At 33 years old, Ivette Mendive had wearied of her job as a dental hygienist and craved a dramatic change in her life. So early this year the Coral Gables resident posted her résumé on the Monster.com job board, hoping to break into a more challenging field. Mendive had good reason to believe she could make a transition. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology and is an engaging conversationalist; she's also quick with a laugh and extremely affable.
Mendive was intrigued in late spring when she received an e-mail from eModel.com, a business that posts pictures and vital statistics of would-be models on its Website. After the company invited her to a group interview in Miami Beach for a position as a model scout, she accepted a job. Mendive has the right appearance to work with beautiful people: She's a striking woman of Cuban descent, model-like svelte with facial features so sharp they could be drawn only with a freshly whetted pencil. But she quickly concluded the company was employing highly manipulative methods in both attracting scouts and signing up models. "It made me ill," she declares. By mid-June she was calling her recruits and advising them to abandon eModel.
Mendive is far from alone in her discontent. Online bulletin boards and discussion groups are rife with complaints. The Better Business Bureau has little positive to say about eModel. Some of the nation's most established modeling agencies -- eModel's ostensible customers -- don't even use the service. Critics say the company gouges prospective models by playing on their vanity and dreams of superstardom.
Although eModel is just one year old and incorporated in Florida only five months ago, the company's president and chairman of the board, Cortes W. Randell, has a lengthy and not-so-illustrious past. In 1966 Randell founded National Student Marketing Corp. The company's stock soared for the next several years, but after it took a steep plunge in price, he resigned as president in 1970. Following an investigation of his role in the stock crash, prosecutors alleged that Randell had misrepresented the company's earnings. He pleaded guilty in 1975 and was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stock-fraud conspiracy and three other counts of fraud. (Investors sued Randell in civil court and were awarded $35 million.)
In 1979 Randell had more legal troubles, this time stemming from his involvement with the National Commercial Credit Corp., a real-estate investment firm that went bankrupt. A federal jury convicted him of mail and stock fraud, interstate transportation of stolen funds, and submitting a false loan application to the Veterans' Administration. Randell was sentenced to seven years in prison and released in 1984. That same year he became president of Federal Information Systems Corp., parent company of the highly successful Federal News Service, which sells transcripts of Washington, D.C., briefings, press conferences, and hearings.
Like the Federal News Service, which many inside the Beltway lauded as a why-didn't-I-think-of-that? idea, eModel.com appears to capitalize on a simple concept. Here's how the pitch is made to would-be models: For years up-and-comers have made the rounds from agency to agency looking for work and handing out hundreds of expensive photos. (In the trade they're called composite cards.) But now there's a better way. For about $400 in Florida (it's costlier in some locations), eModel uploads a couple photos of a client onto its Website, where agencies can take their pick. A database allows agencies to pick models by location, height, weight, hair color, body type, and other variables. For no cost eModel provides a model's contact information to an agency, which can then negotiate directly with the candidate. A $20 monthly fee keeps the photos posted.
Trouble is, it's not as rosy as all that. "The whole thing fundamentally, from beginning to end, is a scam," says Bill Mitchell, president of the Greater Los Angeles Better Business Bureau. "There really isn't that much work that's going to be obtained by signing up with this company." The Los Angeles BBB rates the company's performance record unsatisfactory.
Cautionary tales abound on the Internet. On ezboard.com a writer, "maidmarion," shares that "after 8 months of being on their web site, I have yet to receive ONE phone call from a customer interested in having me model for them." (New Times could not reach "maidmarion" for elucidation of the comment.)
Even though eModels proffers a dozen glowing testimonials on its Website, they don't come from agencies likely to shepherd the next Cindy Crawford to fame. "Because we are located on the western edge of Missouri, eModel has allowed us to scout models in surrounding areas that we might have missed," gushes Greg Wade of F/M Models. Other words of praise come from supermodel hubs such as New Haven, Connecticut, and Boston.
Several top-flight agencies contacted by New Times don't employ eModel's services. When Wilhelmina Miami is searching for prospective clients, it holds an open call. "I've been in this business for 18 years, and we've always done it that way," says vice president Barbara Cominsky. Would she use eModel? "I don't know anything about it," she replies. "I'm sure there are legitimate companies that [provide that service], but we don't need them." Laurie Cooler of Karin Models in Miami Beach says her agency does all its own recruiting. Elite Model Management in New York City also does not use eModel.
"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."
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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."
After about two months as a scout, Mendive just stopped showing up at the office. "It's a funny thing," she says. "I never quit. I'm still an eModel employee. You'd think that, if you didn't show up anymore, they'd call and ask what's up. They never called me. What legitimate company does something like that?"