Avoiding Scam Modeling Agencies, Day 1: Welcome to the Jungle.

December 18th, 2012It's been awhile since my last post about avoiding modeling scams, but it's time for another refresher course on keeping yourself informed on how these so-called "model agency" scams operate. As a commercial fashion photographer based in New York, I currently work with some of the most prestigious modeling agencies in the world as well as in Los Angeles and Milan. I have casted, booked and photographed models with top modeling agencies such as Major Model Management, DNA, Elite, New York Model Management, ONE Management, Mc2, Soul Artist Management, Wilhelmina and others. I'm hired by and work with these agencies and their models on a continuing basis and can tell you that there is a vast separation between a legitimate modeling agency and a small business scam "agency". But there are just not enough educational resources out there for people to learn how to recognize the many predators posing as talent agencies and cashing in on the frenzy of young girls with modeling aspirations. The illegitimate business of exploiting these model hopefuls is now an entire industry in itself.  It makes tens of millions of dollars a year by scamming mostly young girls and their supportive parents who think their child could be bound for greatness.  The scam industry is keen on this hopeful desire and it's the key ingredient to the scam industries' continued success.  Every year there is a new generation of young upstarts with model dreams, but unfortunately the first place they usually visit are the small "modeling agencies", "talent agencies" or "modeling schools" who mostly do anything but represent and book models.  The bad places are owned and operated by expert liars that have years of experience refining their skills at scamming young models and their parents.  Like a Black Widow spider, they build their trap and just wait for their prey to come to them.  The scam agency drains them of their money and their time, while always promising them that success is just around the corner. I know this information first hand, because I was scammed by one of these predators myself once- and only once.  This fake industry is bad for everyone but these borderline criminals.  They hurt the legitimate fashion industry no differently than a sweatshop making fake Louis Vuitton handbags to sell in Herald Square for $25.00.  Fake is just wrong.  Fake agencies scam the money out of people who probably don't have money to waste, and leaves them feeling bitter and used about the fashion industry as a whole, as well as hurting their self esteem for being tricked and victimized.

The scam agency wants to make you believe that they hold the key to your modeling dreams-- and you will end up believing everything they tell you. They will lie to you and convince you to be loyal to them. They will brainwash you into putting all your trust into them, and to alienate anyone who tries to warn you away from them.  They are so experienced at lying that you will believe whatever they say.  You'll spend months if not years of wasting your time and money on them.  Your career window will close and your dreams will turn to failure while these scam agents just work on recruiting the next wide-eyed model hopefuls, leaving you to figure it all out after it's too late. This is a hard look 'behind the scenes' of the world of small-time scam modeling agencies who make their living ripping off the very people whom they are supposed to be taking care of- the young models.

DAY 1: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE.

Now, I first want to clarify that unfortunately there is nothing illegal about what these scam agencies are doing- they are operating within the law.  Calling their business an agency, lying to you and taking your money, is all perfectly legal. It's your own problem if you fall for it. The FBI won't bust down their door and arrest them. You can only report them to the Better Business Bureau, review them through online review websites, or sue them- the latter being difficult and expensive to do. I'm also not here to tell you where to spend your money. If you want to give these scam agencies your money, go right ahead. I'm just informing you of how their scams work, so you can make an informed decision before you get fleeced.

There is also an understandable contrast in how business is done at a large major-market agency verses a legitimate small town modeling agency. A legitimately run, small town modeling agency basically does two things: 1) Books models for paid local/regional jobs, and 2) finds models to scout to the larger agencies, for which they make a commission. The latter task is referred to as being a "Mother Agency". The small agency cannot (for the most part) book models for major ad campaigns, magazine editorials and all the large modeling jobs because they don't have the connections, business history, negotiating savvy or experience handling highly paid models that work on high-profile jobs. Only the large agencies have teams of people who possess that level of experience and skills.

HOW A LEGIT MODELING AGENCY MAKES ITS INCOME.

Legitimate modeling agencies represent models in exchange for a commission from the jobs the models book, normally 20%.  Real agencies do a lot of things for models, but they don't get paid unless the model works, period.  You as a model go to castings, go sees, fittings, and other "job interviews" that the agency sets up for you.  When you are chosen for a job (called a "booking"), the agency handles all the business and financial aspects of the job, plus coordinates for you all the logistics for you such as hotel, transportation, addresses, directions and call times.  They negotiate the rate you are paid for the job and handle any licensing limits of your image.  They take 20% of the job's pay for their income.  There's a lot more that agencies do for models, like print and organize your portfolio (called your "book"), make your comp cards, put your photos and sometimes video on their website, and can even set you up with a place to live.  All this costs money, but they don't make the model pay for this up front.  The model is given an account, and everything the agency pays for on behalf of the model, such as airline tickets, rent, or to print your book, is entered as a balance owed by the model.  When the model works and gets paid, the agency deducts their 20% commission, and also reimburses themselves the money they have "advanced" the model for expenses.  Some agencies policies are different than others, but this is generally how it is in the U.S.  Now- the agency is making an investment on the model because if the model doesn't ever make any money and the agency releases the model from her contract, then the model doesn't owe that money.  So the agency is taking a risk, and making an investment on the model that they may not, and often don't, make that money back.  If a legitimate agency believes in you as a model, and signs you, then they spend their money on you- not the other way around.

HOW THE SCAM AGENCY MAKES IT'S INCOME

Well, there's tons of ways they do this, but I can guarantee you if a business that calls themselves an agency is not continuously booking their models on real paying jobs for a 20% commission, then they are keeping their doors open some other way.  The most common way being that of hiring a cheap photographer and then charging you ridiculously over-priced rates for photo packages in which the agency makes most of the money.  Another is claiming that you need to take their expensive "modeling classes" (more detail on these later).  Other ways include charging you money to put you on their website, having you work promo jobs for the agency that they don't pay you for, making you go out and book your own jobs in order to network for the agency - without paying you, and- get this- putting on clinics, seminars or acting classes by people who absolutely don't know what they are talking about and then charging you money to attend. And yes, your agency keeps the money because the guest speaker they brought in is a moron with no experience and will do the class for free or cheap just to make a name for himself.   Another classic scam is to tell you that there's a local runway show in town that "doesn't pay anything but is good exposure".  Right. This agency just exists to supply free models to other businesses.  When your agent tells you that a job "doesn't pay anything", that probably means that your agency just isn't paying you anything.  Instead of paying you and taking 20%, they are just taking 100%, and you have no way to know any different.

So when you are searching for or being scouted by a modeling agency, how can you tell what's legitimate and what's a scam?  It can be very difficult sometimes, because the scam artists are so experienced at lying and making it seem like they are the ticket to your modeling dreams that you don't even know what to think.  But that's where their weakness is.  The scam agency always has to sell themselves to you.  They always want you to want them.  So no matter how cool they try to seem, they need you to "sign" up with them.  They can't get your money if you walk out the door.  So everything they do- even acting not interested at first- will lead to them somehow wanting you to sign with them.  The real agency doesn't need you.  They might be interested in you, but that's about it.  Since they're not going to be ripping you off, the only way they make money is if you make money.  Therefore, they don't sell themselves to you, they have to decide (usually after several days) if you are right for them or not.  The scam agency signs anyone who has the money, or whom they can use in other ways.  That's the one thing that is blatantly obvious between the two.

Tomorrow we will explore the differences between a legitimate agency or one to be warned away from in the first place you'd be looking for information on them- their own websites and online presence.  I'll show you how to see the obvious clues that a scam agency uses online verses the websites of trustworthy and reputable agencies.  Until tomorrow, see you back here then.