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2017-2018 Issue IV Editors' Picks National

Stardom for Sale

On December 23, 2016, Moumita Clifton, a 34-year-old who splits her time between California and Japan, where her husband is deployed in the Navy, was at home in Los Angeles when she received an ecstatic email.

CONGRATULATIONS!! the message began. YOU MADE THE CALLBACK TO LA, THE ENTERTAINMENT CAPITAL OF THE WORLD!

Weeks before, Clifton, who is working toward a PhD in Geographic Information Systems and Remote Sensing, decided to try her six-month-old daughter’s luck in the talent circuit. When an advertisement promoting a showcase called Next—short for Next Star Productions—popped up in her Facebook News Feed, Clifton opted to make the trip to San Diego for the first round of auditions, held in a hotel.

In retrospect, she regrets the choice. The venue for the open-call auditions was “not high-end,” which “should have been a red flag,” she said. Kids of all ages and their parents filled a large room, where the showcase’s representatives gave what Clifton described as “literally a sales pitch.”

“They make it sound really good,” Clifton said. “Kids who are teenagers or like ten years old, they get really excited, especially when they [the representatives] name kids from Disney and Nickelodeon.”

At showcases like Next, aspiring child models and actors pay to audition for talent agents, hoping to “be discovered.” Usually, participants have advanced through several rounds of auditions or have taken classes at a feeder school. All have paid a substantial sum to be there.

Clifton purchased professional photos, coordinated by Next, so that her daughter could attend the upcoming showcase in San Diego. (According to Clifton, the photographer was actually a teenager who later participated in the Los Angeles showcase.) About two weeks later, after the San Diego showcase, the email announcing her daughter’s invitation to the national convention arrived in her inbox. With each passing round, Clifton found herself emptying her pockets: first for the photos (250 dollars, the cheapest option), and later to pay upfront fees for the showcase in Los Angeles (1,070 dollars, according to an email correspondence between Clifton and Denise Johnson, who isthe CEO and Vice President of Next Star Productions), plus the costs of travel, accommodation, and food.

But in early December of 2016, convenience factored into Clifton’s calculations. “No big deal,” Clifton remembers thinking to herself at first. After all, San Diego, where the open-call auditions would take place, wasn’t far from her home in Los Angeles. “Just go,” she thought.

“I should have known it was a sham at the time,” Clifton told me.

Moumita Clifton, her daughter, and her husband: Courtesy of Moumita Clifton

Families across the U.S. have been similarly seduced. The “Hollywood dream”—a cinematic offshoot of the American one, coined by Richard Verrier of the Los Angeles Times—sparkles in the imaginations of children everywhere. And the industry has risen to meet the demand. Hanging on the lower rungs of the ladder to stardom, many talent conventions rely on a foot-in-the-door money-making strategy which, in dealings with starry-eyed children and eager parents, has proven lucrative. Showcases draw children and families, like Clifton’s, from around the country by starting locally, with peppy advertisements on local radio channels, open-call auditions, and upfront fees that increase and accumulate. By branding themselves as “elite” and requiring training (for a fee), many showcases manufacture the appearance of selectivity, feeding false hope that can lead to bankruptcy for families that continue to pay beyond their means.

Among conventions, reputations vary. Though there is no nationwide tally of talent showcases for kids, a few giants, like the International Modeling and Talent Association (IMTA) and the International Performing Arts Showcase (IPAS), dominate the terrain. Unlike Next showcases, these are big-budget, glitzy productions: Kids and teens with professionally-done makeup and clothes strut down gleaming stages, backlit by bright lights. But on Ripoff Report, a website “for consumers, by consumers” where users can report scams and fraud, 47 complaints have been filed about IMTA. They cover 19 states, representing both coasts, the Midwest, the Southwest, and the Deep South. And in California, a class action lawsuit is underway against IPAS and a major feeder school, the Barbizon School of San Francisco.

By comparison, Next Star Productions looks reputable, if low-budget. In one video, live-streamed from a Next convention in Las Vegas, children with numbered bibs walk between rows of chairs in a beige-paneled hotel conference room, smiling and turning in circles for the small audience. Next showcases are relatively small operations: 85 to 125 performers attend each of the four national conventions, wrote CEO Denise Johnson in an email correspondence with me. Rosters supported the statement. As the businesswoman pointed out, larger showcases host several hundreds of performers.

I suggest doing a story on the talent showcases that have over 700 performers in their events that charge up to $12,000 [per] showcase,” Johnson wrote in an email to me. “That’s a story!”

In California, home of the American entertainment industry, advance-fee talent representation is illegal, under the Krekorian Talent Scam Prevention Act of 2010. (An advance fee is money paid to an agent before goods or services have been provided.) BizParentz Foundation, an organization that provides education and advocacy services to families in the entertainment industry, warns on its website that “the first rule of showbiz is ‘never pay upfront fees for representation.’”

But showcases have found ways to bend the rules. When I asked how much a performer must pay to attend a showcase, Johnson wrote: “We hold a Regional Showcase and a National Showcase…a performers [sic] experience will determine if there is a cost or no cost at all.” Johnson used a sports analogy to justify the fees that the organization charges for required training, citing football, volleyball, and cheerleading. Without the training, “inexperienced” performers cannot attend the showcase. To qualify as “experienced,” a performer must have prior professional training and a “built resume,” according to Johnson.

“They will pay a fee to train, to perform well,” Johnson wrote. “The same goes for our industry or any industry. There is a [sic] investment involved. All actors and models have to train to perform at their Top Level with Confidence!”  

But, according to email records from December of 2016, Next charges registration fees per person (395 dollars for Clifton’s daughter, 175 dollars each for Clifton and her husband) and per category (325 dollars each; Clifton selected “Modeling”), regardless of experience. These fees were listed in an email that Clifton sent to Johnson directly, asking whether her calculation of the total cost was correct. It was, Johnson confirmed via email.

IMTA—a New York City-based association that, according to its website, hosts the largest international talent convention—defends itself online in language similar to Johnson’s. In answer to a “frequently asked question” about the legitimacy of its showcase, IMTA suggests that some discontented attendees have “chose[n] to see [associated costs] as a ripoff rather than an investment.”

But when it comes to the payoff, organizers avoid making concrete promises. In a statement published by Dateline NBC, for example, IMTA highlighted success stories but also emphasized the benefits of attending for kids who never become stars. “Like many other endeavors, most Contestants who have worked hard and attended their training sessions have their efforts rewarded,” claimed IMTA in the statement. “All participants [gain] valuable life lessons and an unforgettable experience.”

The experience wasn’t worth the price for Valerie Wright, a 49-year-old single mother living in Memphis, Tennessee, who estimates that the total cost of attending two conventions with her son exceeded 10,000 dollars. A survivor of lupus, Wright is unable to work; she supports herself and her three children on Social Security payments. In 2014, she and her son, who was nine at the time, traveled to Orlando, Florida for their first convention, which was organized by a company called Premiere.

“It seemed like [the other families] were all bubbly at the beginning of the week,” she said. “We were all one big family.” By the end, though, the mood had darkened.

“I saw kids and parents crying, getting mad, and leaving, storming out, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m winning,’” Wright said.

Valerie Wright and her son: Courtesy of Valerie Wright

In 2016, Wright and her son attended a convention organized by the Donna Groff Agency, which is based in Memphis. Her son was supposed to go the year before, but after paying roughly 7,000 dollars for the 2015 convention, Wright could not afford the 700-dollar photoshoot. The payment deadline for the shoot passed, and owner and director Donna Groff said that Wright and her son would have to wait until the 2016 convention, according to Wright. The next year, Wright paid a transfer fee (about 275 dollars, she said), plus the fee for a photoshoot, which had increased from 2015. Only pictures taken by the hired photographer would be accepted.

“I was spending bill money, food money, trying to pursue this dream for my kid,” Wright told me over the phone in her slight Southern accent. “Those callbacks didn’t mean nothing,” she said.

But callbacks are a key part of industry advertising. The number of children called back is the metric of success cited by many showcases. In its NBC statement, IMTA estimated that 80 percent of participants receive callbacks. On its website, Premiere advertises that its “Industry Professionals call back over 60 percent of the performers in attendance.” (Neither Premiere nor IPAS replied to requests for comment. IMTA responded to an introductory email, but did not reply to follow-up inquiries.)

As Wright noted, though, callbacks mean little for families not living in New York City or Los Angeles. (“The real answer,” a casting director named Katie Taylor told me, “is there really isn’t anything you can do when you live in Saskatchewan.”) Wright’s son scored nine callbacks at Premiere’s showcase. Each time, he heard the same thing: He and his family would have to move. “There’s nothing for you in Tennessee,” the scouts told him, according to his mother. But relocating was a financial impossibility. Wright and her son left the convention with lighter pockets and little gained.

Even for children living in Hollywood hubs, callbacks do not always lead to jobs. A friend Clifton met at the San Diego auditions named Melanie Ruiz, who could not be reached for this article, thought her son had hit on success, Clifton said. According to Clifton’s retelling, scouts had indicated they wanted to sign Ruiz’s son, only to reject him two weeks later because they had another client who looked similar. It wouldn’t be ethical to represent two clients competing for the same gigs, they said.

“The rejection was done in private,” Clifton told me, relating the story she had heard from her friend. But in public, the scouts had “made a big show out of picking him up,” as performers and parents looked on. (Taylor, the casting director, confirmed the public pick-up, private drop tactic in a phone interview.)

Still, to some parents, a shot at fame for their children—even a long-shot—is close to priceless. But when the several thousand dollars in fees, travel, food, and accommodation come to naught, parents and children alike head home defeated and deceived.

Clifton described the way Next Star Productions runs its showcase as “sketchy”—a charitable criticism, compared to the language used by past attendees of other showcases. (“Sham,” “scam,” “wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am,” and “money-suck” were a few choice descriptors used in interviews with parents, a talent agent, and a former participant.) Unlike Clifton and her daughter, most showcase attendees come from out of state, sometimes traveling thousands of miles and paying thousands of dollars only to be told, in auditions, to move to Los Angeles. But kids with big dreams (and, in some cases, “momagers” with bigger ones), keep clamoring to attend.

Kasia Lis, a 27-year-old who took classes at Barbizon, a major feeder school for showcases, and who attended the IMTA showcase in Los Angeles ten years ago, called the event a “cattle call.” The Chicagoan flew to California with high hopes. At 17, she already flaunted an impressive resume, which included singing the national anthem for the president of Poland on one of his visits to the U.S.

It was exciting, and it was new…God, I was such an idiot,” said Lis of the IMTA showcase. She now runs a non-profit that creates scholarship opportunities for first-generation Americans.

When Lis attended the IMTA showcase, she said, attendees had to pay an extra fee for each category and subcategory of auditions. After performers chose “modeling” as their category, for example, they would select subcategories, like “catwalk,” “promotional,” and “lifestyle,” according to Lis. In order to audition in a subcategory, performers had to attend the corresponding workshop, which cost an extra fee. Lis remembers having plenty of free time to see a baseball game, visit the Statue of Liberty, and even go to a strip club. (Her parents stayed home in Chicago because of travel costs.)

“There was a lot of downtime,” she said. “An hour of waiting in line, thirty seconds in the room.” (This isn’t the case for all showcases; some keep their attendees busy with workshops and presentations.)

Because of the workshop rule—reminiscent of Next Star Productions’ required training—even time efficiency came at a price. To fill up her days, Lis would have had to pay for more training to audition in more subcategories. According to Lis, agents kept saying that they would love to work with her, provided she moved to Los Angeles. But as a high schooler whose parents had jobs and whose younger sister was in middle school, she was not in a position to take that risk.

“Stop people from attending this shit,” Lis said over the phone, referring to talent showcases generally, when I asked if she had anything to add. “Shut it down, man.”

Others who share Lis’s sentiment have taken their complaints to court. The accumulated evidence is more than anecdotal: Over the past decade, California legislators and courts have cracked down on so-called “talent scams,” a trend continued in Los Angeles today by City Attorney Mike Feuer, who filed criminal charges against an unlicensed Beverly Hills talent agency in January.

In July of 2016, a class action lawsuit was filed against the International Performing Arts Academy (IPAA), which hosts IPAS, and the Barbizon School of San Francisco on behalf of California mother Angelica Cosio and “others similarly situated.” Also listed as defendants are Lion Management Group, which manages IPAS, and members of the Lionetti family, who run Lion Management and the Barbizon School of San Francisco.

According to the complaint, the Barbizon School of San Francisco used unlawful advertising to mislead children and parents, soliciting advance fees and enticing them to attend IPAS. Further, the lawsuit accuses the school of selecting participants based on ability and willingness to pay rather than perceived merit, while “creat[ing] an impression of exclusivity.” Litigation, which began in April of 2016, is ongoing, and the defendants deny any wrongdoing.

The lead plaintiff filed these complaints on the grounds that the defendants violated sections of California labor code that prohibit advance-fee talent representation services. Advertising or referring others to such services is illegal under the code. Legislative reports from April 2009, when the bill was under committee consideration, show the reasoning behind the legislation.

“With the unprecedented popularity of ‘American Idol’ and other reality television programming, the false promise of instant stardom has increasingly become a fertile ground for talent peddlers to scam the public, victimizing children and young adults in particular,” wrote the bill’s author, Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian, who was a state assemblyman at the time. He characterized the audition process as “bait and switch.” The California District Attorneys Association, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, and the Screen Actors Guild supported the legislation.

In 2009, about 1,000 complaints and 143,000 inquiries were filed in southern California that are “responsive” to the case against the Barbizon School of San Francisco, according to statistics from the Better Business Bureau of the Southland. (“Responsive” means the complaints are somehow related to the lawsuit, directly or tangentially; some might have involved other branches of Barbizon or a different set of grievances than those filed by Cosio.) As of October 17, 2016, the Federal Trade Commission had received 275 complaints about Barbizon.

The deception extended to solicitation of client feedback for court-related purposes, Law360 reported. Barbizon conducted interviews without informing clients that their feedback would be filed in court as sworn declarations and possibly used against their interests.

Despite legislation and lawsuits, showcases continue to sell their services. Brochures, advertisements, and scouts milk “success stories” to attract talent, name-dropping popular channels, shows, agencies, and celebrities. Actors who have disputed claims of affiliation with IPAA, for example, include Halle Berry, Jennifer Garner, and Chris Hemsworth, according to the online magazine Deadline Hollywood. Wording is key: Over email, one Barbizon manager warned scouts against telling potential clients that the school had worked with Taylor Lautner, the teen heartthrob best known for playing the pining werewolf in Twilight; instead, they should say the school had worked with his manager, which was technically true.

Katie Taylor, a preschool teacher-turned-casting director from Los Angeles, told me she has seen people “get sucked in” time and time again.

“These agents go because they get wined and dined,” she said, her voice rising. “It’s like a vacay where they get treated like a celebrity.”

The reason showcases are so appealing, Taylor told me, is that they look like shortcuts. “All you have to do is pay,” she said. But Taylor, who founded her own casting agency, Taylor Casting, in 2000, knows from experience that shortcuts rarely win aspiring actors and models top jobs.

“It’s only a smart and lucrative opportunity for children when you treat it like soccer,” Taylor said. In her view, success requires relocating to Los Angeles and going to auditions several times a week. Even then, agents are often searching for specific looks, which cannot be taught or bought. “That mixed Asian little girl with the green eyes!” Taylor trilled, imitating an excited talent scout. “They’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re the unicorn child!’”

For Clifton, the irony remains that while at the showcase, she was able to connect with agents who were not present by contacting them online, without Next’s help.

“The very next day, I got an email back from all the big ones,” she said. “It did not cost me a dollar.”

Now, Clifton manages her daughter’s career herself and works with modeling agencies directly. Zuri Model and Talent, a reputable talent agency based in New York City, represents Clifton’s daughter, who is now two years old and has 12,600 Instagram followers. (Her mother manages her account.)

“It was so easy. Literally, I just emailed them,” Clifton said of pursuing representation on her own, as opposed to trying to get her daughter “discovered” at a showcase. “If anyone is asking for money upfront, they are a scam.”

But demystifying the Hollywood dream is not so easy. Wright, Clifton, Lis, and Taylor all called for better education.

“Study before you leap,” Wright said. Now that she is managing her son’s acting career, he has played small roles in films and theater productions, and has featured in commercials. The money he makes is their household’s only source of income besides Social Security.

When asked what could be done to prevent talent scams, Taylor said she imagined “cheap or free” information sessions that “basically lay it out”—that tell families, “This is how you do it for real.”

It’s such a predatory business in every way,” Taylor said. Informing parents is one thing; actually convincing them to stay away from showcases before they have been scammed is another.

In the industry, the young actors and models competing for callbacks at showcases are collectively called “the talent.” The word is everywhere, modifying “agent,” “convention,” and “scout,” and appearing in the names of the biggest agencies. The word may be the most distinctive feature of industry advertising, and its ubiquity sends an important, if subliminal, message: You have talent.

The message plays on unswerving parental confidence—whether warranted or not. In a Facebook comment thread about talent conventions, nearly thirty agents, parents, and former participants vented and issued warnings. Valerie Wright, resentful but undiscouraged, wrote the following:

“Unfortunately, I got caught up twice with my son. But never again. He is a talented fashion runway, print, and commercial model and an actor. His gift will make room for him.”