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"We are having problems with them," says Bill Ford, vice president of Ford Models Inc. in New York City, one of the most respected agencies in the nation. "They say they work with us. We do not work with them. They're not reputable people." Asked if he saw any value in eModel's searchable database, Ford replies, "They walk up and down the streets with [scouts] who've never been in the business before. Why would they know what to look for?"
Regardless of all this criticism, Brian Davis, general manager of eModel operations, boasts that 1000 agencies are registered with the company, which has 90 franchises nationwide, including offices in Fort Lauderdale, Clearwater, Orlando, Palm Beach, Tampa Bay, and Boca Raton. As for those agencies that haven't signed up with eModel, Davis says, "If you're an agency and you make money booking models on jobs, and there's a resource that's free for you, with models from across the world... why would you not use that?" Moreover many models have landed work through the Website, he claims. Based on an analysis of agency calls to eModel, Davis estimates that about 85 percent of its clients are contacted by a registered agent within the first 90 days after they enroll. He admits, however, that the business has no statistics showing how many models showcased on its site have actually procured work. All eModel offers, Davis sums up, is a cheaper, digital way of getting photos to agencies.
Although the company guarantees -- and risks -- nothing, it reaps hefty benefits from modeling hopefuls. A recent count found 5773 models on the Website. Assuming each paid $400 to be posted, the company raked in $2.3 million, with monthly fees totaling almost $116,000.
The company keeps labor costs down by hiring an army of scouts like Ivette Mendive who look for the next big thing at nightclubs, malls, convenience stores, and launderettes while working on commission. At eModel's behest, Mendive arrived in May at its Miami Beach office, along with about 30 other scout applicants. "You're under the impression that you're competing with all these people, when in essence they hire everybody," Mendive says. The interview was in fact a one-week, highly scripted, unpaid training session. (How scripted? An eModel training document obtained by New Times directs that a movie should be playing when would-be scouts arrive for the first time, "preferably Ferris Bueller's Day Off or Austin Powers.")
The interviews with prospective models made Mendive skeptical just weeks after she was hired. Hopefuls gathered at the Miami Beach eModel office during one of the thrice-weekly open calls, during which they were shown a video and given a tour of the Website, she says. Talent executives, who are in charge of screening models, showed applicants a series of Web pages displaying supermodels and explaining the advantages of digital photos. Music was cued for "I'm Too Sexy" as candidates sashayed down an impromptu runway. During brief one-on-one exit interviews, applicants were told they'd be invited back if they made the cut. Otherwise they'd have to wait a year to apply again.
Thing is, Mendive says, virtually everyone was asked back. (Davis disputes that the company takes all comers. "About a third of the people who come in for the first call are not invited back," he asserts.) The second interview was designed to whip up fantasies of high-fashion modeling, with questions like: Would you consider modeling a full-time career if given the opportunity? Would you consider acting? If I were to tell you that only 2 percent of models might become successful, what makes you feel you would be among the 2 percent? Mendive describes the process as "mind-fucking" and adds that, "by the time that interview is done, people are begging to pay the money."
Laraby Bishop, a talent executive at the Miami Beach office during that same period, confirms Mendive's description. "Nobody gets rejected. We used to tell everyone to come back," remembers Bishop, who now works in the advertising department of New Times. Candidates were led to believe that eModel is an exclusive club. Bishop was told not to praise would-be models; rather she was to foster an impression that they just barely qualified. "You give it to them, then take it away. Give it to them, take it away," Bishop explains. If applicants started asking too many questions, she had been instructed to counter, "It sounds like this isn't right for you," or "Maybe you don't have what it takes."
Although approval was predetermined, Bishop would typically ask the applicant to step outside the office while she called corporate headquarters in Orlando for final consent. After a few minutes, Bishop would fling open the door, announce the model's acceptance, and immediately press for the $395 fee. According to the training manual: "Assume they are sold... do not ask!" Says Bishop: "It's basic sales sickened, twisted, and demented." She left the company when she realized the extent of its manipulation.
Davis dismisses Mendive's and Bishop's assertions, saying, "You know, a disgruntled employee is not a very credible source." Davis told New Times he'd furnish a list of applicants in South Florida who had been rejected but had not done so as of press time. New Times did, however, receive a four-page letter from a Washington, D.C.- based law firm that represents eModel, which warned that the company "will carefully review the story for fairness and accuracy when it appears."