One day, when I was about 19, my friend Rich* showed up on my doorstep gushing that a “talent scout” had stopped him on the street on the way over.
The scout was seeking young, attractive teens for music videos, Vespa and Coca-Cola commercials, he said, and Rich had exactly the look they needed. Rich eagerly gave the man his address and phone number. They arranged a meeting for him to give Rich all the details.
When Rich arrived at his office a few days later, the scout apologized: “I’m sorry, but those commercials have been cast, and the music videos are on hold, but there’s still an opportunity for you to appear in some movies…if you’re interested.” Little by little, it came out that these films were of a pornographic nature. By then, the man had spun such a web of riches and fame that Rich began to believe this scout really did hold the keys to his success.
Bedazzled, Rich announced he was moving to Los Angeles. He explained that he would only have to appear in one or two of these films, after which the scout had promised he could move onto more mainstream projects. I was horrified, and tried to make Rich see how he had been tricked. “Someone might try to drug or hurt you!” I warned. Away from the smooth-talking talent scout, the spell wore off, and Rich realized this man was a con artist. He immediately called to say that he had changed his mind. The man urged him to reconsider, but Rich stood his ground.
This would have been the end of the story, except that Rich had given this man all of his contact info. For about a week, the scout called Rich at all hours, and showed up at his apartment unannounced. Holding his breath each time the doorbell rang, Rich sat in the dark pretending he wasn't home. One day, the man came around the side of the building and started yelling in the window, threatening him. As he hid from sight, Rich shouted back that he was going to call the police. At last, the man fled, and Rich never heard from him again.
How could anyone fall for such a scam or believe that porn could help one’s acting career? Under normal circumstances, Rich never would have agreed to something so dubious, but his desire for fame—coupled with youth and inexperience—clouded his judgment. He began to think the sacrifice would be worth it, if only he could have the lifestyle he dreamt of. In fact, this scout was an excellent (and dangerous) con artist. He knew exactly how to target and spellbind susceptible young people.
Bait-and-switch is a common technique used by scam artists. You hear a radio advertisement or spot an online ad touting “Paid gigs for actors and models, no experience necessary!” Or someone stops you in a shopping mall, saying you’ve got the look to be a star, and invites you to an audition at a “talent agency.”
When you show up, no one seems interested in your background or skills (or alternatively, they rave about how amazing you are, without knowing much about you). Their true goal, you discover, is to sign you up for expensive “talent competitions,” classes, or photo packages. They use the lure of fame and fortune to cloud your judgment and get you to open your pocketbook:
No, you can’t go home to think about it. You have to decide now. If you don’t buy today, the price will go up. If you’re not willing to fork over the cash, you’re obviously not serious about your career. Now, please sign on the dotted line.
Here are some reminders to help you avoid talent and modeling scams:
1. There’s no harm in someone teaching acting classes or selling headshots, as long as that’s what they are advertising. If you thought you were going to an audition or a meeting to discuss representation, but the conversation is all about you buying something, that is a bait-and-switch!
2. Some casting calls may be “no experience necessary,” but they should be exactly that: a casting call. You come in, fill out some paperwork, get your photo taken, and are perhaps recorded on video. They’ll call if they decide to hire you. No one tries to sell you anything, and there’s no fee to audition.
3. Reputable model and talent agencies are highly selective. If you show up and they are immediately willing to sign you regardless of your experience or suitability, question their motives—especially if they ask for money.
4. Bona fide agencies don’t require you to take their classes or use their photographer. They may provide a list of recommended coaches or photographers in your area, but they should not pressure you to use a specific one, or try to sell you something in their agency agreement.
5. Legitimate agents make a commission off the gigs they find for you. If they engage in hard-sell techniques for classes, photos, contests or representation, beware. That’s how they’re making their money, not by finding you work.
*A version of Rich’s story previously appeared in Lana’s Tools for Actors newsletter. His name has been changed to protect confidentiality.
For more articles on recognizing scams, check out this post on Lana’s blog.
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Recent projects include “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon, NBC’s “Grimm,” now in its third season, and 64 episodes of TNT’s “Leverage.” Gus Van Sant, Robert Benton, Guillermo Arriaga, Catherine Hardwicke and Tim Robbins figure among past film clients. Commercial accounts include Nike, Apple and Nintendo, and international campaigns from Shanghai to Santiago.
Lana is a member of the Casting Society of America and the International Casting Directors Network. She frequently lectures across the U.S. and abroad, most recently at the Finnish Actors’ Union in Helsinki, Amsterdam School of the Arts, The Actors Platform in London, The Acting Studio in Berlin, Studio Bleu in Paris and Prague Film School.
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She has been featured in The Hollywood Reporter, USA Today, MSNBC.com, MTV.com, AccessHollywood.com, and Wired, among others. Follow her on Twitter @lanaveenker.