Is it a scam?
If you have to ask… it probably is.
I, with a group of other moms, administer a Facebook group called “Child Model & Talent Scams”. Mostly, new members are looking for representation in their area. Sadly, a lot of these people do not live in major child performer markets, and what they often run into are scams. Often they have had interaction with an “agency” and want to know if they should pay money for representation. Answer? Always NO.
Let’s define the word scam, because it might be a little different depending on the situation. Technically, according to the little dictionary here on Google docs, a scam is a “dishonest scheme”. In the modeling and talent world, it’s pretty similar, but more focused on someone who asks for money for something you can do for free. Usually, these places are being dishonest because they make promises they cannot keep (maybe unless you read the fine print, which probably actually promises you nothing). When you want something for your child, you’re probably going to get a great impression of what they can do for your child and face it, you may not be reading the fine print. They are dishonest because they don’t tell you that you can do it for free. They want your money.
Legitimate talent agencies in major markets do not charge for submissions, representation, or classes. I’m in the New York market, so I can’t speak to the California laws very well (see Bizparentz Foundation for their wealth of information) but in CA it is actually illegal for agencies to offer and charge you for these things. I can speak to what is ethical, though, and this should apply nationwide. It’s not ethical to claim to represent a child but demand you get photos through that firm. It’s not ethical to claim to represent your child and charge you for classes to model or act. (But doesn’t my kid need acting classes? Sure, at some point, but more on that later.) The only money a legitimate agent should make is commission from work your child does.
In fact, it is more and more frequent that casting directors DO NOT want professional pictures of kids! Photos are perhaps the biggest scam going. You can always find a great photographer for far less than scam “agencies” or their photographers charge. One “agency” has “preferred photographers” that you pay THROUGH that agency which marks up the cost about 100% and then they pay the photographer the going rate, taking half for themselves. Shameful. If you can take a decent photo of your child with your cell-phone (most have better cameras than our old digital point-and-shoots), you have what it takes to get jobs for your child. See this post for some direction. Once your child works and has photos from those shoots, your agent will use those as well.
Classes are a blatant scam. No child needs classes to model or to walk the runway. There just isn’t runway modeling for children like there is for adults, and it takes no more than five or ten minutes of practice to do a runway walk should you encounter a children’s runway show (there are a few legitimate ones out there, which your child would book through an agency). Classes that teach silly poses and pouty looks will be a detriment to your child. Go online and look at The Children’s Place and Gap. Those kids have natural, happy looks. There is a wrangler on set to make them laugh and have fun. Nobody is asking a five year old to look over her shoulder and make duck lips. If someone wants to teach your child to do that, run.
Acting classes through an “agency” that claims to represent you are a huge NO. Children who act should take acting classes, sometime after they read really well and can take direction -- such as “do it again, but with more energy/humor/fear/etc. and go a little more slowly but have better eye contact with that performer”. That usually happens in the age 8-11 age range. Your legitimate agency will have a list of acting classes that they like -- and they know what they like because they like classes that will help a child be prepared to book jobs. They will also have a list of photographers that they like because those photos will hopefully help your child to book jobs. But here’s the thing: you shop around, do some legwork, talk to experienced parents, and make the choice YOURSELF and pay the fee YOURSELF directly.
The most egregious “agencies” promise you photos and classes with the ultimate goal of meeting agents who want to represent you. Usually LA or NYC agents! Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Well, they are going to charge you a huge fee to get there. I’ve heard of parents paying $15,000 for their “child’s dream” (your dream, I mean). They promise big names but… we’ve investigated and some of those agents on the list they show you are dead. Or out of business. Or maybe attended ten years ago. Full disclosure: when I was an agent, I went to one of those big conventions on a fact-finding mission. I signed no one and saw maybe one interesting kid who lived five hours away and as a result would be impossible to work with. And no, you don’t want to travel. Did I see legitimate agents there? Yes, for some adult modeling agencies. Did they see anyone they liked? I sat behind some reps from a TOP adult agency (and no, your fifteen year old 5’9” beauty will not work in NYC fashion week) -- remember, fact finding mission -- and they saw very few interesting prospects. Maybe someday I’ll do a post on just that experience.
If your child has what it takes, you can get there for free. When my child was younger, I did the legwork and got her signed by doing tons of research, taking some good pics myself, and even submitting through snail mail (back in the day). It’s so much easier to do this today with better internet submission access. I also live near a major market. If your child just wants to get hair and makeup done and walk a runway, there are those sorts of things that do just that and don’t make promises they cannot keep. Or go have a salon day. See if your local department stores do a fashion show in the mall.
If you really want your child to work in the industry, no one can make magic for your child. If your child has what it takes, you can do this yourself.
Be sure to check out the Child Model &Talent Scams page on Facebook, the page for the Bizzy Mama on Facebook (where I announce new posts), and my Instagram @thebizzymama (fun with kids and pets and I announce new posts there, too). You can also reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.