Rogue model agencies accused of exploiting catwalk dreams

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Rogue agencies that prey on would-be models are facing a crackdown under new rules to prevent them from making millions of pounds from empty promises of celebrity.

Enticed by the Big Brother culture of instant fame, thousands of women every year are falling victim to a burgeoning industry in hotel-based casting sessions and websites offering photo shoots for aspiring models.

Victims of the scams are paying up to £200 for promises of work which never materialise and up to £1,000 for unnecessary portfolios of photographs. It is estimated that the trade is worth £30m a year.

Under proposals announced yesterday by the Department for Trade and Industry, the so-called talent agencies will be banned from asking for up-front fees and a week-long "cooling off" period will be imposed on all contracts. The measures follow an 11-year campaign by a former model to tighten regulations in the industry after the previous Conservative government abolished a register of legitimate agencies.

Katie Froud, whose high-flying career as the face - and legs - of Pretty Polly tights was ended by a car accident, now has 500,000 visits a year to her website offering advice to victims of modelling frauds.

She said yesterday: "Ever since registration was abolished, the market has been flooded by unscrupulous operators who are targeting people's naivety and desire to be models or celebrities.

"These organisations book hotel conference rooms up and down the country and get 200 to 300 people turning up over a weekend, who they promise to find work for in return for £180 up front. They then disappear with the money and are making vast sums on the back of vulnerable women and teenagers."

The main target of the new rules is companies that run casting sessions advertised in local newspapers, often with a bogus claim to represent top agencies and television companies.

Clients are asked to pay a fee varying from £50 to £200 per person in return for an ad hoc photo shoot and a promise to find work with at least one agency within a year, or their money will be refunded. The company then disappears or worthless contract offers materialise from an agency directly owned by the casting company.

The Government said it was not trying to impede legitimate agencies, which do not demand money up-front and are realistic about the chances of success in the fiercely competitive sector. It has also published guidelines warning people to avoid signing a contract on the day of an interview and to research any agency.

Jim Fitzpatrick, the Employment minister, said: "Most agencies are reputable and will tell that the entertainment industry is tough to break into. Beware of anyone who promises to make you a star overnight. If it looks too good to be true then it probably is. Our advice is designed to help stop rogues turning people's dreams into nightmares."

Campaigners warned that the measures, which are subject to a consultation before coming into force in April 2008, will not tackle the growth in internet-based modelling scams.

Clients who fill in an on-line form are asked to pay £50 to secure a photo shoot, for which they will be charged an extra £170 if they cancel. They are then charged from £200 to £1,000 for photographs that are unnecessary and which are often of poor quality.

Ms Froud said: "One thing can be certain - all these operators will be going hell for leather now to con as many people as possible before the new regulations come in."

A recent survey found 69 per cent of women see modelling as a route to fame.

Sally Kitching, 41, Pilates instructor: 'It was a scam. They lure you in'

When Sally Kitching decided to return to her dream of modelling after having children, she was delighted to find an internet-based agency offering to get her started.

Ms Kitching's suspicions only began when a photographer called her a week after she filled out her details online and told her she had the looks to be a model. She had not submitted a picture with her application. She admits she was nonetheless taken in by the sales pitch of the agency, which offered her a professional photo shoot in central London last December in return for a £50 deposit.

She said: "After I paid my £50 deposit on my credit card, I was told it would be debited with another £170 if I cancelled the photo shoot. They just lure you in."

Ms Kitching, who lives near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, arrived for her "one-on-one session" to find she was one of five would-be models. Her "professional make-up" was applied by someone who admitted to never having done it before. After four hours she was offered the chance to pay for a portfolio of between 20 and 80 pictures. She said: "I ended up paying £450 for a portfolio which turned out to be a CD of the pictures. I feel embarrassed when I think about it - it was clearly a scam. My friends said the pictures didn't even look like me."

Happily, the encounter did not end her dream. She has since been put on the books of a separate modelling agency.

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