Complaint Review: Wilhelmina
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- Category: Modeling Agencies
Wilhelmina Scouting Network, WSN, TCT, Trans Continental Talent, Trans Con, Wilhelmina, Edge Sports Rip off scam coming to an end. Orlando Sentinel Article exposes scam in their Headquarters Hometown! Nationwide
Article: Model behavior?
By Tim Barker | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted July 11, 2003
Words of caution. (COURTESY OF MELISSA ARNOLD)
Jul 11, 2003
ABOUT LOU PEARLMAN
Lou Pearlman, 49, is an Orlando-based musician-turned-aviation entrepreneur-turned-music promoter who helped launch the "boy band" craze in the 1990s with commercial successes including the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync. He is the founder of Trans Continental Records.
The Florida Attorney General's Office says it is looking into claims that Pearlman's Wilhelmina Scouting Network used misrepresentation and deceptive advertising in its dealings with model, actor and musician hopefuls.
SOURCE: Sentinel research
Belinda Mayer remembers well the point at which she became hooked on the fanciful notion that her granddaughter might actually have a future as a professional model.
She was sitting in a conference room in Phoenix with 13-year-old Madison Thordsen and 100 other pretty people, when Orlando's Lou Pearlman appeared on the giant video screen.
There in the midst of all these wannabe-models was the man behind the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync. A man known for making something from nothing. For creating stars out of ordinary people.
That's when Mayer became a believer in Pearlman's Wilhelmina Scouting Network. Maybe the talent scout who spotted them at Wal-Mart was right. Maybe Madison -- staring at the screen, mouth agape -- had what it takes. With a man like Pearlman behind her, why not?
"It made me think, 'Wow, this could be my granddaughter," said Mayer, 53, the child's legal guardian. So she, like thousands of others, bit. And now Mayer is complaining about the way she and Madison have been treated by Wilhelmina, whose methods have attracted the attention of the Florida Attorney General's Office, which started an investigation last August.
Investigators say they are looking into claims that Wilhelmina, which has offices in dozens of cities, has used misrepresentation and deceptive advertising in its dealings with model, actor and musician hopefuls.
Mayer and others say the company -- which has gone through several name changes in the past few years -- is simply making a buck off the dreams of fame-seekers, pledging what it cannot deliver.
The company, however, says it provides exactly what it promises -- a chance to be discovered through a revolutionary Internet-based service.
"The company clarifies, frequently and clearly, in ALL of its presentations, materials and throughout its Web site that it cannot and does not guarantee any amount of work or individual success," the company wrote in an e-mail.
In the beginning
The relationship between Mayer and the Wilhelmina Scouting Network started like so many others.
For $995 -- set up on a payment plan after Mayer explained that she lived on Social Security and disability checks -- the network would put Madison's photos on a Web site, where hundreds of top modeling agencies and casting agents were sure to see them.
"She'd be great for the Florida shoot," Mayer said a representative told them, alluding to some fast-approaching opportunity that shouldn't be wasted.
But she said the offers never came.
Unless you count the chance for Madison to pay $2,000, plus airfare to Orlando, to attend a rock-music festival where, she was told, modeling agencies would be looking for new talent. She also was given a few leads for casting calls from Pearlman-affiliated companies and from television shows such as Star Search, whose own Web site offers an online application.
Concerned about the lack of job offers, Mayer said she tried in vain to contact Wilhelmina through its customer-service number. Fifteen calls were never returned, she said. Until she threatened to stop paying.
"I hadn't even hung up the phone for five minutes and, boom, they were calling me back," said Mayer, who said she filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. "This was all about money. Give me this. Give me that."
Hundreds of complaints
The volume of complaints from people such as Mayer prompted the Florida attorney general last year to open a civil investigation into the company's business practices. Other states also are investigating.
Jackie Dowd, assistant attorney general in the Orlando economic crimes division, said her office has received more than 600 sworn complaints from customers claiming they were misled. She said her office receives three to five new complaints daily.
"People say they were led to believe they stood a very good chance of obtaining paid employment, that they would easily earn back their money," Dowd said.
But the company says it promises nothing, noting on its Web site: "The chances of becoming a superstar in this industry are slim. Even getting regular work as a model is difficult."
Wilhelmina has been cooperating with investigators, but Dowd would not characterize the discussions or offer a timetable for conclusion. Violations under the state's unfair-and-deceptive trade-practices law could carry fines as high as $10,000 per violation.
Company spokeswoman Elizabeth Neff downplayed the complaints, saying they "represent less than 1 percent of our customer base."
Wilhelmina also blames many of the complaints on inaccurate media coverage and "slanderous Internet postings" that encourage other customers to question the service. Those accounts spurred a recent decision by Monster.com, the company said. Wilhelmina has been prohibited from advertising for models and talent scouts on the Internet-based job board.
"Until this company changes its business practices, they will not be allowed to post jobs on Monster," spokesman Kevin Mullins said.
The Wilhelmina Scouting Network, in a nutshell, is a searchable database loaded with more than 100,000 men, women and children. They sign up -- though there is no contract -- in hopes of being selected by the 1,000 casting agents, modeling agencies and other registered users of the site.
The company's name is Trans Continental Talent, but it started operating in March under the Wilhelmina name through a licensing and marketing agreement with New York's Wilhelmina Models. The company now handles models and actors through its Wilhelmina branch, while aspiring musicians remain under the Trans Continental umbrella.
Wilhelmina Models is not involved in the management of the scouting network. The business model is fairly simple. Through advertising and an army of talent scouts, the company persuades people to pay to have their photos and statistics posted on the Web site. Once there, they have the chance of being discovered.
"We're not a modeling agency. We're a posting site," Neff said. "They pay us a marketing fee to enroll in our service."
But unhappy clients and fashion insiders say the company takes advantage of clients' lack of understanding about the inner workings of the industry.
Nacoula Burgo, 18, of East Providence, R.I., became suspicious shortly after signing up for the service -- at the prompting of a scout who persuaded her that she had "the look" -- this summer.
After already having paid $995 for her membership -- along with $60 for three months on the Web -- she got a call from the company telling her that photographs taken the day she interviewed were less than adequate. To help, the company offered the services of one of its photographers -- for $395.
The call sent her scrambling to the Internet, where she found several Web sites warning people to stay away from the Wilhelmina Scouting Network.
"If I hadn't checked the Internet, I probably would have paid the $395 and probably much more," Burgo said. Others wonder whether the service is even used by the 1,000 registered users touted by Wilhelmina.
The doubters include former scouts such as Charlotte Leniston, of Scottsdale, Ariz., who used to get $10 for each prospective model she brought in.
"How do we know these agencies actually come into the Web site and take talent from it?" said Leniston, 59. "I'd just simply like to know the truth."
The company counters with what it says is its biggest success story to date: model Danee Doty, with $250,000 in earnings in her first year of representation by Wilhelmina Models after the agency picked her off the Web service.
The company also says dozens of models and actors have been selected to appear as extras in movies, including Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde and Seabiscuit.
"There is NO question that many of tomorrow's working talent have been and are being found via our service," the company wrote in an e-mail.
Holly Daniels, a Los Angeles-based casting agent, has pulled more than 700 models and actors off the Wilhelmina Web site during the past few years for a variety of smaller jobs, including the movie parts.
"They are so willing to work. Even if the job pays 100 bucks, 50 bucks," Daniels said. "From my perspective, they make my job easier."
Free alternatives exist
There is an adage in the fashion industry that says, "You shouldn't have to pay to be discovered." Certainly it's an idea that was spawned long before the Internet and television shows such as American Idol created the real -- even if remote -- possibility that the average person might have a shot at stardom.
Still, fashion insiders raise an eyebrow at any business that forces people to pay anything before that stardom arrives.
Melissa Arnold, a 26-year-old South Florida model whose credits include work in Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Maxim, urged those aspiring to break into the industry to stay away from companies such as Wilhelmina Scouting.
"Anybody can have their picture taken. Anybody can have their picture put on the Web. But that doesn't make you a model," Arnold said.
"It's just unfortunate that someone like Lou Pearlman would take advantage of young kids' dreams and hope to make a buck."
But Wilhelmina argues that its approach is simply a new way to market talent and that the industry is slow to accept it.
Still, Arnold and others urge a more traditional route, through reputable modeling agencies. If the agency agrees to represent you, it won't cost a thing -- until you start making money, at which point the agency will take a commission and recover its expenses.
Industry insiders also offer a few words of warning to any adult hoping for a career walking down runways in New York City, Paris and Milan: If you aren't at least 5 feet 8 inches tall, forget it.
"Models are freaks of nature. They are way too tall and way too skinny," said Jillian Shanebrook, a professional model and author of Model: Life Behind the Makeup.
For those who insist on pursuing modeling careers through the Internet, some suggest trying out an Internet site such as One Model Place, onemodelplace.com, where hopefuls are allowed to post photos at no charge.
That's where Belinda Mayer turned after cutting ties to Wilhelmina.
Since then, young Madison has picked up several modest modeling jobs in the Phoenix area, including a swimsuit shoot that netted her $140 for two hours' work.
Best of all, Mayer said, "it didn't cost me a penny."
Tim Barker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5022.
Copyright 2003, Orlando Sentinel
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