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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Talent agency's tactics under fire

• Tips for dealing with agencies

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

A talent agency with a record of complaints on the Mainland is starting to generate similar outrage among Hawai'i consumers.

Concerns have been raised about the large enrollment fee and business practices of Trans Continental Talent Inc. that recently started operating locally under the name of Wilhelmina Scouting Network.

Three complaints against Trans Continental Talent have been lodged with the Hawai'i Better Business Bureau this month, two of which were resolved, and another thus far unresolved complaint has been filed with the state Office of Consumer Protection.

The talent scouting chain faces an ongoing civil investigation by the Florida attorney general. The office is looking into complaints by more than 600 people who paid up to $1,500 each for help in landing modeling jobs. Many ended up only with spots on the company's various Web sites.

"Our No. 1 concern with this company is consumers are led to believe that they've been scouted and evaluated and pursued by someone who knows what they're doing," said Jaqueline Dowd, a Florida assistant attorney general.

Dowd said complaints about the Orlando-based company have arrived in the mail every day, including at least two from Hawai'i.

Trans Continental Talent spokeswoman Elizabeth Neff said the company denies any wrongdoing.

Wilhelmina Scouting is a new business venture of Trans Continental Talent. She pointed out that the company's Web site and other promotional materials note that modeling is a tough business.

"We don't guarantee jobs; we guarantee opportunities," Neff said.

Complaints filed with the Florida attorney general's office and some of the 650 others submitted to the Orlando Better Business Bureau raise questions about Trans Continental Talent/Wilhelmina Scouting's sales and marketing tactics, which include large up-front enrollment fees for exposure on a Web site.

O"Based on complaints, people were led to believe that they had a chance to get a job and make that money back in one job," said Judy Pepper, president of the Orlando Better Business Bureau. "People just felt that they had been misled through the whole process."

Pepper said Wilhelmina Scouting has responded to many customer complaints, and in several cases issued refunds. However, the Better Business Bureau gives the company, as well as its predecessors Trans Continental Talent, Options Talent Inc. and TC Talent, an unsatisfactory rating in part because of a pattern of complaints.

According to Dowd and Pepper, Trans Continental Talent/Wilhelmina Scouting's talent search starts with scouts identifying potential models in public then inviting them for an evaluation into Wilhelmina Scouting's offices.

Then, after informed of their potential during a follow-up phone call, modeling candidates are asked to pay an enrollment fee of $995, as well as nearly $60 every three months to be listed in the company's Web-based talent database, on the Web at www.wscouts.com.

Maxine Shea, who said she worked as a talent scout for Wilhelmina Scouting's Honolulu office for four days early this month, said she was asked to recruit both true modeling candidates as well as people who didn't fit industry standards for appearance.

"Basically what they were looking for is someone who would be flattered — who hadn't been approached before," Shea said. "What they were looking for is someone they could recruit easily."

Neff denies that Wilhelmina scouts for people who aren't potential modeling material. She maintained that the company provides a venue for people who can possibly find modeling work.

"We offer a site for talent to advertise themselves," she said. "We explain that you can't get discovered if you can't be seen."

Formed in March, Wilhelmina Scouting is a partnership between Trans Continental Entertainment Group Inc., which maintains the online database of models and actors, and Wilhelmina Scouting LLC, an affiliate of New York talent agency Wilhelmina Models, Neff said.

Wilhelmina's local office is at 7 Waterfront Plaza, 500 Ala Moana Blvd. Trans Continental Talent previously operated out of that location.

Trans Continental Entertainment's Chairman Lou Pearlman is best known for launching the careers of several boy bands including the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync. Both groups accused Pearlman of deception and cheating them out of money in lawsuits filed several years ago.

Dowd said the Florida attorney general's office hasn't ruled out a possible criminal investigation of Wilhelmina Scouting or its affiliated companies, but she would not provide further details.

"We have some concerns that run deeper than the consumer protection issues that we've begun pursuing," she said.

In general, the Better Business Bureau looks askance at talent agencies that charge advance fees for services, said Anne Deschene, president of the Hawai'i bureau.

"They are dealing with people that are blinded by Hollywood," she said.

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8093.

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Tips for dealing with agencies

The Better Business Bureau advises people dealing with modeling and talent agencies to:

  • Get all verbal promises and claims in writing.
  • Check an agency's complaint history with the Better Business Bureau (536-6956) and the state Office of Consumer Protection (586-2630).
  • Ask for a blank copy of a contract to take and review with a family member or colleague before signing.
  • Be wary of claims about high salaries or boasts that the company is a "major player" in the industry.
  • Don't let flattery cause you to abandon common sense. If you were approached in a shopping mall, see whether the "agent" approaches others with the same offer.
  • Don't give in to demands for cash or money-order payments. This is a strong signal that the company is more interested in your money than your career.
  • Don't be swayed by promises that a deposit is totally refundable. Typically, you must meet very strict refund conditions.
  • Ask for proof of an agency's success. A reputable agency will provide contact information on companies that have hired models and actors trained by them.