Crimes of Persuasion

Schemes, scams, frauds.

Modeling Conventions

The Modeling Association of America International (MAAI) convention was held in New York on April 7 - 13, 2007. Held at the Waldorf-Astoria each year for the last 47 years, the MAAI convention showcases aspiring models and actors to agents from across the country and overseas.

The International Presentation of Performers (iPOP!) is held bi-annually in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. iPOP! is attended by 55+ studios from the United States, Canada and England.

Fame Junkies: The Grooming of Baby Idols

Jake Halpern
Special to

American Idol's controversial, Sanjaya-focused season is quickly building toward its climatic finale; however, for all those dazed contestants who have been brusquely eliminated--yett emotionally crippled by razor-tongued Simon--there is still hope. Look no farther than the International Model and Talent Agency (IMTA), which hosts two annual talent conventions, one of which is quickly approaching this summer.

The IMTA: what can you expect? Well, when I attended the IMTA's winter convention in Los Angeles, my first impression was worth a thousand words. I entered a stately hotel lobby that was swarming with hundreds of children--mostly girls, ages 5 to 16--who were all dressed-up in strikingly risqué fashion: severe mini-skirts, butt-hugging shorts, low-cut camisoles, string-bikini tops, high heels, heavy makeup, and jewelry galore. Alarmingly, many of them looked as if they could be featured on the cover of a "kids' edition" of Maxim or Playboy, if there were such publications.

For their required promenade, the contestants would strut around the lobby in a counter-clockwise rotation, following one another like lemmings in an endless migration that led to nowhere. As 'dolled-up' as all the Abigail Breslin wannabes were, their skimpy fashion code was quite similar across the boards--a uniform of sorts--and it made the swarming crowds all the more indistinguishable. There was only one reliable way to identify an individual kid: check out their badge which displayed a four-digit contestant number. So, when jaded agents wanted to call over a certain kid, they merely yelled, "Hey, 4137, could you come over here?" or "Excuse me, 1249, can I have a word with you?"

The driving desire of each of the 1,200 kids in attendance was to launch a successful career either in acting or in modeling. Accordingly, the convention hosted several different events. Aspiring pint-size actors did "cold readings," recited monologues from memory, read soap opera scripts alongside professional actors, and videotaped themselves doing TV commercials. Aspiring models participated in--among other things--a swimsuit, jeans and a makeup competition; for the latter, they had 20 minutes to apply their cosmetics and then be judged. Most of these events were monitored by a gallery of scouts, agents, and managers who were ostensibly looking for new talent.

Eventually, I stopped in on the "jeans competition" where a procession of kindergarteners was walking down the runway and striking poses for the audience as several loud-speakers blasted techno music. I found this scene to be somewhat bizarre, but it wasn't nearly as disturbing as what I saw the following day, when I witnessed a group of third and fourth graders--dressed in padded bikini tops--taking part in the "swimsuit competition." One wonders if Tyra would be frowning on these Top Model antics for tots; or, perhaps, has some of her own clique made it through these ranks.

Later in the day, the front of the stage was mobbed by a frenzied pack of cheering, camera-toting mothers who were waiting for their almost-famous children to stroll across the stage in their designer jeans. When this moment finally occurred, the stage mothers grabbed their cameras, and alternated between cheering and clicking…clicking and cheering. One sagely tyke, who was around 4 or 5 years old, became so unnerved by the frenzy that he jumped off the stage into his mother's arms--as if to escape imminent danger. Finally, a fire marshal asked the mothers to vacate the area because they were posing a safety hazard.

One of the several agents at today's event was a man named Carl Merlander who owned his own talent agency, Glamour Talent. (I've changed his name and agency's name to protect him from the notoriety that he probably both wants and deserves.) Merlander was at the "jeans competition" in search of the next big child star. "This is great place to see the whole country," he told me. "This is a Wal-Mart of talent. You've got kids of all kinds--fat, chubby, cute, small features, good teeth--you name it, it's here."

To me, however, the bizarre convention seemed more like a human auction of sorts in which the kids were being scrutinized and evaluated with almost scientific precision. The kids seem to sense this too, and many were only too eager to offer a verbal pedigree in which they announced their height, weight, waist-line, age, and ethnic origin. One young girl told me earnestly: "I am 5 percent French, 5 percent Dutch, percent German, 5 percent Iroquois, 10 percent Italian, 5 percent Irish, 10 percent English, and 50 percent Mexican."

In many ways, the convention functioned somewhat like an American Idol competition, and this may explain the IMTA's booming popularity. "There is no question that American Idol is really helping the talent convention industry," Merlander told me. "Kids are seeing unknowns, like Kelly Clarkson, become famous in the span of five weeks--and then go on to win a Grammy. So it's no surprise that kids are so interested in these conventions. It's the same format. You perform on stage, you get judged, and you get a chance at being discovered. To these kids, I'm Paula Abdul."

Frankly, however, the biggest difference between the IMTA convention and American Idol is cost--the 'democratic' divider. All of the students at the IMTA convention came affiliated with one of several dozen "talent schools" like the John Robert Powers School of Chicago, or the Personal Best School of Buffalo.

These 'schools' often charged students as much as $5,000 each, just to attend the IMTA convention in L.A. Eager parents were then welcome to tag along for an added fee of as much as $3,000 a piece. Then there is the cost of the acting lessons that various talent schools offer, which can add on another $2,000 for a few months worth of tuition. The cost of headshots and fashionable clothing can easily tack on yet another $1,000. Thus, for about $11,000, a mother and her 7-year-old child can spend four nights at the St. Bonaventure Hotel in downtown L.A., and get a chance at being discovered by a bona fide Hollywood agent or manager. One might be tempted to think that such a price tag would attract only the wealthiest of families--but this was hardly the case. In general, the parents that I met were middle-class, and most of them told me--with some trepidation--that they'd paid for the convention on their credit cards.

Helen Rogers, the former owner of the IMTA, told me that many modeling and acting schools serve mainly as "profit centers," which take several hundred kids each year en masse to various conventions like the IMTA. "And everyone along the way is getting a cut," she added. "The school is making money, the photographer is making money--the people who print the headshots are making money. It's horrible. And when you look at all the kids that have gone over the years, and when you consider the millions of dollars that have been spent, and you know that nothing has happened for them, you have to wonder whether there is a better way.

Although Rogers sold the IMTA in the early 1990s, she stayed on as a consultant through the year 2000. During this time she kept careful records of the company's finances. According to Rogers, between 1991 and 2000, the enrollment at both the New York and the LA conventions roughly doubled, and the gross income more than tripled. By the time that she left in 2000, Rogers estimates that the IMTA was grossing over $5 million dollars annually for the two conventions.

Back at the "jeans competition," I continued to chat with Carl Merlander about what exactly he was looking for from the kids on stage. "What you really want are the ones who love it up there...You want the ones who live for this. It has to be all about them. And they have to be intelligent. Basically, we want miniature adults. You want kids that look and act like adults, and have little adult facial features and little adult mannerisms." For a rare, earnest moment, Merlander took his eyes away from the stage, and looked at me. He then used his hands to frame my face, and gradually he pushed his palms together, as if he were squeezing me down to size. "If I could shrink you down,' he said matter-of-factly, "I could make money with you."

"Would you send your kids to a convention like this one?" I asked him finally. "No, of course not!" he snapped. "This is just a fancy show. For my kids, I would call the agents directly. That's the way to do it. But these parents don't know that. The parents who come here heard an ad on the radio, thought their kids could become famous, and then sank $5,000 to $10,000 into this on an impulse. These parents are not the analytical types. They're not engineers." Again, for a brief moment, Merlander turned away from the stage toward the hundreds of parents behind us. "Raise your hand if you are engineers!" he yelled. No one stirred. "You see," he confided in me, as he turned his head back toward the stage, "the analytical types are not here."

This was adapted from the new book, Fame Junkies by Jake Halpern.

In many ways, the oddest of the three sections of Fame Junkies is the first, in which Halpern takes a look at the International Modeling and Talent Association (IMTA), which has become, in effect, the college-board examination for young people who want to become celebrities or whose parents are pushing them in that direction. The IMTA regularly holds conventions in New York and Los Angeles at which celebrity wannabes strut their stuff and occasionally -- very, very occasionally -- get contracts with modeling firms or Hollywood studios.

"Even by modest estimates," Halpern writes, "a family of four attending an IMTA convention . . . could easily spend $10,000." Yet families not only pony up these substantial sums but often make significant sacrifices in order to do so and, in some cases, return to the IMTA over and over in hope of getting that ever more elusive contract. They also pony up a lot of money -- usually several thousand dollars -- for training at modeling and acting schools, many operated by one of "the oldest and most reputable," John Robert Powers, but some offering little more than the vague promise that "You could be the next big star!"

As Halpern describes it -- and his description seems fair -- the IMTA convention is a glorified meat market or cattle call. The explanation for its great success -- its former owner estimates that the New York and Los Angeles conventions gross "more than $5 million annually" -- is difficult to pin down. But there is a good deal of evidence that young people have been lured by "celebrity-focused TV shows," celebrity magazines and especially "American Idol" into the belief, which in some cases hardens into what they perceive as an entitlement, "that they themselves will be famous someday." A disproportionately large number of them have had unhappy childhoods and seem "to fervently hope that becoming a celebrity would right these wrongs," a theme that recurs often in every aspect of the celebrity culture that Halpern examines.

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