The price of a dream

Hoping for their big break, would-be models paid big money to a national agency with an Amherst office. Now some say the expense wasn't worth the cost.

The Buffalo News

Nov. 1, 2003

News Business Reporter

Kym Seiss is 5 feet, 11 inches tall, blond and has an athlete's trim figure. She didn't need to be told she had "the look" -- she knew it.

So when a young woman stopped the 25-year-old on Chippewa Street in March and asked if she had considered modeling, Seiss thought it was a sign to pursue something she had briefly dabbled in, something her mother had done before. After eight months and more than $2,180 spent for "almost no viable opportunities," Seiss said she was dumbfounded as to why she had paid upfront for a model marketing service, even after her mother, her friends and local talent agencies had warned her against it.

"They make it seem like this is the greatest thing that's going to happen to you, that you're going to get something big," said Seiss. "I'm not one that falls in for stuff like that, ever. But yet, they sold me."

Seiss is far from alone in her ire at the company formerly known as the Wilhelmina Scouting Network, which in October changed its name to Web Style Network. Web Style Network is run by Trans Continental Talent, a company whose owner, Lou Pearlman, launched the careers of the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync.

Wilhelmina had drawn the wrath of victims and watchdogs across the country. It's labeled a scam by the New York Consumer Protection Board; it's hounded by a near-fanatical group of watchdog Web sites; and, as of Friday, it has been disavowed by Pearlman, its former owner.

In Western New York, 400 to 500 aspiring models, musicians and actors are listed on the network's Web site through the Amherst office, where, they are told, they will be seen by 10,000 registered clients looking for talent.

As of Friday, 114 former customers and scouts from around the region had filed complaints with the Consumer Protection Board. Many claim that the company's customers are victims, paying exorbitant prices to have their pictures placed on a Web site that few monitor.

"They sign people on with deception. They make false promises and offer expensive services that aren't really there," said Consumer Protection Board Chairwoman Teresa Santiago. "When you look at all of this together, you see that something's wrong here."

The local modeling office defends itself as a marketing tool that provides new talent with exposure through the Web site, a value for talent just starting in the modeling and entertainment business.

"We're not a scam. We do everything we say we do," said Thames Nolan, director of the Amherst office at 100 Corporate Parkway. "What we do is provide opportunities for people, plain and simple."

Waiting for the call

Jill Testman, then a 17-year-old from Hamburg, was "scouted" by a representative from the Amherst office while working at a local Abercrombie & Fitch in April. Scouts from the company typically ask people at supermarkets, shopping malls or other public places if they had ever considered modeling, then invite them to an open call at the Amherst office.

Testman brought her mother, Nancy, to the open call, where a talent coordinator checked her teeth, showed her a promotional video and then gave her two folders.

"The ones who didn't get picked supposedly only got one, but I looked and didn't see any," said Testman.

Testman said the interviewer told her to wait by the phone on a certain night, and that's when the nervousness set in for her. But the corporate "talent executive" reassured her, she said.

"'Wow, you've really got what it takes!' " Testman said she was told by a representative. "I'm looking at these pictures, and I can tell you've got a look we can use."

Testman's mother said she hesitated to pay nearly $1,000 on a credit card without taking time to think, but a number of things reassured her: the Wilhelmina name attached to the company at the time, the friends who had always said Jill should try modeling, and the hope of giving Jill a chance to earn some extra money.

"I don't know, I just thought, well, she probably wouldn't be a supermodel, but there was something out there for her," said Testman's mother.

Since signing up and paying for an additional $600 photo package, Testman said she has found two local jobs by applying to open calls -- they included wearing an inflatable goldfish on her head to sell Peppridge Farm goods and handing out Charmin toilet paper samples. She said she hasn't received any offers she would consider worthwhile. She added, "It's just not what they told us."

'I'm stealing this money'

Melissa Glorioso, director of Faces Model Management in Williamsville, believes firms like Web Style don't tell modeling hopefuls the truth: Finding work in Buffalo is hard, and finding work elsewhere is nearly impossible.

"The Web absolutely does not work. I don't know that the local market even deals with (Web Style), but for certain, nobody in Chicago is ever going to look at a kid on a Buffalo Web site and fly them out there. They have Chicago models for that," said Glorioso.

Nolan said his office staff and scouts inform every potential customer of the true prospects.

"Just because you're on our Web site is not going to guarantee you that you're going to get tons of work. It's a marketing tool, and it's like handing a tool to someone, they'll either use it or they won't," said Nolan.

But one former scout at the Amherst office, who asked that his name be withheld because employees are required to sign a confidentiality agreement, said most of the scouts were aware that customers hardly ever recouped their initial fee, but fell victim to "a large-scale brainwashing."

"You're so flooded with memos and e-mails and conference calls that keep saying everything's all right, and you start believing it," the scout said. "But eventually you realize, 'I'm stealing this money from kids who really don't have it.'"

Five different names

Lou Pearlman, the cousin of folk singer Art Garfunkel, in September 2002 purchased a majority share of a small model marketing firm, Options Talent, that would eventually become known as the Web Style Network.

The company he bought, however, had operated under up to five different names, and three of its principals -- Ayman El-Difrawi, Cortes Randell and Ralph Edward Bell -- had a bank fraud conviction, an accounting fraud conviction and a Federal Trade Commission restitution settlement, respectively.

Pearlman told the Orlando Sentinel he did not know about the backgrounds of El-Difrawi, Randell or Bell when he purchased the company, but has since removed them from its ranks. On Oct. 10, Pearlman filed a $100 million suit against El-Difrawi, Bell and Anthony Toma, the Detroit-area entrepreneur who owns the Amherst franchise, and on Friday the music impresario announced that he planned to rescind his purchase of the company entirely and reclaim the Trans Continental name.

Toma said in an e-mail that the Amherst office will stay open, regardless of the actions of the Trans Continental corporate office.

"Nothing will interfere with us delivering what we are paid for by the models, not Lou Pearlman or anyone else for that matter," Toma wrote. "If his threat to cut the franchise owners off from using the WSN becomes a reality, we are prepared to launch our own agency services department. To assist the models in realizing their dreams."