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|I AM NOT A MODEL
NOR ARE MOST PEOPLE, BUT THE WORLD'S BIGGEST TALENT-SCOUTING FIRM HAS CONVINCED 60,000 OF
THEM OTHERWISE. KATY MCCOLL DOESN'T LIKE WHAT SHE SEES.
Byline: Katy McColl
The Jane office on 34th Street shares the block with an H&M, two hoochie-mama sweatshirt shops and a perpetually mobbed
Victoria's Secret. In one week, three Jane staffers were approached on this block on three separate occasions by scouts from
Trans Continental Talent (a.k.a. TCT, formerly known as Options Talent and, before that, eModels), the largest scouting firm in
the world. "Wow, you have a great look! Have you ever considered a career in modeling?" they asked, handing over a card with
vice president of new faces printed on it and an invitation to a Trans Continental Talent open call.
"Have you heard of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys?" asks Dana Sciandra, TCT's Times Square office director, after I
take my seat. Dana is milking the fact that Lou Pearlman, Mr. Pop Svengali himself, is the new chairman of TCT. Lou brings
name recognition and, therefore, pop legitimacy to TCT -- an irresistible combination for some of the 60,000 people (60 percent
of whom are women) on the TCT Web site. Requests by TCT's 1,800 registered agencies and clients have increased 60 percent
since Lou started. Dana is running one of the three two-hour TCT open calls of the day -- this one attended by myself and
about 50 other freshly scouted hopefuls who all have heard of Britney and the Boys. Dana goes on to explain that even though
they say this is an "open call," it isn't really. "We see people by invitation only," he insists. Two baby-faced girls turn to each
other and beam.
Peppering his lecture with names like Calvin Klein and Dell Computers, Dana informs us that 80 percent of TCT's models are
contacted about a job through the company's Web site (www.tctalent.com), which is a database that modeling agencies and
clients who need to book models search through. Then we're handed a Talent Manual that says things like, "Being in this
industry means having a current passport and always being ready to leave at a moment's notice." After that, we watch a
promotional video, and the words Wilhelmina Models and Pearl Harbor get thrown at us. Claudine Ingeneri, bookings editor for
Marie Claire, talks in the video about how great TCT's Web site is. She's also listed as one of the company's Advisory Board
members (along with Martin Landau), who are chosen for "their personal belief in the Trans Continental program."
At the end of the open call, my hips are measured, and I'm looked up and down by an officious woman who says, "Turn to the
side and show me your teeth." I'm told that my information will be forwarded to talent executives for evaluation, and someone
will interview me by phone after they consider my "strengths and weaknesses." Just as I, my friends, am considering theirs.
"TOO SHORT." -- FORD MODEL MANAGEMENT REP BEFORE I EVEN HAVE TIME TO SIT DOWN
"TCT has a rating system where they rate someone on a photogenic scale," explains Brandon, 25. He was just scouted by TCT
and dreams of being an actor/model. "They rated me as being a 9 out of 10. Almost perfect!"
A few days later, Shana, a TCT talent executive, calls me. "The purpose of this phone call today is to conduct a phone
interview," she says, like she's reading from a script. "We do about 1,500 phone interviews a day, and we only take in a small
percentage of those people, depending on how marketable we feel they are," she adds, making me feel like acceptance as a TCT
model is right up there with being the first female member of Augusta National Golf Club.
"Okay, so 85 percent of the work right now is print work, and they pay anywhere from $75 to $125 an hour," Shana's pitch
continues. "You're looking at $500 to $1,000 a day. Does that sound like pretty good money to you?" Wow! That averages out
to about $195,000 a year!
"I'm going to take your profile to the directors so they can do a final evaluation," Shana says and puts me on hold. I imagine her
stepping out for a cigarette. "Congratulations! The directors thought you were very photogenic," Shana gushes when she gets
back on the line. "We scored you in the top 10 percent in your category in your region.
"How did you want to take care of the initial investment?" Shana suddenly asks. Enrollment in TCT costs $495 to $795,
depending on where you live (there are more than 70 offices worldwide), plus a $20 monthly Web-hosting fee. I'd read that if I
up that day, I forfeit my right to do so for the year. I charge it.
And there are no refunds at TCT. If you complain about, say, not getting any paying work, TCT kindly offers to host your
online photos for the next two years for free. TCT materials describe this as their "satisfaction guarantee." If that doesn't satisfy
you, you can call your credit card company. According to a TCT filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the
charge-back rate (when a buyer disputes a purchase) among its customers is so high that TCT is at risk of having credit card
companies refuse to work with them anymore.
After my initial charge has cleared, TCT gets busy selling me other "modeling opportunities," like a $900 (plus airfare) event in
Orlando. Last year it was a cruise, marketed to TCT models as a giant open call and a chance to be seen by modeling agents
(who cruise for free) from respected firms like Ford and Elite. I pass. I don't do body shots.
A week later, I meet with my assigned talent coordinator, Selman Markovic, one of TCT's top performers, whose e-mail handle
is "WhoRunsNYCIDo." I bring portraits of me taken by pros for some of my previous Jane stories. Selman rejects most of my
pictures because he doesn't like the lighting and says I look better in person. Then he advises me to get "professional photos"
taken, which he can arrange for an additional $590, bringing my total TCT investment to more than $1,200. "Nine out of 10
people I meet with who have professional photos taken are working," Selman says. "The one out of 10 who isn't is lazy."
The following Sunday, I go to my photo shoot, where an "Emmy Award-nominated" professional is going to give me evening,
spring-casual, fall-casual and club looks. I was told to bring my own clothes, hats, scarves and shoes.
I wait in a room next to 20-year-old Kate, a giddy, sweet-faced miss who's changing into a clingy leopard-print dress with
strings going across the back while her boyfriend and older sister proudly look on.
"I'm going to work for Donna Karan and Tommy Hilfiger," a 12-year-old girl predicts confidently. Then a guy who looks like
your typical white hat shows up with a basketball and a baseball bat to use as props. "They told me I had a great look," he says.
"Who knows? I'm going to be the weird-looking guy on the Butterfinger commercials," he jokes. Selman sees my pictures
before I do. When I ask how they look, he says, "Great." They are, in fact, "atrocious," according to Aimee, who books models
for Jane. The makeup artist had no blow-dryer, so she just put my wet hair in a ponytail and covered it with hair spray. The
photographer, who spent all of seven minutes with me, kept shooting even when I got caught in what appeared to be a cut-up
shower curtain that he was using as a backdrop. "The look is half-Glamour Shots, half-amateur-porn," Aimee says. When I
later ask Selman what kind of work he thinks these shots will get me, he suggests that the photographer could have spent more
time with me and offers to set up a free reshoot with another photographer.
"WE ALREADY HAVE EVERYTHING WE NEED." -- GODDESS MODELS, AFTER A SKEPTICAL ONCE-OVER
TCT has some 2,000 scouts on the street, whom they aggressively recruit on Monster.com. At press time, there were more
than 400 scout positions listed under headings like "Dream Job," offering a base salary plus commission, as well as a "Fortune
500 benefit plan" that includes health care and stock options.
Lou calls these scouts "the heart and soul of our business," so I apply. Three hours into the almost seven-hour scout "interview"
that I (and about 100 others) attend, one guy has the audacity to ask how the heart and soul of their business get paid. Dana,
who's also leading this meeting but doesn't recognize me from the model open call, snaps that compensation will be discussed
But if you sift through TCT's SEC filings, you find that the majority of scouts are never paid a salary. Before or after lunch.
During their first week, scouts are required to work all of the open calls at their local office (up to 28 hours) for free. After
that, they are kept on unsalaried probation for 30 days while they try to enroll 25 models, for which they do earn anywhere
from $20 to $100 a pop. TCT's SEC papers explain: "If scouts are deemed to be employees, the company's cost of sales could
increase to such a level that it could not anticipate generating positive cash flow or provide sufficient economic returns to its
investors." In other words, paying scouts a salary could be financially ruinous for TCT.
At the end of the group scout interview, Dana suggests we leave our current jobs, since we'll need to start immediately. "Your
boss should understand why you can only give one week's notice," he coaches.
"It didn't really require any skills or brains, and they made it sound really exclusive that they'd picked you," explains 22-year-old
Beth, who says she quit scouting after making only $150 in a month. "They also brought in some guy who supposedly makes
thousands of dollars scouting part-time for TCT. But it's just a super-clever way to get free labor."
"YOU ARE NOT TALL ENOUGH." -- THE BRUSH-OFF FROM ELITE MODEL MANAGEMENT. OVER THE PHONE.
I was forwarded e-mails about jobs within the first few weeks after my pictures were posted on the TCT Web site. They just
weren't of the caliber that TCT phrases like "$1,000 a day" and "full-time models usually opt to have permanent addresses in
New York, Paris, Milan, London, Tokyo and/or L.A." had led me to expect.
Highlights of my TCT modeling career included "casting opportunities" to promote cigarettes at a bar ($15 an hour), hold a doll
"in a nurturing manner" at a toy store ($16 an hour) and submit my photograph for a Gap ad. That last opportunity, by the way,
was available to anyone who visited www.gap.com or wandered into a Gap looking for socks. "At the open call, they told me I
was perfect for them," says Kass, 21, who modeled professionally for an agency in Russia before coming to the States. "I am
on the Web site for a few months, but I didn't have any jobs yet."
"They haven't sent me much," says Alexis, 21, who's been enrolled on the TCT Web site for a year. In the meantime, she has
signed up to do promotional modeling with two other companies that don't charge fees and are getting her work. "It was kind
of ironic," Alexis says. "With them, I get job after job. So, I'm kind of like, if I'm getting work from them, why haven't I gotten
anything from TCT?"
Unlike a modeling agency, TCT doesn't take out a percentage of models' earnings, which they present as a plus. The flip side is
that there's less financial incentive for TCT to get its models work. That may be why even people with potential don't need to
have their passports at the ready.
Then there's this: "I've never found one TCT person I would ever propose for a job or cast in anything," a well-known fashion
casting agent explains. "It's more like I see some of these people, and I'm embarrassed for them." But that didn't stop him from
going on a TCT cruise. "We all go," he says. "Hey, it's a free weekend in the Bahamas!"
I ask TCT to help me find people who have successful modeling careers as a result of being on the site, and they introduce me
to four beautiful women who shared some of the highlights of their careers. One of them has been signed by Wilhelmina Model
Management. Monique, 22, was recently hired to serve wine at a party thrown by Jane magazine and George DuBeouf. Holly,
19, has been on the TCT site for a year and has made about $1,000 from various jobs, including modeling jeans at a fashion
show held at a bar in Dallas and walking around a mall wearing clothes from Casual Corner, as well as photo shoots for the
National Cheerleaders Association. Catherine, 41, has also been on the TCT site for about a year, and she tells me the money
she paid the company was "the best $500 [she] ever spent." So far, she's landed three paying jobs ($400 from Skyworks
Solutions, Inc., $400 from Road Runner Sports and a $250 credit from the Learning Annex) and was signed by Nouveau Model
Management in La Jolla, Calif. She also just won a contest sponsored by a cosmetics company to represent women in their 40s
in an ad that will run in major magazines. It's a non-paying gig, but her airfare and hotel will be taken care of. None of these
women, including the one signed by Wilhelmina, are modeling full-time.
"I'D HIRE YOU RIGHT NOW." -- CREATIVE DIRECTOR OF A WOMEN'S MAGAZINE THAT I APPROACH ON MY OWN
I also asked for contact information for two TCT consultants who in 1999 paid the Federal Trade Commission after signing a
final consent order that alleged their previous talent companies had "misrepresented themselves as highly selective in scouting,
screening and reviewing consumers for marketability as models or actors." They've since been banned from selling any product
or service that involves casting calls or auditions. "We are aware of their FTC voluntary consent decrees and that neither man
was either charged or found guilty of any wrongdoing in that matter," a TCT spokeswoman says. She notes that these men
now consult on "space- and office-planning matters" and adds that TCT does not hold casting (as opposed to open) calls or
Regardless, it's the scouts who drive TCT's business, and that is where my odyssey -- and people's gripes -- began. "Scouts are
basically trying to keep up all this false hope," says Beth, who quit scouting after enrolling four people. "It's easier to get money
out of the self-conscious ones."
"None of the people we approach are special," adds Mark, also a former TCT scout. "They are, as we say, not horrendous. The
TCT mantra is, 'when in doubt, scout.' They're just trying to get butts in seats."
"Not everyone can be a model," says former TCT Advisory Board member Jeff Fuller of Karin Models. "Until people admit that
to themselves, these organizations are never going away."
Claudine, the model booker from Marie Claire who was cheerleading for TCT in the promo video, resigned from the Advisory
Board while I was reporting this story, because, she says, "Um, I don't have time to do it."
The attorney general's office in Florida, where TCT and Lou Pearlman are both based, has been investigating the company since
August, after being contacted by the Orlando Better Business Bureau. "We have received a lot of consumer complaints from all
across the country," says Assistant Attorney General Jacqueline Dowd. Then she laughs and says, "Basically, people thought
they were going to get modeling jobs out of this."
In the meantime, some of the women I've interviewed continue to e-mail me, desperate for advice about modeling options. I
don't know what to tell them. Though, in general, one should avoid fronting hundreds of dollars for a career that may climax
with squirting perfume at Macy's.
And heads up: Trans Continental is developing a brand-new business targeting high school athletes who want to get noticed by
college sports recruiters. Ads for scouts are up on Monster.com under the header "Jerry McGuire."