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The Vanity Tax


Parents are dropping thousands on modeling and acting classes. Most big-talking star makers don’t have the connections to deliver, but they all think your kid has star potential, that is if your check clears.

An attractive blonde in a business suit is talking. She is either lying through her pretty teeth or her company will break the law to do what she’s claiming, a class six felony in Arizona.

On the opposite side of the desk, Angela Beatty, an unwitting mother of three, sits listening with her three-year-old daughter. Things are sounding pretty good to them.

The blonde, Melette Alexander, looks enough like a former model. She tells Beatty that modeling jobs pay between $600 and $1,200 per shoot. She also says her company, Starbizz Entertainment, will keep a percentage from every job.

The problem is, unlike actual talent agencies, Starbizz isn’t licensed to legally take commissions, suggesting there is no real intention to book the high-paying shoots.

Alexander’s verbal promises are telltale in an industry bilking hundreds of thousands of dollars from Valley wannabes and their parents each year. The family she auditioned is one of more than 25 families and industry insiders interviewed for this story, from models and agency owners to national modeling and casting insiders.

Occasionally, “modeling scouts” can be found targeting potential clients at local malls: “I’m a modeling scout, and I think you have a lot of promise.” Other times, radio ads, like the one that caught Angela Beatty’s ear, urge parents to book an audition.

While some victims are driven by an almost self-inflicted vanity, some otherwise levelheaded parents have bought into what one watchdog calls “the vanity scam.”

“These guys make their money off of classes, not acting. It’s like swimming with the sharks while wearing prime rib underwear. You’ve got to watch your butt and realize that sometimes the compliments are based on whether or not the check cleared,” says Valley actor Steve Gresser.

Gresser is one of hundreds in the Valley who have paid thousands for glitzy promises from modeling schools and agencies. Gresser finally decided the agency he was pouring money into was only in it for his money. After allying himself with a more legitimate agency, he now enjoys a successful acting career.

On the other side of the desk, Starbizz Entertainment owner Bruce Romberg says his contracts don’t promise any work. Romberg says the parents who complain are the ones who came in the door with unrealistic hopes of stardom and money.

“It’s a matter of trying to manage the expectations of some of the parents,” Romberg says. “It’s overwhelming how many people want their kid in this business. I could fill Bank One Ballpark. I built Starbizz to give every family a chance to participate.”

Romberg said Starbizz does not take commissions but sometimes takes “referral fees” after the fact. Nonetheless, in the audition with Nia Beatty, Melette Alexander said, “We keep five to ten percent of everything, so it’s very important to us who we select.”

Into The Audition

On her drive over to meet Alexander, Angela Beatty couldn’t help but hope her daughter would make it at the audition. What mom wouldn’t? Today is Nia’s third birthday. What a birthday present if Nia could model to finance her own college education.

On the way in, the Starbizz Entertainment headquarters seemed official enough, with marble floors, posters of celebrities and a giant Wilhelmina Models poster.

In the office, Alexander is talking. “What we’re looking for right now are a couple kids to complete a catalogue we’re putting together for a children’s clothing line,” Alexander says.

Beatty listens intently. She has never met Nicole Stephens of Mesa. Two years ago, Stephens was literally sitting in the same seat, auditioning with her two-year-old son Drake. Like Beatty, Stephens was used to comments about her child’s big eyes and affable smile. After hearing a Starbizz radio ad, Stephens figured she’d bring her son Drake in for an audition.

Stephens arrived at the Starbizz headquarters, nervous among the throngs of anxious parents. Drake stole the heart of the “new talent director.” After the audition, they called back, offering Drake a contract. This was his big opportunity.

“They said of about 100 kids they had interviewed that they were only selecting five, and Drake was one of the five,” Stephens says. “They said Drake could make about $1,000 an hour modeling in the Valley.”

The only stipulation was that it would cost $685 for a professional portfolio shoot, which could launch Drake’s career. Though Stephens didn’t have the money, her mom, Drake’s grandma, did. Stephens borrowed the $685 assuming she could pay it back after Drake’s first modeling job.

After paying the money, two months passed. Nothing. The excitement was waning. After Stephens threatened to take action, Starbizz responded by booking two jobs, which paid a total of $125. Both jobs came from inside Starbizz and included promotional work, with the company’s owner Bruce Romberg personally signing the checks. Stephens says she hasn’t received a single call in the two years since.

“Now I know every kid who auditioned got a call back,” Stephens says. “I don’t think any actual working models got their start at Starbizz,” she adds.

The catalogue Drake appears in is a color-printed pamphlet stapled in the middle with page after page of Starbizz models.

Like most, Stephens then examined her signed contract and realized that few of the verbal promises she says Starbizz made during the sales pitch carried over to the written contract.

Starbizz owner Bruce Romberg says Stephens is one example of an overly-optimistic and disillusioned parent. “Nicole Stephens is a tough one. There are parents who expect a lot of things in a short period of time,” Romberg says. “This business takes time.”

Stephens claims it was the verbal promises made during her son’s audition that misled her, not her own dreams for her son.

Infighting

“They really prey on the vulnerability of a parent,” Dani’s Agency owner Dani Green says of agencies selling photo or acting packages. Green says agencies shouldn’t sell services. “All they have to do is make them feel like their child is going to get something. I think it’s pretty shameful myself.”

Green says legitimate agencies won’t require actors or models to buy photos or classes.

“Today we have four Valley agencies that are Screen Actors Guild (SAG) agencies, that aren’t trying to turn around and sell you a $600 photo package or a $1,000 acting class,” Green says.

One successful Arizona model says that’s exactly how he started his career, without investing a single cent before his first paying job. Matt asked that we not use his last name for this story, but many Valley residents would recognize his face and muscular arms. Matt, 21, has been modeling for three years and often appears in Dillard’s ads. He’s even traveled out of the country on Abercrombie & Fitch modeling shoots.

Matt never paid a modeling school for classes or photos. Instead, he sent pictures a friend had taken to the Signature Agency and soon started picking up work. He later paid about $300 for professional photos from a well-known photographer, less than half of what Starbizz charged Stephens for the photos of Drake.

Matt says Dillard’s jobs usually pay around $120 in Arizona and out-of-country shoots with Abercrombie & Fitch pay $600 per day, so Valley agencies claiming consistent jobs pay in upwards of $1,000 in Arizona are likely rounding up. “In Phoenix, there’s not a lot of work out there, period,” Matt says. “The bottom line is, it’s extremely difficult here in Phoenix, especially for female models.”

Finishing The Audition

Back at the Starbizz offices, Nia and Angela listen as Alexander finishes her pitch.

“Please call back at noon,” Alexander tells Beatty. “Don’t take it personally if your child isn’t selected.” Beatty and Nia walk out the door with a nearly-identical photo package to the one Stephens bought for her son two years ago. The price, $685, hasn’t changed.

It does not occur to either Angela or Nia that Alexander only auditioned Nia for about five seconds or that the one photo she took was with a consumer-quality digital video camera.

They have never met Nicole Stephens or seen the stapled catalogue she paid $685 to put her son in. Nor have they met the families Starbizz owner Bruce Romberg points to as satisfied customers.

“I felt Starbizz was well worth it,” says Katherine Mcgonigle, whose 10-year-old granddaughter Samantha has appeared in about six print ads.

Mcgonigle puts the impetus of success back on parents. “Once you put your child into one of these commercials, then you have to represent,” she says. “Starbizz is like a stepping stone. What I got at Starbizz was good.”

Official Problem

The Federal Trade Commission has issued warnings about modeling scams in local markets. The FTC suggests that parents ask to contact working models from an agency before paying an agency any money.

Requests to Starbizz for such successful client references were refused by Melette Alexander, but provided when requested by The Times.

In addition to its warnings, the FTC also says local markets rarely pay more than about $50 to $75 an hour. Experienced actors and models also suggest getting all promises in writing. Most parents have no legal recourse against modeling agencies or schools because the actual written contracts don’t promise much. It’s the verbal pitches that so often get the sale.

Voiceover actor Steve Gresser, 40, knows the pitches well. At age 37, Gresser revisited his high school dream of acting. He contacted a Valley agency and was soon handing out booze in a furry animal costume for about $100 a weekend. Gresser figured it was a step in the right direction.

“They said, ‘you seem to get it, why don’t you try it out to see if you can make it to the International Modeling and Talent Agency (IMTA),’” Gresser says. The agency told Gresser that top acting scouts from across the nation would be at IMTA searching for new talent. The only catch: IMTA cost a minimum of $2,000.

“Do you think I qualified?” Gresser asks facetiously. “Depends on whether or not the check cleared,” he adds. His check did clear, and soon he was in New York at IMTA, surrounded by young hopefuls and their parents.

Gresser says most IMTA contestants won trophies but few earned any actual modeling or acting work. It was obvious to him that some contestants at IMTA didn’t have much promise, but they obviously had the money to get there. “Some parents would talk about the big contracts they signed. I’d see them again, and they’d say nothing ever came of it,” Gresser says.

All told, Gresser paid thousands of dollars to a Valley agency and IMTA. “I made absolutely no contacts whatsoever that have had any positive effect on my acting career,” he says.

Now Gresser works with Ford/Robert Black, a SAG agency that has never charged him a dollar beyond commission. He says they find him legitimate auditions about once a week.

Like Gresser, numerous Valley families have paid thousands to attend IMTA’s New York and Los Angeles conventions. IMTA claims the biggest modeling scouts and casting directors frequent their conventions, and IMTA points to big-name successes Ashton Kutcher and Katie Holmes as proof.

Taylor Dooley, star of “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” found one of her early agents at a similar out-of-state convention, though one that cost substantially less than IMTA.

Debbie Dooley, Taylor’s mother, says she knows of at least two top agents who do frequent IMTA, and she knows of many others who don’t.

Dooley describes the paths that lead to success as many and varied. She would know. Taylor’s last film grossed $39 million. Dooley warns parents to research claims and contends that success doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars up front.

When Jackie Teale worked as a casting assistant in L.A., she had never heard of IMTA in L.A.

If anyone in Arizona knows Hollywood acting, Jackie Teale, 32, says it’s her. As an associate casting director she worked on the casting for Friends, West Wing, Anger Management, 50 First Dates and a number of other network shows and blockbuster films.

Teale has worked with the likes of Adam Sandler, George Clooney and many other A-list celebrities.

Teale recently moved back to the Valley for health reasons and soon began hearing the stories of families who had shelled out thousands for modeling and acting opportunities. She says few Arizona agencies have the connections they claim to have.

“I ran into people and realized a lot of people were getting taken advantage of,” Teale says, adding that even in Los Angeles the modeling and acting business is swarming with smoke-and-mirror agencies rarely possessing the connections or accomplishments they advertise.

“There are a lot of unprofessional, unethical people in this business. It is very important to do a lot of background work,” Teale says. “If something seems too good to be true, it is most definitely too good to be true. Out of any 100 in the business, there are probably 97 unfortunate, dishonest snakes out there.”

Teale says a legitimate agency generates its revenue from the commission fees of actors and models, not from photo packages or classes.

The Call Back

An hour after Nia’s audition, Angela Beatty follows Alexander’s instructions and calls Starbizz, “Don’t take it personally if your child isn’t selected,” still ringing in her ears. Alexander is soon on the line.

Beatty: “Is this Melette?”

Starbizz: “Yes.”

Beatty: “I’m calling back regarding Nia.”

Starbizz: “Okay, what’s the last name?”

Beatty: “Beatty.”

Starbizz: “Yeah,” Alexander pauses. “Oh my gosh. She is absolutely a doll.”

Beatty: “Oh?”

Starbizz: “She’s amazing. I’ve selected her for the catalogue, and I think we can keep her quite busy here locally with assignments, so what I’d like to do is, I would like to get together with you on Monday, if your schedule allows.”

In a later phone conversation, Alexander again says assignments pay between $600 and $1,200 each.

“I wouldn’t have selected her if I didn’t think she had potential,” Alexander says during the conversation.

“We’re going to be scheduling her photo shoot,” she tells Beatty. “Your financial commitment to get the photographs done, that will need to be taken care of on Monday, so I want to make sure you are aware of that.”

On the other side of the Valley, Nicole Stephens and Drake, now three, prepare for a trip to the grocery store. They still have the Starbizz catalogue, a stapled color-printed pamphlet packed with Starbizz models. Stephens still hasn’t seen $560 of the money she paid. They had been so sure he could make $1,000 a job. The two jobs he did get paid $50 and $75.

Asked to further clarify his company’s position, Starbizz owner Bruce Romberg says, “Nobody guarantees income. I don’t represent that you make money. My contract is clear.”
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