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Modeling Agency Scams: How They Work and How to Avoid Them

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Do you dream of a career in modeling? You can be scammed.

Do you dream of a career in modeling? You can be scammed.

A Common Scam

Has this ever happened to you or any of your friends?

Someone stops you at a mall, telling you that you have model-like looks and could be a model. Then he gives you a business card claiming he's a scout and says to call to set up an appointment.

Or perhaps you looked through a newspaper or magazine and saw an ad proclaiming "Amateur models needed, all ages, sizes, and looks." Or perhaps "New faces needed! No experience necessary."

You've always known that you looked good. Maybe your idol is a supermodel like Milla Jovovich or Claudia Schieffer (who was allegedly discovered waiting tables in a restaurant). So perhaps you've always considered that career as a potential future...

So, when you call back, you're told that they are holding a session this weekend.

You show up dressed to the nines, and you are told you need to pay a $100 photographer's fee for the session today. Then you're given a lecture about commitment, determination, and deeper pockets, about how important a portfolio is for a model, even an amateur one.

And no, they don't take credit cards. Go find a bank, please.

You ask if you can supply your own pictures. You have plenty of good portraits in your smartphone. They tell you they require you to use their own photographer with professional equipment.

You ask if this constitutes a contract, and you're told no, this is just a meet and greet, where they get a few pictures to see if anyone else would want to book you. You have to build a portfolio first, they emphasize. And that costs money.

You are told that you can earn big bucks as a model for very little work.

You ask if the fee is refundable, and was told it is if you don't find work.

And you're kept waiting for hours with one excuse after another. A five-hour wait is not uncommon. Maybe they say the photographer is busy or he's delayed from another job.

Then you finally get some pictures done. They are not that good. But your handler tries to sell them to you anyway. Then they mention that you need to pay them a lot more to establish a permanent portfolio (perhaps $1000 to $2500) in order to find work. They claim this is the cost for your online portfolio, professional photography, and 500 to 1000 "comp cards" of your best shots that will be sent to prospective clients.

They'll also refer you to more model training, acting classes, make-up artists, and much more for even more money.

It is getting to the end of the day, and the photographer is shutting down the equipment and cleaning up the "studio."

You're told that unless you pony up the larger amount of money right then and there, the photographer is going to purge all the pictures (he has another job later, and he needs the space on the memory card), and your entire day will be wasted.

You ask for time to think about it, and they said they don't know when they'll be back in town, or they don't know when they'll hold an open session again: probably not for a while.

You're being sold your own dream by a salesperson who alternates between goading and sympathizing. You may even be neg'ed ("you're just chicken, you're not ready for this business"). They say you lack commitment, and they'll be happy to take you when you're ready; that is, when you pay them that huge portfolio fee.

You ask if this will help you get a job modeling, and they explain what sort of modeling they think you are good for . . . then, almost as an afterthought, they mention that casting agencies have their own fees, and they're not responsible for that.

You're tired, and you don't want all these hours to go to waste. So you pay up and hope for the best.

You've just been scammed.

Will you find your modeling career in a mall?

Will you find your modeling career in a mall?

Warning Signs

The above scenario is based on multiple true stories, and it is filled with warning signs.

Talent Scouts Doesn’t Operate in Malls (Usually)

One way scammers operate is to say the same "you got the look" speech to a lot of different girls in the mall. They will typically wait until the first potential victim is out of earshot before repeating the speech to someone else, though. If you have heard the speech, smile, take the card, leave, then try to observe the scout from afar and see how many girls he said the same thing to. If he approached several more girls, he's probably scamming.

Making Appointments to Meet on Weekends and Odd Hours

The modeling business is actually a very strict 9 to 5 Monday to Friday business. Shoots can happen at any time, but an actual modeling "open call" where the agency meets new talent with no appointment is done during business hours.

If they are doing a meet and greet during off-hours, chances are this is not a real modeling agency.

Photographer's Fee/Portfolio Fee

A common modeling scam is known as the Photo Mill Agency, where the agency actually doesn't book any jobs (or very few jobs) but instead just sells the prospective models their own portfolios (which the agency should have provided for free or at cost) They get you to show up, charge you money, keep you waiting so you can convince yourself to go through with it, then charge you big bucks.

Requiring an Exclusive Agency Photographer

Any legitimate agency would allow any professionally taken pictures. Any agency requiring the use of their "exclusive" photographer is likely a scam, even if the photographer may be a legitimate guy. Somebody is getting a kickback (i.e., padding the bill).

Not Accepting Credit Cards

If they only take cash or money order, that means no refund, no dispute, and no paper trail on where the money actually went. When any professional can get a Square or Paypal reader linked to a commercial checking account, not having one practically screams, "Beware!"

Keeping Someone Waiting Till Closing Time

You're kept waiting as a sort of psychological manipulation (think of it as an isolation cell in jail, except you got in voluntarily) so you can think about how you don't want to waste the time and effort to come out here again (sunken cost fallacy), and the monetary cost seems somehow secondary.

Talking About a Modeling School

If the "agency" keeps pushing you to go to a specific modeling school, it may be a scam as they are probably getting a kickback from the school to steer you that way.

Talking About Potential Big Gains, but Not Risks

Modeling, even for established models, is intermittent, not constant. So "big money" may be true for one job, but you may spend weeks, months, even YEARS without another job.

Talking About Having Worked with Company X on Project Y

A lot of fake agencies simply lie about who they placed with what companies on what job to convince you to pay up. Find time to call up the company's PR department and check if they really did work with this agency. A real agency should be happy to provide you with verifiable references.

Getting Angry If You Express Any Hesitation

If you show any hesitation about paying them a photographer's fee or deposit, you're told you seriously lack "commitment" and you should "stop wasting time" and not "miss the opportunity."

Claiming They Don't Know When They Will Be Back

Real modeling agencies hold open calls about once a month. Not always on the same week or day, but about once a month.

Pressing You to Decide Now or Never

One last bit of time pressure is applied when they claim the photographer will purge the pictures, thus making the entire day a waste of time. This is to push you into buying worthless pictures for vastly inflated amounts.

If a modeling agency likes your look, they will get their own photographer to take their own pictures and not charge you a penny (it will be deducted from your first paycheck).

If a modeling agency likes your look, they will get their own photographer to take their own pictures and not charge you a penny (it will be deducted from your first paycheck).

How the Modeling Business Really Works

Most fashion models are young females (under 25, but usually over 18) that are about 110 pounds and between 5'8" and 5'11" (i.e., thin with long legs). There are some "plus-size" models, but those are rather rare, and most agencies don't handle them.

Teen models usually require their parents' or guardians' consent. And the industry has been under pressure to use fewer underage models.

If you are lucky enough to be the right demographic for a fashion model, you should never have to pay for modeling shoots. The agency will shoot you with its own photographer on contract and deduct the cost from your paycheck.

In contrast, commercial models (those who get photographed with merchandise and such) will probably have to pay for a shoot themselves. This is where real professionals separate themselves from the fakes, as a real professional will take a quick look at your snapshot and tell you if you are someone they can use (or not) for commercial modeling.

There are three kinds of shoots: test shoot, comp card shoot, and portfolio shoot.

1. Test Shoot (about $750)

Test shoots are just that . . . a test shoot between you and the photographer. A professional will have multiple outfits for you to try on and will give you quick lessons on facial expressions, and you will typically do two or three poses, a close-up, and a 3/4 view. This is just to give you a taste of the shoot. Roughly 1/4 of the fee goes to the makeup artist, and the whole shoot will be done in a few hours.

2. Comp Card Shoot (about $1,250)

A comp card shoot's purpose is to get five different views of you (but you'll probably try a couple more) in a variety of situations, backgrounds, poses, angles, and so on. You'll probably try a dozen different compositions: inside, outside, in a variety of outfits. A professional client doesn't need more than that to know if you're "the one" they need, and a real modeling agency will appreciate a comp card shoot done by a real professional photographer. Again, 1/4 of the fee goes to the makeup artist.

3. Portfolio Shoot (about $2,000)

A professional portfolio shoot is what a model agency usually contracts a photographer to do on a model they have signed. This is done over two days in order to try a variety of light conditions, backgrounds, outfits, and activities. You will do about a dozen different shots in a variety of situations. You'll do a bit of acting to get proper reaction shots. If you feel your existing portfolio is lacking and you can afford it, you can pay a professional photographer to redo your portfolio. However, it's not cheap, and it may not help you get employed as a model (the comp card should be enough).

Watch the results of a genuine portfolio shoot, where a model gets a dozen different looks, portraits, action, different outfits, high fashion, and more, from pro photographer Joe Edelman:

The Truth About Modeling

So what is the truth about modeling? Here it is from real talent scouts and photographers.

You Don't Need a Portfolio to Be a Fashion Model

If a modeling agency likes your look, they will get their own photographer to take their own pictures and not charge you a penny (it will be deducted from your first paycheck). They are SELLING you, thus they don't need YOUR money. In fact, if you ever show up at a real modeling agency with a portfolio made by one of the fake agencies, they'll be polite and ignore them completely. It shows that you're a desperate wannabe.

An Agency Should be Licensed or Bonded

In many states, such as California, Texas, Florida, and more, a "talent agency" must be licensed by the government. In some other states or jurisdictions, they need to be bonded. If the "opportunity" doesn't even mention the full name of the agency and their permit number, it's probably a fake agency.

If they do show a permit, check with the appropriate agency or state attorney general's office to make sure the license is current and valid.

If the agency is out of state, call the number listed on the license (not the business card) to verify that they do have an agent in your area holding an event. Some scammers are known to wave around fake credentials.

Even if the agency is licensed, it can still be a "fake" agency with a name similar to a real agency to trick unsuspecting noobs and wannabes. In the UK, a newspaper editor went undercover to check out three so-called modeling agencies. "Fusion Models HQ" turned out to be completely unrelated to the real talent agency "Fusion Management."

An Agency Should be Promoting Its Models (Not Itself)

A real talent agency's purpose is to promote its models to the clients, so the models should be front and center on its website, and any information about itself secondary. If the website you encounter is the opposite, i.e., talks a lot about itself but little about the models, the agency is likely a fake.

An Agency Should Feel Like an Agency

If you visit the agency in person, does it feel like an agency, with phones ringing, secretaries and assistants answering, and a few busy rooms? If the place is quiet as a mouse, with photos on the wall that look suspiciously like they've been clipped from magazines and lots of empty rooms or unrelated businesses, it may be a fake agency or a model "school" pretending to be an agency.

An Agency Should Not Have An Exclusive Photographer

A legitimate agency will give you a "testing list," which is a list of legitimate photographers they have used before with good results if you really want to pay for test shots yourself. Paying for shots is NOT required, at least at the beginning. They should not require you to use one specific photographer. If you find an agency that requires you to use one specific photographer, they are probably getting a kickback from the photographer.