Talent Scouts, Expensive Audition Junkets or Web Sites and Modeling Schools

Updated 5-21-2008: Lou Pearlman, once "manager" of N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys, was convicted of "engineering a decades long scam" and sentenced to 25 years in prison for bilking banks, friends and associates out of over 300 million dollars! Pearlman has, as far as we can see based on hype and raves from TC Talent web sites (which are not longer up as the company is defunct, but when they were up they used the N'Sync and Backstreet Boys connection as part of their hype), some "type" of direct or indirect involvement with TC Talent.

Text of original article from 2003 starts below:

You see the ads in many magazines: “Become a model or just look like one.” Maybe you’ve heard a radio commercial about a talent search, giving you a toll free number to call for more information. Then there are the “talent scouts” who find people on-line or on-the-street, who then “refer” them to the main office for an “evaluation” to see if they have potential to become a model or actor. Are these legitimate or just another scam?

I recently had one model I know turn one of these “talent scouts” over to me on-line and I had a long chat with the man who claimed to be affiliated with TC Talent. We also contacted their main office and obtain direct information from Mr. Mark Tolner, CEO of TC Talent.

These “talent scouts” search for girls and guys from a given local office (according to Mark Tolner this company has "...more than 70 locations worldwide."). They try and set up an appointment to bring the “models” in for an evaluation. The bottom line is they want you to pay $800 for a portfolio page on their web site where you will be seen by prospective employers who are looking for models.

Mr. Tolner sited at least one success story to us with Danee Doty, who managed in about a year to do quite well, landing two movie roles (including the current release of "Legally Blonde II") and work for major companies including L'Oreal. What we don't know is how much other help she might have had beyond the portfolio on TC Talent (we have one report that Ms. Doty was officially with either Wilhelmina Models or a Wilhelmina held company). Tolner also says that "...96% of (their) customers rated the service and enrollment process as good to excellent..."

When I told the “talent scout” from their Denver office that you can put up your own site for $75 or less per year, he asked if that would get anywhere near the hits their site gets and that brings up some interesting points:

First, how many of those hits are potential employers or just girls and guys - like you - looking at the site? I know several licensed, Screen Actors Guild franchised talent agencies in Los Angeles and they rarely book models. The Screen Actors Guild always claims that 90% or more of their actors are unemployed. Licensed agencies for models don’t keep all their talent employed all the time. If there are this many “employers” coming to TC Talent why aren’t they using established people? It’s not all about price as one SAG franchised agent I know only gets $150 for one of his models. That’s certainly not “high ticket pricing.” SAG/AFTRA minimum per day for an actor is around $550 and they offer waivers for non-union and low budget producers.

According to Mr. Mark Tolner, CEO of TCT: "We guarantee that all talent choosing to post themselves on our website will gain maximum exposure to more than 1,000 agencies, casting directors and industry pros all over the world."

Next, how does a potential employer wade through thousands and thousands of individual portfolios? When I go to place talent with licensed agents, it takes a long time just to see the 200 thumbnail pictures of their roster. How do you look at, compare and evaluate the amount of people a company like TC is putting up on their sites? In a searchable data base you need a specific name, location or must know how to do a combination of sex, size and coloring. The final result is still a list of choices from the portfolios they have in their data base.

The way most agencies work is they have a huge rack of shelves near a wall. On those shelves are pictures of all their models or actors. Sub-agents get calls from clients requesting a "type" of look they want or the agency gets a "tip sheet" from a company such as "Breakdown Services." These breakdowns, as they are called, are the current casting for New York and Los Angeles television, feature films done on a daily basis. Next the sub-agents pick out one or more from that rack of head shots that seems to fit the description, finds out if the talent is available and may then submit a head shot to the producers or call to get an audition for the model or actor.

Think about it. Your face is mixed in with all those other faces, all of whom paid the same $800 to put up their pictures on the TC site. What are the odds you will get seen? Sure, you can refer people directly to your page on the site, but you can also do that with your own $75 dot com (that costs you only $20 a year to renew)!

According to TCT they have "...provided service to more than 100,000 aspiring models, actors and musicians over the last three years." They have a searchable data base at their site (http://www.tctalent.com), plus you can search the TC Talent data base remotely from WSN(http://www.wscouts.com).

In checking out TC Talent they claim to be affiliated in some way with Lou Pearlman’s operation in Florida (his name is spelled as Perlman in some published sites and reports). Pearlman’s main site says he “discovered” N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys. In fact, N'Sync was listed as one of his clients until the end of last year, they are no longer listed (which is normal, as artists change managers on a regular basis).

From what I could see Pearlman’s original operation was that of a travel agency (which generally has to be licensed and bonded), which is par for the course. Many smaller agents and managers don’t make most of their money off talent, but off other more in demand services. Some licensed, franchised agents have a bread and butter trade like placing temporary security guards or EMTs (movie location set medics who are there to provide emergency first aid) which finances their less profitable acting or modeling divisions. In the case of a manager who eventually gets an “N’Sync,” then this one act starts making more income for the operation then everything else combined! It becomes a windfall that has turned many local, small business people into mega moguls who go on to become “Manager of the Year” in prestigious industry publications such as Billboard Magazine. Most big managers and agents start off small, but most small managers (along with their models and actors) usually end up staying small in a very jaded industry.

From what I gather, people in other cities license or buy franchises of the TC operation (the same as how you would buy in to a brand name fast food chain) and then set up their employees to be “talent scouts” who find girls and guys, get them in for an evaluation and then offer them the $800 web site page on the heavily visited TC site pages.

The TC “talent scout” went on to further tell me that the prestigious Ford and Wilhelmina modeling agencies have “merged” with TC, however in a recent national television investigative report the head of the Ford Agency basically told the reporter that models are not found off the internet.

A TCT representative said that initial talks were made with Ford Models for a television show, but the deal fell through. Thus, there is no formal merger or agreement with Ford Models. Ms. Ford did not comment on the complete text of the article we sent to her offices, however. Mr. Tolner of TC Talent did, however, clarify the Wilhelmina connection as being: "In Affiliation with Wilhelmina Scouting LLC, an affiliate of Wilhelmina Models, WSN was formed in March of 2003 and operates under the guidance of Wilhelmina Models..."

What this basically means is that a separate and distinct Wilhelmina affiliate has either started or otherwise has an interest in WSN, which is a separate and distinct entity from both Wilhelmina and TC Talent. WSN has an agreement that lets people search the TC Talent data base from their site. Wilhelmina, however, has to search these sites "...just like any other registered talent agency." Wilhelmina also did not respond to our request for comments.

WSN, according to the CEO of TC Talent, uses strict rules of industry standard for high fashion and runway models. What this may generally mean is that you have to be above 5' 8" as a girl and over 5' 10" as a guy for fashion work, although some girls 5' 3" or above can get used in other types of commercial print work. TC Talent, may not, however, make that distinction on their site.

These operations, for lack of a better term, are similar to "holding companies." Wilhelmina Models (originally founded by super model Wilhelmina Cooper) may have nothing formally to do with WSN or TCT. Pearlman's TCC may have nothing formally to do with TCT (although in their own press release they call Pearlman's Trans Continental Entertainment Group the "parent company" of TCT). If one of these companies goes under, the others still survive, but you can't sue any of these other "Limited Liability Companies" under the law, because you lost your fee for services prior to getting a full year. In fact, banks and investors will probably tell you they lost millions if one of these companies goes under. (TCT, however, may have generated close to $80,000,000 in gross income paid to them by aspiring models, actors and musicians over the last three years of business based on the figures of customers [100,000] and current site fees [$799], so they are probably in pretty good financial shape.)

You are probably not a part of Wilhelmina Models if you buy a web site, but they possibly might find you on that site if they choose to look. There is no warranty they will look. You probably can't claim to be "represented by Wilhelmina Models" if you buy any web site from anybody. You can only do that if Wilhelmina Models offers you a direct representation contract.

There are some "vested interests" in these companies and on a personal level the principals may lose some money if a company does go under. Profits and losses count, but each of these companies is independent to a degree, run by different staffs and different rules.

TC Talent isn't the only one out there doing this type of work on the web, either. There are some other companies such as Castnet, which also charges a fee to the actor (it was around $100 when a SAG actor I worked with joined for a year). Agents and casting directors are given passwords and usernames, no outsiders are allowed to search the site.

Is any of this illegal? Probably not, although consumer protection organizations and the courts may take intent and the amount of money involved into account and some companies are being investiaged by the government over consumer complaints.

Some of these sites make no claims to get you work. Most if not all are not licensed employment or talent agencies. Some individual "talent scouts" may, however, play with words during their sales pitch. It is basically up to you to get your own jobs or to negotiate deals. All these web based companies do is provide a searchable database to clients, which, in the case of TC Talent, includes an exclusive web agreement with the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.

The “talent scout” told me if you don’t get work from the site that they would extend the site period free of charge for another year. Furthermore, Mark Tolner went on to tell us that their policy "...requires all applicants to wait 24 hours after enrolling to provide actual payment in order to eliminate undue "pressure" or impulse decisions."

All they are offering you is a venue to get seen, but you have to pay for it. With a legitimate, licensed agency you have to provide your own pictures, but the agent generally posts your picture on their site as a part of the service. In fact, most unions don’t allow their members to pay managers or agents for services in advance and require their members be represented only by franchised agents.

Jane Murray, who handled casting for all the Norman Lear television shows ("All In The Family," "Maude," etc.) once remarked to an associate of mine that young actors always left their head shots under her doorway and it was a shame, because she couldn't do anything for them. Casting directors generally only use known, SAG talent for major studio productions, because there is a fine for producers who use non-union talent unless it is an extreme on the set emergency, in which case they usually upgrade an extra, more than likely a SAG extra who is already in the union (they are required to employ roughly 12 SAG extras before they can use non-union talent, see our piece on extra work).

Here's a good idea of how a scam actually works. When I first started out in show business, long, long, ago, I bought into one “pay to play” scheme that was a genuine scam and cost me $40 back in 1972, which was a lot of money for that era.

It was with a Los Angeles area “talent” company. They then sent me to auditions who either said they’d use me (but never did - the productions were always magically cancelled) or tried to induce me to pay $500 to take a workshop from some “director” because while I was good, I needed seasoning.

Workshops, by the way, are often done by unemployed actors, writers, producers or directors as a way of making some money between jobs. Again, this is perfectly legal and if they are half way decent at what they do you might get some benefit from these workshops, but understand most of the time it’s “all about the money.” You’ll also find them working at places like “The Learning Tree.” Again this is legitimate, it’s how you make extra money in a business that is famous for not using you on a daily basis. In fact, if any of you out there who are reading this eventually become a professional model or actor you may decide to teach a course at one of these self-help centers just to meet your cost of living!

Understand the business is not paved with streets of gold, the average person makes $5,000 to $20,000 a year in show business and works a total of a few weeks during any given year. One team of writers I know sold one show to NBC, made something over $20,000 and never sold another script after that in 20 years of street pounding. Most people consider that one sale to be an exceptional break for anyone.

In this situation they took my $40, had me chase my tail off for weeks and tried to hit me up for more money to take workshops. Not one tangible thing came from this experience other than relieving me of just $40! You find an operation like this and you can file complaints with local or Federal law enforcement, who will investigate them to see if you were just unlucky at getting hired or just unlucky to have paid the $40 to that company!

What about modeling schools? Once again, they are generally totally legal. They are operated by someone who meets the local laws to administrate a school. They are licensed as a trade or vocational school. They submit a lesson plan to the state for approval. They employee instructors who would meet the same standards as a part-time instructor at a college (a high school graduate with several years work experience in a trade can generally offer an accredited course at college extension schools or even undergraduate programs for regular college). They are also expensive, charging several thousand dollars for a 20 or 40 week intensive course in being a model or actor. Most trade schools rarely place their students with real jobs (even those schools teaching in-demand trades such as auto mechanics or computers have an impossible time placing graduates in the work force). Without extensive on the job experience you rarely get hired in any skilled profession!

You can get similar if not better training by taking acting or dance classes at a local Junior College for generally less than $50 for a 20 week course. Often the instructors at college have far better credentials (one of my acting teachers, Peter Parkin, got his MFA at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse) than anyone teaching at a trade school.

Again, most of these trade schools are legitimate operations with no better a track record than the average college that graduates 40+ students a semester with a degree in Broadcast Communications, Film, Television and Theater. Most of those graduates never get a single job working in the entertainment industry. A fine arts degree is a fine way to get a job as an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant! At a trade school, however, you don't get an accredited undergraduate degree so you get the $6 an hour McJob, instead of a management position.

So long as people and companies don’t use regulated names such as agent, agency, school, counselor, therapist or teacher, they are not breaking any laws. The use of those regulated names have to be certified, licensed and bonded, thus you will see people calling themselves managers, workshops, tutors or entertainment bureaus, as these are not regulated names.

Some of these entertainment bureaus also run radio commercials looking for people who want to model. Once again it’s all about selling something. In this case it’s a junket to New York City to participate in several cattle call auditions. Again, they are pretty much honest about what you are getting. It will be you and possibly thousands of other girls and guys being looked at by potential “employers” sitting in an audience. The total price tag for the entire junket was $3,500, which probably included transportation, lodging and all the entrance fees. So it was basically a week vacation in New York City with a few stops to get looked at by “potential employers.”

Again, with real, licensed talent agencies you have to go on auditions. Sometimes they are cattle calls, but usually not with hundreds or thousands of other people. Often it’s one on one - you and the employer’s team of people who will evaluate you in a matter of minutes. Nothing usually comes of the audition. That is par for the course. The model or actor has to pay their own transportation costs into the city. There is no fee or payment for the audition. You will probably have to leave a photo and resume. That means one audition will cost anywhere from $5 to $20. A legitimate talent agent might get you one or two auditions a week, mostly in the summertime.

You may also get “call backs” which are usually legitimate, however most unions start to require that you get paid after getting too many call backs or auditions for the same employer on the same production. So a third call back starts to get suspicious and expensive, but expect to go at least twice to the same job audition as that is a nominal situation in both modeling and acting.

I attended a musical showcase similar to these in Los Angeles, put on by a local entertainment bureau, Stan Scott and Associates. Legitimate club and hotel bookers did attend the showcases and some acts did get hired, but the entry cost for this event was well under $100, which is far from a $3,500 price tag for a modeling junket!

No web site or junket is a magic ticket to success. Even getting picked up by a licensed, national agent does not mean you will automatically get a job! No licensed agent should charge you any significant fees, but they will require you to supply some pictures and promotional materials. They will expect you to go out on auditions and you must pay the nominal costs for bus fare or gas for the car, along with parking fees.

Finally one must ask, what is the potential that you will get $3,500 worth of work out of a $3,500 audition junket? Within a few weeks of these events all the employers have forgotten your face so you’ll have to do it all over again next year. How long do you spend more than you make before you give up or smarten up?

Professional models and actors do have to spend some money each year promoting themselves. This generally amounts to a few hundred dollars in photos and submissions. If they get a high ticket job they may spend a hefty part of their salary on a professional promoter who will buy ads in trade papers (very expensive), half-a-million web site banners on Yahoo (it worked for singer Vanessa Carlton, but these "break-out" banners are very expensive) or place their stories with magazines. That brings potentially more business later in the year, it gives you a legitimate tax deduction, but if that effort fails you do lose a part of your income. That income, however, is from working in the field not savings from your day job as a waitress or retail clerk!

As we’ve shown some of these methods of showcasing you as a potential model or actor are not generally illegal, just rather expensive for the average girl or guy looking to get into this line of work. If even one legitimate employer comes to one of these web sites or auditions then you can’t rightfully call them a scam. In fact some prestigious employer representatives often get their names associated with some of these events, sometimes just for showing up and sometimes they are paid an honorarium to attend a given event.

Getting a legitimate agent is virtually impossible for the average person with an 8 x 10 head shot. Finding auditions without an agent is also practically impossible. You have to do your homework, read the “tip sheets and trade papers” and send out your own packages to potential employers who generally only take established talent represented by established agencies.

It should also be noted that some teenage girls and their photographers have started commercially viable teen model sites where they sell memberships and CDs for just one model. Carl Newbury of "Cindymodel," an 11 year old aspiring model, claimed her site was generating about $20,000 a year in business on a recent television interview. While it's unclear if "Cindy," the young model, or her parents had to pay Newbury anything for the site or the pictures, nor do we positively know if she gets profit sharing, other girls are making money directly off their own sites. Newbury, on one of the model sites, also offers his services as photographer along with the services of one 14 year old model for total price of $150. "Cindymodel" also has a Yahoo club with lot of members and this is a free site. These sites get lots of hits and just for one girl.

For the young girls and guys out there who see golden stars at the end of a rainbow in their daydreams of fame and fortune as some glamorous super star, an opportunity to get seen is a tasty morsel. Especially when you hear about it on radio or see news coverage of such an event on TV. Your sensibilities get blinded and a hefty portion of anyone’s life savings can be handed over for a shot at the gold ring!

It also should be noted that some of these operations have been or are being investigated by the Kansas City District Attorney, the Florida Attorney General, the state of New York (looking at Wilhelmina, Elite and others), the Federal Trade Commission, several news agencies (including NBC Dateline), plus several class action lawsuits have apparently been filed on or about June 3, 2003 against TCT, Wilhelmina Scouting Network and other firms by the law firms Boies, Schiller and Flexner or Johson and Rishwain. For more information check out this un-official site from disgruntled models who lost money and do bear a grudge against some of these companies. A lot of this information is very slanted and unproven, but this site does contain some interesting links to current investigations: http://www.transconscam.com/. We have also been told that Ford Models may be involved in a different and totally unrelated class action suit.

All investments are a gamble. What ever you do, just don't get lost in the glitz or the famous names associated with a company or an event. The bottom line is that your odds of fame and fortune are probably better if you invested in $3,500 worth of lotto tickets, you just wouldn’t get a New York City trip out of the deal. If you want the trip and can afford to lose the money, great, just don’t hold your breath waiting for the phone to ring. No one can warranty that will happen, no matter how much money you pay for a web site, promoter or audition junket.

* * * *

Editors note: We solicited verification of facts, along with comments and elaboration from Lou Pearlman, TC, Ford Models, Wilhelmina Models, CBS News and Carl Newbury. In some cases we were unable to reach them due to failed contact information. In some instances no response was given to our requests, which were all made weeks prior to the July issue street date. TC Talent did respond to our request for information and clarification, which we hope we presented here clearly and fairly.

The author is a producer of television commercials, documentaries and musical recordings and has been in print since 1967 in magazines like Mix, Music Connection, Technical Photography and Moving Image. He has worked around major players in the entertainment industry, including work on MTV video productions and major studio television programs. He has placed pictures or promotion materials on various SAG actors, singers and models in a variety of publications. Produced music that has made ASCAP current performance status, receiving international airplay.

Our Model and Acting Special Issues Continues With...

What you Need | Life On The Set As An Actor | Talent Scouts, Junkets, Model Schools
The Model Release | Breaking Into Acting | Extra Work in TV and Movies | Teen Modeling Sites
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