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SPECIAL REPORT * Whistle-blowers are talking about the high-pressure tactics used to sell acting classes and photos. Some talent management firms are under investigation after being accused of . . . : Preying on Kids Who Long for Fame

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sitting at an outdoor table on the Santa Monica promenade, whistle-blower Rick Espinoza Jr. calls over the young waitress, just to illustrate his point.

“Have you ever modeled before?” he asks.

The woman’s face brightens like a Klieg light. “Oh, I’ve always wanted to,” she gushes. “But I guess I’m too short, at least that’s what my mom tells me. But I’m taking acting classes. Anything is better than waitressing.”

Across Southern California, Espinoza observes, are legions of star-gazing youngsters like the waitress, dreaming of a career as an actress or model--many pushed by their parents to try to strike it rich with a lucrative performing contract.

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Waiting to pounce on these people, he says, are too many fly-by-night operators posing as talent agents who operate for only one reason: to sell overpriced acting and modeling classes and picture shoots. These operators make wild, unethical promises of movie roles and magazine modeling jobs that are rarely, if ever, delivered.

Espinoza, who says he once nearly fell into this trap as a 14-year-old, decided to do something about it last year: He’d write a book about the secrets of these fringe show business operators. He got jobs at two local talent companies to learn firsthand how the system works.

“All these people do is make incredible pie-in-the-sky promises that people so desperately want to believe,” he says. “And then they rake in your money.”

Those concerns were pushed into the forefront this month when the Los Angeles city attorney’s office filed 17 misdemeanor charges against West Coast Talent Inc., a Beverly Hills firm it says misled customers into spending thousands of dollars for acting classes and photographs by making promises of guaranteed employment.

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The key problem, state regulators say, is that many operators claim to be “talent management” companies in an attempt to avoid strict state regulations governing talent agencies.

Talent agencies are regulated because they either seek or make promises of employment. They are prohibited from referring their clients to any business in which the talent agency has a financial interest, such as a modeling or acting school.

By describing themselves as talent management firms, some unscrupulous companies are free to “make all the promises they want, and then refer their clients to their own people for classes and photographs” that lead nowhere, said Miles Locker, chief counsel for the state labor commissioner. “It’s a money mill.”

Many companies will issue contracts to their customers and in the fine print claim that no employment is guaranteed, but in interviews with customers salespeople make promises of finding a job, authorities say.

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Across California, there are 558 licensed talent agencies and countless unlicensed firms. Some of the firms engage in high-pressure sales tactics for services--which can run $5,000 or more for classes and photographs--and then refuse to grant refunds to clients who fail to secure the work promised.

The people who seek business for these companies--often referred to as talent directors or counselors--are really telemarketers, paid a commission for how many new customers they can attract.

“Every day I go to work, I lie to people,” said Nevin Kulkin, who has worked as a telemarketer at two local companies--the West Hollywood office of John Robert Powers and, most recently, at West Coast Talent.

At both firms, Kulkin said, he worked from mailing lists purchased by the companies to contact prospective customers, often telling parents their child had been referred by a friend or teacher, or that the company was responding to a query made by the customer.

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“None of it’s true,” said the 24-year-old Kulkin. “But people go for it.”

Kulkin said telemarketers are paid to lure customers in for an audition, at which they will be pressured into buying services such as classes and photo shoots.

‘Elite Suckers’ Package

The companies aim at families making at least $40,000 a year, Kulkin said. “They sell them these packages, like the Elite Package [with extras like higher-quality photos] for the elite suckers,” he said. “I see these families in the lobby and I want to say to them: ‘Run! These people are just going to rip you off.’ ”

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Kulkin said that he quit John Robert Powers this year over a pay dispute and that last week he was fired from West Coast Talent after he talked with television reporters who inquired about the company’s practices.

Officials at John Robert Powers acknowledged that Kulkin had been employed there but said he was fired and then filed a labor board complaint against the firm.

“He put pressure on us to settle the complaint or promised that he would make it a ‘very public matter,’ ” said lawyer Brian McLaughlin.

Company officials also say that Kulkin’s comments cannot be trusted because he has been convicted of forgery and theft-related crimes, a claim acknowledged by Kulkin and confirmed by the district attorney’s office.

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Alexander Zafrin, president of West Coast Talent, acknowledged problems in the talent industry. “People are out there scamming,” he said. “We’re not one of them.

“It’s a gray area. We groom and develop talent. Do we make money from our services? Sure. But as far as unethical business practices, I don’t see that. I’ll bet my dry cleaners get more complaints than our company.”

Kulkin said that at least three employees quit West Coast Talent in the wake of the city attorney’s charges. He said company officials held an emergency meeting last week to downplay the accusations.

In charging West Coast Talent, authorities relied on complaints made against the firm to the county Department of Consumer Affairs and the Better Business Bureau, which compiles such complaints.

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West Coast Talent, according to the bureau, received 23 complaints over the past 36 months “generally alleging deceptive sales practices, misrepresentation of services, breach of contract or difficulty obtaining funds.”

A case summary also said complainants paid for “photos and acting classes expecting West Coast to provide opportunities for employment as implied by salespersons. Complainants alleged no employment opportunities resulted.”

Complaints Normal

Lona Luckett, director of trade practices for the Better Business Bureau, said some companies have worse track records. For example, Premier Casting of Los Angeles has had 76 complaints of questionable business practices in the past three years, she said.

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“Some complaints are normal for the industry,” she said. “But some companies demonstrate a clear pattern of misrepresentation and unethical selling practices. Those are the ones people should watch out for.”

In May, the city attorney’s office filed 14 misdemeanor charges against Premier Casting and its owner that included false advertising.

Premier Casting did not return a reporter’s calls seeking comment.

An instructor who once taught acting classes for West Coast Talent said she was stunned to hear of the high fees the company charged.

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“I learned they were charging $1,800 for classes worth half that much,” said the ex-employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “All these people came to my class through the company with such high hopes and dreams that their child was the one, because that’s what West Coast Talent told them. It made me sick to my stomach.

“They all think their child is going to be a star tomorrow. It could happen, I guess. There’s maybe a one-in-a-million chance. That’s not what they’re told.”

One talent agent said much of the blame belongs to the parents.

“They can turn around and say, ‘We’ve been taken advantage of.’ But it’s their obligation to their kids to investigate before they put their money out and get their child’s hopes up,” said the agent, asking that her name not be published.

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Clients need to be aware of any firm that asks for money upfront, said Karen Stuart, executive director of the Assn. of Talent Agents in Los Angeles, whose organization represents 100 licensed agencies.

“If they’re asking for money upfront, then they’re not a licensed talent agency. And in that case my advice is to run, get out of there,” she said. Talent agencies make their money only after a client has found work.

Life for fringe operators was made easier in 1982 when California legislators removed a provision in the state’s Talent Agencies Act that had made it a criminal misdemeanor for someone to operate as an unlicensed talent agency, according to state labor board lawyer Locker.

District attorneys can seek civil actions against firms for failing to have a license by using the state business and professions code, as well as injunctions and court orders to shut these companies down.

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But that’s a relatively small threat, according to Deputy City Atty. Mark Lambert, who filed the case against West Coast Talent. “Our experience with the fly-by-night companies [is that] they’re not concerned with civil actions.”

Back at his table on the Third Street Promenade, Espinoza is talking about the book he plans to write about this business, how he plans to publish it himself and sell it at high schools for $10 apiece.

‘Feeding Their Ego’

Espinoza, a stocky 28-year-old La Verne resident who makes his living as a fund-raiser, said that in researching the book he worked for one day at the John Robert Powers Talent Management office in Rancho Cucamonga. As part of the company’s written scripts for telemarketers, employees are advised to “get into her favorite subject . . . write down everything.”

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Espinoza said company salespeople were also encouraged to tell clients how much models make and to ask them what they imagined they could do with that kind of money. “You’re feeding their ego, plain and simple,” he said. “Even with fat people like me, they’d tell them they have every chance in the world to get work. Then, behind their backs, they laugh among each other how the fools bought the scam hook, line and sinker.”

Espinoza said he took along the phone scripts when he quit John Robert Powers and plans to publish them in his book.

Kirsten King, the owner of John Robert Powers in Rancho Cucamonga, acknowledged that Espinoza worked for the company. “He was here half a day,” she said and referred all questions to the corporate offices in Los Angeles.

At the Powers home office--the same place where Nevin Kulkin worked--Tiffany Minami of the firm’s policy and marketing department agreed that cheating occurs in the industry. But she said that the Powers company franchises its locations and that the home office has little control over misrepresentations that might be made by individual owners.

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“We’re trying to get more control,” she said.

Told that Espinoza planned to publish the Powers telemarketer scripts, she said icily: “I think he should be very careful in doing something like that.”

On the promenade, Espinoza was bragging about how he could tell which people might be swayed by flattery to buy expensive classes or services. “Take that woman over there,” he said, gesturing toward a woman in hip-hugger blue jeans. “I could probably sell her a thousand dollars worth of modeling classes in no time flat.”


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