Why 'showbusiness' isn't child's play

Parents looking to turn their kid into the next big star fall prey to

Parents looking to turn their kid into the next big star fall prey to "talent scouts" and often end up with false hopes and broken dreams. (Shutterstock)

JOANNE RICHARD, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:31 AM ET

It's the ugly side of the beauty business - scams.

Parents looking to turn their kid into the next big star fall prey to exaggerated pitches by "talent scouts" offering fame and fortune and often end up with false hopes and broken dreams.

Recently Toronto parents of an infant girl got duped at an open-call audition supposedly searching for a baby to star in a Bollywood film. The casting call advertised on Craigslist offered a $15,000 payout.

Their four-week-old baby was briefly abducted, but was found four hours later by police.

"Unfortunately we have a lot of fly-by-night agencies that are not necessarily dangerous, but you can lose your money," says top model agent Ann Sutherland, of Sutherland Models.

The bottom line: "If it sounds too good to be true, then it is!" chorus industry leaders.

According to Heather Allin, "the $15,000 fee they were quoting for the baby to work on the movie was completely out of line with industry standards. A baby on an ACTRA set would make more like $200 a day."

Allin, president of the Toronto branch of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), says that not only is the huge payout a red flag, but so too separating a child from their parent.

Another warning sign, the advertising channel: "Professional auditions are not normally conducted on Craigslist. Casting directors typically use a service like Casting Workbook to set up auditions through a talent agent," says Allin.

And if there are guarantees of work, run! says Sutherland. "When they promise your child will be the next big star or model, get up and get out.

"If someone guarantees you work, I can almost guarantee you're being scammed," she says. And if your baby or young child requires a portfolio, you're getting ripped off.

But despite industry warnings, dreamers get sucked into believing their kid's got the look, so look out! Many get conned into expensive photo shoot agreements and modelling/acting lessons, with promises of a big payout.

"You have people preying on the ego of the parent, preying on the fantasies of the child " there's a huge universe of gullible people," says Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington.

According to industry experts, do not be fooled by persistent 'talent scouts' hounding you at a mall or on the street, telling you that you have the look and should be in the movies or modeling.

"Reputable agents do not generally advertise nor do they solicit publicly for clients," says Allin.

According to Allin, a reputable agent earns a commission only when their client works. "They will not ask for money up front, it will not be a condition of representation that you get expensive photos taken by their photographer, they will not require you to sign up for their classes and they will declare their other business interests so that you can tell if they are making money from classes and photos."

Do your homework and get answers before signing on the dotted line, says model agent Carolyn Nikkanen, who started out in the industry more than 50 years ago as a model.

"There is no substitute for doing due diligence and looking very carefully before you leap," adds Allin. "Check references and don't sign contracts which don't have clear termination terms."

The lure of big money entices people to take risks they should not take, says Allin. "Anyone who is seriously committed to being an actor will tell you that there is no easy route to big money through acting or modeling. In reality, professional performers are some of the lowest earners in Canada."

One must be cautious, says Nikkanen, of Carolyn's Model and Talent Agency, "however, on the bright side, many of our kids have university paid for by landing commercials and movie roles."

Choose a reputable agency by checking:

- reputation

- client base

- credibility

- do they work with reputable, well-known casting directors?

- how long have they been in business?

- are registered with the better business bureau?

- are they on the casting workbook?

- the agency location itself. Go to the agency and meet the staff.

- Courtesy of Carolyn Nikkanen, of Carolyn's Model and Talent Agency

Get real

So you think your child can dance? Sing? Be the next hockey super star?

Well, stand in line. And while you're at it, extinguish those stars in your eyes!

"Andy Warhol promised that 'in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes' - the future has come and gone for most of us, but our children keep the promise alive," says pop culture guru Dr. Lawrence Rubin.

According to Dr. Stuart Fischoff, for decades "parents have taken their kids and/or the whole family to Hollywood on the chance they have another Judy Garland, River Phoenix or George Hamilton in the offing." They rent apartments near the studios and they travel to auditions and coordinate them with other parents of stars-in-waiting. "It's a cottage industry in Hollywood.

"It's the equivalent of the lottery - for these parents who may want to strike it rich with Little Miss Marker or fulfill their own unrealized stardust dreams, like Rose, the ultimate stage mother of Gypsy Rose Lee," says Fischoff, a professor in media psychology at California State University.

"With the reach for frustrated ambition comes carelessness in the guise of sensible opportunism and lovingly, self-sacrificially 'giving my child the chance I never had'."

Meanwhile, according to Carolyn Nikkanen, of Carolyn's Model and Talent Agency, "so many parents have stars in their eyes - they think their child is the next big star! It is all about timing and having a great personality and great parents."

Most kids are absolutely adorable and every parent thinks their kid is special, adds Ann Sutherland, of Sutherland Models. "Demeanour plays a big part. You really need a reputable agency to get your foot in the door - and then it's the luck of the draw!"

Dr. Pepper Schwartz says "so many are given the same goal, so few achieve it."

The lure of fame propels many parents to push their child, "to be valued in some way that they are not." Parental projection, persuasion and misguided encouragement of all the wrong values can set kids up for "lots of ugly possibilities". to feel like failures. To feel burned out and unworthy."

She recommends balance: "Just how much is the parent, and how much is the child. Did you invent it or did the child?"

Encourage activities that foster values of goodness, integrity and helping others so kids become internally proud of themselves. "There are a lot of motives out there and too few deal with humility and the inner person."

How flattering

You're at an event and someone approaches you and gushes over you or your child. They invite you to come to a meeting. You meet friendly and enthusiastic people who are excited about your prospects in show business.

So begins the ruse, according to Heather Allin, of ACTRA. You return to sign up and there's an 'administration fee' of $250. Plus you also need photographs. They recommend their own photographer at a cost of $550 for a black & white session and $750 to $800 for colour.

"At this point, the more bald-faced of these operators will accept money for the photos," says Allin. "This is a bad sign because it means that the agency is likely in business with the photographer or owns them outright and using the photos as a revenue stream."

They then recommend acting lessons and that they will pay for them. "After the fourth and final one, they suggest the intermediate course for $700 and offer you $200 off if you also sign up for the advanced.

"So far, you have invested as much as $3,000 and you haven't been to a single audition." You've been scammed!

Protect yourself!

Getting into the acting business? Take these tips from Heather Allin, of ACTRA:

Sign with an agent who abides by a code of ethics, including agencies belonging to TAMAC (Talent Agents and Managers Association of Canada) or the EICAA (Entertainment Industry Coalition Agents' Association).

AMIS (The Acting and Modelling Information Service) is a good resource, as is The Agents Book, which can be found at TheatreBooks.com.

ACTRA lists agents signed on to the EIC Code of Ethics, although ACTRA has no direct contractual connection to talent agencies and, consequently, no way to monitor their practices," says Allin.

Consider joining Canadian Actor Online, which has a "Biz Kidz" section for parents to learn more about the industry and help ensure their children's safety.


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