was chosen by a greeting card company to be photographed for a postcard, earning about $500.
But Shillingford declined further auditions, or go-sees, from the small agency that represented him, feeling she’d end up losing money because of lost hours from her job.
“It’s a hassle, really,” she said. “It’s not a weekend situation. You have to be ready when they call, and they’ll call you at 10 at night.”
Shillingford said she also was turned off by the agency’s push to sell items like T-shirts and books. “I got the impression that they wouldn’t work quite as hard for those who didn’t buy them,” she said.
Natasha Esch, president of Wilhelmina Models in New York, cautions parents against spending large sums of money on modeling lessons or big photo packages to their get children’s careers going, especially before signing a contract with an agency or personal manager.
“If it costs more than $25 (initially), it’s probably a scam,” said Esch, author of the book “Wilhelmina’s World of Child Modeling.” “Some will try to get you to spend $500 to develop a portfolio. Don’t do it.”
When it comes to photos, Esch says, an agency will often just need to see a few candid snapshots to determine if a child is photogenic. Parents will have to purchase professional pictures after a child is signed up, although some agencies will advance the money with the hope of getting repaid once the child is working, she said.
Agencies usually take between 10% and 20% commission on the gross earnings from each job; photos typically cost around $200.
There are other expenses parents should be aware of. Some companies charge a fee to place models in an agency book, which includes photos and a summary of basic facts about models they represent.
In addition, any model who makes more than one TV commercial is required to join a union, like the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists or the Screen Actors Guild. Initiation fees vary from $250 to $500, with semi-annual dues.
Still, the monetary rewards can be great. While models can earn between $50 and $150 per hour for print work (underwear jobs pay the most), earnings for TV commercials can easily reach in the thousands when residuals for each additional air play are taken into account.
“If you have the right look, you can make a lot of money,” said Ward Cottrell, 33, a successful model for designers like Armani, Christian Dior and Yves St. Laurent. He now runs ModelScout Inc., a Winter Park, Fla., modeling agency.
For children it’s not only looks, but part personality and “how well they take directions and listen,” Cottrell added, noting that some clients prefer working with children who look young for their age because they’re often more mature.
“You can have a really goofy-looking kid, but you can have a star on your hands,” agreed Esch.
In a quest for that right look, many well-known modeling agencies, like Wilhelmina, Elite or Ford, periodically advertise open calls for models. But out of the hundreds of people who respond, only about 2% are accepted as clients, according to Esch.