An Artist’s Guide to The Model & Talent Industry

Beware! You do not need an expensive portfolio!

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I drafted this chapter a few times, of course trying to maintain an air of professionalism in my writing. As expected, I failed miserably, so have decided to write it without mincing my words. Those who know me will say that this is something I am renowned for! After reading it back, I must agree, but here goes!

The 90’s gave us the era of the ‘hotel’ auditions. Unsuspecting parents were enticed to hotels to join agencies, pay cash on the day, only to then discover that the agency did not exist, or closed weeks later. It was during this time that the 100’s of ‘new’ agencies began popping up in every town. A licence to print money, with no regulation to speak of and a new agency was seen advertising daily. It was the birth of reality TV and along with it came the ‘I want to be famous’ era.

Alongside this era came the Internet, allowing people to become more informed and to share information in forums. We made it a personal mission to warn people in any way we could. As the first agency with a website, and now the most successful, Bizzy Agency had first spot on a Google Search in 1999 and was one of the big 5 (a quote from DTI at the time, referring to us as being one of the 5 main players in the industry). I put a warning up on our homepage, included the same words of advice in our email signatures and in 2004 posted warnings on the new method of sharing, Facebook.

The public are no longer as naive as in the 90’s so unscrupulous companies had to change their strategy. They quite simply became more sophisticated and began preying on people’s vanity. DTI, in their wisdom, prevented agencies from having the word ‘model’ in their title (don’t ask me why!) and so the new trend of the ‘Platform’ Agency was born. Bravo Mr Government!

So, real model agencies could no longer have the word ‘model’ in their title. That is all well and good, however, when companies began operating that did have the word ‘model’ in their title, but were not ‘agencies’, they were given automatic access to most new artists looking for an agency. In short, they are nothing more than expensive studios, selling expensive portfolios to potential models that think they are going to an agency. Nothing more! Granted, they give the model the complete experience, including outfit changes, full hair & makeup and even a shoot in the city streets to make them feel like a real model. However, the catch is, and there always is one, there is no agency at the end of it and by that time you are already signed to their terms and conditions, with no get-out clause.

In short…

  1. An unsuspecting model applies to them, thinking they are an agency, because they have ‘model’ in their name.
  2. They receive a reply saying they have ‘passed’ the first stage and are invited in for a test shoot for free.
  3. They are made to feel like a supermodel for the day and the studio produces beautiful images (usually unrealistic) images which the parent simply cannot refuse to purchase
  4. They use very hard selling tactics, forcing models to make on the spot decisions, which could possibly be life changing, if they were legitimate.

I even had a model be told by one photographer that they had just spoken to one of the most well-known adult agencies, who I choose not to name, who then advised they purchase the portfolio in order to appear in the next L’Oreal campaign. The model excitedly paid an extortionate £2,500 for 25 images on CD, hurried straight to the agency in question, only to then be told they had no idea what she was talking about and to go try another agency, as she didn’t quite have the look ‘they’ were looking for. She was so embarrassed that she walked out and went home. She reported this to me and after speaking to the Director of the agency in question; a complaint was quickly submitted to DTI. This was almost 9 years ago, but they are still operating today.

Our office receives more than 10 calls per day from parents & models that have paid hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds for completely useless portfolios, websites, z-cards etc. These companies have basically created a completely useless layer in the industry, used to extort money out of wannabe hopefuls. The worst story I have come across was a parent who paid a total of £7,300 for 3 children! She was told by DTI that as she had received the goods she was not entitled to a refund. It was the very same department that told me to remove my warning from my website as it was slanderous and that ‘there is a small notice on their website stating they are not an agency, so basically if people are silly enough to fall for it then there is nothing we can do’. Now that was their words not mine, which they later denied saying to me. But given that this was the very same department that created this whole mess with the ‘model’ removal from our names and de-regulating agencies in the first place, I am hardly surprised.

The latest trend is for parents to contact my New Faces department saying that they have been to one of these companies and have been told they have passed, they have an assessment for us to use and that they were told they are now on our books. They hadn’t even applied!

It defies belief it really does, and when you think the story can’t get any worse, I’m sorry to say it can!

I decided to find out exactly how these companies operated, so applied to one with a photo of myself when I was 4-yrs old. I submitted my application on the Sunday and by 4pm on Monday received a call. I was told that my 'daughter' has a ‘look’ that is in high demand with clients right now, and to bring her in for a test. It was going to cost me £50 (paid immediately), but that would be refunded to me on the day. Not bad, I thought. But then I began asking questions.

Firstly, being the businesswoman I am, I asked how they would possibly earn money if they were supplying hair, makeup, photographers etc. The lady avoided the question entirely and swerved to ‘we deal with the biggest names in the industry, so that’s not something for you to worry about’.

OK, so I then moved on to ‘what big names are they?’ She replied with ‘oh anyone who is anyone we’ve worked with’. She was very industry speak and good at her job, so even I was left feeling that I couldn’t push her any further with that one.

I then asked her what would happen to the photos and why would I need them. Her response was brilliant for me! She said, ‘they are required and used by all the leading UK child agencies, so if you are serious about this career path then this is the only route’.

So that led me to ask ‘Really? Which agencies are they? Only I have spoken to Bizzy Agency, and they told me to apply with snapshots?’ Her reply left me completely gobsmacked, ‘Oh, that’s rubbish! I work with the Director daily, and she uses all our referrals’. Well, I spat my tea out and nearly choked on the spot. Wow! If only she had said that to me face to face, that would have been a conversation to be had. But I was now faced with one large problem; my 4-yr old photograph was now a grown adult and no longer existed. So, reluctantly, I had to leave it there. I remember saying to myself at the time, ‘that’s one for the book!’

The funny thing is that one of their ‘bookers’ actually had the audacity to come to my studio a few years later. I had a new Twitter follower and remembered thinking he reminded me of someone. Then a few days later he arrived with a mother and child, pretending to be the husband. This couple really did not go together, and you didn’t need to be Einstein to work it out. He was rather fit, with pencilled eyebrows, piercings, he was tattooed, expensively dressed and what can only be described as effeminate with an air of industry-speak about him. Mum, on the other hand, was the complete opposite; withdrawn, unkempt and totally out of her comfort zone. It suddenly occurred to me that I had seen him before, so I turned to Twitter, found him, and then searched his name on Google to find him listed as a ‘Booker’ for one of those bogus studios. I asked the child if they had been in a studio before. He said that he had, but after a quick nudge from ‘dad’ he promptly changed his reply to ‘um, I’m not sure’. Mum then intervened and said it was a local high street studio. The look on the child’s face told me that his version of the truth was somewhat different to his mothers.

I couldn’t quite fathom the reason behind the ‘secret’ visit to our agency. Surely there was nothing for them to learn, or gain from us? Something I was not seeing. Then one day after a conversation with a new applicant, the realisation hit me. I had told the ‘dad’ to avoid platform companies like the plague and to not pay extortionate rates for unnecessary portfolios. Since that conversation their sales patter had changed to include my exact intro speech and they removed the title ‘platform agency’. They were now telling models/parents the very same thing that I was, and in doing so appearing more credible.

Companies such as these are NOT agencies and parents/artists should be aware that any 'reputable' agency would not charge you extortionate rates for photography before signing them. Any agency that does should be avoided. In addition to this, no agency would allow any artist to present their own z-card to their client, nor supply, or use their own website for promotion. These products, which are also sold to parents/models, display personal contact details of the model. It is ridiculous to think that an agency would allow these details to get into the hands of a precious client, one that they have taken years to build a relationship with. That would be commercial suicide and at the very least a clear breach of terms.

You do 'NOT' require an expensive portfolio to apply to any agency. Snapshots are fine so beware of companies claiming to 'help' or 'prepare' you for this industry.

Thankfully, the BBC Rogue Traders / Watchdog programme exposed one such company, Luxe Models who traded from Kube Studios in London. They alerted the public to their goings on, which did go some way to helping potential models. Unfortunately, what they did fail to do was to end the programme with a warning that they would most likely close immediately and re-open the following week under another name, which is what they did. There are dozens of them, all with the word ‘Models’ in their title and all operating the same. Indeed, quite staggeringly, most are owned by the same people!

I tried to alert the public about these companies for many years, but to no avail. It is just unfortunate it took the press almost seven years to commission a high-profile programme on the subject matter, but I guess that is better than nothing.

Most agencies will require a couple of snapshots of an applicant. Child applications should always be made by either the parent, or legal guardian and sent to the agency as per their guidelines. Some require all applications to be sent in the post, some will have an online system. Bizzy Agency offers an online application system. You will be asked to provide certain details (dob, location, skin-type etc.), which will then help the agency decide if they have availability for their criteria. It is vital that you do not use professional photos for your application for a very valid reason. Portfolio images are usually enhanced, or edited, to produce maximum impact to sell. As a photographer myself, believe me when I say that they are designed for no other purpose than to earn as much money as possible! I cannot tell you how many times I have had a mode arrive at our agency, looking nothing like the images they applied with. Great images they were, but in reality, they did not exist! I have seen freckles removed, eye colour changes and even slimmer faces! Airbrushing (although I don’t agree with it) should be limited to front cover magazine work and certainly not be used with children. Especially when these companies then sell them to parents/artists, telling them that they will ‘need’ them to get with a good agency. I never trust portfolio images on an application and clients hate them for the very same reason. We need to know that what we book (from a photo) will arrive through ours, or a client’s door.

Always remember that your first approach to an agency will create the first impression that agency will have of you, so ensure that you apply in a professional manner, paying special attention to detail. Also carry out a spell check and if you email them start the email with ‘dear, or similar…’ and use a signature instead of a ‘sent from my mobile phone’ message! A parent is as important a representative of the agency as a child is, so their conduct will be assessed too.

Applicants should not call the agency for a ‘result’, as they will contact you as soon as they have made a decision. Assessments can take anything from 2-14 days, depending on when the agency’s books are open. Most agencies will advise you of their procedures within their company literature, or upon application. Please be patient, as their decision will be based upon several factors and not just your photographs!

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